There was always this red book.
Growing up, above the tv, in the shelves, sat amongst the ‘Home Doctor’ manuals and the cheap ‘Collected Brontë’ omnibuses, there was always this one red book.
Faded cover, gold embossed writing on the outside: ‘The Promised Land’.
I don’t know why it didn’t intrigue me more at the time, but I don’t ever once remember opening it up and looking inside in all the years it stared down on me.
It was just biding its time.
Going through boxes of my mother’s old things, 30 or so year later, 17 years after my mother’s death, I found the book again. This time I opened it up.
It was an account of trip to Italy. A trip to Italy taken in 1956.
I remembered my mother telling me she had gone on a tour of Italy as a young girl. I don’t remember asking her much about it though. And I don’t recall her ever telling me about, or talking me though, what must have been a great adventure for her.
I do remember though she had once given me a small box of bright coloured stones she had. An old, faded black and white piece of paper inside the box, with a picture of a clouded mountain, told me the stones were from the volcanic Mount Vesuvius. They must have come from this very journey.
The stones are lost now. Lost somewhere in the muddle of life that had passed.
Making up for lost time, I now read the opening pages of the book.
The book had been written by my great-grandfather.
It was a chronicle of this tour of Italy. The tour my great-grandfather had taken my mother and her cousin – my aunt – on. Written just for their benefit, so that my 12 year-old mother and my 11 year old aunt would always remember their Italian adventure
“Christmas had come and gone and the remaining hours of 1955 were given to the thoughts of the past and resolutions for the future…
The classic tour of Italy. The oft repeated promise made so long ago by their grandmother, that Sheila and Angela must have thought a flight of fancy, a midsummer night’s dream, was real.
Grandma was no longer here in tangible form, but Granddad was, to attend to the necessary preparations for the journey. Their journey to this promised land.”
I felt rather moved by this. And I realised this could easily be a tale, a pilgrimage, I could find myself falling into.
I scan through more fragments on the opening pages…
“Sheila and Angela were sent for and after being reminded of their grandmother’s promise were told of the great adventure that waited them in August 1956.”
“Visits were made for passport photographs, journeys were undertaken to try on newly made frocks and summer coats for the girls to pack in their suitcases. Tickets, foreign currencies, travellers’ cheques.”
“The train drew alongside the berthed steamer. Porters took charge of baggage and carried it aboard. The cross Channel steamer had done war service from 1939-45 as a hospital carrier at the Dunkirk evacuation and a headquarters ship at the Normandy invasion.”
“Within a few yards stood the train that was to be our home for the next sixteen hours or so to take us to Italy, to Chiasso, 700 miles away.”
It seemed incredible to me that my mother, who as I knew her in later life had never really had the opportunity or inclination to travel – a single mother, harassed, tired, with limited money or resources – had taken this grand Italian tour as a girl. A tour that other people would take, like romantic visionaries, channelling Byron and Shelley. And here it was, all written down by my great-grandfather.
I had never met my great-grandfather. He died only a few weeks after my birth.
He was told about me though. My great aunt visited him in the nursing hospital on the day I’d emerged into this world.
“Do you know what you’ve had today?” she asked him as he sat up in bed, my great aunt twinkling with the news.
“Boiled beef and carrots,” came the reply.
I’d seen photos of my great grandfather, and my sister remembered him well. He was, it seems, pretty unique.
Born in 1894. A tall, thin, ancient looking man in antiquated spectacles and clipped white moustache. He was an old-school Chancery lawyer. My sister recalls as a small girl walking down the prom at Brighton with him and my mother on a blazing hot August bank holiday in the early 70s: my sister in her bathing suit with her bucket and spade, my mother in mini skirt and bouffant…my great-grandfather wearing his full morning suit, wing collars, bowler hat, watch and chain.
He would have cut quite the figure on the Italian Riviera.
And there he is.
In photos pasted in the book – the tour group taking this Italian expedition together posing in front of churches and high views, in pools of burning hot Italian sun – there stood amongst the men in 50s short-sleeve white shirts, women in light floral dresses and floppy straw hats, is a man looking not unlike Neville Chamberlain. Bowler hat, waistcoat, starch collar buttoned to the chin.
I’m not sure what he made of this group he had booked himself, my mother and my aunt on, to travel the length of Italy from north to south.
He introduces the reader to the tour guide in very bare terms.
“’My name is Nicola’ she tells us. ‘If you can’t remember that just call me Nicky.’”
A faint whiff of contempt comes up off the old dusty page. But Nicola, it later transpires, has studied at Florence University, is fluent in Italian and leads them quite expertly round the country and through the great sites of its history.
And then the hero of the story is revealed. The coach driver.
“’This is Bino’. A stalwart Italian with bristling black hair that needs an electric drill to part it.”
I flick through the book, feeling sorry for the lumbering, put-upon Bino (“blue shirted Bino, having finished his meagre meal, beams at Sheila and Angela from the table he shares with Nicola. His elbows resting on the edge of the table, he cups his chin in both hands trying to think of something to say to the girls when they enter the coach and call him ‘Bandito’ and ‘Stupido’ as they often do.”)
I flip through the pages, illustrated with pictures and postcards and maps and my grandfather’s words in ornate printed calligraphy.
Genoa…Pisa…Rome…Naples. Pictures of cathedrals and frescoes and black and white mournful carved angels. And bright advertising bills taken from Mediterranean-side cafes.
Suddenly I get an urge.
“We have to do this,” I shout to my travelling Passepartout in the other room.
“We have to do this,” I shout again. “We have to go and follow this route my mother and her grandfather took through Italy on a coach 61 years ago.”
Passepartout emerges in the doorway. And before I’ve even finished explaining, she’s agreed.
My great grandfather, my mother and her cousin are in Milan.
It is August 1956. They are staying in Hotel Cavalieri. “The trams rattle noisily past.”
My great-grandfather has taken stock of Milan. “Everyone seems to be in a hurry. Which is rarely the case in other parts of Italy.”
He marvels at length at Milan’s cathedral. The three of them go to see the Last Supper.
Passepartout and I have to catch up.
It is December 2017. We are outside Milan’s airport.
“Is this the bus for the city centre?” I ask the fat girl selling tickets at the coach stop. She looks at me for an age but doesn’t answer. “Well?” I say, getting desperate, “Is it?” I point at the bus and over-pronounce “CITY… CENTRE?” The doors close and the bus coughs its way away.
She now shudders into action. “Yes,” she says in perfect English “This was the bus for the city centre,” she replies, sweeping her hand back and stands, contemplating the departing bus for a while. She turns back with an untroubled smile and a cocked head as if, having answered my question, I might need anything else.
We wait an age for the next one.
My great grandfather notes the coach they were driven in by Bino down the spine of Italy: “A diesel driven Fiat 682. It is painted light blue and grey”
Our first bus of Italy is a brown outside, brown inside, 20 year old, charmless, Iveco bus.
Our driver is a deathly thin man, black leather cap, mirrored sunglasses and fingerless leather gloves and headphones plugged into his ears. I couldn’t talk to him, as my mother and aunt did with Bino, even if I wanted.
We are behind time.
My great-grandfather and my mother and my aunt have already seen Milan. They are now away, on a day trip to Lake Garda
“Out into the sun scorched streets we stroll, past the neat flower beds overlooked by Cleander trees bearing red, pink, white, and cream flowers. We pause to watch the craft on the lake, the visitors to Gardone relaxing under gaily coloured umbrellas. Nearby orchestra music. Slick raven haired waiters in blue coats stand by, tray in hand waiting for a signal from visitors to bring iced drinks.”
Passepartout and I are juddering through the outskirts of Milan.
The traffic is heavy, the buildings a dirty grey.
The day is dying. In the dark orange sunset outside, above the coach, I can see the silhouette of chimneys and smoke. And pious saints standing on roofs of churches with starred halos.
“Nicola gives us talks on Italy. Bino couldn’t care less. He is preoccupied with his job. Driving the coach at 40/50 miles an hour, and not permitting anyone to get in his way. Cyclists are notorious persons for getting in his way. As each cyclist looms ahead, Bino gives chase and frightens them out of his path with constant honks on his unmelodious hooter.”
Outside Milan we too get our first blast of the horn of the tour. 60 years later, the Italian hooter is still an ugly sound. And attacked violently. The other passengers on our brown bus move to the windows too, so they can also show their displeasure at the car below.
Traffic lights are strangely extra-large here in Milan. Big wagon wheel red circles. Our driver still goes through them all.
In the shopping quarter of Gardone my mother is being introduced to “Luscious grapes, queer shaped tomatoes, melons particular to Italy that blush the moment they’re opened…garlic that would bring tears to the eyes of the most hard hearted tourist”.
We disembark the bus at Milan Centrale railway station. Just outside the colossal portal of the vast station. White, heavy, ornate stone. Winged horse high above. Dreamt up by the Fascists in the 1930s to hark back to the splendours of the Roman Empire.
A ticket for a train bought from the monumental marble ticket hall could take us down to Rome and then to Naples in 4 and a half hours. In tribute to my mother’s journey though, I have said to Passepartout we must try and do as much of Italy as we can by coach.
She is not cheered by this.
We walk quickly in the cold through Milan’s centre. Past the Gucci and the Prada shops, the richly lit windows – thinking how the outskirts, with the men in hats stood drinking in the old coffee bars, a different one every few meters, seemed far more interesting.
Through Milan’s famous arcade, scurrying over the coloured tiles, then across the square where we pass in front of the cathedral – vast and white, like Milan’s station.
And like Milan’s station, it teeters on the tightrope between celestial brilliance and comic vulgarity.
It wasn’t finished when my great-grandfather stood rocking on his heels in awe before it. He notes a new door was put on in 1950, and he was too early for the culminating touch of this cathedral that was started in 1386: a final gate, completed in 1965.
We are racing to get to Milan’s coach station. On the other side of the city.
It is a desolate place.
We have rejected the splendour of Milan railway for a scene of broken-down desperation.
The bus station’s small, dirty waiting room is full of bodies.
The poor of Milan. Refugees. Somalian men, Syrian men. Men sitting on cardboard, asleep on top of their possessions. They are wrapped in blankets to protect themselves from the cold outside. It is a miserable scene under the steamed windows and the one broken wall heater. A queue bursting out from its fittings crowd the one ticket window that’s open. The smell is strong.
Many people travel by train in Italy. The reluctance to leave your home town – to stay at home with Mama – coupled with the fact that jobs are only found really in the big cities, means many people travel long distances to work or study. Often staying for the week in a city like Milan and then travelling back home, south, at the weekends. The trains work well and are cheap for this reason. They form and unite Italy. People don’t travel by bus.
Or if they do travel by bus, something has gone wrong.
We finally get a ticket to Genoa but no one will tell us where the bus will leave from.
“Excuse me…” I say to one slick-backed haired, uniformed, driver as he passes.
“Italy! Italy!” he says, flicking his hand, not looking at me. Not waiting to see if I could ask him in Italian. Which of course I couldn’t.
We discover the bus is not going to leave for another hour, and so go and walk the cold, darkened streets, flinging arms around us again and again to keep warm. We sit and watch as Milan’s cathedral of football, the San Siro, glows at us through the skeleton trees of a walled-in park.
My great-grandfather records a rather different journey down to Genoa.
“We pass shaded avenues of Oleanda trees, fig trees, mulberries, begonias, petunias, African marigolds, Cannas and Convolvulus white and blue.
The Lombardy planes. Cypresses and olives trees everywhere – olives are harvested in November/December. Hemp, stacked Red Indian tent fashion to dry.”
Our bus travels through the dark, cold-smeared evening.
Down towards Genoa. There are just 6 people on this bus. One man sleeps, stretched out, along the middle of the aisle.
The land is dull on either side. There are no olive trees now – just blinking lights on factories in the dark. Solid shapes of warehouses. A river with two enormous cooling towers, silos. The homes dotted around are ugly too and the owners seem to have quite terrible matching taste: every house outlined in the same flashing Christmas lights.
My mother and aunt were having a better time of it in August ’56…
“When told to stop at town squares for refreshments the obedient light hearted Bino halts the coach opens the door and with the agility of an ape leaps down the steps onto the pavement ready to help his female passengers.”
“Bino no longer confines his attention to small fry like cyclists but chases the big game, army vehicles, Red Cross ambulances, lorries laden with huge melons or bottles in wicker baskets on their way to be filled with wine, they are all alike to him; just obstacles in his path to be overtaken.”
The driver on our big, heavy bus keeps in the middle lane, not changing speed, relentless. Just flashing his lights and watching the cars quickly veer out of his way.
It was not all an Italian idyllic summer scene in 1956 though. My great-grandfather notes along this road to Genoa…
“The housing problem is as acute here as in England. Blocks and blocks of flats, as well as shops and houses, are being erected by nude to the waist workmen.”
Through the dark I see these 60 year-old buildings too.
Between my great-grandfather watching their conception and now, as we pass, the buildings’ life and usefulness seems to have all been spent though. They are now empty, gutted, falling apart. Falling back into the hollow windows and foundation stones he must have seen on their way up.
We pass through – right through – a steel factory: pipes and flares and fumes reflect in the bus’ windows. And then, suddenly, we’re on a swirling corkscrew twisting road upwards. We climb higher and higher.
And Genoa is revealed, sitting below us in the December night.
“A fine harbour, semi circular in design, formed by two piers. At the end of one pier is a lighthouse tower 300 feet high…”
My great grandfather had a good view of Genoa’s sea front. We, however, have been set down a little after midnight and all is dark and closed.
A man approaches. I am a little wary, but then I see in his anorak, weedy frame and glasses he is a harmless Italian nerd.
“Do you need help?” he asks.
We do. We have no idea where we are.
The man gets us on night bus towards the centre of Genoa. As we drive along he tells us he works as a customs officer in the harbour.
This nerd of Genoa is obsessed by one of the town’s two football club. Everything he points out to us on the ride is connected to Genoa FC.
“See the lighthouse there…?” he says, pointing to Genoa’s famous city emblem. “That is the symbol of the derby in this city between us and Sampdoria… “
“This is Piazza Ferrari. See the fountains?”
“Very beautiful” says Passepartout
“That’s where we drank and danced in the water when we were promoted back to Serie A. You should have seen it!”
“You’re going to Naples? I went there to watch Genoa play Napoli. We all sang ‘Forza Vesuvius! Do it again Vesuvius! Erupt all over Napoli!”
Grateful to this weed of football fanatic for his help, but glad to get rid of him, we find somewhere to stay just off Piazza Ferrari.
Piazza Ferrari is a grand northern European-like, imposing square. The fat, wide fountain, the stock exchange building, banks and art academies. It was hit by bombing in the second world war and wasn’t fully re-built unti 1991 (right on ‘Italian-time’ for the World Cup…just the one year late). I guess my great-grandfather’s gang would have seen a very different square.
Next day we walk down to the front, the city now washed in bright sunshine. It seems they saw a very different rest of the city too.
“Customs and warehouses are grouped round the port. Exports of olive oils, cheese, velvets, silks, damask, gloves, flowers, soap and jewellery in silver and coil.”
Genoa’s warehouses are now bars and clean new, dull, restaurants. There is no parade of silks and exotic goods here.
However just off the coastal road, under arches, we find still a real and working class area. Groups of men in doorways, drinking in dim-lit enoteccas. Walking into the old town, the look is as it ever must have been – but I’m not sure the 1956 tour group and my 12 year old mother would have been taken to walk the alleys as we do.
Dark, rough paved, piss-smelling. We pass a few small one-room houses, doors opened out onto the alleyways, a prostitute at the open door.
In one room I see, beyond the prostitute, nailed above her bed a picture of the Madonna. Then a picture of Marilyn Monroe. And a final saucy, graphic picture of a naked woman arching on her back. The three stages of grace I suppose.
We eat at Casa Maria’s for Pesto Genovese with the workers on old tables and table cloths. The other diners all shouting, heads bent down, hunk of bread held up above them in their hand, only eating, not taking their time. No posing over dinner here.
We walk through the narrow main street past Geona’s old palaces. Heavy stone balconies, thick marble pillars, painted halls mouldering in the dark street with a great tear of brilliant blue sky above – the sun not quite able to light the ground down here.
And there is the red town hall.
I had read that this is where Paganini’s violin is kept. Il Cannone. A battered old instrument given to Paganini, when he had gambled away his other valuable violins, but which Paginini loved. He said it sounded like a canon. He played only this violin for the rest of his life. I have also read that certain chosen musicians are allowed, once a year, to play it.
We enter the town hall and I unexpectedly thrust a hand towards Passepartout and explain that she is a gifted violinist. While she buries her head in coat and emits a low groan to herself.
The staff of Geona’s town hall don’t seem particularly interested and it seems quite clear she won’t be one of the chosen ones to play the violin. So we go. And, as no one is watching, slip through a door and sneak the corridors of the town hall. Passepartout, though keen to see Paganini’s violin, a reluctant follower.
Then suddenly we are face-to-face with a ludicrous figure of a policeman. Red cheeked, white beard and waxed, spear-shaped, moustache. He is wearing a tall white helmet that looks old-fashioned by a hundred years. He is in a thick, deep, materialed blue and red cape. We all stare at each other for a moment. I think of bursting out laughing.
But the policeman, having recovered himself, starts ranting. Hard Italian words. Shouted as his faced turned redder still. We turn to leave. As we run, I see in the corner, in a glass case, an ancient violin.
The old policeman in his ridiculous costume chases us wheezily out on to the street, swearing the whole way.
“On the arid streets of Genoa it is to be recorded that on this torrid day in August 1956, Christmas puddings wrapped in green and gold paper are exposed for sale alongside oranges lemons and grapes…”
So my great-grandfather noted.
We are here in the city at Christmas time though, of course. So the Christmas fare is rightly out on show. We take a walk in the cold sunlight, passing under the city’s Christmas decorations.
We head out east along the coast line to where Lord Byron’s vast villa – Casa Saluzzo sits. Then back in town we climb up in the lift built into the rocks – a lift for the residents of the upper town – for one final look at the Genoa. Out over the prison where Marco Polo was held, and the house where Christopher Columbus was born.
This seems the right city for starting explorations.
For starting our exploration of Italy…
But we can’t get a bus to the next stop on the 1956 tour.
We must take a train from Genoa to La Spezia.
Geona’s station is white and classical and far too clean for the city. The train when it arrives is pretty much empty. From some reason the ticket for 1st class is cheaper than 2nd class. And it annoys me that this train is the Roma train. It will get to Rome 3 hours after it leaves La Spezia. By my calculations, it will take us at least 4 days to get there.
Back in 1956 the tour party’s coach climbs up the start of the Apennines mountains. A range that runs down Italy for a 1,000 kilometers, leading the way, like a trail, for all of us down the long boot to the south.
“Even at this height (we must be several thousand feet up) there is rich vegetation.”
My great-grandfather writes of the road rising and falling. Turning corners in the coach in tiny villages on the narrow road and scattering cockrels and hens in all directions. They stop for lunch and local wine at Recco Bel Golfo.
We are on the train and there is a man who will not stop coughing and spluttering in the next seat across the gangway from me.
I am a hypochondriac. It is the worst affliction for any traveller. But I can’t do anything about it. My travels are counted out in times I have had to dodge sneezing men or avoid women with dirty looking ailments.
So I go to sit in the next carriage.
Eventually the train conductor comes along to inspect our tickets. He seems an effervescent kind of man. His TrentaItalia uniform hat is at a rakish angle, his red tie loose, stubble, and chest hair exploding from his shirt. He smiles as he walks along the quiet carriages, whistles as he inspects my tickets.
“Two tickets…” he notes. “There is someone else with you?”
”Yes, a girl,” I point in the direction of where I have left Passepartout. Passepartout unconcerned and unaffected by coughing. A much hardier traveller than me.
“In the bathroom?” the inspector says. Meaning the clanging, small toilet between the carriages.
“No, she’s in the other carriage. You see I…“
“Ah I understand, I understand… Women eh…” he nods to himself, winks at me. “You should…” he mimes a whacking motion with his out stretched palm.
“It’s not really like that…” I try to explain. But he’s gone. Whistling down the carriage.
On the coach climbing the Apennines mountains, my great-grandfather notes, quite surreally, that “Bino has a couple of goldfish in a pail of water in the back of the coach. He feeds them spaghetti and grated cheese.”
The outskirts of Genoa are attractive, as they pass, framed in the train’s window, but then on the hills as we head towards La Spezia there are many modern-build towns that wouldn’t have been there in ‘56. My great-grandfather saw a much more rustic land, here in the narrow Ligurian strip between the sea and the Alps and the Apennines .
“Bullocks and oxen are seen tugging at primitive ploughs. Women and children at work.”
I see new towns and housing estates. And tanned, bald men playing tennis on this winter evening.
Rapello looks an exception as we stop. A beautiful town set down at the foot of hills slipping to the sea.
Palm trees seem to grow out of every platform as we clatter south.
We arrive at La Spezia.
“La Spezia still bears the scars of the last war.”
We find a hotel situated right next to the railway at La Spezia. The trains will heave over the rails outside our window all night.
I ask the owner what to do with our evening.
“Eh, the town…” she shrugs “It’s a… nothing special. 10 minutes… you’re done”.
An unpromising verdict. And not true.
The city has been built up from the 50s, there are no scars now, and it’s a cheerful place. We walk around and there are good bars and tratorias. People here have a good time. Unpretentious. I like it.
And then, late into the evening, the moon having ceased its climb, we walk down to the sea. And there is the Gulf of La Spezia – the Bay of Poets.
Spread out under the purple night, a 7 km twinkling bay where Byron – who had moved down from Genova to Porto Venere – on one side of the bay, swam across to surprise Percy Shelley, living in Lerici on the other side.
It is also out there where Shelley’s boat sank and where the poet drowned, 195 years ago.
Like most people who come to La Spezia though, we’re only really here to set off to see Cinque Terre in the morning.
Strangely my mother’s ‘ Promised Land’ book doesn’t go into details of a visit for them to the 5 villages set, tumbling down the cliffs here into the Linguraian Sea. But it is one of the great Italian tourist attractions now.
We wait at the platform the next morning to catch the 8am train. It being December and there only being a small smattering of tourists at this time of year, it means there are only a small smattering of lurking pickpockets waiting behind the pillars on the station, eyes flashing out furtively.
The train sets off and runs along quite the most incredible line. The train chugs into dark tunnels, bursting out into light at stops of beauty, every 5 minutes or so.
Tiny villages pushed up vertically on the rocks against a churning sea.
We take the train to the final, furthest, stop first. Monterosso. It is the dullest village of the five, but you don’t want to gorge yourself too much at the beginning.
Each village back has an increasing beauty. The coloured houses of Manarola built on top of each other, looking like a basket of bright pebbles thrown at the tumbling cliff side.
We catch the train, get off at the next stop, walk around the same villages at about the same pace and same time as all the other visitors. And then catch the next train with the same people, the same faces.
For the first time I feel a sort of connection, a sort of group travel as my mother must have felt on her coach trip. We nod awkward hellos at the same characters we keep seeing. Mumbled chat about how, yes, this village is very beautiful. And, yes, such beauty at this next one too…
Back in La Spezia we try and buy a ticket to get back on the Roma train. The ticket window is closed. Someone has left a small potted Christmas tree at the ticket window. A note saying “sono andato” propped up against it.
I ask a fellow frustrated passenger what it means. He snorts and translates with grim humour: “I am gone.”
We get on the train and run down along the sea. I don’t know why the 1956 tour party took a route up over the mountain range I can see running high to my left hand side.
The tops of the mountains are whipped sharp by the wind. Scarred, creased. There are still green trees clinging to the side, but snow is caught on the tops, lit up in the dying terracotta sun.
The villages their coach must have passed through are still clearly visible above us. Ranged out on the mountain sides. Each village sat on its own, each gathered round their one tall, stone, T-shape towered church.
Byron and Shelley sailed out on the sluggish sea here on our right.
I read that Shelley couldn’t swim. He would sit nervously next to Byron – Byron the man who had swam the Hellespont, swam all the way up Venice’s Grand Canal after a drunken bet. Shelley thought how humiliating it would be to have to be saved by Byron.
Sadly Byron wasn’t there though on the day when Shelley’s boat went down. Shelley’s body washed up the next day on the shore at the town of Viareggio.
The ‘56 tour went to Viareggio, according to the ‘Promised Land’ book. And now I look out of the window to see our boxy train is also pulling in to the station of Viareggio.
I stand up quickly and hassle an annoyed, protesting Passepartout out of the doors. I have a sudden, urgent idea that I want to see where Shelley’s funeral took place, the beach where his body was burnt.
Bustling down the long, arrow-straight, main road from the station towards the sea, arms swinging by my side, Passepartout left long behind me, the road never seems to end. The sun is a burning ball of orange, setting right into my eyes hemmed in perfectly between the sets of buildings on the two sides of the road…
And then, I’m there. On the beach where Shelley’s final cremation took place. And I can’t quite believe what I can see.
There, on the beach, piled up in front of me, are the branches and wood for a huge bonfire. Just as 195 years ago. And I really don’t understand why.
On closer inspection, I see it is just the sea’s debris bunched up at the day’s end. The tyre marks of a tractor giving away the secret. Still, I am slightly stunned as Passepartout arrives behind me on the beach and the sun finally extinguishes itself out on the surf’s horizon in flares of golds and purple.
“Viareggio has blocks of recently built red tiled flats with white and beige coloured facades and olive green venetian blinds. They are being completed near the long stretch of shore.”
These blocks are still there. Quite obviously the same as my great-grandfather saw. And the small blocks of white buildings stretching away along the shore, down the beach-front road, are now all smart, well-lit clothes shops and fancy eateries.
We walk back to the station and catch the next train. Looking to get off at Pisa. Where my great-grandfather, mother and aunt were all heading next too.
A well-dressed old man in suit, cuff-links, fedora hat and cane sits opposite me on the train, closely reading the ingredients of a packet of peanuts through a magnifying glass.
The train to Pisa is just a regular commuter train. People coming home from work.
Two inspectors have been waiting at the end of the train. They decide now to make their move.
The first man they talk to clearly has the wrong ticket. A huge argument breaks out.
“Questo e un regional train,” I hear one of the inspectors say.
The train now waits at the next station. Not moving while the whole the scene plays out. Everyone in the carriage gathering round with opinions, arguing, for and against. It is, of course, all a big theatre. All performance.
The accused man gets more and more impassioned. At the end he opens his wallet and shows the shrugging, mouth-curling inspector photos of his family. Smacking at the wallet with the back of his hand. Shaking the photos at him. “Guarda! Guarda!” I’m not sure how this is meant to help.
The second inspector has wry smile on his face, watching proceedings. He then starts, takes a walk down the carriage. I watch as he throws out one man for not having a ticket. He then heads into the next carriage and I quickly go to the door and look down the platform.
I see shadowed figures diving out of the door as the inspector makes his slow way down the train. A domino chain of ticketless people jumping out of the carriages, fleeing from the doors, as the inspector moves further down.
Others are negotiating. Negotiating, negotiating. Convinced that not having a ticket can be argued out. The train is very late now.
Finally arriving in Pisa, we walk through the gothic centre, over the Arno river. Passepartout, who had moodily expected Pisa only to offer its leaning tower and tacky souvenir shops is quietly pleased. I watch her out the corner of my eye twisting her head round and round to take it all in.
We get a pizza at a hole in the wall pizzeria, Il Montino. It’s good. Really good. Our first in Italy.
My mother here in Pisa, quite astonishingly – and as implausible at it seems today – was eating spaghetti for the very first time in her life.
“Sheila and Angela are introduced to spaghetti and find it difficult to wrestle with. Spaghetti is awkward stuff. Nicola is amused at the unsuccessful endeavours of Sheila and Angela to eat it, but she has been practising for years. It’s easy when you know how.”
My great-grandfather treats it like some dark, mysterious art known only by the natives.
Next morning we walk Pisa in the bright, flooding, sun.
As we come out of St Katherine’s cavernous church, in the car park I see an expensively dressed Italian man getting out of an Audi. He strides over and takes command of the 7 or 8 African men who had been sitting in the square, under trees, skulking around, waiting. He barks at them in a mixture of Italian and English. Talking to them like shit in both languages.
As we move closer to the famous tower, I see more and more of these mustered African men, lining the side of the road, holding up cascading packets of postcards and collections of cheap plastic tat.
Something I’m guessing my great-grandfather’s tour party wouldn’t have seen.
He makes no mention of anyone hawking stuff anywhere in Italy.
We meet Abdul. He has a bad pitch.
“Spanish?” he shouts out to us, arms flung open wide, as we walk down the road, getting closer to him.
“Spanish?” he says again. Then, as we draw level, he looks at me a little quizzically and says softly “Spanish?”
“English,” I tell him.
“I knew it!” he bellows again, tapping at my chest, grinning. “English. I knew you were English as soon as I saw you!”
I don’t say anything. I feel sorry for him. He has a bad pitch.
He finds out Passepartout is Greek.
“Greek? Oh! Panathinaikos! PAOK!”
I ask him how he know all these Greek football teams
“Ah well, you see, I travelled up through Greece a few years ago,” he says. “But it, er, you know, it didn’t go so well… They wouldn’t let me out of the country, can you believe? I had to go home…So now I try Italy!”
He says he’s from Senegal. He’s says he’s not like the other men on the streets.
“They fight with me. They’re all bastards,” he tells us, looking round at the other men standing on the street: towers of cheap hats piled up on top of their heads, carrying boards of plastic sunglasses and bundles of thin umbrellas printed with smeared images of the leaning tower, and wearing layers of comedy aprons of the statue of David, with David’s balls covering their own.
He is the singer in an Afro-beat group he tells us. With his friends here in Pisa.
“I’m only doing this for a while. I’m not like them you know,” he nods his head backwards at the others. “I’m a musician, living my life. Life good, man, life good…” he lolls out a hand for a high-five, which I take too long to acknowledge.
“You’re a musician?” he says, switching instead to Passepartout. “Ha, I knew it! I knew it when I saw you. I knew it when I saw you!”
We move to go.
“A few euros for a musician, man?” he smiles.
I give him a couple. He looks down unimpressed.
“You know I have a son in the hospital…”
My great-grandfather was transfixed by the Duomo and the Baptistery. Raving on about the details on the three, bronze, 1595-built, doors on the cathedral.
Pages of ‘The Promised Land’ are dedicated to his gazing at the stories of Christ, intricately cast in relief on the colossal doors.
It is an impressive sight. I rock back, taking it all in, on the same spot where he would have gawped.
He then gets very excited by the echoes of the cathedral as they walk round inside.
“A simple sung scale converted into wonderful harmonies. The slightest whisper reflected and prolonged in the whole building.”
60 years later he would have had his revelry ruined by my arguing with the small, stocky Italian on the door, who won’t let me just look through just to get a glimpse inside the cathedral.
The tour party would have twisted their heads and stared at me reproachfully, as the fierce-looking European church-addicts do now, as I’m sent away to queue for 20 minutes in a near-by building to get a ticket that is printed out and requires us to wait another ridiculously specific 11 minutes for us then enter the practically empty church.
We walk the church and baptistery, past the marble pulpit carved and decorated with the incredible crowds of intricate figures, and ridiculous monsters, carved with all the sense of horror and grotesque.
My mother climbed the 300 steps up to the top of the tower, but my mood has darkened. The fools with their hands cocked at right-angles holding up the toppling tower for photos to be taken and never looked at again are getting in our way.
How can you enjoy this beauty when cackling tour groups are sharing Subway sandwiches in front of Pisa’s towering trunk of colonnades?
And we want to be moving anyway. There is so much more of Italy to see.
My great-grandfather was, it seems, sadder to leave.
“One yearns to dawdle in the narrow streets of the old town just as Shelley and Byron used to do. Alas Nicola and Bino won’t wait that long…”
Passepartout and I walk back along the Arno River – the river that will flow all the way to our next stop on the tour: Florence. We walk past the prodigious Casa Lanfranchi where Byron and Shelley lived together during their time in Pisa. Past the orange stucco beauty of the university buildings.
At Pisa’s outdoor coach station many of the men selling the cheap tat on the streets are waiting to catch buses on to other towns too. Maybe looking for better spots.
As we climb onto our bus to Florence so do they, hauling up the stairs with them their great big suitcases of merchandise which they try and lug up onto luggage racks. Three or four of them struggling and pushing.
I look out of the window and see below us one man is washing his feet in a small old, baroque, fountain. Between our large parked bus and another, a man has got out a prayer mat and bends down and prays amongst the huge rolling coaches which hiss and belch past this prone, spiritual, peace-seeking, figure.
On the way to Florence “Bino gives a rendering of the bells of St Mary’s on his hooter. Wildly gesticulating with his hands. Then gives a shrug so powerful that his head completely disappears for a few moments.”
Our driver is bald, short, in mirrored sunglasses, utterly unfriendly. Again I try and talk to him. He doesn’t reply.
My mother’s journey had “grape vines, many feet high in orderly rows to be seen growing everywhere.”
The modern day journey on our coach, this December, is better than our first to Genoa. There are no factories here at least, and we see the grape vines too. But empty bare vines. Skeleton branches held up, imploring, at the skies. It is still a vista of beauty laid out for us though. Italy, the garden of the world. Even its very weeds are beautiful.
Amongst the brown undulating landscape stand ruined castles as we drive along, so many tall, grey church towers sticking up all over the landscape. As if a wind has blown and pollinated the ground with stone church towers.
We pass by an amazingly long aqueduct somewhere outside Lecca. Then, into the Tuscan hills and the landscape changes. Thicker trees, cypresses grown into corkscrew turns around poles. Small forests of palm trees. Tendered, looked-after vineyards of grape.
The ’56 tour party roll up in Florence at the Hotel Mediterraneo: ”A modern commodious building, opened last Easter.”
We set our stuff down in a flea-bitten hostel.
We are the only people staying, so the chain-smoking, toad-like, owner gives us a room full of bunk beds all to ourselves. He tells us the heating isn’t working, as if he’s just passing on this information and it has nothing at all to do with him. The toilet is blocked too, he tells us.
I ask him what we can do about this. His eyes move slowly towards the sink and then back again to me. Raising a knowing eyebrow.
Through the high, broken, window though, standing up on a chair, we have the dome and the bell tower of Florence’s cathedral right there, peering in at us, filling the whole frame, bursting into light from our dark alley behind the Cathedral square. It is incredible.
We take a walk through the city streets. Amazed at Florence buildings. Dark and heavy and foreboding… and then suddenly coming across light, delicate, renaissance churches.
In 1956, a massive storm breaks over the city.
“Thunder roars then rolls away only to return seconds later like waves dashing themselves on the seashore. The rain descends in torrents and is lashed by the wind. Bringing to mind recollections of an English summer…”
Then our ‘Promised Land’s guide is sadly unable to stop himself with his pun… “Or is it.…a Florence Night-in-(a)-gale?”
As Passepartout and I walk past the copy of David – vast, defiant, nude – on his plinth, and past Perseus offering Medusa’s head above the impassive faces of Japanese tourists in the Loggia dei Lanzi. We start to tire a little of the crowds joining us in the appreciation of the city’s magnificence. Even Florence has the danger to bore when it’s so full of people.
We are pushed almost against our will onto and then over the Ponte Vecchio bridge, and so decide to carry on, and we go looking on the quieter side of the river.
We walk an area called Oltrarno, it seems much better: women sweeping their doorsteps; flower market stalls; dusty fountains; a fruit delivery man trying to park a van in a far-too-small parking space under a constant stream of unasked for commentary coming from the windows above.
In the long Renaissance church of Santo Spirito in the main square we see, just hanging there, tucked away, a wooden crucifix sculptured by the teenage Michelangelo.
Passepartout seems pleased to see Italy morphing more into the Mediterranean world she knows. Cars are at least double parked here, if not tripled as in Athens. Dogs roaming, not trotting on leads as up in Milan, Genoa…
“Florence is non industrial,” my great-grandfather is told “And therefore there are no tall smoky chimneys to pollute the atmosphere and blacken the buildings. No slums exist in Florence but some very poor quarters exist.”
I wonder if Oltrano was one of these areas? It looks like it could have been. The hipsters are moving in now though. Moving into the dilapidated beauty. Pushing the aproned old women out.
We head back into Florence at night. It is quieter. The dark streets emptied. A man in a cape standing up drinking in an old bar toasts us with his goblet of black-red wine through the window. We eat great pasta at Sabatinos and then walk back under Giotto’s campanile, lit up high above us. Through the empty square at midnight. Gloating at the beauty left for us.
The Gates of Paradise on the Baptistery, which, again, my grandfather slavers over in his book. And which he and my mother and my aunt, unlike us, would have seen in the original. The gilded bronze doors of 28 panels of Christ hung from 1422, until they were replaced with copies for their protection in 1990.
We pass the replica of the finest masterpiece ever created, and head back to our room of 12 bunk beds and no blankets. The face of the moon and the vast half orange cup of Florence’s dome glowing through the filthy window.
Next day I can’t find a bus to Siena.
We walk down the side road next to Florence’s train station – passing a large, solid, brown block of flats with a plaque telling us that Byron lived in a house on this spot.
Inside the large ticket hall of the station there are rows of manned ticket windows, but no one will sell us a ticket. As much as I ask – plead – the fat, moustached, man just points behind me at the new, gleaming ticket machines.
Where Italy has become automated, it has become fully automated. A modernising blitz, and no other option is conceded. Even though I guess strong union objections have meant that the old ticket sellers have kept their jobs. Even if they won’t sell a ticket.
I try and give some help to an old lady, in fur hat and coat, struggling with the machines. We tap her destination onto the touchscreen. The ticket for her journey of a few stops plops down into the basin at the bottom.
“Aspetta un momento…” she says, patting at the back my hand with her delicate leather gloves, looking around her, and then scurries off.
We’re getting late for our train and really don’t have time for this. I keep looking up at the board, exhaling loudly and looking round the concourse wondering where the old crow has gone.
She finally comes back and with a smile, places one cough-drop sweet in my hand. “Grazi…”
“Siena. The hilly streets lined with magnificent buildings which it is said have remained practically unchanged through the centuries. In the old part of the city there are no buses. Or trolley buses. One sees fountains everywhere with pools for the women to come and do their washing. No laundrettes here…”
They say you are either a Siena or a Florence person. I think I’m going to be a Siena.
Once into the old town it has special feel. Red-brick Gothic buildings. Its civilised and cultured and made to the measure of man. And has a lot less tourists.
The entry to the city is bad though.
From the station we are forced through a shopping centre to get to the centre of the old town, high above us. Up escalators and escalators, women trying to squirt perfume at us at each level. At least the shopping centre is red brick, in keeping with the rest of the city I guess…
Buses and most vehicles are still banned from the centre of the city. Just the odd car now and then that must belong to the residents inside the old town. Freed up with their special status, they happily drive like utter arseholes careering at speed round the tight paved roads, through the stone arches.
Siena has laundrettes now. I stand outside one: ‘San Pietra’s Laundretta’. It’s empty.
In the main centre square, bowed and sloping, the greatest medieval square in Europe with its grand town hall, monumental and stately for over 600 years, is the gaia fountain. Carved marble Madonna, Romulus and Remus, wolves spitting out water. No one washing their smalls though.
We walk the city. It seems as old as time. And more beautiful than is really fair. It is a small city, but its split into 17 different areas, each with their own flag and emblem: the owl, the caterpillar, the goose… And, grand in the centre, is the 13th cathedral, with its green and white, Pacers Mints, tower.
In the back streets, I’m surprised by a shop.
Outside are lounging, white-jeaned, Italian youths. Tanned, rich, good-looking, gelled hair, in Timberland boots and purple puffer jackets. In the window are 12 inch records of Madonna, Wham!, Pet Shop Boys remixes.
Can these be the Paninaro? A cult group from the 80s I’d heard about with their love of consumerism and labels and British pop, formed around the sandwich bars of Milan and spreading through Italy throughout that indulgent decade. Can it be that even Siena’s street culture is a museum piece?
There are some sort of Paniaro type magazine comics I can spy in the windows too, Duran Duran on the front, yachting around in pastel linen suits. But the beautiful, loafing crew won’t tell me anything. They stare with a sneer when I try and talk to them.
In keeping with most Sienese people really. It’s beautiful, has great charm and a great pace to it. But it’s not the most friendly of places.
But anyway, who cares, it is Aperitivo Hour. This seems to be a tradition unique to Siena, in different bars all over the town, of buying a drink and getting access to a huge, spread, buffet of hams and cheeses and pastas. I’m not sure if you’re meant to stand and feed your faces from the trays, but we do.
Then, as night falls over the medieval square we go back to the Piazza del Campo to take pictures of the fountains and the town hall towers.
There is a crowd of people here, and camera flashes going off. But they are taking pictures of something else… I crane my neck over the back of this crowd to see what it could be. And see they are all centred round a horse.
The horse seems quite uninterested in what’s going on around him, but the horse’s owner looks enormously pleased with it all. He might be the smuggest man I have ever seen. Rocking back, thumbs in his lapels, hugely bellied, basking with pleasure.
I ask one man stood in the crowd what’s going on.
“He…” he gestures over at the horse, almost unable to contain his excitement “He is the winner!” the man shouts. “The winner!”
I look at the bored horse.
“The winner of what?”
“The…The Palio!” he says to me, as if he can’t quite believe he’s been asked the question. “It’s the race. The race we ‘ave ‘ere.”
“You have a race here? Where”
“’Ere. ‘Ere in the square…”
“You have a horse race in the square?”
“Si, si, all around ‘ere,” he says impatiently. Like talking to an idiot “Three times around the piazza. Hundreds of people. Ten ‘orses. All the riders, eh, no saddle! Running on the sand all down ‘ere,” he throws his hand out to the Piazza. “Colours, silks, flags. Drinking! The different parts of the city, we…how you say…we fight. My part of the city is Onda… He’s our ‘orse! He won. He won!” he points at the horse again and goes back to beaming at him, taking its photo.
“When is this race?” I ask.
“August,” he says, not looking round.
“Why is here now then if the race was in August?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugs, still taking his photos “The man….eh, he likes to come ‘ere all the time and show off his ‘orse. He is…how you say it? He is the big ‘ead.”
I leave him staring at the horse with a tender love.
We leave Siena the next morning.
At the foot of the hill, next to the grim shopping centre, we wait for a Rome bus. It is late. Very late.
There is only one other person waiting for the bus with us. A pretty, harassed-looking woman, dark hair curling down her face. She keeps muttering to herself, picking at her crucifix around her neck, closing her eyes and kissing the cross.
She tells us she needs to get to Rome to see her son. She works as a nursemaid for a rich old lady here in Siena during the week, but she goes back to her boy in her home town when she gets her day off.
I remember now of course that it is Christmas Eve today.
She keeps making her private prayers for the bus as we wait in the murky sunlight. I stare down the road, hoping to be able report the sight of an bus-like apparition for this desperate woman.
I see out of the corner of my eye she has now got her rosary out.
Then the bus finally appears. She clasps her hands and breathes out over and again heavily. Crosses herself one more time. Grinning and bending to collect her packages and bags, she gives both me and Passepartout, and Jesus on his cross, relived kisses as she springs up the steps.
The coach has come all the way from Milan. It is very full. The first coach we’ve seen that’s packed. Everyone going back for Christmas.
The back row and the two sets of seats in front of the back row are taken up by a gang of white-habited nuns. They smile benignly at us as we try and find seats. I have to sit in the co-driver’s seat.
As we drive along, this driver seems much more friendly. He tells me his name is Luca.
Luca is constantly eating monkey nuts from a large sack down on his left, by his feet, spitting the shells out on the floor, under the pedals. He spins round in his seat, offering the people around him a nut.
My mother travelled through the Radicofani Pass on her way down to Rome
“Little vegetation,” reports ‘The Promised Land’. “The ground a greyish colour. This is an extinct volcano area.
A family washing at the roadside on slabs on concrete.”
I stare out of the window at the same countryside, 60 years on. The olive-green hills are smooth and rounded. Like many perfect buttocks. No family washing on the roadside. Beautiful villages appear in the watery, sun-splashed, scene. And then mega-sized Lidl supermarkets.
Passepartout has had to sit next to a man with wild white hair and a kind face. He keeps using his old, cheap, mobile phone to call pretty much everyone in his family to shout them Christmas greetings. Passepartout’s face is one of simmering rage. She manages a short, forced, smile, as he ends one call and shows her the phone, waving it at her proudly, “Mio nipote… My grandson.” He then calls the next in a seemingly of endless line of grandsons.
I look round, at the back of the coach. I see one of the nuns – plump, bad tempered, a face like a cold, old calzone – taking glugs from a hip flask she has tucked somewhere in her folds.
Just outside Rome, on the slip road of the motorway, a car has broken down, blocking the way. A tall, attractive, well-dressed woman is standing on the road looking at her dead car. Luca stops the bus and hops down the doorway steps.
I think that he’s going to help, but no, he just watches. Arms folded, his head tilted in an irritated and impatient fashion, he watches, grumbling, as the women push the car out of the way with enormous strain and effort.
He waves his hands forcefully in the air at the final maneuvers as she bumps the car up out of the way and then bounds back into his seat and sets off with a bad tempered blast of the horn.
We enter Rome. 61 years and 3 months after my great-grandfather, mother and aunt.
“It hadn’t rained since February last. It seems incredible when one recalls in Great Britain never was so much poured on so many.
Employees of the Commune of Rome are busy watering the streets and pavements to allay the dust.”
They set up home in the grand Hotel Regina and go out to eat at ‘Restaurant Roma’, where “according to Nicola (who should know) one eats well and drinks even better.”
Seems a little unfair on Nicola…
We, though, have other concerns. We battle through an empty Rome. The night before Christmas has fallen and there seems to be nothing open and nobody about on the streets. We eventually find somewhere to stay, it is on the other side of the Vatican Hill. We walk the dark, quiet, streets of our new neighbourhood, hungry and utterly alone.
Then, just a little after midnight, as we are about to give up and turn round, the bells of about a hundred churches suddenly start to sound. Lights come on, the spires illuminated. And all at once, seemingly from nowhere, coming down over the hill from the Vatican’s square, comes a great procession of cars with their headlights on full, and crowds and crowds of people.
“Buon Natale!” “Buone Feste!” the little old couples say to us as they pass, beaming, in best suits, pearls, gleaming white moustaches, bent over sticks. Grandchildren racing home in front of them.
Christmas morning. We walk in the polished sunlight in the centre of Rome, past the sights my family had seen.
Palazzo Venezia, the ancient castle-like palace of the Republic of Venice “and the one time headquarters of the Fascist City.”
My great-grandfather is quite fixated by a small balcony opposite the huge typewriter palace of Victor Emmanuel II – still there today – where Mussolini addressed the crowds, only a little more than a decade before. Though, as someone whose son was sent off to fight in the war on this continent, I guess it’s not so surprising.
We walk past the Coliseum. My great-grandfather 60 years earlier seems still in an effected mood. He muses balefully on the gladiatorial conquests that took place here 2,000 years earlier, and the Passion of Christ.
“You feel if you press a handful of soil here that blood would flow from it…”
And then he stops in his tracks. The new activities around here rankling. “The place has now become a favourite haunt for lovers…” he observes with a distaste.
The sight of Bino, as always, soon cheers him up again though.
“Bino has parked in a shady nool. He couldn’t care less what went on in the Coliseum. Bino is no gladiator even though his shirt sleeves are rolled up and his socks are at half-mast. His one desire is to keep out of the boiling sun and he manages to do this very well.”
My mother was schooled back in London by nuns. I remember she didn’t much enjoy the experience. I wonder what she made of being here, in this city where the dark cowled nuns flock the streets like pigeons.
Throngs of them rounding the corners, crossing the roads, packing the piazzas. You feel if you clapped your hands loudly they’d all fly into the air as one, squawking, filling the sky with flapping dark cloaks.
The ’56 tour party visits the Catacombs of St Calixtus. My great-grandfather very impressed (“we are able to buy (tax free!) souvenirs from the Catholic Fathers”). They all take wax tapers and follow these Catholic Fathers down into the catacombs under the city.
We walk the roads instead.
No city seems to be built so much on death as Rome. Its tombs and its relics. For some reason, I feel utterly gloomy in this city of beauty.
As we pass through Campo de Fiori I think about how, years ago, I lived for a while in Rome.
An old girlfriend was studying History of Art and was on a placement in Rome for six months. I joined her. We lived somewhere round here, in a flat in one of the crumbling buildings off the square, with its bars and flower markets.
I think of how I was young. Youth in Italy the only really important thing in the world. And to be young and Italian, well of course that’s just winning the lottery in life. Running reckless and legless and stoned round the streets of ruined Rome. But now I am fat. My days yellowing in leaf. As we walk I can only dwell on how I’m now closer to the grave than to those days I spent in Rome. The churches and crypts of Rome not helping my mood.
But Passepartout is here and upbeat and sweet and never seemingly jaded. It cheers me to see her so keen to see more of Rome
I take her out to the protestant cemetery, to visit Shelley’s grave – his ashes sent from his cremation on the beach in Viareggio to be buried here.
On reflection, perhaps this wasn’t the best idea for either of us.
My mother was taken in the coach round Rome.
Passepartout and I crowd onto the famous number 64 bus. A regular service bus that’s actually more like a sightseeing tour, taking you past the most notable parts of Rome. But on here you‘re sat with the commuters and the pickpockets.
We are next to a large African lady, tins falling out of her overloaded shopping bags, and a groomed, bald man, in a tight blue suit obviously on his way to some important meeting and clearly very annoyed at finding himself on a bus.
It terminates at St Peter’s.
We can only stand and gawp at the outside of the Vatican, standing in the square – amongst the debris left behind by all those who had come to see the papal blessing earlier today on Christmas morning – gazing up at St Peter’s dome… the 1956 tour though was actually lead through the Vatican corridors and rooms.
My great-grandfather, like some ruin-bibber, lists off all the Botticellis and Rossellis on display. Page after page on the Sistine Chapel.
I wonder if my mother or aunt ever read any of this when the books were presented to them. Perhaps, like me, it was all just a personal labour of love by my great-grandfather. Really written just for him, knowing it would never be looked at. But I know it mattered to him. The same feeling passed down the line, from the man I never met to me.
Impressed by the fountains and columns, my great-grandfather researches the diameters of St Peter’s church and compares them in minute detail with the great churches of Westminster Abbey, Cologne, Antwerp…
Never read facts.
Their tour party leave the confines of Rome to see Tivoli. And then to “take tea” at Hardian’s Villa. They buy grapes from peasants on the roadside. “Weather beaten workers plod their way home on bullock drawn carts, scantily clad children play on the pavement, small groups of men chatter to one another.”
Passepartout and I remain in Rome.
And there is no room to move.
Well-healed Christmas tourist crowd the streets, so, desperate for breath, we force ourselves out of the scrum and down the steps onto the banks of Tiber. There is no one here. Just red rusted leaves on the ground, under a slightly frosted sun, and old crumbling orange brick bridges.
The ancient buildings of Rome are bigger than Florence. Dedicated to God and Popes, I suppose, not the bankers that made Florence.
We walk along the wilderness of imperial splendour. Under the outpourings of genius in tribute to God.
Then, up on Pincian Terrace, we stand in the very same spot where the tour party stood in August 1956: a photo of that afternoon faithfully recorded in the ‘Promised Land’ book. The panorama of Rome behind and the People’s Square below.
The black and white figures in the photo – all looking happy, caught in a moment of time: old box cameras slung round their necks, the joker of the pack with his hat fashioned from a newspaper on his head, the 50s women in their cat’s eye framed sunglasses.
And then after their moment of frozen time, they they were all ferried back to their Hotel Regina. Driving along “in the semi melted coach. We hope we reach the hotel before we turn to oil.”
On the heaving streets of Rome though, the coach crashes.
“On discovering that his big coach has been struck by a very small car driven by a woman, and without giving him the chance to use his hooter, Bino wildly gesticulates and embarks on a war of words. Reinforcements arrive in the form of 2 Italian policemen and the battle of words is intensified by all four…”
So train travel is resorted to. Their tour party passes through Rome’s main station, Roma Termini.
“Many platforms, booking offices, kiosks, refreshment rooms and boothless public telephone… we are left wondering if we shall ever see Euston, Kings Cross or St Pancras looking anything like this masterpiece of construction.”
It was completed just 6 years before they arrived there, and still stands now, today, as a great modernist construction. A modernist homage to ancient Roman architecture. The roof rising, and then jutting down, in clean lines. Its styling is strong enough to shine through the new glass food courts that all train stations seem to need to have to have these days.
One thing the 1956 tour party wouldn’t have seen then though is the machine gun totting, full camouflaged soldiers here in the station. And in fact all over Rome, all over Italy.
Streets we walked down towards the Spanish Steps or across the river in Trastevere we found blocked by armoured vehicles. On the platforms at even small stations, through the country, we saw soldiers walking along in twos, machine guns brought up under their chins. Alert. Anxious. As if a war was going on.
Italy is proud that unlike France, Britain, Germany, Spain there has been no ISIS terrorist attack on its soil. It wasn’t taking any chance in losing this battle.
Leaving Rome, we are all back on buses.
Our modern day excursion starts outside Rome’s other grand station, Tiburtina. We wait with the crowd for the Naples bus.
I have a hunch we are in the wrong place. I go to investigate and find our bus – the bus having come down from Siena – waiting at another stand. I hurry back and tell everyone waiting at the wrong place. And just in time, a few minutes more we would all have missed it.
I feel good. They all follow me in a procession to the new stop. I feel like Jesus. Or some Pied Piper of Rome.
As we get to the coach’s door though, I am shunted out of the way by the others filing onto the bus. I am pushed and shoved backwards and, in the end, Passepartout and I are one of the last to get on. Terrible seats again.
Only one old man thanks me. Patting me on the head as he passes. “Grazi,” he mumbles, almost absent mindedly, looking ahead for a seat.
I slump down in the chair, grumbling, and think of how Italians often are, as the reviews say, below criticism.
In 1956: “Through roads lined with palm trees, and then along the Appian Way – which connects Rome with the south of Italy – the coach proceeds past Castel Gandolfo, the summer retreat of Pope Pious XII.
By way of diversion, Sheila and Angela are playing parlour games with two sisters – school teachers from Morecambe – and a gentleman from South Africa. Nicola is an interested onlooker.”
Our driver in 2017 is a little fat man with white hair and a cravat. He walks down the aisle and asks for all our names. He then stands at the front and calls them all out again, like a register. It is unclear why. We haven’t gone anywhere. No one has got off. The doors have remained shut. He then tells us his name.
“E io… And me…” he stutters, aware that there are a couple of non-Italians on board, he rises himself up to his full height. “I am… Giro.”
“Ciao Giro!” the passengers on the bus call out.
There is a brief but huge thunder and lightning storm as we leave Rome. The sky stays a very shocking shade of grey as we travel south. The sun forcing itself through in thick beams to illuminate, like a spotlight, pretty villages on the hillside. The trees in thick leaf here.
On the other coach down to Naples, Nicky and Bino chatter to each other in Italian. “It is hard to say if the pace of their conversation exceeds the speed of the coach or vice versa. Bino’s shoulders go up and down with such frequency during the conversation that it is nothing short of a miracle that his shirt stays on his back. Even the small dolls suspended from the windscreen from time to time start shrugging their shoulders.”
On our bus, Giro loves to talk through the small microphone attached to his dashboard. Anything that comes into his head. Things he sees on the road. As soon as he spots something, he lurches desperately for the mike: a bad driver, the house where his mother lives, a comically large dog by the side of the road… I begin to miss the taciturn drivers up north.
The bus passes through the Pontine Marshes. “Uninhabited and uninhabitable for centuries past. It was only 26 years ago that they carried out a massive attack on this land with the result that today one sees a great farming community making a living from land that recently was useless marsh.”
At 3.25pm we reach the south east extremity of the Pontine marshes and halt at the coastal resort of Terracina where the mountains closely approach the sea. Here we are at leisure for 35 minutes in brilliant sunshine within a few yards of the placid Tyrrhenian Sea and its foreshore of fine silver sand dotted with beach umbrellas and bathing tents of varied hues.”
They then reach Caserta, and there is much praise of its magnificent palace. “It is said to be one of the finest in Europe. In 1860 Caserta acquired celebrity as the headquarters of Garibaldi and his army and in World War II history repeated itself when the Allied Command made the palace its headquarters.”
I mention to Passepartout that we should get off and see this supposedly fantastic place. But, as luck would have it, the bus pulls up right outside the gates. We have the perfect view over the walls to the huge, faded-pink palace. I sit in my seat and gawp.
Giro then gets trapped in by another bus at this stop outside the palace. I watch as he goes from chucklingly doing little praying signs with his clasped hands, to more expressive begging movements, to finally, as the other bus driver continues to ignore his pleas, swirling the steering wheel in great bad tempered turns and leaning out of the window bellowing “Fascista!” at his implacable foe.
Caserta – apart from its one crowning glory – seems an ugly, boxy town. Indifferent to the beauty of the Campania state surrounding it, the hiccups of mountains in the distance. The people look ugly and depressed here too. Passepartout stares out the window as we pass.
“Something has gone wrong with this town…” she notes.
I find it quite refreshing though to find a part of Italy not fully drowning in all the grace and general self-aware attraction.
But still, Italy’s immaculate charm cannot be defaced. We drive along the spread countryside, under fall-and-rise mountains. The mountains looking to me like police helmets.
We pass Cassino, which ‘The Promised Land’ links with a monastery that was “destroyed in the last war but now completely reconstructed,” but from our passing coach picture frame we see just dark, deep, rich farm land.
We carry on heading south on the large, not very busy roads. Christ statues stand dotted along the hard shoulders. He stands, arms raised in blessing. Either facing the road, blessing us as we pass. Or facing the other way, away from us, happily blessing a factory.
“We are in Naples. A city of endless fascination and the third most populated city in Italy (1,040,000).
Most of the inhabitants seem to be outdoors endeavouring to obtain some air and the poorly dressed and dirty children wallow in the dirt and grime on the pavements.”
60 years later, we creep into Naples too. Population now: 4,250,000. The traffic is heaving, chock-a-block, cars inching forward with great threatening revs, getting nowhere.
Giro our driver strangely doesn’t use his horn so much. He gets beeped endlessly himself though on these blocked roads. His tactic at dealing with the hoots appears to be to lean out of his window, turn a contorted face at the attacking motorist and mock a “Beeerhpp!” back at the them, tongue waggling in the air.
There is just one man directing traffic – with a whistle – outside Naples station, blowing and whirling his arms. It seems quite ridiculous, and ineffectual. I guess this must have been a job done back in the 1956 day too. And must have been just as thankless and futile then.
Everyone claps at the end when we finally pull in to Napoli Centrale. “Grazi Giro! Grazi!”
Friends and anxious parents are waiting, milling about, keen to meet loved ones off the bus.
Mothers rain a thousand kisses on spoilt boys standing with their bags, as we step down off the steps – wiping their lipstick off with handkerchiefs, before planting them back on again as the boy fights and struggle like a showered cat. This is the first time we have seen this sort of congregation waiting for the arrival of a coach. The South seems a different place.
“There are blocks of recently erected flats many storeys high and in contrast are the nearby ancient squalid flats with window boxes of flowers which brighten the drab surroundings like stars on a moonless night.”
My great-grandfather doesn’t seem impressed by Naples. Passepartout and I love the look of it.
Like the port town of Genova, but multiplied by a hundred. The dark streets, not with just one prostitute stood in a doorway, but gangs of them. Women, and boys with mouths full, hands on their crotches, idling and sprawled on the Madonna icons on the alleyway corners. Eyeing everyone passing, heads inclined backwards. The mopeds come out from holes in the walls and disappear again quickly into the rat-runs of the city. The life here, and the danger, smacks you in the face with a closed hand, straight away.
We look for a place to stay in the old town, passing the dark Christianity of the grimy baroque church fronts; huge red chillies hanging from window boxes above us. For good luck? Who knows?
Sfogliatella – moist, shell-shaped, pastries – sold out of boxes in front of falling apart shop fronts. Watch repairers, with queues of customers, sat under broken stuck clocks on the wall above them. Endless shoe repairers or junk shop owners with tatty posters up on the walls of Naples football team, 1986/7 season.
Is everyone playing a part here? The men with their trays of dough on their heads? The women shouting down to other women on the streets from high windows, arguing, objects thrown down through the hanging washing lines, landing on the semi-paved roads with a smash. Are they paid? Paid to play at being Neapolitans? But how can the buildings and alleys be in on the act too?
We spill down Via San Gregorio Armeno where stalls explode out on to the street full of carved trinkets. Intricate works. Detailed craftsmanship. This is where most of Italy get their nativity scenes carved, for 400 years, for churches across the country.
But my great-grandfather is keen to get out of this city.
“The coach cruises along the Corso Umberto and pass factories where corals, cameos and tortoiseshell goods are made.
Under a glorious sunset over Naples, their tour party is happy to leave the seamy city behind them.
“Bino had been on the road 12 hours and covered 288 miles.” They reach Hotel Tramontano. “A little way out of Sorrento – a stone balcony from which Juliet can look down on her Romeo in a courtyard surrounded by flowering shrubs and plants. Tropes of gaily attired young Italians of both sexes, playing the Neapolitan mandolin, performing the “Tarantella” dance. Stone steps at the back leading to the dark blue Tyrrhenian Sea.”
Passepartout and I, though, are happy to stay on in Naples.
A drink in Bar Nilo on Piazza Nilo – at the back is a homemade shrine for Diego Maradonna. The owners – a tea towel thrown over the shoulder of his large, fatman’s, black shirt – keen to show me the centrepiece of his scared altar: a piece of Maradonna’s hair.
We eat pizza in the birthplace city of pizza. Buffalo and tomato. The Naples way. A couple of euros for a dustbin lid sized piece. Perhaps the greatest thing I’ve ever tasted. I certainly think so anyway, here, tonight, as the heavy air sits on us here in the dirty, dusty streets.
The 1956 tour party are exploring the more gentile Sorrento.
“It’s 8.30am. The inhabitants are up and about in the streets. The Italians are great lovers of outdoor life. Street vendors – men and boys – are holding up local made music boxes as neatly attired Sorrentinos pass by on their way to Mass.
The shopkeepers trying to get customers into their shops are as artful as wagon load of monkeys. They deserve to prosper as they are ingenious, industrious and indefatigable. They will remain open till gone midnight…”
Up at St Elmo, in hot bright sunshine, Passepartout and I can see across Naples bay – Vesuvius brooding in the background – and along the curve of the bay, there is Sorrento.
I know we should go.
The train out to Sorrento is a pretty miserable one. It is massively packed, slow, stopping at stations every few minutes or so. The windows are graffitied over. It is full of scheming-faced, ferrety men.
Broken down Naples, slums, on one side, the coast on the other. A rusting tanker parked closed to the shore. I read that this line to Portici was the first ever in Italy, opened in 1839.
Someone starts shouting. A tourist has caught a pickpocket with his hands in her handbag.
The thief’s hands both go up in innocent pose, his mouth drooping in some sort of righteous plea.
“You tried to steal…” says the woman, shocked.
“Eh, steal…” says the man, as if that particular word is too much. Rather offensive to him.
He starts to get annoyed at being caught. Shouting starts. He gets off the train, cursing, throwing his hand backwards at us, as if it is him that has been insulted. As if he was the wronged party.
Vesuvius watches over it all, quiet and unimpressed, as we trundle round the base of the volcano in south Italian sun.
Vesuvius looks huge here, next to the flatness of the sea. It last erupted just 12 years before my mother visited. It hasn’t erupted since. The longest period of silence in its history. They say she’s ready to blow again though, any time soon…
We wander the streets of Sorrento. Clean coloured shops in the creamy sunlight, and 50s hotels sat behind behind neat foliage. Nothing can really have changed since my mother’s day.
The tour party in ‘56 took the ‘Giovanina Aponte’ boat over to Capri. The boat manned by “several youthful but stalwart sons of Italy.”
They are musicians and play tunes as the group sail across. My great-grandfather writes of his worries that they will play “Rock Around The Clock” but he needn’t be concerned. And I think he even has a glow of pride about him as he recounts “They play Italian tunes and for a finale, the British anthem as we dock…”
Then, in a small rowing boat they are taken to the Blue Grotto – the fantastical sea cave that was Emperor Tiberius private swimming hole. They all have to lie in the bottom of a boat – great-grandfather, death-suited and bowler hat, included – while the boatman rows them through the narrow opening and onto the hidden waters of brightest blue, as transparent as glass.
Off the boat they take a funicular up to Capri town. Their railway ending on a large terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples.
They don’t know what to do with their afternoon of leisure away from the coach tour.
“We decide on Piccola Marina because it is the home of that big hearted Lancashire lass Miss Gracie Fields and there was a possibility we might see her either in the restaurant or swimming pool she owns…
We enquire after Gracie and are told she is in residence but has not appeared in public today. Her husband however is reported to have been seen this morning.”
Disappointed, they re-join the coach.
It now seems a rather mournful scene.
“Bino’s bare arms rest of the wheel. He gazes ahead as though in search of vehicles likely to get in his path. He drums his fingers impatiently on the hooter.”
Passepartout and I down here in southern Italy have a choice. The boat across the water to Capri, or what the small fat man in a uniform too tight for him outside Sorrento train station is hawking.
“Take the bus,” he says, both arms thrown back, modelling the small one decker idling on the side of the road.
“Eh!” he says again, as it seems we’ve take no notice of him. “Take this bus…”
“Why, where does it go?” Passepartout asks.
“But we don’t want to go to Amalfi…”
“Trust me,” he says “Take this bus.”
We start to waver.
“That’s right, that’s right…” the man says, beckoning to us, a small thin line of moustache above his thick lips.
“Si, si, you’re doing good…” he says as he coxes us on board, briefly clasping his hand on Passepartout’s backside.
The few passengers are a mix of tourists and bad tempered locals. One woman chewing aggressively at a long baguette.
“And, trust me, you wanna sit on the left…” he says as the doors close and the bus hisses away.
Still a little unsure, we comply. And as the bus leaves Sorrento centre and begins to climb, we are rewarded with the most incredible bus ride, surely, in the world. It seems we chose right.
Hugging the cliffs, up and up the coastal road. The sea smooth as honey below us, a peacock blue. At times the bus swings round corners and it seems the back wheels are spinning in air above the drop of hundreds of feet down into the blue. The coast bends and sways ahead of us, rippling along like a serpent.
We carry on this remarkable bus route until at Positano we get off, walk the town. Unable to admire it quite as much as it admires itself, but happy. The coloured houses tumbling to the sea as Cinqo Terra did back up in northern Italy, all those days ago.
We stand on the beach and look at the Mediterranean. We know we’ve come as far south as we’re going to go.
The train back to Naples is almost empty.
We sit at the front and watch through the open door into the cabin where the driver and the conductor smoke cigarette after cigarette.
The conductor then goes through a ludicrous pantomime of getting out of the cabin at each stop back along the route, looking down the quiet platforms, blowing his whistle and ostentatiously waving his green flag for his mate, sat in the driver’s seat, just a few feet away, holdings his cigarette for him.
We are glad to be back in Naples. Our city, as we think of it. The beauty of the Amalfi coast far too rich for us.
People look down on the Neapolitans, call them loafer. But is a shipwrecked man a loafer? The decaying streets are our sort of place.
We sit in Bellini square, drinking in the bars. Watching the people.
Drunk, we find ourselves ordering more at the Arabo Café.
Somehow, some way, one of the Neapolitan people we feel so at home with swipes Passepartout’s phone. We don’t know how that this has happened. She looks down on the table, it’s gone, stolen.
We race to the owner, a short, wiry Arab. Did he see anything? Does he know who might have taken it?
“Ah…yes…” he says, rubbing at his sandpapery stubble with one hand, holding a tray of drinks with his other.
“I see a man. Standing by your table. Tall man.” He rubs again at his face. “Beard. Grey hat.”
He thinks some more. “Yes, he stood there. I see his head going this and that way. And he had this look…” The Arab pulls a diabolical leer into my face, twisting and contorting his features. “Like that,” he says, relaxing again.
We sit and finish our drinks. Stunned to think that we’re just misguided strangers in this city after all.
The owner makes a few calls, leans out of his café and lets go with a high-pitch whistle. Soon he is surrounded by 4 or 5 young kids. Gypsy urchins. He tells them that what we’ve had stolen. And sets them, his little workers, out to look for us.
“I’ll see what I can do. They will look for you. But this man, he will be gone. He is not a man from here. If he was, he wouldn’t steal. Everyone knows who runs these streets. You don’t steal. There are men who control these streets. If you steal on their streets…” he mimes a sweeping movement under his neck, making a sort of deathly quack sound. “You know?”
His flying urchins draw a blank. They return with no good news.
Later we will be approached by these kids – thin, tattily dressed, dirty hair – in the next days that we spend in this city. They come out of the dark walls as we walk around.
“Eh, mister, I know where your phone is. The man who sells the drugs. He has it…”
“Eh, I heard a man. He give cinquanta euro for your phone.”
A tug at my trousers. I look down to see a small, round faced girl.
“I know where your phone is, I can show you the house…”
Back in Bellini Square though, we give up for the night. Through my tired, drink-hazed eyes I squint at the police parked on the square. Like everywhere in Italy, Naples has its police and army out and in force over the Christmas season.
“Hold on,” I say to Passepartout, hitting on an idea, and striding over to the two policemen sitting, doing nothing, eating, scratching their balls in the car. I try explaining to them, but neither speak English.
They take me over to the dominating army tank that is also parked on the corner of the square.
“No capici, no capici. Cosa dice l’Inglese?” they say, explaining how they don’t understand me to the young army officer type stood there. looking incongruous amongst the hippified drinkers on the square.
I start trying to explain everything again to the army officer. “You see, we were told he was a man with a beard and a grey hat and a face like this…”
Suddenly, mid-leer, I catch sight of somebody walking across the square.
“Hey, there he is,” I point. “There he is..!”
The two policemen suddenly reach for their guns. Both of them approach the man, fast. Followed behind by the rifle carrying officer. I am immediately overcome with doubts.
But the policemen aren’t listening, aren’t in the mood to stop. They have the man against a car. They spread his legs, a gun trained to his head. His head forced down on the roof.
It is then that I notice the man doesn’t actually have a beard. And his hat isn’t even grey.
“Ah, you know, I think there might have been some mistake here…”
It takes an age to convince the policemen and the army man that I’ve labelled the wrong passer-by. The innocent man glowers at me, when at last let go, rubbing at his bruised arms.
I feel bad.
How was I to know the police of Naples are so unbearably keen?
Both of the journeys, in 1956 and today, of course visit Pompeii. Although my aunt Angela has to sit in the coach back in ’56 owing to “indisposition.”
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“We leave the dust of Pompeii behind us and welcome the cool shaft of air coming through the lowered windows of the coach as it races along the half baked roads.”
And they, like us, are to leave Italy too.
Their journey down the country finished. They will go no further south either.
The journey of my mother’s life. Taken when she was only 12. I’m not sure she ever experienced such a fantastical few week again in her life. I wish I’d asked her more of her experience when she was here.
Well, I can at least feel lucky they were written down to follow.
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At the railway station, on the beginning of their long route back home through Italy, France, back to the Channel and across to England: “Customs Officers look for money and merchandise. Whistling porters take our luggage.
Tears fill Bino’s eyes as he says goodbye.”
It rains all the way back.
My great-grandfather seems very smug for his black rolled city gentlemen’s umbrella he’d taken through Italy.
And he watches my mother and my aunt, sat, sprawled on the train seat opposite him “tying themselves in sailors’ knots in endeavours of getting a comfortable sleep…” and he, at last, on his own, reflects with “intense satisfaction that Sheila and Angela have made their journey. Their journey to the promised land.”