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/

 

 

 

 

A Change of Scene

The place where we are at is called Periyamudhaliayarchavadi – a somewhat long name in the style of that famous railway station on a Welsh island. There the resemblance stops for instead of a misty cold climate the temperature here hovers around thirty degrees centigrade during the day and reduces to around twenty at night. Before me is a line of coconut palms and beyond them a sandy beach slopes to the blue waters of the bay of bengal. Occasionally a high-prowed fishing boat traverses the placid ocean and sometimes a hooded crow swoops under the roof of the veranda in which I am writing this sitting on a wicker chair. Apart from the vociferous crows all is tranquil in this mid afternoon in Tamilnadu, India.

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We have just been for a swim and the only thing to remind us that we have escaped from a cold and wet Tuscan winter is my puffy jacket hung in our room which I had to wear to transport me to the airport in the UK.

The south of India, the Dravidian south, conserves better than any other area of this vast subcontinent the millennial elements of Hindu culture. The Tamil language itself predates the Sanskrit derived tongues of northern india. Here the second language is English and not many people speak Hindi. Above all, southern  India is temple land. With the most spectacular religious complexes in the whole country, it is a Hindu equivalent of the great gothic cathedrals of northern France. Although we’ve come here principally to embrace tropical warmth we fully intend to do a temple tour.

South India is also famous for its exquisite cuisine and we have already been gorging ourselves on dosa, pappaya and uttappam.

Our place is a sweet chalet style guest house right next to the beach. It’s run by an italian couple, Donata and Stefano, and is called Samarpan which means devotion in Sanskrit.

It was chosen for us by an amazingly welcomed coincidence. People may say what they like about facebook but it reunited me with a long lost cousin after a very very long time. That was at the end of last year. Realizing that after a mild and sunny January in longoio it would be rain’s pay back time in February I decided to accept my cousin’s invitation to visit her and in one day about two weeks ago i organized plane tickets and visa.

The best holidays are in winter I feel. Why suffer the miseries of the vagaries of European weather ?

My cousin has been living in India for over twenty years in the Auroville community where she is in charge of the accessibility project. It’s great to have someone to reintroduce us to this fascinating part of the world. Already we have visited the old French settlement of Pondicherry and this morning we were admitted to the mystic globe of the Matri Mandir. But that would need another post to describe and already the soft exotic breezes beckon us to the langurous waters at our feet.

 


 

Venus’ Harbour

The ‘Cinque Terre’, that dramatic piece of Ligurian coastline which incorporates the little towns of Riomaggiore, Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola, almost desperately clinging onto the rugged coastline to avoid being swallowed by the sea, are easily accessible from Bagni di Lucca and are rightly very popular (sometimes I think too popular) with walkers traversing the footpath connecting the five places.

Porto Venere is actually a sixth town on the list, so the ‘Cinque Terre’ should more correctly be called the ‘Sei Terre’. However, since Porto Venere doesn’t have a railway station and is reachable by bus from La Spezia it’s often left out. This is a great pity for Porto Venere is one of the most beautiful places on earth and it was only this week that I first visited it after ten years of making Italy my principal residence. How strange!

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I arrived at Porto Venere after taking a train from Bagni di Lucca and changing at Aulla for La Spezia, which is worth a day to itself: see my posts on La Spezia at

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/la-spezia-again/

and

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/a-top-secret-establishment/

I then took the 11P bus to Porto Venere from Viale Garibaldi which is just ten minutes from the station. Parking must be a headache in Porto Venere and the road to it is twisty and often narrow. The greatest hazard, however, is not the road itself but what you can see from it: the views are so spectacular that you could be easily distracted and plunge to your doom over the often steep sides!

The whole public transport journey from Bagni di Lucca to Porto Venere takes a little over two hours if you study your connections well. My return journey took me via Viareggio and Lucca involving a couple of changes but I was glad I didn’t use my own transport.

From ancient Ligurian beginnings Porto Venere became part of the great Genoese maritime republic and shares many of the republic’s characteristics:

Massive fortifications crowned by the Doria fortress:

Narrow alleys called ‘caruggi’:

Beautiful Romanesque zebra-striped church architecture:

San Pietro

San Lorenzo with its miraculous image of the Madonna:

And the most delectable seascapes including the island of Palmaria, separated by the stretch of water known as ‘le bocche’:

Not leaving aside Byron’s favourite haunt, the cove where he would forget his club foot which made him limp embarassingly and swim his disability away in the lovely waters of the bay of poets:

There is something quite magical about visiting normally tourist-infested haunts in mid-winter when there only a few hardy souls about. There may not be many bars, restaurants and souvenir shops open but the freedom from crowds is surely something to be enjoyed.

It’s great that we have these wonderful places, so different from our mountain haunts in their seascapes, at such a close distance from the Val di Lima. What other country, I wonder, has so much variety packed in so small area of territory?

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PS Fellow blogger Debra Kolkka has written extensively on Porto Venere. For example, see her post at https://bagnidilucca.wordpress.com/2010/11/09/portovenere/

There’s also a pretty good web site for Porto Venere at https://portovenere.a-turist.com/index

 

 

 

 

 

A Sunset on the Old Year

Pietrasanta, that centre of sculptural production with the dazzling marble of the Apuan Alps behind it, was just the right sort of place to spend our New Year’s Eve.

The town was bathed in a richly sad winter sunset light which gilded the beautiful main square with its cathedral.

Inside the cathedral the font even had sculpted fish swimming in it – a beautiful way to remember the early Christian sign of ‘ichthus’ or fish whose letters symbolise the following:

  • Iota (i) is the first letter of Iēsous (Ἰησοῦς), Greek for “Jesus“.
  • Chi (ch) is the first letter of Christos (Χριστός), Greek for “anointed.”
  • Theta (th) is the first letter of Theou (Θεοῦ), Greek for “God’s”, the genitive case of Θεóς, Theos,” Greek for “God.”
  • Upsilon (y) is the first letter of (h)yios] (Υἱός), Greek for “Son”.
  • Sigma (s) is the first letter of sōtēr (Σωτήρ), Greek for “Saviour.”

Outside and in the adjoining convent there was the Christianity and symbolism of Salvador Dali instead – a truly magnificent display which also included his illustrations for ‘Carmen’.

Christmas cribs abounded in their entire Italian inventiveness in the baptistery.

For me the most memorable part of our New Year’s Eve was the walk along the beach at Marina di Pietrasanta. I think I prefer the beach like this, free from the paraded deckchairs and sun-tanning bodies that fill it for the summer season:

The high pressure area has moved away after perhaps completing a record rain-free and sun-bright December and today we are seeing grey skies and a storm alert. Rain at last to wash away the iniquities of the old year?

 

 

Of Angel Staircases and Angelic Seafood in Livorno

I recently discussed with a friend what we considered to be the most neglected towns and cities in Italy. Neglected, that is, from a point of visiting them rather than having them badly looked after.  I consider Livorno one of the most neglected cities in Italy, especially as it happens also to be Tuscany’s second largest urban centre and one of Italy’s major seafood centres. Until quite lately it was also neglected in terms of its appearance too. But things are changing.

I’ve written quite a bit about Livorno. I won’t repeat what I said here but would suggest you read my posts at:

https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2014/06/29/leghorn-or-livorno/

and at:

https://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/legging-it-in-leghorn/

Our day at Livorno had begun with the visit to the ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ (do see my previous post). More was to follow. In particular, there was a trip to a sumptuous villa with fabulous paintings by that greatest of Italian impressionists, Giovanni Fattori. I’ve visited this extraordinary place twice already. Depending on your taste-buds you can either call villa Mimbelli an elegant example of La Belle Epoque, or a supreme case of O.T.T. vulgarity. The villa was built by Architect Vincenzo Micheli between 1865 and 1875 for Francesco Mimbelli, a rich merchant and his wife, Enrichetta Rodocanacchi. If nothing else, the villa just shows what wealth flowed into Livorno.

(PS The Mooreish (moresco) room above is the smoking chamber for men only. I originally thought it may have been a harem.)

The grand staircase is decorated with charming ceramic putti. There were very differing views in my party about if they would allow this sort of thing in their residence:

There are some interesting, somewhat eclectic paintings on the first two floors:

The finest paintings, however, are kept on the top floor whose modest decoration and lower ceiling height show that this must have been the servants’ quarters.

Livornese Giovanni Fattori’s paintings of military manoeuvres and battles during the Italian war of independence show his supreme skill in capturing horse anatomy and the dynamics of the drills themselves. He is, indeed, the painter that dragged Italy into the new world of impressionism and French trends. The term macchiaioli (macchia=stain) is used to describe this Italian version of ‘plein-air’ and light-infected painting. Other paintings on this top floor included examples of some of the Livornese painters who followed Fattori’s technique.

Here are some fine adornments for their lords and masters:

We didn’t have much enthisiasm to explore the exotic gardens surrounding the villa (which also have specimens of palms from the Canaries) because of the deluge that was raining ‘a catinelle’ (= cats and dogs) upon us. So the brave act of one of our group to fetch the car enabled us to drive to a very particular restaurant for lunch; but not before taking a walk on the spectacular Terrazza Mascagni and gazing on an even more spectacular seafront view. What a passionate backcloth for that couple having their wedding photographs taken!

Cacciucco is Livorno’s most famous dish. It’s a fish stew/soup like no other and has featured not only in many famous recipe books but, more recently, also on TV.  In London’s Seymour Street there’s the unmissable Michelin-starred Locanda Locatelli for some of the best Italian food in town. (Giorgio Locatelli has won ‘best Italian restaurant’ award twice already too). Locatelli with art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon decided they’d track down the cacciucco in Livorno:

If you slide to 47 minutes. 46 seconds of this video of the BBC programme ‘Italy unpacked’:

you’ll find out more about where, what and how and how we ate!

After lunch the weather brightened up a little and we decided to explore a little of Livorno. Despite the almost blanket bombing of World War Two, we came across some delightful corners in this cosmopolitan city including the new fortress, ‘la nuova Venezia’, the aristocratic via Borra, the fabulous market building, the Inigo Jones-designed cathedral in the main square, the statue of the four moorish slaves, the sanctuary of Saint Caterina and much else including that inimitable Livornese drink, Ponce, (punch) a sort of caffé corretto with rum and cognac introduced by English sailors to the city they called ‘Leghorn’.

Just look at these pictures to entice you to Livorno:

I, at least, am sure that relegating Livorno to a city not worth a special journey is a big mistake!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sea Fever

Ocean liners have right of way wherever they go except when they meet the most beautiful woman on the high seas. They then turn off their engines and as a sign of respect and adoration they give three blasts on their horn.

This stunning woman (for all ships are feminine ‘she’) has been a recurring theme in my life ever since I met her while still at infant school. It was a time when Italy was still considered by many ignorant brits a country of spaghetti eaters and mandolin players, a country accused of cowardice which reputedly built tanks with one forward and three reverse gears, a country of aye-ties and poor emigrants. When the gorgeous lines of Italy’s true flagship first entered the Thames estuary and sailed into London she was instrumental in changing rudely stereotyped perceptions of Italy. Italy could stand proud and erect with her ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ as ambassador to its ‘bel paese’ throughout the world.

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(Regrettably a negative attitude between Italy and the UK still occasionally happens today. For example in yesterday’s news I heard that UK schools have been asked to distinguish between Neapolitan, other Italian and Sicilian-origin schoolchildren in their registers! The Italian ambassador in London, with true English sarcasm, reminded UK’s education secretary that Italy has been one country since 1861. See https://www.thelocal.it/20161012/english-schools-criticized-for-differentiating-between-italians-sicilians-and-neapolitans )

To get back on-board. The triple-mast ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ was built at Castellamare di Stabia and launched in 1931 as a twin Italian navy training ship to the ‘Cristoforo Colombo’. Her dimensions are as follows:  length‎ 331 ft. (including bowsprit) and height‎ 177.2 ft. Her top speed‎ with ‎sails is 10 knots and with engine, 12 knots. There are 26 sails and fully unfurled they cover an area of 30400 square feet. The total crew is 450 men (and now women too).

What happened to her sister ship? War reparations forced Italy to give the ‘Cristoforo Colombo’ to Russia who promptly demoted her to a tramp merchant vessel, painted her a dirty grey colour and finally (accidentally?) caused her demise in a fire on board which completely destroyed her.

Together with my wife the ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ sailing ship remains one of the two most beautiful women I have ever met.

Here are some photographs taken of Sandra with an officer of the ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ one year after our marriage.

And here is this wonderful ship in London again in 1985:

And in 1987.

Then I did not see her for a long time and was truly missing her. In 2014 I did manage to catch a sight of her in the Darsena of La Spezia during a special open day (see my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/a-top-secret-establishment/). She’d gone in there for a complete overhaul and looked vulnerable and a little sorry for herself stripped into her nakedness:

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When I heard that ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ had been re-launched this year and would be moored for a few days at Livorno I truly had an attack of fever, sea fever. I had to see her and be with her again. Fortunately some friends were also interested and in uncertain weather we motored to Livorno.

There was already an umbrellaed queue waiting at the Medicean port gates in the driving rain. On board we were able to visit the main deck and the steering cabin where we met the commandant Curzio Pacifici (what an appropriate surname!).

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Suddenly the rain accelerated into a storm precipitating with violence on the ship and on the horizon I could see a tornado brewing. What must it have been like to be on a ship like this rounding Cape Horn, I wondered. Truly, the wind, the rain and the louring clouds, ink-black, added to the dramatic effect. It was unforgettable. Imagine having to reef the sails climbing up the masts in this sort of weather in the high seas!

It was difficult to leave this gorgeous ship. I really must have got that sea fever badly. As John Masefield wrote:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

 

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

 

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

 

 

 

PS If you read Italian there’s an interesting web page on the ‘Amerigo Vespucci’ at

http://www.mondovespucci.com/ITAL/PAGINE/miapassi.html

 

 

 

An Etruscan Bay

There’s nothing more tedious than having to return to one’s home in one fell swoop after days spent in a glorious part of the world.

Crossing a bridge on our return we noticed some paddlers and swimmers in the river below and so decided to join in the fun. Unlike our own bracing Lima the waters were warmish, probably because they had been fed by nearby volcanic springs (which we were told had been assaulted by hordes of holidaymakers).

Here, instead, all was peaceful and quiet and we enjoyed time with natural hydrotherapy and tiny fish biting our dead skin off us while the glorious Maremman countryside encircled us.

That was not the only water we dipped into on our return to the Val di Lima. The bay of Baratti (I prefer to call it a cove) is a beautiful corner of the Tuscan coastline and so unspoilt. It also has the added bonus of an important Etruscan necropolis behind it. We didn’t make it to the acropolis but were able to admire a tumulus that somehow reminded me of New Grange in Ireland. Indeed, I was confirmed in my supposition by the excellent guide who’d visited it.

It was in this tomb that the well-preserved Etruscan chariot, now on display at Florence’s archaeological museum, was found:

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Among the other tombs there was a perfectly preserved temple tomb, only discovered quite recently.

The beach was very near and after negotiating a strand of seaweed we found with water warm and clean and surrounded by some lovely umbrella pines.

We played with the idea of spending the night on the beach but the thought of our cats missing us enticed back onto the road homeward bound. So we decided to tuck into a delicious italian-style take-away fish supper at San Vincenzo before setting off for Longoio:

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