Friday, 12 December 2008

Border towns

The local tourist information brochure helpfully reminds us that, ‘The chilly days of winter are just around the corner. It’s time for the Dolomite folk to ready their homes for the arrival of the harshest of seasons: time to chop, clean and stack up the logs for fireplaces and stoves; to prepare jams and preserves (such as that unforgettable quince jam our mothers used to make); to check the equipment for clearing the snow.’

Quince jam??!! Anyway, the good Dolomite folk have taken this advice to heart (at least the Cadore Dolomiti have) and everywhere there are neatly stacked piles of wood, usually beneath shuttered windowsills harbouring pots of geraniums for perfect photo opportunities!

Cortina d’Ampezzo is Italy’s most fashionable and expensive ski resort, which means it must be pretty damn flash! It is, with Ferraris and designer gear very much in evidence.

It is surrounded by stunning scenery and hosted a Winter Olympics – the wooden ski jump still stands looking like some weird hangover from a medieval jousting tournament.

While Him Outdoors goes for a run I get to explore Pieve di Cadore at my leisure. I have a cappuccino in a cheerful café on the square. I think everybody comes in to say hello to the owner and grab a quick coffee. Those who don’t, she nabs outside as she stands in the doorway for her frequent cigarette breaks.

The town is full of Titian memorabilia. He was born in Pieve di Cadore sometime between 1488 and 1490, but moved to Venice at the age of nine to become one of the most famous artists of his time. He still returned to his house in Pieve during the summer as it got too hot in Venice. His house is now a museum with copies of his works and lots of information in Italian.

As a true Renaissance man, Titian was also a timber merchant and the craftsmanship is evident in the house. Downstairs, the wooden floor is made from hexagonal slices of tree trunk.

An exterior staircase leads up the side of the house to the top floor where the furniture is displayed: high chairs; low stools; chests; shelves; sideboards and a dining table. A floor plan illustrates how level the house was – even without modern measuring equipment – but every crooked angle or wonky wall is accounted for, with cupboards built into every spare space.

The uneven floors and beams and heavy furniture make the house seem very dark, but I am impressed by the cornices on the ceilings and the fancy woodwork on the lintels and architraves – even when the basics weren’t in place, decoration was considered necessary.

Little saucers of ground-up pigment that Titian used in his paintings are displayed in a cabinet. The bright colours and evocative names (lapislazzuli; verde vescia; giallorino; lacca di cocciniglia; terra d’ombra; nerofumo) remind me of spices; although you wouldn’t want to cook with these powders, I guess painters mix them up to their own particular recipe.

The Archdiaconal Church of Saint Mary Nascent in Pieve is a gem – despite the long-winded name. The fresco on the choir was painted by Titian (or Tiziano Vecellio to give him his full name) and pupils.

The Last Supper above the altar also has parts painted by Titian, and he has created a self-portrait in the nativity scene where Mary is breast-feeding, which I imagine was quite a shocking subject for a painting, flanked by a bishop (with the face of Titian’s son) and St. Andrew (with his brother’s face). Mary herself is modelled on Titian’s daughter, Lavinia – keeping it all in the family.

I was admiring the 1450s pieta – a painted terracotta group reportedly by Egidio d’Alemagna – when I was startled by a grinning skull in a glass case underneath it. This is apparently a relic of St Fedele, brought (and doubtless bought) from Rome in 1767. Is this penchant for collecting bones a particularly Catholic thing? It seems quite macabre and unnecessarily idolatrous.

Lorenzago (or Popetown as we call it) is where Pope John Paul chose to spend his summer breaks – six of them – and his successor, Benedict XVI, followed his example in summer 2007. It is peaceful and the air is pure; old men sit at cafes and cats stretch in the morning sun.

The bells ring out loud and clear. They are electronically rung now and as you see them swinging in the rafters, they look like big kids on swings – competing to see who can go the highest and you are always worried one of them might spin right round and fall off.

We gather the glorious glossy fruit from the horse chestnut tree (terra d’ombra perhaps?) and play hacky conker with them. The trees and little villages are punctuated by the spires and (decreasingly as we move away from the border) onion-shaped domes.

At Calderada di Reno, our Best Western Meeting Hotel is like any airport hotel anywhere – soulless and functional. It is a place to sleep, although there is a demolition site next door. We can’t work out if Calderada is up and coming or down and going. A brief stroll through the town reveals that the house prices are still around the 200,000 Euro mark, so I would guess it’s the former, not that I’m planning on making an investment.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Walking in the Dolomites

Tre Cime

We wake up to snow on the hilltops. Him Outdoors is like a puppy dog who can’t wait to get his paws cold, so we eat a hearty breakfast of warm croissants and cappuccino and head off to the mountains.

Snow has made the roads impassable and some crafty Austro-Italian is charging twenty euro to get through a barrier, but that cannot deter the intrepid Him Outdoors. Pack on back, he is soon yomping up the road to the foot of the Tre Cime.

The footpaths are way too deep in snow for our insufficient summer hiking gear – trainers; tights and thermal tops – but the views are spectacular and the memory card gets another hammering.

There are various routes around and up the Tre Cime ‘world famous Dolomite peaks’ but we content ourselves with floundering about in the snow, walking up to a glorious little church, quite spiritual in its simplicity with a couple of world war graves blanketed in snow – it’s not the worst site for a final resting place.

Back down at Misurina Lake we walk a quick circuit admiring the reflections of the mountains in the calm surface. The guidebook states that ‘if you are looking for health, pure, fresh air, then this is the place for you.’

On the lakeshore is a prestigious clinic specialising in treating childhood asthma. It alleges that, ‘The climactic conditions of the area have proved to be extremely beneficial to asthma sufferers.’ I reckon that because the air is so thin at such altitude no-one can breathe properly anyway – I am certainly gasping for air as we march up the mountain – so everyone feels equally belaboured.

Just as we are leaving, a rally of Mercedes vehicles come through. They all pull up to the lake shore for a quick photo opportunity before heading over the pass to Austria.

Pian dei Boi

Our local guides informs us, ‘The last tepid rays of sunshine bring out the best and brightest in the warm shades of autumn. The woodlands are still glowing with the reds and yellows which the winter rainfall has not yet dampened down. There’s still time for a trip or two into the mountains, up to a moderate altitude. Just enough to admire nature slowly, gently drifting into a thoughtful, dreamlike state.’ So we do.

Pian dei Boi is apparently a ‘photographer’s paradise. The plateau lies at an altitude of 2000m amid cols, wide stretches of pastureland and woodland with beech, hazel, fir, larch and mungo pine, which in the autumn burst into a feast of colour.’ Indeed they do. I take photos of Dolomites all around but fear I might have peaked too early – I actually make that ‘joke’ aloud and Him Outdoors simply groans.

The drive up to the plateau is extremely hairy – very narrow and with massive drops, but it is incredibly beautiful with the autumn colours. We walk a massive circuit, which doesn’t go exactly the way Him Outdoors intends, and we end up tramping through freezing woods on a track that descends for ages before climbing back up to the plateau. The views really are stunning though.

There are lots of military reminders as well; barracks, forts and observatories used during the First World War when it was feared the Austrians might attack over the mountains.

The views are expansive and the scenery exquisite, but it is pretty extreme up there and you have to wonder whether anyone would really have gone to all that effort to get up there. Now the buildings are crumbling – as we stop by the barracks, bits of rock are just dropping off as they thaw out and expand.

The Dolomites are actually ancient coral reefs and are named for the French geologist, de Dolomieu, who was the first person to identify the composition of sedimentary limestone was formed from calcium carbonate and magnesium – or so says my tourist pamphlet.

It claims you can find marine fossils on the mountain tops, although I don’t think that is what Him Outdoors is searching for when he goes off for a run – I haven’t managed to exhaust him sufficiently it appears.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Oliver Postgate

My mum phoned me last night to tell me that Oliver Postgate has died - yep, that's the kind of mum I've got. She is a big fan of Ivor the Engine (she's always had a thing about steam trains) but she knows that Bagpuss has always been my favourite. I have a little cuddly Bagpuss who sits on top of my television.

I am not alone in my love of this 'Old saggy cloth cat': a recent survey found that he was Britain's best-loved children's TV character. Good old Britain for loving a useless old cat. Good old Britain for conducting a survey about it.

Anyway, Oliver Postgate created this phenomenon and now he has died, so I expect the television to be innundated with classic re-runs. Over here, none of my work colleagues have heard of him, so I have made it my job to educate them all by forwarding
this link. His death was headline news in the Guardian - good old Guardian.

I love the whole cast of characters; the singing frog and the ragdoll and the slightly scary (to a five-year-old) Professor Yaffle who had a sharp mind and sharper beak and seemed to know everything, or at least be very good at pretending to.

I loved the efficient mice (the only rodents I’ve ever felt affection for) with their high squeaky voices and the way they were always breaking into song and stitching things back together. They have a mouse organ – which I didn’t find funny at the time, but now consider side-splittingly hysterical. They raced around doing everything while Bagpuss just lay sleepily on his rug watching events and being entertained by the stories and songs.

And this reminds me of Him Outdoors. Bagpuss’ world is in sepia and only comes into colour when he wakes up. This brings all of his friends to life with the line, ‘When Bagpuss wakes up, all of his friends wake up.’ This also reminds me of Him Outdoors who wakes up brightly in the morning and then expects everyone else to be equally alert. He denies this, of course.

His favourite children’s show was The Clangers and yes, Oliver Postgate was responsible for this too. The word surreal is highly overused these days, but this show genuinely was. There were iron chickens, froglets, music trees and a soup dragon who ate blue string pudding and was the inspiration for the name of an indie pop band who had a worldwide hit (well, number 5 in the British charts and 79 in America) with a cover version of I’m Free.

The Clangers themselves are adorable little pink things with big noses and odd Roman-looking garments who live on a small blue planet far, far away and communicate in whistles. Again, this series has legions of fans and there is even a website which offers instructions on how to knit your own Clanger.

I must confess that with his red hair and big nose, I always thought that when Him Outdoors got sunburned, he bore more than a passing resemblance to Tiny Clanger. When I told him this, he was quite offended, not at being compared with a knitted puppet, but because, ‘She’s a girl!’

These were two great shows, which along with Paddington, The Magic Roundabout, and The Herbs have helped to make me the person I am today. Thank you Oliver Postgate; you have so much to answer for.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Travels and tribulations 3

Meanwhile, back to Italy...

We leave Florence behind and head north on the autostrada. Cars hurtle past at ferocious speeds and the weather conditions are appalling. The rain pelts down, the mist and fog rise to shroud us in our own invisibility cloak, and the temperatures plummet. The road snakes into the mountains over viaducts and through numerous tunnels. Apparently the surrounding lakes and villages are extremely picturesque, but we can’t see a thing.

At the end of the autostrada we call into Longereno for a coffee – they don’t do Americano and the bloke behind the counter tells me I am having an espresso, which I do – wow, that wakes me up! Apparently they have a marathon here every year to commemorate a slip that washed away a large part of the village and several people. Today they are having not a lot, except a crowd of folk in the café laughing and joking as they knock back several glasses of vino tavola – fair play to them; there’s not much else to do in this weather.

We continue to Pieve di Cadore, which Him Outdoors has picked as a point to stay from where we can explore the nearby mountains. It is siesta time and everything is closed which of course upsets Him Outdoors, although it happens every day. We drive to a lagola to wait for opening hours. Later I discover the lagola is a natural spa with spring water bubbling up from beneath, but with torrents of rain cascading from above, it is hard to spot.

We wait until a tourist information is open and we book a hotel through them. It is dark and dingy – the heavy wooden furniture and solemn chintz furniture don’t help. The girl at the desk (the owner’s daughter I presume) is extremely surly, the hot water is reluctant, the shower poky, and the bedside light broken. Unsurprisingly, we are the only guests there and I feel like a character in a John Irving novel.

Him Outdoors buys some maps from the local tabacci and he pours over them, plotting and scheming routes which cheers him up until he realises he hasn’t got enough time to mount all the assaults he plans. Out in the little town we find a birreria where they serve glasses of vino rosso for 1.50 Euro with a bowl of crisps. A group of old men play cards in a back room where frescoes of jolly monks look down from the walls, beer in hand.

We then stumble across a pizzeria which is packed – so this is where the good folk of Pieve hang out. Our pizzas are delicious along with our demi-carafe (mezzo) of red wine. The flames leap and twist in the pizza oven keeping everyone warm, which is a good job as it is cold outside. I am wearing four layers, two of them wool, and shivering when still.

Back at the hotel the owner has returned. He speaks Italian (obviously) and German but no English or French. We manage to establish that he wants to see our passports. It transpires it is not so unusual for people to speak German in this region. Just north of here is Sappada, a German-dialect-speaking (Bavarian/Tyrolean) island, founded about 1,000 years ago by refugees from the Tyrol, perhaps attracted by the rich mineral deposits there. This might also explain why we keep thinking these villages look Austrian.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Road trip - Taupo to Wellington

The day after the Taupo bike challenge, we drive from National Park round the back of the stunning mountains. Tongariro broods, Ngarahoe pops out cheekily, and Ruapehu skulks behind the clouds, dribbling snow down her chins and plotting her next eruption. I can hear frogs in the pond for the first time in about ten years.

It is a beautiful day in Ohakune. People sit in a pub watching a replay of last night’s rugby. We drink coffee and read the paper, then ruminate on the giant carrot and a bridge that goes nowhere.

The carrot was unveiled in 1984 to recognise the importance of market gardening to the local economy. It seems they also celebrate new crops, such as strawberry plants and asparagus, alongside the old stalwarts such as parsnips, swedes, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflowers. There is a carrot carnival in July when people dress up as vegetables. I promise I am not making this up.

We drive through rich volcanic bush and up to Turoa ski field. A bloke walking down has been ice-climbing at sunrise but says now the snow is heating up and getting mushy. Mt Taranaki glows like a pimple in the distance.

I love ski fields in the summer – they have an ethereal charm, as though they are waiting for their time which they know will come. Snow machines stand like creations from the War of the Worlds.

A couple of hardy souls (one in fluorescent overalls; another with bare torso) practice snowboarding jumps in the remaining snow.
Utiku is home to a merino possum clothing shop (they must be odd animals!) and a fertiliser company. The houses have bright red corrugated iron roofs which stand out in stark contrast to the surrounding green grass – unless you’re colour-blind I suppose. It looks wonderful and I am bemused to remember the brouhaha over the red birds’ nets in Central Otago and Marlborough.

Mangaweka has a DC3 coated in Cookie Team advertising outside the DC3 tearooms. Further down the road, the Flat Hills café looks popular. The café serving farm-style food is right next to a park where tourists can pat ‘friendly goats’ – not too friendly I hope…

Hunterville is ‘the huntaway capital of the world’ and so, naturally, a statue of a huntaway dog graces its park. The Huntaway is the driving force of New Zealand farming; strong and agile with a kindly expression. Next to the statue is a park which strictly prohibits dogs. I imagine them slinking home with tail between their legs if caught out playing on the plastic slides and climbing frames.

Each year the
Hunterville Huntaway Festival features dog barking, sheep shearing, obstacle races and ‘country entertainment’. There is also a Shepherd’s Shemozzle which involves the shepherds and their dogs competing over an obstacle and endurance course. And they eat some pretty horrendous things too. This photo is deemed ‘explicit’.

The Argyle Hotel is pink and black like an art deco liquorice allsort, but not a modern retro version – this one looks little changed from the 1920s. Buttercups line the verges and cotton drifts across the road as a farmer does the hay baling, suffocating his Dougals in swathes of plastic.

Sanson is not exactly a picturesque farming town and there is nothing to take photos of, but the Church Café does an excellent chicken Caesar salad with a poached egg atop and the coffee is heavenly – the sign says so and it is. Him Outdoors says his nachos and strawberry milkshake are also very tasty.

This area of the Manawatu is defined by trailers, mowers, bus and coach sales, contracting supplies and plastic tanks. A rusting rugby stand is forlorn by a mown paddock. Waireka honey claims to sell ‘more than just honey’. There are giant irrigation systems and post boxes in the shape of cows.

Foxton reveals a sign that says it is closed for renovations but open soon. Then we can all race back to the largest 2nd hand store in New Zealand, the ice cream parlours, John Deere tractor outlets, windmill and water towers. The petrol station is boarded up and the coming events board is empty. Foxton’s slogan is ‘Hometown NZ’ – I’m glad it’s not my hometown.

Levin has the usual fast food outlets and supercheap auto shops you would expect in rural NZ, where the word bogan might have been invented. It is a depressing town full of clapped-out clapboard shops and houses. It claims to have a cosmopolitan club but I’m not convinced. It also claims to be a high crash area and I’m not surprised considering the driving.
The fertiliser and farming pays off with a range of roadside fruit and vegetable stalls selling fresh, cheap produce. There are also sacks of pony poo however, so you need to check your purchases carefully.

If discount is your motivation, the Otaki is your destination. It is cheap and charmless full of factory outlets for the likes of Rip Curl, Bendon, Billabong, Pumpkin Patch, Pagani, Kia Kaha and Icebreaker. It should be awarded the wooden spoon for the worst town-planning ever, as a two lane roundabout abruptly merges into one lane and a pedestrian crossing – this is State Highway One remember.

Beware of the emu – lifestylers live here. The region appears to be a haven for catteries, dog breeders and basketmakers, according to the signs. Light aircraft buzz about in the sky and Maori carvings decorate the roadside. Buckets of canna lilies are for sale outside spacious homes, boutique vineyards and farmlets.

There are lots of side roads to intriguingly named beaches such as Peka Peka and Waikanae. About an hour (depending on the traffic) from Wellington, this is a beautiful place to live if you can bear the commute. You would be rewarded with sun, beaches, a rural hippy lifestyle, and less wind than the capital. And who wouldn’t want that?