12 days in northern Italy

I aim to write a monthly blog. What with one thing and another, notably lots of disruption at home with workmen, and being at work, my planned June blog is appearing now at the end of July. Here goes…

On 7 June Mrs Brown (Kathie Touin) and I embarked on our first overseas trip – excluding visits to see family in (kind of) English-speaking California and Arizona – for more than 10 years.

In preparation for our expedition Kathie was busy learning some Italian on a smartphone app. Kathie also worked hard to find our accommodation and read lots of guide books. My contribution was to throw in a few ideas now and then.

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View from our window in Bologna’s Hotel Paradise (image: Graham Brown)

We stayed in Bologna, the capital city of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy, in the wonderfully-named Hotel Paradise. Very good it was too, helpful staff and in a good location for walking to the many ancient churches, historic attractions and shops – even the railway station was only about 20 minutes’ walk through attractive architecture.

I will not take you on a blow-by-blow, day-by-day account of the trip, and everything we saw, – phew! – but here are some themes that struck me.

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The 12th century Two Towers of Bologna – due torri (image: Graham Brown)

Elegant, cool and medieval – with graffiti

Bologna is a large city but the central historic and shopping areas are reasonably compact. Though temperatures reached as high as 35 C while we there – 95 F to Americans – we stayed reasonably cool thanks to the architecture. The city is blessed with miles, or, should I say, kilometres, of porticoes – arched colonnades covering the pavements (American: sidewalks) – which allow one to walk around in the shade.

The city has some fantastic medieval, Renaissance and baroque architecture – numerous churches, civic buildings and the two towers (due torri) reputedly dating from the 12th century.

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Some of Bologna’s graffiti makes a serious point, in this case about Syria (image: Graham Brown)
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And some of the graffiti is humorous – this reminded us of Roscoe back home (image: Graham Brown)

We noticed that graffiti seems to be tolerated. And by graffiti I do not mean the usual crude scribblings of names and swear words, but some fantastic pieces of art, some comic, some supporting political causes.

The city had, to me, a relaxed atmosphere with outside eating areas for most cafes and restaurants (like so much of continental Europe), and elegant-looking residents, even while riding their numerous bicycles, mopeds and scooters.

Monuments

Bologna, like all European cities, has its fair share of monuments and statues. Among the more unusual ones, to my eyes, was a large monument to partisans who fought the Nazi and Fascist occupiers towards the end of the Second World War – it was made up of numerous small photographs of the individuals involved.

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On the left, the many photographs of Italian partisans who fought the Nazis – it seems appropriate that young people are relaxing in the sunshine (image: Graham Brown)

A war memorial for Italians lost in both world wars, inside the Santo Stefano complex of churches, struck me as interesting as it listed those lost on both sides of the conflict.

But I think I was most touched – perhaps with recent events in London and Manchester in my mind – by monuments to the 85 who died in the Fascist bombing of Bologna railway station in 1980.

There is a glass panel in the Piazza del Nettuno listing all the names of those who died in the attack (and in two other outrages). There are further memorials at the station itself including the clock stopped at 10.25, the time of the attack.

We also visited a photographic exhibition, housed in a wonderful underground exhibition space, containing 500 photographs of Bologna’s history as well as film – including the chilling visit of Italian dictator Mussolini to the city.

One room of the exhibition was entirely devoted to the station bombing. A constantly evolving montage of photographs was projected onto the walls of the circular room, along with the sound of emergency services radio conversations. It was very moving – literally and emotionally.

Musica

Music, or musica as the Italians say, featured in our trip.

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Kathie Touin in Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica (image: Graham Brown)

We went to two fascinating museums – one of historic keyboard instruments, the other was Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica – it features Bologna’s collection of musical manuscripts, books, sculptures, paintings and instruments. The origins of the collection are an 18th century Franciscan friar, Father Giovanni Battista Martini, who numbered Mozart among his students.

We also enjoyed live music. We attended two brilliant piano recitals held in the Oratorio di Santa Cecilia, appropriately the patron saint of music. Stand up, and take another standing ovation, Enrico Elisi and Benedetta Conte, fabulous performers both.

And we went to Teatro Duse for a production of Gershwin’s Crazy For You musical. The songs were sung in English, the conversations were in Italian but we had read the plot outline beforehand so we could follow the story.

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The poster for Crazy For You – a fabulous show starring Manuel Frattini

The show featured Manuel Frattini who, judging by the audience reaction, is something of a star. And rightly so. He is an old-fashioned song-and-dance man who can sing, dance and be physically funny – Kathie said he reminded her of Gene Kelly.

It was an uplifting evening – enough to make you forget how hot the theatre was – with wonderful staging, dancing, singing and comedy.

Trains and Ferraris – vroom…

We spent 13 nights in Bologna so we had 12 days to be out and about. There was so much to see in Bologna that we never got round it all, bearing in mind we had to stop for coffees, ice creams and meals.

But we took three day trips out of the city by train, to visit Modena, Venice and Florence.

You will have read and watched much about Venice and Florence so I will not go into detail on those – just to mention that in Venice, on an overcast day, we were caught in an Orkney-style storm of heavy rain and strong winds. We sheltered in a passageway and the storm soon passed, our clothes were just about dry by the time we left this strange city.

The main purpose of our visit to Modena was to see the Enzo Ferrari House Museum, one of two Ferrari museums in the region (the other is at their Modena factory). There were some beautiful and ruinously expensive cars on display, both racing and road examples.

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Kathie Touin choosing a Ferrari to take home (image: Graham Brown)

I have to say I find modern so-called “super cars” not to my taste but the classic Ferraris on display were a joy to behold. By the way, if anyone is short of ideas for next Christmas, Kathie would like a Ferrari Dino.

Our train journeys were smooth, comfortable and on time, apart from a delay departing Venice because the above-mentioned storm had caused flooding on the line. The regional train services are not expensive either – our journey to Modena, and back, for both of us, admittedly only about 30 minutes each way, cost less than £15, and we did not have to pay in advance or trawl websites for a cheap deal.

Our trip to Venice – about two hours each way – cost about £50 for both of us. We travelled upstairs in a double-decker coach.

However, our trip to Florence was more expensive. We did not get to Bologna railway station until mid-morning, only to discover all the second-class seats were taken. So we had to travel first class – this, and the fact that the service was operated by a high-speed train, made it much more expensive, more than £70 for both of us one way.

Never mind, we enjoyed travelling in first class (though the second-class return was perfectly fine) and being on a high-speed train, even though most of the route was in tunnels.

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Slightly fuzzy night-time photo at Bologna railway station but on this train we travelled at 186mph – Kathie shows off her Florence shopping in an Orkney Maeshowe bag (image: Graham Brown)

On the return from Florence to Bologna we noticed that the passenger information displays were, at times, showing the train’s speed. We reached 299kph, which I calculate to be 186mph. I think this is a land speed record for both Kathie and me. The 67-mile journey took 31 minutes from the wheels starting to roll at Florence to standstill in Bologna. Wow. Incidentally, the ride was smooth with little impression of such speed.

What else?

General Election

The first day we spent in Bologna was also the day of the General Election back home in the UK. I do not think I have ever been abroad for a General Election before so we made sure we voted by post before leaving Orkney.

On the Thursday night I watched BBC World for several hours to follow the election results coming in. It was a strange election in many ways, made stranger for me because I was watching from afar.

Swifts

One of the notable sights – and sounds – of Bologna at the time of our visit was the hundreds of screeching swifts flying high above the city. It was wonderful to see these acrobatic birds, which even sleep on the wing, and to think of them heading back to Africa after their breeding season.

For us, we returned to the cooler weather of Orkney – but since being home we have been delighted to see the swallows nesting in our garage fledge four young.

Graham Brown

To find out – and see – more

More of my photographs on Instagram (no log-in required) – https://www.instagram.com/grahambrownorkney/

Guide to Bologna – http://www.bolognawelcome.com/en/

Wikipedia on Bologna – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bologna

The 1980 bombing of Bologna railway station – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bologna_massacre

Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica di Bologna – http://www.museibologna.it/musica

Wikipedia on Museo internazionale e biblioteca della musica – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Museo_internazionale_e_biblioteca_della_musica

Website of pianist Enrico Elisi – www.enricoelisi.com/

An earlier performance by Benedetta Conte –

RSPB website on swifts – http://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/bird-and-wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/s/swift/index.aspx

Life

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A sunny February morning view from our Orkney home (image: Graham Brown)

Life is sad, depressing, hopeless.

Life is happy, joyous, full of hope.

Which of these statements is correct? Or is it something in between?

I think it is all three, depending on life experiences, the day’s events, illness, state of mind, luck, money (sometimes), expectations, and so on.

The first weeks of 2016 for me have felt a bit like a roller coaster at times.

We lost David Bowie from the world stage, surely one of the most talented people thrown up by modern music, and from the British and Irish stage we lost much-loved radio and TV presenter Terry Wogan.

Both were big personalities who seemed as if they had always been with us, and always would be, and their passing leaves a gap.

Another of my personal favourites, though less well known, also died suddenly – the DJ Ed Stewart, whose programmes were such a big part of my life. Next Christmas Day morning will not be the same without his BBC Radio 2 programme.

And, here in Orkney, a flu outbreak over Christmas and New Year took lives, including two folk local to us who will be sadly missed from our village events.

Meanwhile events in Syria, and Iraq, have become so depressing that it seems easier now to watch the TV news at all. What can the people trapped in the fighting imagine for their future?

But living where I do here in Orkney allows me to raise my head, look out the window, or take our Roscoe for a walk, and see a wonderful landscape. The days are noticeably lengthening, the birds are singing again, the oyster catchers and lapwings have reappeared in the surrounding fields. It is inspiring.

I was also inspired by a wonderful, and deserved, event in the life of friend and former RSPB work colleague Amy Liptrot. In January her book, The Outrun, was published to great acclaim and was also serialised as the BBC Radio 4 Book Of The Week.

Amy is attending many launches and readings for her book. I was at the Orkney launch, in the Pier Arts Centre, Stromness, and was so thrilled for her. She has faced many difficulties in her life, as the book describes, and to feel the warmth and support for Amy in the crowded room was special.

I would recommend The Outrun to anyone. And if you have an interest in addiction, London, Orkney, or life-affirming stories, it is a must-read.

My wife Kathie Touin also had some good news in January – and so, by extension, did I. We have not said or written much about it but Kathie was not well for most of last year, making work and leisure difficult for both of us. One day Kathie will perhaps write about her experiences but suffice to say, for now, we have had a breakthrough and she is getting treatment which is transforming her life, giving her back the energy she craved.

Of course, not all medical and health news is good. A neighbour had a nasty fall in January and has spent a month in hospital already – though she seems to keep cheerful.

And a close relative of mine has had “disappointing” news from the doctors which means I will be away from Orkney from early March for a month acting as a driver, cook and bottle-washer.

While I am away I will physically miss committee meetings for the Kitchener & HMS Hampshire Memorial project (see our blog) and for the RSPB Local Group.

Emotionally, I will miss Kathie, our dog Roscoe and Orkney itself which is a wonderful place to live, on a human scale with human people.

But I’m sure my time away will, in some way, be good for me. I don’t know how much computer access I will have but I will make notes in my journal which, at some point, in some form, will probably appear here.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Orkney.com

Canongate: Amy Liptrot

Goodbye 2014, Hello 2015

Planet Earth (image: courtesy of NASA)
Planet Earth (image: courtesy of NASA)

And so that was Christmas, to mis-quote John Lennon – “And what have you done? Another year over, and a new one just begun” as he actually sang on Happy Christmas (War Is Over).

Well, we know one thing for sure, war and violence is not over. If anything, terrorism seems more unpredictable and brutal than before.

And, like any year, the world of 2014 was full of misery, poverty, illness and accidents – this year’s litany including, but by no means restricted to, Ebola, the Ukraine, lost airliners, the suicide of Robin Williams, desperate refugees in overcrowded boats, Syria, Palestine, more cases of historical abuse of the young in the UK coming to light, the list goes on.

Closer to home, and equally painful for those involved, many folk had personal tragedies. I know two women who unexpectedly lost their husbands this year at desperately young ages.

Sometimes I muse on the world, and human beings – is it essentially evil and hopeless, or essentially loving and positive? Your own answer might depend on your perspective, your beliefs, or on what happened to you in 2014.

I tend to think we are overwhelmingly loving and positive – perhaps I am kidding myself, perhaps I’m a hopeless optimist – but most people get through most days without inflicting violence on others, perhaps do a few good deeds, and at the same time appreciate the beauty of the natural world around them. At least I hope so.

Leaving aside the tragedies of 2014, it has been an interesting year politically – and if, like me, you live in Scotland it was fascinating and exciting. The referendum on Scottish independence ignited the political debate like nothing else has done for years.

What of next year? Well, only fools make firm predictions but it seems unlikely any one party will get an overall majority at the UK General Election on May 7. It also seems likely that the SNP – despite failing to gain Scottish independence – will make considerable gains at the expense of Labour. Meanwhile the Green Party and UKIP will probably get large numbers of votes but may struggle to translate them into seats at Westminster.

Will we have another coalition government? Perhaps, though the various parties concerned might not be so willing this time around. A minority government? Maybe more likely. Minority governments are, of course, more unstable so that could lead to another election in quick succession.

So having moved the Scottish Parliamentary elections back a year, to 2016, to avoid the General Election, we could still end up with both elections in the same year. We shall see.

One outcome of the Referendum was the resignation of Alex Salmond as Scotland’s First Minister, to be replaced by Nicola Sturgeon, the first woman to hold the post. And, like her predecessor, she is far more capable than most if not all Westminster politicians – someone you would want on your side, whatever your political beliefs.

Here in Orkney the reassuring rhythms of the year continue (see my blog: The Rhythms And Markers Of An Orcadian Year) but even in our sometimes apparently cosy world there have been losses, of individuals, of people’s jobs, of dreams and schemes.

During the year Orkney’s commercial so-called community radio station closed. Sadly, the Super Station Orkney was a missed opportunity, not really a community station, more a jukebox with adverts, something I wrote about in a 2011 blog (Where Is The Super Station In Orkney?). Not only that, the station’s management handed the licence back to Ofcom without giving local folk the chance to take it over and create a genuine community station.

Fortunately here in Orkney we have The Orcadian, a proper and detailed local newspaper, and excellent programmes from BBC Radio Orkney, an opt-out of BBC Radio Scotland which fulfils many of the functions of a community radio station.

Orkney in 2014 has also seen some exceptional weather. Despite what a few folk in the south of England believe, we are not in “the frozen north”. Yes, it is frequently wet and windy, and sometimes stormy, but rarely frozen. We have milder temperatures than the Highlands of Scotland, for example, because we are surrounded by water and because we benefit from the Gulf Stream.

However, towards the end of this year we had a large number of thunder storms, and numerous lightning strikes. Some people lost chimneys, and many folk lost telephone lines and their internet. In fact, on New Year’s Eve BBC Radio Orkney reported this: “BT say that more than 300 lightning-related faults remain outstanding in Orkney and it will be well into the New Year before the backlog is cleared. Additional engineers from Inverness, Glasgow and the English Midlands are being drafted in from next week.”

We had some lightning strikes in Orkney last year as well – and one family lost their home in a fire as a result – so we all hope this will not become an annual event.

What has happened on a personal level this year? My wife, Kathie Touin, has had some excellent musicians and artists pass through her Starling Recording Studio. And as the year ends she is working on her own recordings – listen out in 2015.

During 2014 Kathie acquired her first grand piano, so realising a lifetime ambition – see Kathie’s blog for more on that (My Life In Pianos).

We enjoyed trips to northern Arizona, where Kathie’s family now lives, and closer to home – but still two flights away – to the Isle of Wight and London. More about these trips in previous blogs as well (Arizona Dreamin’; London Calling, And The Isle Of Wight Too).

Our rescue Border Collie, Roscoe, continues to amuse and entertain us, and more than repay our time and vet’s bills.

We both continue to volunteer with the RSPB and I now find myself on another committee – this time working to restore Orkney’s Kitchener Memorial in a way that better remembers the more than 700 men who died when HMS Hampshire sank, a couple of miles from Orkney, in a terrible summer storm.

The centenary of this event is 5 June 2016, less than 18 months away. It will be a timely reminder of how fragile and precious life is.

I will close with the words I posted on my Twitter account in the early hours of 2015: Happy New Year, one and all. Keep relaxed, cherish your loved ones, be kind to those you know, smile at strangers.

Graham Brown

To find out more

Wikipedia on The Gulf Stream: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gulf_Stream

Kathie Touin

Starling Recording Studio

The Orcadian

BBC Radio Orkney on Facebook

Kitchener Memorial on Facebook

Kitchener Memorial on Twitter