In search of a new base, temporarily, after five years in Antibes, Colin Berry has found one original choice, Pisa, deeply disappointing. He was still unsure about the Spanish alternative until he paused close to the Italian-French border
Our final stop before reaching the French border, at a town we thought we knew well (San Remo) was a horror on a Saturday evening. I saw things there that confirmed me in my belief that Italy, even its supposedly most prosperous parts, is not at heart a First World country, at least not south, west, or east of Genoa.
The concepts of civic sense and duty, an ordered society, that I have been brought up with are in reality a thin veneer. Italians as individuals are wonderful, warm and friendly. But their public life operates on the law of the jungle, each man for himself, and such a far cry from the past.
No, I don‘t engage in that brand of saloon bar talk that refers disparagingly to a period in history when Romans became Italians. I think of those magnificent street plans of medieval Italian cities, towns and villages, with their dedication to civilized public life, shown in their piazzas, art, villas, monuments. Sorry, but the pizza is no substitute for the piazza. I loved the interior of Tuscany, even if I never saw quite the configuration of bare hills, punctuated by cypresses, vineyards that one sees in those coffee-table books. So it’s back to Plan A: Girona.
We’ll just have to start learning Catalan. We’ll visit Italy in our camper van, calling in at Antibes to collect the post, and enduring the journey. I might try writing a book, to be called Italy- caution: to be taken in small doses only,
Postscript: (well, a prescript, actually, if the truth be told)
On reaching a certain age, one joins the ranks of what the Italians might call the senescenti. Naturally the Italians are far too polite to employ so crass a term.
In fact, I invented/coined the term myself two days ago, musing on all things Italian , while driving back from Italy in that fractured concrete pipe that runs west of Genoa to Nice.
Yes, if you know your geography, that's well over 200 miles spent in, or occasionally out, of a pipe, a bigger version of the kind they lower by crane into children's play areas.
The fractures coincide with occasional stretches on stilts (read viaducts) , with those high side walls.
They are not there by acciden. They not only prevent the motorist from admiring the scenery; they also prevent those of a nervous disposition from seeing how perilously high they are above the Ligurian hinterland.
It’s called the A10/E80, and it’s an engineering marvel, almost comparable in sheer audacity and vision to the Channel Tunnel.
We were returning from Pisa to Antibes. It’s a distance of some 235 miles, most of it a wearisome alternation between sodium-lit tunnel and dazzling wooded hills.
Incidentally, I’m pretty sure I’ve scored a first with senescenti, having Googled it and found page upon page of Italian, without any English. But so what, says he wearily. In some nine months of blogging I’ve tried slipping in a bon mot or two to see if they get plagiarised ( although Googling usually shows someone else has made the same wordplay).
But this is Colin Randall’s Salut!, and I’m his fourth guest contributor. Maybe “senescenti” will be discovered here as a useful addition to the English language, such that on my tomb can be inscribed:
“Here lies the first of the self-confessed senescenti, the coining of that term being his sole claim to fame (apart from something to do with resistant starch, cornflakes and man-made dietary fibre.”
PS from masonic sculptor: sorry, have to stop there, run out of tombstone.
So, idle musing aside, there we were, on a near-level autostrada, a pretty constant 200 feet above sea level, boring our way into one hill after another, emerging the other side on to what should have been dizzying stretches of viaduct. Seen from the coast, it would have seemed like a white knuckle ride, but which wasn't (thanks to those screens).
One wonders what Caesar’s legions, trudging their way wearily along the Via Aurelia would have made of it. Possibly a mixture of admiration and horror.
"Yes, you have made our Pont du Gard look puny in scale. But did you really have to use raw concrete (which we invented by the way), blighting the entire Ligurian hinterland with that linear eyesore, vandalising a barely-tamed landscape? Where are you going in such a hurry that you need to despoil the beauty of everything else en route? Are you totally out of sympathy with the natural world?"
Three days earlier we were, I have to admit, rushing ourselves from Antibes to Pisa, thankful that we did not have to take the modern Via Aurelia through that interminable ribbon development of coastal sprawl which the travel brochures describe optimistically as the “Italian Riviera”.
I still recall the comments from our underwhelmed French companions in the coach taking us to Genoa as it crossed from the French to the Italian Riviera. That was one of several outings we have made with the “Association Antiboulenc” (Antibes’s main cultural society) of which Jane is the secretary. She speaks French fluently, needless to say. “Moi, je parle seulement un peu de francais," which I say two or three times a day. Speaking it is not the problem: it’s understanding the replies after their journey through tortuous nasal passages, losing key consonants along the way in assorted sinus cavities.
The prize for estate agent talking-up of a region must go to the individual who coined the term "Riviera dei Fiori" (Riviera of Flowers). That’s the western section of the Italian Riviera that abuts on France.
Certainly it has a mild climate. In winter, one would need to go way down the boot of Italy to Naples and beyond to enjoy comparable frost-free conditions. However, there will be no blaze of colour en route. If colour is what you seek, then visit the Hanbury Gardens between Ventimiglia and the border with France. There you will see what can be grown, out in the open, in what has to be one of the kindliest climates on the planet – the jacarandas, the trained exotic passion flowers on their trellises, the Australian section etc
Excepting Hanbury, and one or two other botanical gardens , most of them the work of expatriate Brits, the Riviera dei Fiori is in reality a workaday stacking of 19th century greenhouses up the terraced hillsides, one after another, for scores of miles, glinting, blindingly in the sun.
Mercifully, distance and bedazzlement prevent one from seeing the crude concrete of the water reservoirs, the peeling paint on decaying wooden frames, the littering of a previously noble landscape for the ephemeral pleasures of carnations and roses that would thrive out in the open in most years.
To think: all that semi-industrial blighting of a landscape with glass, timber and concrete, purely as an insurance policy against an occasional cold snap or heavy downpour. Where are those EU set-aside policies when you need them ? Riviera dei Fiore ? Riviera despoilé more like it … Not for nothing did Marcel Pagnol create the pitiful and tragic Ugolin as a grower of carnations, seduced by the prospect of easy pickings (literally) and some quick returns from the town florist….
Enough for now, then, about man’s assault on nature, in a region that should, by rights, be paradise on earth, but which sadly is the usual story of greed,
I should say why we made the trip to Pisa.
Colin R, to say nothing of my wife, will be grateful that I am finally addressing his brief. He and I exchange the occasional email. Some weeks ago I mentioned that ….. (return to start).