Thursday, April 16, 2015

Thirty miles of Arcades Devoid of One Armed Bandits and Space Invaders

And so to Bologna and its 44km of arcades,

Well I can work a one armed bandit and it's been a while since I engaged the evil forces of space invaders so with a suitcase full of cents and with some air traffic wallahs on strike we headed south around France to the promise of Vegas in Southern Europe.

Within a few hours of landing it became quickly apparent that this was no Vegas or Rhyl, with not a fruit machine to be found,

No matter, we would spend our coins in some other fashion. Ensconced in a hotel on Via Independienze, the protracted celebrations for our silver wedding that could carry on for another few years continued as we were awarded the honeymoon room with a bucket of Italian bubbles as a bit of a livener. Emboldened by bubbles we hit the streets of Bologna with a bag full of brown coins looking for some where to spend them. Within ten minutes I was led through a door and up some wooden stairs that seemed to go on forever. A charge was taken on the third floor and in my slightly foxed condition I had unwittingly been press ganged into climbing what is sometimes acknowledged as the highest building in the world (and come on Petronas towers and Burg Khalifi, let's see you use a proper tape measure)

The remarkable thing about the tower which I was unwittingly climbing is that it is approaching its thousandth birthday. It is older than the church in our village at home and is still deemed safe to climb up, unsupervised, for what is a fabulous view of the City. There is a second tower a little shorter that stands next to it and this Italian version of the twin Towers is all that's left of the many towers that were erected in the city. If you were a big noise or a man of status in the 1100's in Bologna then a tower was quite the thing. Half way up the wooden stairs the reality dawned that a tower tumble down percentage in the high nineties was statistically not the greatest endorsement for the afternoon's adventure and for a few minutes I clung to the wall, gibbering in beads of sweat before resuming the ascent. Madam will confirm that the only way I can deal with heights is through the viewfinder of a camera. I find it helps not to face facts when it comes to high places and looking through a lens helps to make one feel that the current situation is not real, and the safe environs of level ground has not been discarded. At home we have an extensive collection of videos featuring drives around the alps and trips up the Amalfi coast, and now we have a complete panorama of Bologna formed from a couple of hundred shots taken from the top of this cockeyed high pile of bricks built for viewing herds of dinosaurs on the plain below,

I think that was the correct translation of the information board at its base.

The following day we had planned to travel to Florence by train, Bologna is a major railway hub and it is an hour or less to Florence, Venice, Verona, or Modena. The best priced tickets are available online, but the wifi wasn't playing ball so we tooled up to the station to book our tickets with an Italian lady behind some glass via a small audio link up. There are several train companies in Italy and during extensive negotiations with the mamma behind the glass, Madam assumed that negotiations were breaking down and was reduced to much spluttering as she misheard my "I would like to travel with Tran Italia" as I would like to travel with genitalia"

With language abandoned we ascertained through a series of pictures and mimes that the rail company were on strike and all the tickets to Firenze had been sold for a few days,

So we went to Venice instead.

A train that travelled at nearly two hundred miles took us across the broad valley of the Po to a city that I last visited in May in 1981 at the age of 13 when it was a bit niffy, the canals contained several dead dogs and St Marks square was empty and we enjoyed a cheap pizza sitting outside.

It's changed a bit.

No dead dogs and much cleaner water for one. We arrived at the station and walked our way across to St Marks square, pausing downstream of the Rialto to eat our picnic and take further prosecco on board. It was a sunny day and as we entered St Marks square we were greeted by a seething throng made up of many nations,

think the Olympic opening ceremony with selfie sticks instead of flags,

and there we must pause to examine the phenomenon that is the "selfie" and its accompanying stick.

Now for those who have fallen into this steaming barrel of guff before, you will be aware that I like taking photos. I have saved up many pennies for a bag of idiot proof photographic equipment. Day and night I am rarely without my camera on our trips out. Why over a hundred selfie stick sellers should shove a stick under my nose exhorting me to buy their product when I have an adequate piece of equipment on show and a glamorous assistant on hand should I decide that a photo of a particular palazzo can only be enhanced by my features being placed directly in the centre of the composition, is beyond my comprehension.

After the hundredth offer of such a stick in under ten minutes, it started to grate

It might be one for the marketing department lads, but please reassess your target audience.

Is Greek no longer on the school curriculum because this selfie fad is the stuff of Narcissus, with Vodafone playing Nemesis, Social media as Echo and a smart phone for a puddle of water.

I don't get it, and on a final note, you don't see the selfie stick sellers taking selfies of themselves in the spectacular environment in which they ply their trade.

Anyway, to return to Venizi, we walked along the front where everything seemed to be three times the price of the same item in Bologna and several chanced their arm with a fishing rod, which was not the case in 1981 as I spent half a day looking for any signs of people fishing in what was pretty filthy water. Three parts foxed following further prosecco (it really was rather good) we hopped onto the aquaporto that took us the wrong way around the lagoon before delivering us up the Grand Canal to the station with two minutes to spare.

Venice remains a spectacular place to visit but blimey was it busy, the highlights were undoubtedly the walk from the station to Square St Marco and the forty minute aquaporto ride that provided an aquatic tour for only seven euros each.

Oh yes, a message from Venice for the cream of our local town society now that the weather is warming up.

And then Richie Benaud died.

As a youngster I didn't know Richie Benaud had played cricket.

I assumed he was a professional commentator, or possibly somebody Peter West had bumped into on Come Dancing, he was a natty dresser was Richie. It was always the radio commentary for me if possible, but if no wireless was available Richie's take on the game was the next best thing.

Hendo provided the best summation for me (and why doesn't he write on cricket anymore)

"Less is more, Ah yes, but how difficult it is to master that apparently simple precept. Benaud never talked about himself, either on air or off it. He thought it vulgar, and besides his playing record was there for to see. As the captain of a side that thumped England 4-0 in 58/59, he is in the annals.
Compare that modesty with the modern manner, when a cricketer-turned- broadcaster like Ed Smith, who played three times for England in a thin year, mentions himself more often in a single session of play than Benaud did in five decades"

Richie Benaud played at our local club many times as part of an invitational side put together by the Times Cricket Correspondent of the day, and there are many old timers who haunt the boundary full of tales of games for Longparish against Benaud, Tyson, Inverarity et al.

Back in Bologna it became apparent midway through our sojourn that I was subconsciously missing taking Otis for a walk, as each day I would purloin a hard-boiled egg from the breakfast buffet pop it in my bag then carry it around all day.

On four consecutive days I took an egg out for the day.

The bottom of my camera bag resembled a hen house, Without doubt I was missing the dog and had subconsciously replaced our Otis with a replacement whose name bore three letters and ended in the letter g,

That or, I'd gone broody.

On Sunday we perused a market with a wide array of German WWII memorabilia, before taking in a bridge building competition in the city square.

The premise was to build a bridge with a seven metre span and a height of over a metre from thin cardboard strips .

There were fifty teams who had the whole day to complete their task. Now I'd back myself to work a bridge or two and it struck that if this new twist on recycling really works then we should put a recycling bin by the fishing hut for Sunday Supplements and the like, as materials for next year's new river crossing,so we hung around for the whole day.

After an hour the favourites were fairly clear, skill levels were varied.

Several teams had detailed plans laid out before them and the teamwork displayed by some of the University teams undoubtedly garnered an advantage until alcohol was introduced. There were several family teams, a group from the WI and a gang of middle aged men who were right on it from the first whistle, washing down a smorgasbord of local produce with a couple of crates of prosecco, that caused such confusion that they were not sure which way up their bridge was supposed to be at the close of the competition.

Radio Bruno provided commentary throughout the day, a niche market, bridge building commentary , but we can swiftly discount the excitable Bruno as the natural heir to Richie's crown.

The following day, with the rail strike still in force, we walked out of town to the church of someone or other on top of a hill. It was a photographic opportunity rather than veneration that we sought, and we set out through what is described as the longest portico in the world.

Five hundred years ago the good people of Bologna sought shade and shelter on their trip up the hill to what could be the church of San Luca, (it's coming back to me now)

Eschewing the umbrella and parasol option, they constructed a substantial portico that takes you out of town a thousand feet up the hill and is two and a half miles long, it may well be visible from space, we could certainly see it from the plane as we left.

It's tremendously bonkers, and somehow typical of this city that I suggest is a more convivial place than some of its celebrated near neighbours.

The many arcades, the small streets, lumpen basilica, the friendly people the wonky towers all go towards making this place a fabulous place to spend a few days, but the undisputed star of the show is the food.

We had carried out some research prior to our stay, and with Trip advisor as our guide, picked three trattoria in the top one hundred places for the city, ignoring any gelateria, or pricey places, and didn't eat anywhere else throughout our stay. All three were family run affairs, very busy, all freshly prepared and served with a smile. A typical meal of Antipasti, Primi of handmade Tortellini (worth the trip alone) followed by a plate of veal and a bowl of green stuff with coffee to follow on and seventy five centilitres of wine for two people came in south (Partridge) of fifty euros every time.

And at this point I'd like to say, hey Prizzo, Usk and Zosso, up your game a bit eh, it's pretty poor stuff you dish up in comparison and for twice the price!

Same to you Starburks, Costas, Cafe Mero,

Who seen to fear to mingle among the coffee bars of this town where a freshly ground brew can be had for under a pound.

We found ourselves saying "Wow" a lot during our dining, and while reflecting in bed in front of some Italian TV, we took in an episode of Italy's Junior Masterchef. The two teenagers competing had breathtaking culinary skills and demonstrated a deep understanding of fresh ingredients and their preparation and use.

They really got food, and worked coolly on a set which resembles a culinary coliseum with two presenters and two professional chefs gathering on a balcony above to bait them and deliver the thumbs up or the thumbs down at the shows denouement. It may be subjective to suggest, but either would have gone a long way in the adult version over here.

Bologna is an old, but vibrant city, reassuringly bonkers at times with the odd risque statue, beautiful, fun, friendly, and free of one armed bandits, it is a city comfortable in its own skin,

But the food, oh the food, they get the food thing more than anywhere we have visited.

We shall return,

After I've had a sandwich.


Previous readers of this guff may remember that each trip abroad I like to give the gift of a corkscrew to the chaps at airport security to facilitate our passage to the aircraft. This year I discretely placed our holiday corkscrew in Madam's handbag for our return journey, who found the item while bagging up her liquids of 100ml or more. Taking an alternative course of action to myself when previously placed in such a situation, she owned up to security, who consulted and reported back with "Don't worry madam it's only a picnic corkscrew, carry on through"
Aghast at Madam's fortune I reared up and bemoaned the fact that three times I had been required to hand over such an item that I had inadvertently retained in my camera bag, and what was it about my face that suggested I was hell bent on boring a hole in the cabin wall that was missing from Madam's demeanour, at which point a snap of the rubber gloves and Madam tugging at my elbow carried us away from the scene.

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