Thursday, 24 March 2016

Circle of Life

I turned the key in the ignition and the radio blared on. I would have turned it off if it hadn't been Blondie belting out 'Denis Denis', immediately followed by Abba asking to 'Take A Chance on Me'. It was Pick of the Pops from March 18th, 1978. I was hooked.

I drove out of the village in the darkness, my youngest by my side, and by the time we hit the traffic-less main road we were waiting with baited breath for the Number One that week: it was Kate Bush and her ground-breaking, rather extraordinary debut single Wuthering Heights. A new career was launched. I started wailing away in an unnaturally high voice, actually remembering the words for once, to the great amusement of L. I then went off on a riff of nostalgic explanation:-

' In 1978 I was fifteen, I'd broken my leg skateboarding the year before, I was having orthodontic work, I was madly in love with a boy obsessed with Kate Bush, and who would have thought that here I would be, 38 years on, driving around north west England, braces all over my teeth again, with my own 13 year old by my side, wailing along to Wuthering Heights'....and my daughter added, ever wry, '...at 3.56 in the morning!'

The circle of life, indeed.



Monday, 21 March 2016

Sunshine and Snow

Now that the weather has turned more spring-like, this day, two weeks ago, seems a little surreal. Did we really have snow? Well, yes, we did, over the Mother's Day weekend, but it seems a lifetime ago given how the landscape has changed again since. 

It was the first proper snow of the winter, which I had feared would remain essentially snow-less. How times have changed over the years we have lived here. We would get snow every winter 10 years or so ago, but still never in the way it used to be in earlier decades when the villages and towns of the High Peak would be cut off and the snow so deep that it rose above the dry stone walls and people would ski over it's pale virgin expanses. 

A great sadness to me is that those days are long gone.  I adore the mountains, skiing, and everything that the white stuff brings - cold, bright light; fresh tingling air; a new stillness; footprints.  The other Monday - while we were hardly knee deep in the stuff -  was nevertheless a small reminder of how transformational such days can be. Going back inside the house, for once, was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. I could have stayed out there forever.

Below is what I captured that day...

Monday 7th March

Today was simply exquisite: bright sunshine bursting out of a cloudless blue sky and bouncing back light from streams of melting snow and fields of frozen white. Hardly a breath of wind stirred the sharp cold air and the sound of sheep and birdsong filled my wool-clad ears. Indeed it was a day when all the senses sang and the spirit soared in sheer life-affirming joy. I do not exaggerate. It was truly so. 









































Monday, 14 March 2016

And so to Como...

After a morning meeting up with an old Milanese friend and then exploring the Castello Sforzesco in glorious warm sunshine, we had a quick, atmospheric lunch in the thronging business quarter of Milan before hopping in the cars and heading up with The Godfather and Son to Lago di Como.


The Italian lakes have long held lyrical associations and never more so than when the likes of William Wordsworth and other poetic exponents of the Romantic Movement were wafting around their sublime shores:-

AND, Como! thou, a treasure whom the earth
Keeps to herself, confined as in a depth
Of Abyssinian privacy. I spake
Of thee, thy chestnut woods, and garden plots
Of Indian-corn tended by dark-eyed maids;
Thy lofty steeps, and pathways roofed with vines,
Winding from house to house, from town to town,
Sole link that binds them to each other; walks,
League after league, and cloistral avenues,
Where silence dwells if music be not there:


Young Wordsworth's obvious attraction to 'dark-eyed maids' aside, Lake Como is a natural draw for those wishing to escape the rigours of city life. Is is the third largest northern Italian lake after Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore and, lying in the province of Lombardy as it does, it is the lake of choice for the Milanese (oh, and George Clooney).

Of glacial origin, Lake Como has a startling geography - a deep, dark, reflective slash between tall green hillsides ('confined as in a depth of Abyssinian privacy').  It has both drama and delight in abundance and is the perfect contrast to the more worldly pleasures of the City of Fashion, Design and Finance.

I had chosen to stay in the not-so-imaginatively named Hotel du Lac in Varenna. There are more Hotel du Lacs in the world than I've had hot dinners, but this was a little gem, and very aptly named, it has to be said. Perched on the edge of the picturesque village of Varenna, literally hanging over the eastern shore of the lake, it was all that we could have asked for. Hidden away down a minute lane off the main square (hire a small car), the car park was a challenge in itself. Once achieved, you head down some steep steps to what seems like the back door of the hotel - but the front door would require a swim. A warm welcome awaits - even though we were there on their very last night before closing for the winter season, which would have lent a charmless air to many a hotel. After terrible traffic leaving Milan, we arrived in a rush to see the sunset. Abandoning our bags in the entrance hall we threw ourselves out onto the balcony (and an unsuspecting young couple enjoying a quiet romantic drink) to capture the dying colours of the setting sun and the silhouettes of the mountains as they tumbled into the dark waters in front of us.




A glass of Prosecco inevitably followed, served charmingly by an English lady from the East End of London who came out here on a year out several decades ago and never returned, wed as she is now to the Italian she met back then. Beware those 'dark-eyed maids' (...and men, clearly).

Dinner that night was enjoyed in a lovely little restaurant called Al Prato literally two steps from the hotel in a cobbled courtyard oozing quintessential Italian lake charm and hospitality. I enjoyed three types of lake fish, all cooked differently, as it seemed appropriate but all our meals were equally delicious and took in both meat and homemade pasta all washed down with a beautiful Bardolino.

The following day dawned bright and beautiful and it was bliss to open the doors onto our little Juliet balcony and hear the lake water lapping lightly at the walls below.


I waved to The Godfather and Son who were enjoying the same vistas below us. There was nothing to do but get out there and enjoy it - which is exactly what we did.


































.....but ye have left

Your beauty with me, a serene accord
Of forms and colours....

William Wordsworth

Monday, 30 November 2015

Me and My Girl - Memories in Milan

When E's godfather said he was going to Lake Como at half term with his youngest son for the Father-Son bonding time he had done with his other two, I said to N that he should do something similar with his girls. Then I had a re-think and thought, 'you know what, maybe I should go away and have Mother-Daughter bonding time'. After all, I don't do Girlie Getaways (i.e with girlfriends) for reasons I've never fully fathomed (maybe it's just that no-one's ever invited me...?!)

And so it was that I hatched a plan to go back to Milan with my lovely 16 year old first-born daughter to show her the land of her birth, the city where she first saw the light of day and which is reflected in her chosen Christian names. Beautiful, ugly, energetic, fashionable, ancient, modern, cultural, historic, multi-faceted Milan. In all its diversity and colour and glamorous association, it's not a bad 'Place of Birth' to have on your passport - and beats Isleworth, any day, where her sisters were born (with humble apologies to the good people of Isleworth).

Nevertheless, our arrival at Bergamo airport was less than ideal. The entire northern plain was cloaked in a heavy pea-souper fog so not a single tree, let alone the nearby mountains, was visible. Darkness descended as quickly as the torrential rain and by the time we had got the hire car sorted out (a crappy little thing covered in scrapes), we hit the rush hour traffic on the motorway. I had thought to bring a map of Milan but had forgotten to ask for a more general map from the car hire place - let alone a Sat Nav. My phone was refusing to load data and I was too mean to pay for extra abroad so I was driving blind in every sense - fog, directions, darkness, rain - and windscreen wipers which were making a god-awful noise and threatening to fly off at any minute. All in all, not a propitious start and just a tad stressful as I was also terrified of smashing up the car still further as I'd only got 3rd party insurance and E kept leaning across me in a dangerous and annoying manner - and always at a crucial junction - to take photos of road signs to post online to her mates. Somehow we eventually found our way to the hotel in the centre of the city, more by good luck than good judgement - and with just a smidgen of faltering memory from 15 years ago.

I'd chosen a hotel that had a car park and was in walking distance of all the places I wanted to show E. I had asked for a quiet room and we were shown up to a delightful room in the roof, just as I had hoped for. Most importantly, E loved it too and said it felt like our own mini apartment. It was perfect.


After the inevitable logging on to WiFi and turning on the TV for no particular reason, together with a change of clothes and general travel-weary faffing, we headed out in the pouring rain to find somewhere to eat. I had remembered enticing little bars and restaurants at every turn, yet somehow we kept going down the wrong streets where there was nothing but blank shuttered shops and ankle-deep puddles. The rain was still coming down and the stone-slabbed streets were shiny and empty. It was not quite what I had imagined for us, though atmospheric in its own way. After a few false turns, we eventually found ourselves in the Brera district and stumbled across a steamy-windowed restaurant full of diners with a cheerful waiter beckoning us in. I ordered pappardelle with porcini mushrooms as this is the season for them, and E ordered some home-made tortellini. So here we were, finally, eating our first meal in Italy together, travelling abroad together, just the two of us, for the first time. I savoured the moment.

The following day dawned with rain still lashing against our roof lights. It was cosy in the room and I could happily have stayed there all day, but Milan called. Time to get up! Our first appointment was with a friend whose parents had lived in the same apartment as us and who had had her first child, also a girl, within days of me. We were in sporadic Christmas-card touch but had not seen each other for 15 years and I was worried it would be awkward. We stopped to buy her a small bunch of flowers and some rose-petal encrusted chocolate (delicious despite sounding vile - we bought one for ourselves too) on our way up Corso Garibaldi. All over again, I was reminded how this was one of my favourite streets in Milan and it was also the one that had been my neighbourhood, my stomping ground. It's a wonderful street, full of interesting small shops and the occasional larger one (OVS which used to be Oviesse and was a sort of Primark where I bought cheap-as-chips outfits for my little newborn but which has been re-branded and glamourised in the intervening years). It feels like a community within a community. I pointed out my old hairdressers, now a bar, and a few other things of note before reaching my friend's apartment block.

I have to admit to being little nervous as we went up in the lift and rang the doorbell but when the door opened the years just rolled away and we had a lovely catch-up. Her daughter appeared, sweatily, after a session in the gym: she is a feisty girl who decided she'd had enough of Italian education and is doing the International Baccalaureate at a private school in England over the next couple of years. The down side of this is that she is having to eat school meals and has put on weight and broken out in spots (her words, not my observations!) and is busily trying to teach the English how to cook! As is the Italian way, my friend's father dropped by as I was there and they were about to go to the cemetery together to decorate and pay their respects to the grave of his wife/her mother for All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day (Il Giorni dei Morti).

Leaving them to their family duties, we progressed from here to our old apartment, just a short distance away. We met the new concierge as our old one, Benedetto, had apparently retired a year or two back. I introduced myself and Luca let us have a wander around and go up in the lift to the top floor where our apartment was. I couldn't believe that the same doormat was still sitting outside it, 15 years later! I thought of the day that my parents arrived to see their first grandchild, standing outside, excited and expectant. I'll never forget opening the door to them, baby E in my arms, tiny as a doll, and the look on their faces...I felt so very proud. I would have given anything to have knocked on the door and gone inside. It was such a wonderful place and I was so happy there. White washed walls, lacquered brown wooden floors, windows on three sides and a huge roof terrace overlooking the streets below and with a wonderful view of the Alps on a clear day. It was heaven: my own eyrie from which I could peer down upon the bustling city.

 Via della Moscova, 68:


We then called in at the bar a few doors down which had been our local and where we bought our tram tickets, our proseccos, our cappuccinos and our macchiatos. Franco and Caterina are still the owners, the decor has not changed one jot and I was left wondering if this was sad or really rather comforting? They recognised me instantly and gave me such a warm welcome, remembering better than I the last time we had met, 14 years ago, when E was a toddler and G was a babe in arms. We ordered prosecco, of course, and bowls of complimentary crisps, peanuts and other nibbles instantly appeared. We chatted away as if we had been there yesterday. It was so lovely to be back and the memories came pouring back in to my happy head and heart. We exchanged photo viewing on our phones of children, homes and holidays. Caterina urged me to speak to E in Italian on a regular basis when we got home. It was so natural to speak to her in Italian when we lived in Milan, so much less so when we returned to West London.

Franco:

We tore ourselves away, reluctantly, after they had offered us the drinks on the house and weren't for dissuading - such a sweet gesture after all these years. We took Caterina's advice and headed up to Corso Como which has been massively re-developed since 1999 and is completely unrecognisable - but not before we stopped for lunch in a restaurant round the corner which had been our local trattoria/pizzeria and has now been turned into a sort of fast-food fish place called Il Pescetto. It was heaving, clearly hugely successful and we happily took our place in the queue to order calamari, home-made crisps and salad from a whole bank of fresh fish choices, selected by you then taken to the kitchen to be cooked however you want them.

Corso Como:





To save our already aching feet and to make the most of the travel pass we had bought from Franco and Caterina, we went down into the Metro at Garibaldi Station, next to the top end of Corso Como and sped back down to Lanza, near our hotel, where we then hopped on a tram to take us closer to Via Monte Napoleoni and the Golden Rectangle of Haute Couture - four streets which contain every top fashion designer you can think of from Prada to Versace, Armani to Valentino and everything in between.





E was in seventh Heaven just soaking up the atmosphere of elegance and unattainable wealth. Porsches and models abounded and at one point E found herself the centre of the Paparazzi's attention as suddenly camera's started snapping all around her. Confused, she looked over her shoulder only to find this tall man, dressed top to toe in black including dark glasses and jet black hair, looming over her with a bevy of blondes (other than my daughter, of course!) on his arms. She tried to get out of the way, as did I, but every which way we moved, it seemed to be the same direction as Mystery Man and all the swarm of eager photographers. Rest assured, I had no desire to be snapped though E harboured the notion that she would be splashed all over the newspapers and gossip magazines the following day! God forbid. (With a little bit of analysis of the things that were being shouted out, we retrospectively came to the conclusion that it was Gianluigi Buffon - a very famous Italian goalkeeper.) So, a short brush with fame and five minutes hanging around outside Prada while E tried to persuade me to follow him and his entourage into the shop (I had no inclination to spend 500 euros on a pair of Prada pants or something just to say I was in the company of some celebrity or other while I keyed in my pin number!) and we were free to move on to the slightly less high octane pedestrianised area that leads up towards the cathedral.

A brief stop in Kiko (make-up heaven for teenagers and more befitting of our budget than Prada) and a call from E's godfather to say they'd arrived and were heading into town, led us seamlessly to a meet in the Piazza Duomo. The rain had stopped, the skies were glowing pink and the silhouette of that magnificent cathedral still managed to take my breath away after all these years. It has been cleaned up since we lived here so the colours of the candoglia marble shine through again. Something I have just learned, in writing this, is that the final touches to the cathedral (which had taken generations to build) were only completed in the 20th century with the last gate being inaugurated on 6th January 1965: how perfect that E was born on 6th January, then, in this very city.

Having joined forces with the Godfather, we decided that it was the perfect moment for an aperitivo as the sun went down. We spotted a terrace high up on one of the buildings to the left of the cathedral and took the lift up to enjoy a drink with the Duomo as a magnificent backdrop.



As dark descended we headed back to the Brera district to find another atmospheric place to eat and end our evening. The streets, unlike the night before, were brimming with people and we fought through crowds gathered around live musicians playing in the narrow streets of this attractive, arty district in the shadow of the world renowned Pinacoteca Brera  to get to our restaurant, Il Cestino.

By the time we sat down, my feet were literally throbbing, and so were my heart and soul - but for different reasons. It was simply wonderful to be back in a place that I loved so much, meant so much and which represents one of the happiest times of my life.

Tomorrow was another day, and there were still more things I wanted to share with E before heading up to the tranquillity of Lake Como and a complete contrast to city life. But I'll tell you about that the next time...
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