I last visited Pompeii in 1978 when Mike Law and I inter-railed round Europe. It was August and very hot, and yet bizarrely we decided to climb Vesuvius first – a feat which became increasingly ridiculous until at the top we were scrambling on all fours up near-vertical hot shale. If we stopped to take a breather we slowly slid down backwards. On finally reaching the peak we were met by a cheerful Italian bus conductor who asked us for 1000 lire (or whatever) for the ticket. However, he did show us an egg he’d boiled on escaping steam.

This time it was hard not to be constantly reminded of the victims of the catastrophic recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria.

We arrived reasonably early so it was pretty quiet but gradually filled up with guided tour groups – mostly from Italian schools but several parties of Chinese tourists. We met one such at the Lupinare brothel – an appalling sight. Five or six box rooms just big enough for a single bed on which a slave girl would wait for her next customer. And the next…

We came across several huge pizza ovens, 4 metres across, outside which are massive flour mills made from pumice stone. And many food shops / dhabas, public baths, a swimming pool, a theatre, and the amphitheatre where thousands would enjoy the spectacle of fights to the death by way of Saturday afternoon entertainment. Inevitably Life of Brian kept coming back to me: “We’re not the Judean People’s Front! We’re the People’s Front of Judea!” (Also the site of the 1972 Pink Floyd concert Live at Pompeii).

Hard also not to think of Monty Python looking at the frescoes of Greek Gods in the Archaeology Museum.

Venus and Mars as lovers.

Also in the Archaeology Museum is a room dedicated to the phallus, with some startlingly original ideas. These are oil lamps, for example:

Imagine finding one of those in your Christmas stocking.

“Hi there. My name’s Steve and I’m your server for the evening”.

There’s also a great exhibition on Byzantium. Naples was part of the Byzantine Empire for 600 years –  the Byzantine / Eastern Roman Empire kept going for 1000 years after the Fall of Rome and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476.

(The excellent Empire podcast with William Dalrymple has moved on from the British in India to the Ottomans taking over in Byzantium recently),

Among the thousands of exhibits in the museum is this 2nd century Goddess Artemis from Ephesus – the goddess of nature and mistress of the beasts. She is covered with many symbols, most obviously the bulls’ scrota, a symbol of her power, the bulls having been sacrificed.

We went to Ephesus in 1986 with Henry and visited Mary’s cave-like house where she is supposed to have ended up. No shops back then – it must have changed a fair bit.

Perhaps the earliest objects in the museum are these stone tools, 130,000 – 250,000 y ears old. More and more when looking at old objects in glass cases in museums I see them as their maker did, or the person that used them, as if they are still living in the here and now. Mind boggling to think that you and I are related to last person to use them all that time ago.

These are the grave goods found in a necropolis from 600 BC along with the remains of a young girl 6 – 8 years old. 120 objects in all, including jewellery, a pair of shoes and her bridal assemblage – all the things she would have needed throughout her life, had she lived.

On the topic of phallic symbols, the horn is a symbol of virility, power and good luck and can be seen, for example, outside a triperia – a tripe shop. Raw tripe is eaten as a tasty snack, like a packet of crisps.

Similarly, you can find thousands of ‘cornicelli’ (red hot chilli peppers), real or fake, small or large – again a horny symbol of virility, fertility and good luck (also in India).

Naples 2

We managed to catch some live music in recent days, starting with Mahler’s somewhat chaotic 9th symphony in Bari (as mentioned previously) and the Pugliese singer Maria Moramarco in Lecce (ditto). On Valentine’s Day we marvelled at the Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev bashing out Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto in Naples. He’s been performing for over ten years or so but amazingly is still only 21, and full of youthful beans, coming back for three encores to rapturous cheering and applause.

Two days later, by way of a contrast and in a much smaller and more intimate theatre, we enjoyed the Jean Paul Trio. While even the energetic Alexander Malofeev could occasionally be drowned out in the louder sections, there’s no chance of that happening with a trio of piano, violin and cello. It’s so much more focussed – as if listening to three soloists at once. The attention doesn’t wander in the way that it can with an orchestra – noticing which musicians don’t seem to have much to do, for example, or getting distracted by the antics of the conductor.

My attention with the trio at first focussed on the violin and cello, who seemed to be having a conversation – agreeing sometimes, off at tangents at points, disagreeing at others. Then I became more aware of the piano and its role in tying everything together and keeping the rhythm and flow going. The pianist was the spitting image of Clive James while the cellist resembled Morrissey. Of the three, Morrissey’s face was the most expressive, perhaps because he was physically most restricted in his movements.

We found the Schumann least satisfying and the encore, Beethoven’s Adagio Cantabile, the most – perhaps in part because it was the most tuneful.

The audiences at the two concerts also contrasted – no whooping and chatting at the chamber concert. More attentive, quiet and serious: serious in the sense that while recognising and celebrating the enduring and/or ephemeral beauty and joy of life, one can also simultaneously acknowledge the innate sadness and even tragedy of human existence – in contrast to the crash bang wallop of some orchestral pieces, not to mention the puerile melodramatic claptrap of, for example, most of the TV I notice in India.

The final ‘concert’ we were privileged to attend was an unexpected bonus in that we went to the Capodimonte Museum and enjoyed vast numbers of mostly Renaissance masterpieces, but also some great 16th century ceramics, Andy Warhol’s 1985 painting of Vesuvius (two screenprints of which we saw elsewhere), some terrific sculptures by Vincenzo Gemito (1852 – 1929), and some huge terracotta pots collected by Jannis Kounellis (1936 – 2017).

Wandering from room to endless room we made our way towards some piano music coming from an enormous ballroom, at the end of which was some chap playing a grand piano. Dressed as he was in casual jeans and a baggy sweater, with a plastic bag by his side, I at first took him for a random visitor helping himself, like Geoffrey Rush / David Helfgott in Shine (1996). He turned out to be the pianist Rosario Ruggiero We sat down for over an hour and mostly alone greatly enjoyed a personal concert as he effortlessly switched from one piece to the next with a brief ‘Mozart!’ or ‘Scriabin!’. He explained that it was his idea to introduce music along with the visual arts – a great idea as it seems to draw on / stimulate a different part / parts of the brain. Devanshe sent the museum an email expressing our enthusiasm and Rosario replied, thanking us.

I couldn’t help wondering whether had he been dolled up in tails, people would have paid him more attention. Joni Mitchell’s beautiful For Free springs to mind.

Naples 1

While we have seen many hundreds of images of the Holy Family, either together or in their separate constituent parts, over the last few days, we have seen thousands of the latter-day saint of Naples, the Argentinian Diego Maradona (1960 – 2020), especially if you include fridge magnets and T-shirts. Not being a soccer fan I associate him mainly with deliberately cheating against England in the 1986 World Cup by scoring using his ‘Hand of God’, when he should have been sent off. Naples is full of graffiti including large murals, which reach their apogee in what has become the Largo Diego Armando Maradona, a curious combination of sporting hero-worship, religion and sex.

I was reminded of the near universal appeal of football the other day in the fish market in Taranto – it’s a bit off the tourist route and I imagine doesn’t get so many non-local punters early on a February morning. The young fishmonger took the opportunity to try out his very limited English:

“Where you are from?”


“England! What city?”


“Norwich City! Very good! Premier League!”

I bought a sea bream for 1.7 euros and a kilo of fresh mussels for 3 euros.

“Good morning!” Big smiles.

Not far from the Maradona piazza is another large mural depicting Ugo Russo – an image reproduced on posters all over the city, with the slogans ‘Truth and Justice’. Ugo Russo was a 15-year-old would-be mugger who made the fatal error of pointing a fake gun at an off-duty policeman who responded by shooting him dead at point blank range four times. It has just been decided after five years by the powers that be that the mural should be removed / painted over.

Est Modus in rebus‘ – there is a middle way.

Practically every main street has an ornate baroque church, very often housing a Renaissance masterpiece, while every narrow backstreet and alley has at least one shrine, complete (as in India) with photos of the dearly departed.

On top of that we have also been visiting enormous art galleries and museums, including the Museo di Capodimonte, The National Archaeological Museum, and the Gallerie d’Italia Napoli. The latter has a great retrospective exhibition including works from international galleries and private collections by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593 – c. 1656), the first woman to become a member of the Accademia di Arte del Disegno in Florence.

Artemisia Gentileschi self-portrait.

Many of her works feature the “Power of Women”. For example, we have seen countless bloodthirsty versions of Judith beheading Holofernes. This is hers:

The story goes that Holofernes, an Assyrian general, was about to destroy Judith’s hometown Bethulia – not only that but he planned on a bit of hanky-panky with her in his tent the night before, or rather she enticed her way into his tent, with malintent. However, unlike in Star Wars where Peter Cushing goes ahead and destroys Princess Leia’s Alderaan, Judith gets Holofernes drunk, cuts his head off (presumably with his own sword) and has her maid take it away in a basket – (not sure what for).

Fair enough.

(By the way, not to be confused with Judith are the many paintings we saw of Salome with John the Baptist’s head on a silver platter, often being presented at a banquet to her step-father, Herod Antipas).

Another ‘powerful woman’ is Susanna:

Susanna and the Elders (1610)

The story here is not quite so black and white – at least the moral isn’t to me anyway. Susanna was having a bath in her garden, as you do, and two ‘elders’ spied on and lusted after her. Aroused, they demanded sex there and then, which she declined, understandably. Thus reproached they threatened to ruin her reputation, and when she still refused they took her to court for alleged adultery (with someone else) – a crime punishable by death. She was rescued by Daniel, who insisted on cross-examining the ‘elders’ and discovered discrepancies in their accounts – for example, one said she was under an oak tree while the other said it was a willow – which doesn’t make sense because they both saw the same tree, surely? There’s a lesson. Never mind, she got off while they were killed for perjury.

The third painting in this series gets seriously weird; Lot and his Daughters, which appears not only in the Bible but also the Quran, so I’m not making this up.

Artemisia Gentileschi / Артемизия Джентилески (1593-1653) – Lot a le sue figlie / Лот и его дочери (около 1636-1638)

There are two connected stories. In the first, Lot offers his daughters to a Sodomite mob who want to have sex with a couple of angels staying with Lot instead. Got that? In the second, Lot’s wife has turned into a pillar of salt and his daughters decide that their father should have more children so they get him so drunk (on two separate occasions) that he doesn’t realise what’s going on yet remains capable of impregnating them, which was their aim.

What conclusions are we supposed to draw from these stories?

The mind boggles.

Una Poca Lecce

South from Brindisi you pass mile upon mile of ancient olive groves, some of the trees a thousand years old or even more – around 60 million of them in Puglia, and up until recently almost all of them were two ancient cultivars (Cellina di Nardò and Ogliarola salentina), the trees and the land passed on from father to son over many, many generations. In this part of Puglia, the heel, it seems there is little room or inclination for much else – some vineyards, a few fields of artichoke and kiwis, up on the higher ground some fields of wheat – but basically it’s olive trees as far as the eye can see. Only these days they’re mostly grey, dry and dead. Starting in 2008 and peaking in the mid-teens, at least 20 million of them were infected by a pathogen, Xylella Fastidiosa, which gradually clogged up the trees’ arteries and starved / dehydrated them to death. It’s a shocking and sad sight – the impact on the olive growers’ lives, economically and culturally, is clearly enormous and desperate.

Scientists have established that the pathogen most probably arrived on some coffee plants from Costa Rica in 2008 and mutated / adapted from coffee to olives and then passed from tree to tree by insects – spittlebugs and/or froghoppers – which feed on the bark. The intensity of more or less monoculture enabled it to spread rapidly, with no breaks between trees, no need to mutate further, and no varieties that might offer some resistance.

Now known as OQDS – Olive Quick Death Syndrome – it has spread throughout southern Europe and South America and is predicted to cost up to five billion euros.

As scientists struggled to fully understand what was happening and why, held back by the difficulties of analysing its DNA – hence the fastidiosa – they at first suggested a strategy of containment, in a similar way that, for example, the UK government deals with foot and mouth disease in cattle: when an outbreak is detected, isolate and eradicate. This led to farmers, whose families had had their trees for multiple generations, chaining themselves to their trees, protesting against what they saw as some ‘deep state’ plot linked to Montsanto, agro-chemicals and genetic engineering – a protest movement supported by some celebrities, politicians and pop singers. Scientists doing their level best to help were attacked, vilified and ‘trolled’, much to their deep chagrin. In 2015 Government prosecutors even started investigating the scientists – until charges were quietly dropped four years later.

The Melcarne family have been growing olives in Puglia at least since the 16th century – that’s as far as written records go back. Although most of their trees were the two standards, they also had some other varieties (there are around 900 in all), some of which seemed to be suffering less. In 2016 they decided to experiment on 14 hectares and grafted 270 varieties, including Leccino (which we have at Himalayan Orchard) and Favoloso, just as 100 years before when the phylloxera pathogen wiped out the vineyards – new varieties replaced the old. They also tried different grafting techniques and found that crown grafts were ten times more successful than patch grafts. Leccino, for example, was later found to have on average 1% of the pathogen compared to the old standards. Pretty much the whole of the Puglian heel is now kept behind a 20 km buffer zone, olive-wise, but we saw evidence of light at the end of the tunnel as old olive groves are ripped out and new resistant cultivars are being planted.

Some differences between life in Puglia and life at Himalayan Orchard:

1. Many young people in Puglia choose to ventilate their legs by cutting out the knees in their jeans.

2. Electric scooters are very popular.

3. Large amounts of time, energy and money are spent on spraying graffiti onto all buildings, including sacred ones.

4. Many restaurants sell ‘street food’ – a term which has evidently replaced ‘fast food’. More ethnic?

5. Early Elton John is popular, particularly Rocket Man, from the 1972 album Honky Château, which my brother bought new at the time and still has. Also Tiny Dancer. We were walking through the backstreets of Lecce last Sunday morning, along with a few churchgoers, and were delighted to come across Elton John’s Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting blaring out full volume from a junk shop – not only that, but from a proper Wurlitzer juke-box; one of three in a wonderful place, half shop / half museum, run (if that’s an appropriate word) by a guy who clearly had a great time in the 60s and has no intention of moving on. He also clearly wasn’t bothered if anyone bought any of his beloved stuff but we managed to persuade him to part with a couple of Peiro della Francesca prints but only, he said, because we obviously loved them.

While in Lecce we also enjoyed an eclectic exhibition of Ukrainian art, including 1930s Soviet-era posters, and Art Deco costume designs made (mostly) by Ukrainian Jewish émigrés in Paris, who didn’t feel so comfortable back in the USSR.

A Hodegetria:

The Gallipolis

The first time I went to Gallipoli (Greek for ‘Beautiful City’) it was somewhere else – on the European side of the Dardanelles in what is now Turkey, in 1986. We were on our way back from a six month sojourn in Izmir with Henry, who being one year old at the time won’t remember much. We visited the WWI War Memorial whereon we hoped to find the name inscribed of one of Henry’s Great Great Uncles, who died thereabouts as one of the more than 113,000 young men who died there during the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915–16 – largely because of poor planning on the part of the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, intent as he was on helping the Russians retake Constantinople. Churchill’s reputation regarding amphibious landings on foreign soil took a serious dive and only fully resurfaced after 6th June, 1944 – D-Day.

We didn’t find Great Great Uncle’s name – he would most likely have still been a teenager – but we were curious to find a lot of Indian names round the back on a wall, rather than on the actual monument, if I remember right. 16,000 Indian soldiers served – Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Nepalese Gurkhas (encouraged by Gandhi, by the way) – and 1600 were killed.

Last week we went to a different Gallipoli, here in Puglia, facing west across the Bay of Taranto into the setting sun, and where the locals still speak Griko, a dialect of Greek.

Like Otranto, it is a smallish port with an Angevine-Aragonese (French/Spanish) castle, lots of churches, but is more built up and the nearby beaches are less accessible unless you have a car. It also boasts a thriving LGBT scene (known as ‘Gay-lipoli’).

The main attraction as far as I was concerned was the fishing port and the fish shop / restaurant, La Lampara – a curious place where you negotiate your menu depending on what they’ve got. I approached the fish stall outside the shop, covered as it was in enticingly fresh fish and frutti di mare including live oysters and other shellfish. In Japan I used to have a lot of such stuff, and often, so I wanted to try the Pugliese version of sashimi – crudo di mare (raw seafood). I chose fresh oysters, different types of cockles and clams, and sea urchins (sold by weight), and tartare di tonno – chopped up raw tuna in cylindrical form, reminding me somewhat of tinned dog food to look at. Can’t go wrong with oysters, the cockles were rather chewy, and the sea urchin disappointing. French Marc and I always used to end our Friday afternoon kaitenzushi session in Kamakura with glistening piles of uni (sea urchin) – an acquired taste.

The waiter asks my name.

‘Mike,’ I say.

‘Mark. OK.’

‘No, it’s Mike. Mike.’

‘Mark. OK.’

Ten minutes later a second waiter appears with someone else’s order calling ‘Max! Max!’, which he ends up giving to Simone on the next table.

20 minutes later he appears with my order again calling ‘Max! Max!’.

A couple of calice of dry white, polished off with home-made limoncello, and then the waiter, who by this time I’m mixing up with the fishmonger opposite Zushi station, comes round with a devilish bottle of home-made herbal digestivo, with a hint of mint and caramel, twice, and gratis.

On the next table is some kind of glamorous celebrity commanding attention and selfies. Perhaps an autograph to boot.

A fish shop next door opens and the fishmonger starts the afternoon, as shopkeepers do in India, with some prayers and incense at his in-shop shrine.

We eventually stagger off towards the castle and admire its medieval nuclear bunker – an 18 metre diameter dome with walls up to seven metres thick – to withstand siege-breaking bombardment.

On the way back to the station, having found the castle very sobering, we had gelato – another inspiration for Himalayan Orchard – milk, fruit, nuts…


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The 12th century mosaic floor of the cathedral in Otranto is said to be the largest in Europe at 54 metres long, from the elephants at the base of the Tree of Life (a symbol widely used around the world) by the door to the altar. It’s more of a visual encyclopaedia of knowledge at the time than a work of art as such, and as you’d expect includes plenty of references to stories that appear in the Bible, such as Noah’s ark, the Tower of Babel, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and various monsters and beasts, real or imaginary.

The mosaic also includes Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC) being carried above the earth by two griffons so as to get a clearer idea of the lay of his land, or the bits he was about to conquer. There’s a chap who made the most of his 33 years.

King Arthur makes an appearance, remarkably, as his international fame as a defender of Britain against the invading Anglo-Saxon German hordes would have been very fresh in the 12th century and didn’t really get going until the later Middle Ages.

There’s a chess board, again remarkable, as chess developed from an Indian game, chaturanga, and is supposed to have entered Europe via Muslim Spain 300 years later in the 15th century.

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King Arthur

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Alexander the Great. He controlled the griffons by the use of kebabs.

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The Tower of Babel, which explains why people speak different languages.

A virtual tour is here.

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Otranto is a great place for a family holiday – lots of sun (bearing in mind it faces east), a castle, a cathedral, loads of seafood, beaches and coves, and fishing trips. In the summer there’s also lots of nightlife including a jazz festival in July.

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The cathedral has another peculiarity apart from the magnificent mosaic floor in that behind the altar in a side chapel are the skulls and other bones of the Otranto martyrs – all 800 of them. This is a good example of how historical facts can be used to support political narratives, which can later be ‘revised’. The official story is that the invading Muslim hordes in the form of 18,000 Ottomans intent on taking over in southern Italy were held up by the brave but few (50) Otrantians (and not the 300 that ran away – and who could blame them?) for two weeks – long enough for reinforcements to arrive and save the Christian day. When the siege was broken, all men over the age of 15 were slaughtered and the women and children sold into slavery. Even within the official narrative there are inconsistencies, as there often are, as we are also told that 800 able-bodied male Otrantians were offered the chance to convert to Islam or be beheaded, and chose the latter – hence the skulls. One of them, the Archbishop Stefano Argercolo de Pendinellis was very nastily killed in several different ways according to which account you read, but one such says that even headless he remained standing and refused to be budged so that his executioner converted to Christianity there and then, only to be summarily ‘impaled’ by his non-believing compatriots.

A more prosaic explanation of the events is that the Ottomans took the population hostage and demanded ransom money (300 ducats – three years’ wages) and those that didn’t / couldn’t cough up were executed to ‘teach them a lesson’ – or rather, the inhabitants of the next village.

The scientist and historian who promotes this explanation, Daniele Palma, points out that the Ottoman Empire controlled many populations of non-Muslims and had no record of trying to convert them. For example, when the Ottomans besieged and occupied the Gallipoli peninsula in 1354, making it their first stronghold in Europe, they were happy for the Greek residents to carry on as they were for the next 561 years until the eve of the Allied invasion on 25th April, 1915 – Anzac Day – as the Ottomans realised they would no longer be able to protect them from the enraged locals seeking reprisals.

Palma comes from a village near Otranto called Calimera, Greek for ‘good morning’, and where the inhabitants still speak Griko, a Greek dialect.

The Martyrs were beatified in the 18th century and fully canonised in 2013, on the day the Pope also abdicated.

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The castle has a terrific collection of massive stone cannon balls, each of which must have taken some poor bugger a week to chisel away at.

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Down by the harbour there is a ‘sculpture’ in the form of a rusty old boat with some bits of plate glass attached. My first thought on seeing it was a memory of Grayson Perry’s Reith lectures in which he says that 90% of modern art is rubbish, and in this case it is literally so. I later discovered that it is a memorial to the 83 Albanian migrants, including a three month old baby, who drowned as a result of being ‘intercepted’ by an Italian frigate in 1997. There had been 142 of them crammed onto it. The local media at the time spoke of Islamic invasion and connected it to the Ottoman martyrs, shamefully. One should not speak ill of the dead, nor a memorial to them, even if it is crap.

Back in Lecce we were very lucky to enjoy Maria Moramarchi in a tiny venue with only about 30 seats, and no amplification, and plenty of audience participation. Evidently she sings in Pugliese dialect, and there are clear references to eastern influences, from North Africa, the Levant, Greece and even east European. Marvellous. Again moved to tears, and a great reminder of how and why we have to progress from narrow-minded nationalism.

Taranto, Puglia

Every now and then you come across a massive painting that knocks your socks off. One such is Paul Gauguin’s 1897 D’où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous ? Où allons-nous ? – beautiful, thought-provoking and enigmatic, and a mere 139 cm × 375 cm. I haven’t yet seen it – it’s in Boston – but should I ever get invited on to Desert Island Discs it’ll be my luxury object.

I have seen however, back in the days (in 1991) when it was protected by bullet-proof glass in il Casón del Buen Retiro in Madrid the 3.5 m x 7.75 m Guernica (1937) – Picasso’s reaction to the right-wing religious nationalist Franco’s invitation to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy to bomb mostly women and children in a village on the north coast of Spain, the then centre of Basque culture.

I have also seen The Myth of Tomorrow (Asu no shinwa – 明日の神話) by Taro Okamoto (who was a friend of Picasso in ’30s Paris), which takes the biscuit size-wise at 5.5 m x 30 m. It depicts another appalling double-bombing, again largely of women and children, as it is subtitled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was initially made for a hotel during the Mexico Olympics (which never got built), went missing for 30 years and is now in Shibuya station in Tokyo, fully restored. I visited the ‘ground zero’ of Nagasaki in 2007 – an overwhelmingly powerfully sad experience, and used to go through Shibuya station once a month when I was a council member of the Asiatic Society of Japan.

Yesterday morning we had a an hour or two to kill in Matera before catching the bus here to Taranto and so we popped into the
Museo nazionale d’arte medievale e moderna della Basilicata, where we were delighted to find another great work (3.21 m x 18.65 m.), by Carlo Levi (1902 – 1975), called Lucania ’61.

Carlo Levi was a painter, writer, and intellectual who was exiled to a village near Matera (Aliano) by the Italian Fascists, from 1935 to ’36. At that time, and for another 50 or so years, this part of southern Italy was extremely poor with very poor facilities and amenities, if any. Levi published his account of his time there, Cristo si è fermato a Eboli (Christ Stopped at Eboli), in 1945 (later filmed in the Matera area, released in 1979), and then returned there in 1960 with the photographer Mario Carbone in preparation for Lucania ’61. Lucania is another name for Basilicata, and 1961 was the centenary of the Unification of Italy. Amazingly, Mario Carbone is still going at 99 (born 1924).

We were both very affected by the photos and the painting and the way Levi had used Carbone’s photos in his work, in such a way as to give them even more power and resonance.

The museum also houses some works by Nicola Verlato (1965 – ) and particularly spectacular is the pair of works concerning the film director and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922 – assassinated in 1975) (aka PPP), who among many other things directed  Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo / The Gospel according to St Matthew (1964), mostly in Matera. The hanging statue is in wood and the frieze is a charcoal study for his mausoleum in Ostia.

Wonderful stuff and a great reminder to pop into places as you never know what treasures you might find.

In other news I wrote to Andrew Graham Dixon about his statement that the Madonna of Idris refers to water jugs, and had a very nice response from his PA saying that he couldn’t remember the source, and there are no new documentaries coming up as the BBC won’t fund any.

We have found Taranto somewhat underwhelming. The old town where we are staying is largely graffiti-covered, litter-ridden and semi-derelict with some exceptions but a reminder of what Bari et al must have been like 20 or 30 years ago. Our window looks out across the historic bay full of large tankers, container ships, frigates and a submarine, (the British destroyed a fair bit of the Italian navy here in 1940), with enormous cranes in the docks and plumes of belching smoke from the steelworks.

I will not complain about places being tarted up so readily from now on.

Franco, Mussolini and Hitler – Mario Carbone would remember them – all reminders of what can happen if right-wing nationalist ‘populists’ get in power: Trump, Johnson, and above all, Modi.

Matera, Basilicata

We walked to Bari station down streets where finally the Christmas decorations have been taken down, at least a month after most people do in the UK. There are huge elaborate arrangements of flowers outside the cathedral, and a very posh modern hearse. On the pavement, as mourners are going in, the pall bearers and the hearse driver are having a heated argument, which is still going on as we leave, evidently regarding which way round the hearse should be pointing. In a distinct huff, the driver turns it round so as to be pointing away, for a smoother start to the deceased’s final journey.

Half-way to the station a destitute-looking man is picking over the discarded fag-ends blown into a corner of a gutter, looking for one long enough to provide a puff. There but for the grace of God, go I.

It takes a while to find our train as it is run by a local company from a small station next to the main one, like the Arezzo to Bibbiena line. We are accompanied by a large group of perhaps 20 what I take to be Russians, and the train passes the usual derelict buildings covered in the usual graffiti, the backs of allotments and car dumps that you see leaving every station all over the world.

The train is modern and has a TV screen every ten metres or so, displaying train information, news and adverts: The fact that an unidentified burnt body has been found in a car in Barletta, for example, is immediately followed by an ideal family with children enjoying biscuits and/or toothpaste.

We then pass through endless olive trees, with occasional kiwis, fennel, figs, grapes and prickly pears. Some of the olives have drip irrigation pipes – a sign of how dry it must be most of the year. Today, however, there are some fluttering snow flakes when we reach Altamura (famous for bread), where we follow the Russians (whom I suspect have a guide), off our train and onto the one next to it for the last leg to Matera.

I’ve noticed that several place names, Modugno for example, are also surnames, and wonder which came first, the geographical chicken or the nominal egg.

At Matera station the Russians are straight out of the blocks and head off down a side street before we’ve had time to consult Google maps. Once we have, we follow them towards the ‘Sassi’, the old part of town where the houses are at least in part cut into the limestone rock. Another UNESCO World Heritage site, it is said to be possibly the oldest continually inhabited settlement on Earth, some saying it goes back to Paleolithic times.

We find our way through the falling snow to our troglodytic bedsit, not a cave as such, but a converted cellar with huge arches and vaulted ceilings, which I judge to have once been used for keeping livestock as the corners of the walls have been shaved off. There are no windows apart from the glass in the doors so it is very dark, despite the bright photos on the website – like the Airbnb photos of Casalino, which have been similarly enhanced.

The bed is still unmade from the previous guests and it’s lunchtime so we pop next door to the Ridolo for local sausages and dark strong Primitivo wine. We’re served by a cheerful young man from the Gambia who looks like the millionaire striker for Man Utd. He salutes Devanshe with a ‘namaste’ and laughs when I ask, once we’ve polished off the Primitivo, whether he wouldn’t mind carrying her home.

The Russians on the next table are also in good humour and when Elton John’s Rocket Man comes on, one of the ladies starts singing along, and asks the owner about his 1970s and 80s ‘soft rock’ music collection. Next up is Rod Stewart’s Handbags and Glad Rags (?).

The owner of the restaurant explains that because the locals were traditionally extremely poor, they would add red pepper (paprika?) to the mix to make it look like better quality meat, and add fennel and garlic to pad it out a bit. The result to my taste is actually better than the 100% meat mix that I had in Bari (Zampina), and the ones I usually have from the Co-op in Bibbiena.

We went for an explore around the incredible houses, caves, steps, and rock cut churches (Rupestri), including the two interlinked rupestrian churches cut into the living rock overlooking the city: Santa Maria de Idris and San Giovanni in Monterrone. The chap selling the tickets was amused to hear that we had watched Andrew Graham Dixon, the art historian, on his hands and knees licking the floor as he came in through the door on YouTube last night. Dixon said that traditionally women would do this to obtain the Virgin’s blessings and get pregnant. [Ed. It wasn’t to get pregnant – it was to ask for rain. Either way, it seems an odd way of going about things.] The ticket seller said that she is called Santa Maria de Idris because Idris means water in Latin, and there is a large cistern near the altar to collect rainwater. I can find no reference to this etymology, only that Idris means ‘lord’ in Welsh – I climbed the mountain Cader Idris on a geography field trip in 1976 – or ‘interpreter’ in Arabic. The most likely explanation is that Idris is a corruption of ‘odigitria’ or Hodegetria (‘She points the way’), which comes from the Greek and refers to the icon of the Mother holding the Child where she has a raised hand indicating that her son is the Way, the salvation of mankind. Unfortunately the image above the altar has been so badly damaged it’s hard to make out.

As it’s February and snowing there are very few other tourists and 95% of the cafés and restaurants are closed. However, there are some. At one point, a bit off the itinenario turistico, a man waiting a few yards in front of us says “Il y a quelqu’un”. Stage right, very close but unseen, a woman’s voice replies “Il y a quelqu’un?!”, to which he replies “Oui, il y a quelqu’un”, at which point a large French woman rises from behind the low wall next to me, pulling up her drawers, and with her face staring wide-eyed into mine I say “Oh!” to which she retorts in a somewhat Gallic challenging way “OH!” – a confrontation that could have turned into an encounter on a warmer day.

Many films have been made at least partly in Matera – from Pasolini’s 1964 The Gospel According to St. Matthew, to Mel Gibson’s 2004 The Passion of the Christ to the 2021 James Bond No Time to Die, among many others. We stumble across a film set that instantly reminds us of the stoning scene in Life of Brian (1979): “I’ll have two flat ones and a packet of gravel“. Security men bark at us not to take any photos: “No pictures on the set!”

We then discover the wonderful MUSMA – Museum of Contemporary Sculpture; 400 modern (20th/21st century) sculptures set in centuries old caves, which when they were bought in 1703 had housed a community of monks. “The most important Italian museum devoted entirely to sculpture”. Picked up several ideas for Himalayan Orchard.

We also visited a couple more rupestrian churches: Santa Lucia alle Malve, which goes back to the 9th century and had been occupied as a dwelling house up until 1960, and San Pietro Barisano, including the ‘draining chairs’ in the 12th century crypts. Corpses were sat upright in these chairs alongside each other in various states of putrefaction until all the bodily fluids had drained out of them, whence their bones and any other surviving dried bits were collected and housed elsewhere. The stench must have been unimaginable and the scene horrific in the extreme. Next time I complain about work, I’ll think of the poor bastards who had to deal with that.

A ‘Draining Seat’.

Bari, Puglia. Part 2.

From Polignano al Mare we drove up to Locorotondo through Trulli country – the typical small stone houses with conical roofs. All around are endless olive trees, some of which are clearly very ancient, as well as extensive fields of structures that we take to support kiwis, having seen similar in Japan. The old part of Locorotondo occupies the top of a hill overlooking the Itria valley. A plaque on the town gate post commemorates a visit by Garibaldi, while the park gateposts opposite still sport the fasce bundle of sticks symbol of the Fascists.

The wind is cold so we seek out a restaurant for lunch and find U’ Curdunn (also the local dialect name for the town). Eliza goes in to check and comes out saying in her strong Italian accented English either ‘the stuff is still heating’ or ‘the staff are still eating’. Either way, we go off and visit the church for half an hour and return once the staff and stuff are ready for us. Another memorable confusion happens later when Patrick is talking about the lovely lakes of northern Italy, which Eliza hears as ‘lovely legs’. Patrick and I both have a tendency to throw in some Spanish when attempting to communicate in Italian, and I occasionally respond in Hindi or even Japanese.

The food is great as usual, and when I order the rabbit, the waiter is evidently very pleased and describes my choice as ‘Top!’ – a word which seems to have entered Italian. Wondering about keeping rabbits at Himalayan Orchard – a lot easier than pigs, no doubt.

After lunch we head to Alberobello, the epicentre of Trulli-dom, and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Apparently the trulli roofs are the result of a 15th century edict by the King of Naples that buildings had to be built without mortar, ie. dry stone, so as to be readily demolishable. The first people we saw were a group of shivering Chinese tourists with very long camera lenses, rather than the Hobbits that would seem more natural around such dwellings.

From Alberobello we headed to Putignano – another hilltop town – which hosts the oldest (627 years) and longest (starts on Boxing Day) Carnival in Italy, and possibly the world. Huge floats, hundreds of masked and otherwise dressed up people. However, on arrival at the barrier we watch the backs of the carnival officials walking away from us – it has just been announced that it’s cancelled due to the high winds. Next Sunday.

Back in Bari we have a relatively early night and watch a documentary on Laurie Lee. Both of us read and greatly enjoyed As I walked out one Midsummer Morning (1969) last week in Casalino. He left home at 19 and walked first to London then from Vigo in Galicia to Almuñécar on the south coast, in 1935 to ’36. Very poetic, wonderful descriptions of life then – almost medieval in some Spanish villages. He made a documentary in the ’60s following in his own footsteps, and was dismayed to find so much of the culture that he remembered destroyed by tourism, which he described as being the second most destructive human force after war. The documentary that we watched on YouTube was made by Benedict Allen in 2008, also following in Laurie Lee’s footsteps. Allen was not only born on the same day as me (1st March 1960) but also studied ENV (Environmental Sciences) at UEA, but has so far had a slightly more illustrious career.

Patrick and I were at UEA together from 1979 to ’82, and hung around a while longer – in my case on and off until 2006.

Lovely lakes

Bari, Puglia. Part 1.

In an attempt to keep track of where I am supposed to be and when, as well as my increasingly large family’s birthdays (my eighth grandchild was born a week ago), I have today bought a diary. We had just said farewell to Patrick and Eliza, with whom we have spent the last few days in Puglia, and headed along the cold windswept streets of the relatively newer part of Bari towards La Feltrinelli Libri e Musica, to find one. There were many to choose from, still surprisingly expensive (around 20 euros) given that we’re already well into February. In addition to a page a day for taking notes, it includes a glossary of useful terms in six European languages and a list of international number plates. I note the United Kingdom is GB, and not UK, and wonder what the Northern Irish think of that. (Ukraine is UA). First thing this morning I was accosted by a stall holder in the flea market by the Norman castle. “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?” he asked. “Nien, Ich spreche nicht Deutsch.” I replied. He seemed surprised. “Du sprichst kein Deutsch!? Ich spreche Deutsch.” I can’t recall my final response. It might have been “Ah”, which is universal.

Outside the bookshop there is still a decorated, if somewhat bedraggled, Christmas tree, and indeed there are Christmas lights draped over buildings and dangling across streets all over the place. Christmas evidently merges into Carnival in Puglia.

Today (Sunday) there were half as many stalls as yesterday, when we were rushing through en route to meet P and E, who were waiting for us outside the Boston Hotel. (We are staying in a glorified AirBnB bedsit in the old town). However, we had time to pick up a small hippopotamus for 15 euros, after a brief haggle (you’ve got to haggle), which the stall holder believed to be from South Africa (ZA). P and E displayed little enthusiasm. There were some scattered snow flakes falling. E said that this cold snap is unusual. We headed to the warmth of the Museo Civico – a small museum with not a great deal of much interest. The Allied Forces took over the theatre as a ‘recreation centre’ at the end of the war, and helped themselves to many historic artifacts. We also learned that the new town was built after 1813. It is laid out not unlike New York, in a grid pattern of avenues and streets, with all the posh shops selling expensive clothes, shoes, perfume and so on – none of which interests either of us particularly – and as in NYC in winter, the wind funnels, whistles and howls unimpinged.

The old part of town is very ancient and a model in the museum shows a walled village-sized ‘city’ a thousand years ago, surrounded by fields of olive trees and vines. Also on display is a life-sized model of a semi-naked young woman displaying her crotch next to a medieval bust/torso of Saint Nicholas, complete with his customary three balls, ready to play. He is supposed to have lived in Myra (now eastern Turkey) in the 4th century, where among other charitable acts he gave three bags of gold (aka the balls) to an impoverished widowed father of three girls that he was otherwise about to sell into prostitution, not being able to afford their dowries. One story has it that Nicholas dropped the gold down the man’s chimney where they landed in his boots, and hey presto! the legend of Santa Claus was born. He is considered the patron saint of travellers, sailors, children and ‘nubile maidens’, so the juxtaposition of the two statues is perhaps not so daft after all.

We visited the 11th century Basilica of Saint Nicholas last Thursday and found our way down into the crypt, where a Russian orthodox mass was being celebrated, in Slavonic, as it is every Thursday, apparently. The priests looked very Russian with their long beards, pony tails and golden robes, as did the congregation, the women with their heads covered in colourful headscarves, the men bare-headed, and all chanting along in Slavonic. A Polish couple later explained that ancient Slavonic is used throughout eastern Europe as a kind of lingua franca for church purposes. The remains of Saint Nicholas of Bari were ‘rescued’ from Myra in the 11th century by 62 enterprising sailors, and he is venerated by both East and West, but it seems more so in the East. The congregation appeared to be east European pilgrims. The whole scene and particularly the singing was mesmerising and moved us both to tears. The last time I was so moved by a similar experience was in a Buddhist monastery in Spiti where the chanting singing old women were likewise genuflecting and touching the floor with their foreheads in reverence. Outside the Basilica is a 2003 statue of the saint, donated by Vladimir Putin. The plaque quotes him in Italian and Russian explaining how the two countries are ‘united by centuries-old ties’ and how this statue ‘symbolises both their mutual veneration of the saint and their constant aspiration for the consolidation of friendship and co-operation’.

The Basilica is thus shared by both Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholics.

That was last Thursday. P and E arrived on Friday by car from Rome, and we had fresh seafood al fresco in the street outside the Frisc e Mange Pescheria in the old town – very popular with locals – always a good sign. In the evening I’d booked tickets at the Teatro Petruzzelli, now fully restored after the disastrous fire of 1991. E says it’s one of the top four in Italy, along with La Scala in Milan, La Fenice in Venice, and San Carlo in Naples (where we’ll be on Valentine’s Day for Rach 2). We were treated to Mahler’s 9th, conducted by the very energetic Stefano Montanari. Leather trousers, shaven head, earring – he stamped and waved his way through the first three tempestuous movements, in a somewhat distracting way. P had to close his eyes to concentrate and dropped off, surprisingly. The fourth movement was by contrast very calm, quiet and sweeping in a classic Mahler way, although none had any familiar ‘tunes’.

That afternoon we drove up the coast to Trani, and yesterday down the coast to Polignano, which they had previously visited in summer when it was jam-packed with tourists. Down the main street are hung in lights the words to Volare! (Nel blu dipinto di blu) as the writer of the song, Domenico Modugno, came from this sleepy village, as it would have been in the 1950s, a long way from Hollywood.