To the New Season and the Past

Autumn has stolen in this year even before we could feel the sting of summer here on the East Coast. Sure the heat was blistering for a couple of weeks, but then it rained like the heavens were brimming, and could not, would not indeed, hold it in. The skies would darken and thicken with mushrooming clouds and there was pure drama in the build-up. When it pelted down, it was even more joyous, except if you were caught outside in the perishing rain.

The year has sped by in a string of house guests. Mid-August we travelled for 16 days straight, when we felt the sting of summer in Italy and Croatia alright. Yet what bliss! The mind and body screamed in unison, “We are not going back anywhere”. Eventually, we got back, but the head and heart refuse to leave behind the space they have nested in, in these beautiful lands.

In Tuscan country, we woke up to the sight of dreamy hills and dark cypresses with their ramrod backs, high above a town called Barga. Pastries and croissants for elevenses. After, we seasoned our souls with bread and olive oil so green that you could smell the grass in it. Demolished bowls of aglio e olio and grilled veggies drizzled with more olive oil. Learnt to cook creamy ricotta dumplings called gnudi; discovered that risotto in Tuscany is made with carnaroli, never Arborio, which is considered pedestrian; and used courgette blossoms for baked dishes. All at the palazzo of an Italian chef who was easy on the eye.

At the chef’s magazine-ready interiors, we met people from Glasgow, Sydney and California, became a family for a noon, having cooked together and exchanged stories, all washed down with endless bottles of Prosecco, then Chianti, Brunello and limoncello.

When you travel, the essence of it is formed of these stories culled from strangers. Different people, different stories, bundles of shared laughter, moments of frothy joy. Some things are priceless.

Two were American ex-military officers, one of whom might be in his 60s but has shifted to the Tuscan town of Lucca to start life afresh there. The other was hopped up about growing courgette blossoms and ways of distinguishing a male blossom from a female. Their genuine passion for food and life was endearing. My favourite was Uncle Bill, as we referred to him. He taught me the Italian expression, fare la scarpetta. It is the custom of mopping up your plate (any extra sauce, oil) with bread. I have been indulging in fare la scarpetta  ever since. The Australian woman was old and ballsy. She had just arrived in Tuscany after hiking along The Path of the Gods on the Amalfi coast. Next was a possible backpacking adventure with her son. The rest were a family, a couple and their young daughter from Glasgow. The woman bore such an uncanny resemblance to Liz Hurley that I could not help comment upon it. Overhearing this natter, her husband warned in his lovely Scottish burr, “OKAY, no more Prosecco for you.”

With this bunch of people, and the chef, we shopped for fresh tomatoes and courgette blossoms in a local grocery store where the sight of the variety of pomodoro, plump and juicy, was a feast for the eyes. The produce was so fresh that the dishes we cooked tasted like no other. Then hopping over to an old bakery for some tasty bread, we sighted the longest slab of focaccia we have ever seen, in Lucca. It was 16-feet long. Epicurean explorations do feed the soul besides an ever-ready gut. We gobbled the focaccia later at the palazzo with plenty of extra virgin olive oil. I think I can hold a discourse on just bread now.

Tuscany was a revelation. Its beauty unsurpassed and added to by the warmth of the Italians. For beauty is an aura of goodness and nothing less than that. Like the young biker couple who made a pit-stop like us along a vineyard for photos, plucked plenty of grapes, and insisted we share. The old couple we met near the Maremma region, who shared their bounty of freshly plucked berries with us.

The generous quantities of bread and pasta had to be worked off, unless we intended to come back, two rotund individuals who would not fit into our plane seats. It worked out to our advantage then that we almost always found ourselves trudging to these towns built by the ancient Etruscans upon tuff hills. Towns threatened by erosion, but somehow clinging on for dear life.

If you look at the featured photo, it is of Civita de Bagnoregio, a tufa town two hours away from Rome and still in the Lazio region of Italy. It is a fantastic town shooting for the skies from its perch upon a column of tuff. Locals call it the dying town. A big chunk of it has already collapsed into the Valle dei Callanchi (Valley of the Badlands) that is its dramatic backdrop and only about 8 people live there now. Along with a colony of cats.

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Civita de Bagnoregio

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Valle dei Callanchi

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Limestone houses of Civita

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From its centuries old church

That’s my return from the land of silence. See how my mouth shoots off. Naturally, I have got to leave the Balkans for another post. It is time for me to sign off, but not before I point out that this is why I have been missing out on the blogging world and its news. Your news. I will catch up by and by and see how life has been unfurling at your end.

Love and peace for the season of flaming beauty.

Mevagissey

There is a small traditional fishing town in Cornwall called Mevagissey. I don’t know why but my mind meanders into its narrow steep streets that wrap themselves around tiny old cottages of cob and slate, maybe because it is a lovely sunny day here, and the waters of the Hudson are that calming shade of cerulean that makes you think of all things sprightly. In Mevagissey, Adi and I met a pasty lover. An English Cocker Spaniel who after bathing in the waters on a bright spring day filled with sunshine had pattered in with a pasty in his mouth, looking quite so solemn. He brought humour to that musty shop we were in, brimming with old camping junk and odd ends, old compasses, rusted lanterns, war memorabilia, grouchy old man behind the till.

Mevagissey named after two Irish saints is a modest place where you trudge up a maze of streets that taper up and down, past boutiques, cafés and chip shops. Locals still make their living from fishing, carrying on the legacy of fishing that has been part of its history like Looe which eked out a living from pilchards and smuggling. Pilchard was its backbone to the extent that pilchard oil lent electricity to Mevagissey which happened to be one of the first among the villages in the county to be thus powered up.

The surprise waiting for me in the village was a 18th century building on the harbour that turned out to be a small (and free) museum. A long time ago in that building — the roofs of which were constructed out of beams acquired from smugglers — they would have made boats for smuggling and repaired them. The passage of time has lent it a more sober personality as a museum where it documents life as it would have been in the village in times bygone. You tend to gawp at a different mode of life, a more simplistic one that you would have probably read about or imagined. Great oak beams, a big hearth that would have been warm once, cloam oven and butter churn, barley thresher and cider press. Trappings of another age and time. Oh and how delighted was I to find out that I was in the village that was home to the founder of Pears – you know that oval glycerine soap we all grew up with.

The harbour on which the museum stands is the nerve centre of all action. From it the aforementioned narrow alleys radiate into cliffs hugged by the rows of cosy cottages. Now, drama unrolls with great lucidity before the eyes if you find yourself on the harbour. Courting couples, fathers dealing with tantrums of lads aiming to challenge fearless gulls strutting around for a nibble of your meal please, families sitting along the edges of the harbour with their large polystyrene boxes stuffed with fish and chips, the motley crew of sail boats waiting patiently in the inner harbour.

The end result of the tootling around Mevagissey is that your appetite works itself up, gunning for a huge pasty or fish and chips. You know which it would be. I would peg it on peer pressure (all those people dipping into the contents of their boxes) and a heady mix of aromas wafting out of the doors of the chip shop. For along with the salty smell of the sea hanging thick in the air, you have to cope with those whiffs, or just capitulate. The tang of vinegar and lingering notes of fish frying. Surely you can smell it…

 

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We Like a Good Old-Fashioned Hike

On a solemn grey morning, when the skies were beset by heavy clouds and the brows of my husband by equal measures of frowns, we were on our way to Mount Fløyen. A city mountain in Norway.

Lille Lungegårdsvannet, the lake featured in the lead photo and with the unpronounceable name which sits pretty at the centre of the city of Bergen, gives you an idea of the kind of day it was.

A colony of seagulls took flight above our heads, alarmingly low, which meant we had to duck if only for the sake of retaining our scalps — quintessential you see in achieving the climb to Fløyen. Birds taking flight. Ah what a romantic sight ’tis on a sunny morning but under smoky skies it acquire shades of the portentous. Alternately, it reveals the workings of a fanciful imagination.

The afternoon before, we had driven from Norheimsund to Bergen, the gateway to the fjords on the west coast of Norway. Our apartment was near the main wharf so we had time to dawdle over tea and a substantial breakfast. Adi was suitably miffed: How anyone could Imagine the prospect of any kind of activity that required him to climb anything, leave alone a mountain. That was the dilemma. We were in that phase of our travels where Adi had not warmed up to hiking on holidays. It was akin to tailing Tuktuk, our beloved lab, around the house and then dragging him for his bath.

Time and you, with laudable perseverance, may bring about changes in your spouse but watch out for the postscript. When Adi took to hiking holidays, he did so with a vengeance. He led me up hills which no one charts (for a reason) and where the wind in the grass raised my hair and hackles maniacally.

Before I digress into the future, our path from the apartment to Fløyen took us past the busy wharf and the largest church of Bergen in its red-brick Gothic glory and its pristine wooden interiors. My favourite part of admiring a church is to tip my head back and gape at its spire which almost always seems set to pierce the heavens.

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 The 19th-century St. John’s Church 
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Simplicity of its wooden interiors

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It was chilly and people were queuing up for the Fløibanen, the funicular that for the sum of NOK 45 (£4) whisks you up to the top of the mountain in the matter of a few minutes.

But who wants five measly minutes when you can have an hour and a half of panting up steep hills and stairs – in the cheery company of a husband who refuses to let a smile crack his visage. Halfway into the climb we had trudged up a steep hill, past doll-like slatted houses in shades of white and yellow with their orange-red roofs. In the backdrop lay the steely grey waters of the harbour and a church steeple or two.

The contrast was stark when a fat black cat scampered past us. At the same time, Adi chose to lean his head on a pillar and bemoan his fate.

“What kind of a holiday is this? I want beer and food,” he bit out.

“But you just had a big breakfast,” I pointed out righteously.

This charmer of mine stomped ahead in reply. In this mode, we continued up the hill. When we had passed by enough red, black and blue houses with enviable views of the harbour, and we thought that we had done it, that we must surely have reached the top, I skipped up some 100-odd stairs. Turned out, they were the private stairs of a cluster of hillside houses.

Retracing our steps down, we reached the foot of a steep forest path which led into the midst of a pine forest, its grounds primeval and mossy in parts. It could easily pass for an enchanted world where we were the only ones in Troll Forest, or were we? We should have stopped to have a word with the resident trolls but there was no time to be lost. Heavy showers were forecast for the next hour.

If Adi had been spectacularly grumpy, I took over from here. My vast reserves of joy had been depleted because there is only that many tantrums one can weather.

And I will have you know, dear reader, that I can do it with panache too.

Almost magically, Adi’s black mood lifted. Between the two of us, we had handed over the baton of grimness from one to the other with perfect synergy.

It behoved my beloved then to placate me. Legs trembling – unknown muscles in the body had been worked all this while – I suddenly spotted the Fløyenguttene, otherwise known as the Boys of Fløyen behind electrified fences. They were white and horned with innocent faces and baaa-ey measures of conversation. Cashmere goats. Please know their importance in the scheme of things and be dignified in your comportment when you do make their acquaintance. They are employed by the local agencies to keep the vegetation at bay.

A brief look at a bald and squat troll besieged by the crowds and a quick coffee at the café later, we decided to experience the Fløibanen on our way back to the centre of Bergen.

Now when you find yourself in Bergen, and if the heavens do not burst upon you, do skip the funicular. Take the long way up because in life you have at times got to take the winding way up. And if a few of them are dirt, why you have aced it, champ.

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Steep roads that shoot up past these charming cottages

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Need I say anything?
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By the harbour
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Troll Forest
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‘Do not mess with the trolls you meet on this trail. If you meet one, make sure you look at the ground and talk only when talked to.’ (You did not just fall for that surely?)
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At the top where the pine forests lead to the vantage point
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The Fløyen Boy
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The hike with a view