A Travellerspoint blog

Si, we have no pizza

Italians are reputed to have amongst the healthiest “lifestyles” in the world due to their Mediterranean diet of fruit, grains, vegetables and olive oil. It apparently offsets, if not obliterates the effects of the universal Italian smoking habit. Whatever, but in the various Italian cities Mrs Henry and I have visited, we were unable to procure a dinner or lunch along Mediterranean dietary lines.

It wasn’t until Mrs Henry and I reached Florence from Perrugia, via Campobasso and l’Aquilla, with scurvy nipping at our heels, that we were saved by a Doner Kebap, a Middle Eastern dish spelt this way in Northern Italy and purveyed there by Turkish eating places invariably owned and operated by enterprising people from the subcontinent.

A case study. When, shortly after seven, Mrs Henry and I went down to have dinner in the town of l’Aquila, our first attempt at obtaining a meal was at the hotel’s restaurant. Staff looked startled as we walked in and we sat down. They weren’t open yet. Could we come back after eight?

We next tried a pizza restaurant. Again startled looks, but this time because they were closing at eight and we could have a pizza if we pledged to finish it by eight.

Another pizza place welcomed us with open arms and showed us various and diverse slices of pizza left over from the day’s trading. We asked if a fresh pizza could be prepared. An apologetic half-smile in response.

Then an Irish “theme” pub seemed to offer a solution. We sat down at a table on its outdoor terrace and were at once engulfed by tobacco smoke, because it is truly extraordinary how all Italians smoke. Not indoors but outdoors, to which the omnipresence of outdoor, public ashtrays attest. Incidentally, the Institute is considering a proposal by Mrs Henry for a coffee table photo book entitled Ashtrays of Tuscany.

Anyway, such was our hunger by this time that we ignored the smoking. We were determined to eat. However, the waitress declined to take an order for food. Food, she said cannot be consumed outside. Why not?, we asked. It could not, she insisted. There must be a reason, we said. Yes, food cannot be consumed outside. Can we eat inside?, we asked. Rolling her eyes, she conceded that this was a theoretical possibility. It could not be ruled out. She would hand us over to the inside waitress.

The inside waitress had to negotiate with kitchen staff, who vetoed all of our choices, including pizza, until we got down the list to the humble hamburger. They set about preparing two of these and the result was passable and not at all less acceptable than what a switched-on eight-year old might have produced. Bit raw, but platonically the idea of a burger was very much there.

The inside waitress also took our drinks order, and I must say that it was for the very first, and I hope very last time in an Irish pub that my order for a pint of Guinness had to be elucidated by pointing a finger at it on the drinks menu.

Posted by Mr Henry 10:36 Archived in Italy Tagged italy mediterranean Comments (0)

Banksy does the Apennines

Campobasso railway station. Half past five on a weekday morning. Bleary-eyed clerk in her sixties on Facebook. Unlit filter cigarette hanging from her lips. “Due biglietti per L’Aquilla per favore.” Facebook abandoned. Filter cigarette removed from lips. Facial expression of being utterly stunned by lack of understanding.

Mrs Henry and myself had traveled by train 160 kilometres in a north-easterly direction from Naples to Campobasso even though we had planned to do so from Salerno, south of Naples, to which latter city we had traveled on the so-called Circumvesuviana, which suggests this train did a leisurely lap around the notorious volcano. However, no dice in that respect plus we had been unable to identify the volcano from the train because nobody had bothered to put up a sign. We saw plenty of mountains that could’ve been the Vesuvius, but, as Mrs Henry admirably put it in a nutshell: “Which one is the bloody Vesuvius?” Anyway, Mrs Henry and myself did see the Vesuvius. There can be no doubt about that. Absolutely not. We were on a train that specifically and slowly went around the Vesuvius part of the way with many other mountains interposing themselves. All those mountains were all very plausible Vesuviuses and, in the bigger picture, what does it matter which one was the real one as long as we saw it?

If I could just digress for a moment to discuss some of the inexplicable muddle-ups in Italian tourism, Mrs Henry bets the same entity responsible for lack of signage at the Vesuvius is also in charge of restorations (Mrs Henry calls them “renovations”, or “bloody renos” when in full oratorical flight) at the Colosseum, which is nowhere near the Vesuvius, of course, but still. And to be fair, Mrs Henry’s got a point. The restored parts of the Colosseum’s facade do look as though they were done by someone who is normally involved in the construction of brick veneer residences in Sydney’s burgeoning north-west.

This of course comes on top of the unbearable traffic situation in Rome, which forced Mrs Henry and myself to play games of chicken with local motorists at zebra crossings. “Where are the bloody cops?!”, Mrs Henry exclaimed at one point. A thoroughly reasonable question. I pointed out that Rome police were detailed to provide security at the Vatican, as covered in a previous post, and simply did not have the resources.

Now Mrs Henry is quite chummy back home with the Pedestrian Council’s Mr Harold Scruby, who is on the board of the Mr Henry Institute, where he punches above his weight on pedestrian issues.

“Doesn’t Australia send an ambassador to the Vatican?”, she asked.

“Yes, a Special Envoy”, I replied, “Australia appoints a Special Envoy to the Holy See.”

“Get Harold”, Mrs Henry said in that clipped way of hers.

“What? Appoint Mr Scruby, Chair of the Pedestrian Council, scourge of parliamentary road safety committees and Roads Ministers throughout Australia, as Australia’s Special Envoy to the Holy See?”

An extraordinary suggestion, but one which, on reflection, makes excellent sense. Get Harold. Clean up traffic in Rome. Mrs Henry said she would also talk to Harold, before he took up this position, about that totally unacceptable Italian custom of hanging out laundered garments and bedlinen from apartment windows. “Harold should do something about that, too, while he’s at Holy See. Naples is a disgrace.”

To get back to our attempt to reach Campobasso by train from Salerno to travel north up the middle of Italy through the Apennines, the Trenitalia map clearly showed a rail connection between Salerno and Campobasso. However, when asked, a Salerno railway employee shook her head dismissively, rolling her eyes, mumbling darkly about “turisti”, and firmly shoved Mrs Henry and myself on the fast regional (not the “bloody Circumvesuviana” (Mrs Henry)) back to Naples, from whence we caught a satisfactorily slow and small service to Campobasso, enjoying first the foothills and thence some more significant inclines of whatever Apennines we passed along the way.

From Campobasso we would continue to L’Aquilla - the same Trenitalia map showing a rock-solid rail connection between the two cities. But again, no dice. Upon closer scrutiny, the first stretch of the journey, to Terni, was by “bus sostitutivo”, a replacement bus, and it was in full cognisance of this arrangement that we requested two tickets to L’Aquilla from the Facebook-bound clerk at the ticket office in Campobasso, who, as indicated at the start of this post, appeared utterly speechless in her incomprehension at this very request.

“L’Aquilla”, I repeated, “La-KWEE-le-ya.”

“No, no”, she replied - in Italian of course, because English-as-a-foreign-language and education on the dangers of smoking have this in common that they haven’t made it to Italy yet. In the end, she had the good sense to push a piece of paper and a pen under the ticket window towards me for me to write down our intended destination, which I did, at which her face cleared up.

“Ahhh!”, she exclaimed, “LA-kwee-la.” She instantly restored the unlit filter cigarette to its former position between her lips and got physical with her computer keyboard, producing two biglietti as requested before returning to Facebook, shaking her head at the ignorance of us, turisti inglesi.

The bus sostitutivo duly turned up at the appointed quarter-past and wound its way along numerous Apennines mountain passes, dazzling foliage, rock faces and what have you – won’t bore you with all that, dear reader – before we hit the end of the line and a bright and vast expanse of blue water appeared before us. This did not look like the Apennines. What body of water was this? Again, as in the case of the Vesuvius, a complete and utter absence of signage. I briefly entertained the view that this was one of Italy’s famous lakes, but these lakes were in the north! We asked what turned out to be an African refugee about the water.

“It’s the bitch”, he said, smiling a big, bright smile. “We go in summer.”

That wasn’t very helpful, but in retrospect it made sense. We thought we had been delivered to Terni (somewhere in the middle of Italy), but, on closer inspection, this turned out to be Termoli, of which neither myself nor Mrs Henry had ever heard. However, when we asked a fellow passenger on the train we were urged to get on, it turned out that we had crossed the entire country and were now traveling in close parallel to the Adriatic in the direction of Pescara. Despite it being a sunny day, the beaches were deserted, with abandoned beach chairs and black, folded-down parasols in neat formation as if Il Duce was still in charge. Incidentally, all our trains in Italy ran according to schedule. It was just that they didn’t leave from where we thought they would leave or go where we thought they would go. Otherwise, full marks. Top of the class.

Anyway, we arrived in Terni from Pescara where we had planned to catch another bus sostitutivo to Perrugia, which duly arrived as it had in Campobasso. The problem here was that the driver wouldn’t let us on, pointing out that we had Trenitalia tickets and that his bus was a Busitalia bus. Whatever possessed this man, we’ll never know. We did get on eventually, of course, and he seemed to ritually reject any intending passenger he didn’t like the look of, but all got on, anyway, staunch refusal to get off being the effective policy, as we had discovered. Nobody refuses any more staunchly than Mrs Henry.

All in all, we did end up seeing quite a bit of the Apennines from actual trains, mostly single car diesels covered in graffiti, windows included, but with enough space to enjoy the magnificent views of the rugged mountains making up the Apennines range.

It was also a train which delivered us to Venice, on time, where once again public transport in the form of little ferries, allowed us to inspect the rising damp capital of the world efficiently and cheaply. Line 1, leaving from jetty E in front of Santa Lucia railway station, plies the Grand Canal. Recommended.

Posted by Mr Henry 03:48 Archived in Italy Tagged bus train graffiti banksy trenitalia apennines busitalia Comments (0)

Where’s a Swiss Guard when you need one?

No less than three rings of security have been thrown around the Vatican by municipal police, who operate these rings in lackadaisical fashion. The first ring checks if the tourist is not bearing unconcealed or barely concealed weaponry. The second ring does much the same a little bit more ambitiously, as does the third, aided by airport baggage scanners dating back to the 1970s.

The Swiss Guard is not involved in any of this, which is a pity, because it would add to the pageantry of the Holy See. The Father, the Son and The Holy Spirit, sure-sure, but it’s all performance art, really. Now, as part of that performance art, you could have strapping young men implementing security in puffy, Renaissance dress uniform, blue, red, orange and yellow, wielding halberds, with the sun bouncing fiercely off their red-feathered morian helmets. Instead, it’s the cops, and to make matters worse they are not in uniform but have all been issued with green polo shirts. The locals, shaking their head, refer to the whole arrangement as the tre anelli di magliettas polo, and you can understand why.

The three rings are as ineffective as they are time-consuming. In a blazing sun, with temperatures in the mid-30s, the wish to inspect St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel loses some of its urgency. Thoughts turn to gelato and ice-cold Peroni.

Michelangelo, as Mrs Henry repeatedly points out, spent seventeen years on his back painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, so what’s a few hours waiting in the midday heat? I reply that Michelangelo may have been on his back for seventeen years, but he was, one, out of the sun and, two, off his feet, whereas we are in it and on them. “Pffff”, Mrs Henry says. Rationality is often too much for Mrs Henry, whom I suspect of closet Catholicism.

Later in the day, we reach the Trevi Fountain and again the magliettas polo fiasco manifests itself. Incidentally, I must confess that I had never before laid eyes on this monument and had not realised just how big it was. The Mr Henry Institute is accommodated in a light industrial area on the New South Wales Central Coast, wedged between a repairer of car radiators, Central Coast Radiators, and an enterprise which calls itself Central Coast Gardening Supplies, its statuary division being right up to, and the full length of the boundary with the Institute and clearly visible from the Institute’s staff cafeteria. Each morning when I go in there to have my morning cuppa and speak motivationally to all staff as a leader must, the statuary inventory of assorted mythological figures, “water features” and renditions in poured concrete of contemporary fictional identities such as Spiderman and Robocop hits me, well, I was going to say, like a tonne of bricks, but that obviously is not the right metaphor. The reader gets my drift, though, and I must say I had a very much similar response when I set eyes upon the Trevi fountain.

However, I was talking about security at this Roman landmark being in the hands of people in polo shirts before I got side-tracked. Briefly, the custom is to throw a coin with the right hand over the left shoulder facing away from the fountain and to make a wish. Security is in place to prevent theft: it is not permissible for anyone to put their hand in the water. A whistle is immediately blown by a maglietta polo and … there, alas, the matter rests, because the crowds in the tiny piazza where the fountain is are so dense that arrests cannot be made. Now, wouldn’t a skilfully wielded and smartly sharpened halberd applied to the wrists of would-be thieves by especially trained Swiss Guards confidently balancing on the edge of the fountain be a far more effective deterrent?

To ask the question is to answer it.

Posted by Mr Henry 10:34 Archived in Italy Tagged rome security swiss trevi Comments (0)

Play it again, Xi

Guangzhou Airport, the Mr Henry Institute’s gateway to Europe, has undergone significant if not grandiose change. Always cavernous to the point where hapless travellers might wonder if they had got lost and wandered into a series of empty, connected hangars for those failed double storey planes now flown privately only by Arab princes in between extra-judicial killings, there have been airport extensions at Guangzhou since the Institute last passed through.

Dimensions at Guangzhou Airport have now been stretched even further and it seems the already scant patronage has shrunk further too, so that, after exiting the plane, I wander lonely as a cloud through arrival, transit and departure lounges the limits of which cannot be discerned and where the few people you see immediately disappear. It’s like being home alone on an eschatological scale.

Telling myself that the world hasn’t ended and that I am in fact merely in China, I keep wandering. I need to get to the next plane.

Following the transit signs, occasionally being bawled at by scrawny girls (“Transit, transit!”), I get to a desk where I am issued with a form entitling me to apply for a temporary visa to the People’s Republic of China and from where I am waived on imperiously to arrive at another desk a kilometre or so away.

At set intervals a pair of uniformed Chinese police, consisting of one man and one woman stand to attention in an exaggerated, almost maniacal way on one-metre high daises, swivelling eagle eyes across the vast, empty expanses.

From time to time I have to catch a lift up, then down, then up again and so on. The lifts are silent as you enter them, but when the doors have closed, Beethoven’s Mondschein Sonate is piped into the lift cage. This may be part of the Belt and Road project devised by President Xi Jinping, I don’t know. I wouldn’t even put it past Xi to be the performing artist.

It could have been worse. It could have been Für Elise.

To my surprise, I am issued with a temporary entry visa without demur. I can’t think of a single reason why China should object to my entry, but it amazes me anyway that it doesn’t. Being headed for Rome, I also don’t know why I need a temporary entry visa to China, but I have a policy of not arguing with officialdom when things appear to be going smoothly.

I continue on my one-man diaspora through Guangzhou airport. Another lift. Another bit of Beethoven’s moonshine. Another security check and full body scan. Something in the shinbone of my right leg. Metal? Prosthetic? Clear that hurdle. Another lift. Passport check. Lift. On and on I wander. An empty, marble-clad hall, windowless and the size of half a football field. At the end, a tiny brightly lit opening. A door-opening with a tiny security official behind it. Security check. Passport check. Body scan. Cleared. Lift. Beethoven.

But now I can see some people and a plane at a gate. My plane? Another passport check, though. I hand my laissez-passer over, but – breaking with my policy – ask the official: “Am I entering China or am I leaving China?”

She smiles!

Posted by Mr Henry 12:05 Archived in China Tagged music totalitarianism muzac Comments (0)

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