In Search of Shambala

With a new battery fitted the bike seemed to start more frequently. K’s shoulder had improved marginally – enough for us to travel back to the main road, it seemed. Once again we packed the bags in a weary routine and tied them to the bike, ready to ride to the highway at Bhuntar. I was still torn; part of me still wanted to try reaching Kinnaur. But the previous night as we had sat on the balcony we had both given voice to our private thoughts. Neither of us are particularly superstitious, but with one problem after another on this trip the signs did not look particularly good. The leopard that the bus ran over, the wobbling bike, the unreliable starter, her shoulder, the crash… I felt like I was stretching my luck to breaking point. It’s normal to have a few nerves before a big trip into a remote and rugged place, and in the past I might have dismissed them and pressed on regardless. But when she confided: “I don’t have a good feeling about this,” I had to admit that I didn’t either. She had had bad dreams – she wouldn’t tell me the specifics, but my own had been alarming enough: missing a bend, losing traction, going over the edge. So we had an emergency council, and decided that to continue without paying heed to these inner voices would be unwise.

There was an alternative, however. The bike had come from Naggar, which was described as a pleasant mountain village on the opposite side of the river to the main Kullu-Manali highway. Although on this trip it seemed as if I kept revisiting places, I’d never been to Naggar. We decided to head there and rest up, then see how we felt. I was also, in the back of my mind, contemplating getting rid of the bike altogether, as by now it felt like a liability. But we needed it to get there. I tried to do a balanced assessment of what exactly these ominous premonitions were telling me. Was it that I shouldn’t ride into Kinnaur? Or was it that I shouldn’t get on the bike at all? Was it cursed? Had someone died on it? I drew on my reserves: of extensive experience, of all that training that I had, and of a fair amount of luck, and thought it would hold as far as Naggar. After that I’d never get on it again.

Five minutes out of Kasol we encountered the first oncoming traffic. The road was a potholed strip of asphalt just wide enough to accommodate a car, with sand and loose stones on each side. Heavily laden, I needed to keep my tyres on that asphalt. But the Indian road rule of ‘size matters’ meant that cars and minibuses claimed the entirety of the road, coming barrelling towards us hooting furiously, refusing to give way an inch. A people-carrier driven by a wispy man, horn blaring, forced me to move left onto the sand. As soon as the tyres hit it the bike began to tip. We slewed wildly from side to side, tilting 45 degrees this way and that. “We’re going over!” I thought to myself with incredulity. “Again!” I gave it a burst of accelerator and somehow the tyres bit; the Machismo did about the only thing it was good at, powering through. Somehow we stayed upright.

The road took all of my concentration. Off to the right the cliff plummeted away down to the tumbling waters of the Parvati River. To my left was a wall of sheer rock, chunks of which had broken off in places, depositing boulders on the road. Lacking a functioning horn, on the blind hairpins I gunned the accelerator, the resultant snarl echoing off the cliff-face as a warning to oncoming vehicles. Loud pipes save lives, as the Harley crew claim. We passed through the small village of Jari, and the same men were sitting on the bridge, dressed in white homespun cloth, with scarlet Kullu caps and enormous moustaches waxed into points. They looked like they had sat there forever, and this stream of traffic that now passed them by all day was just a temporary blip in history; they were here before the cars and would be here long after they had gone.

After an hour or so the road improved, and we arrived at a junction on the outskirts of Bhuntar, and a signpost in Hindi. कुल्लू was to the right. Kullu. On the bridge a group of Sikh pilgrims in white kurta pyjamas and orange turbans prayed facing the river. As we passed them the window of the car ahead of us came down and a bangled arm languidly extended from it to fling a handful of litter into the river. The Sikhs prayed on as small, colourful wrappers and discarded fruit rind fluttered about them, coming to land on the rocks below.

There were no signposts to Naggar. I knew we needed to be on the eastern bank of the river, but how to get there? We were passing a line of small workshops and I spotted a man standing by the side of the road. Pulling up alongside I greeted him, and asked: “Naggar?” He looked confused.

I tried again: “Naggar kidhar hai?” Which way is Naggar? He still couldn’t understand me.

At that moment K leaned forward and said: “Nuggrrh.”

Ah, Nuggrrh! He pointed straight on. In my Anglicised accent he heard Nagg-ah, and somehow failed to make the connection.

We rode on. Channelling my inner Taggart, over my shoulder I informed K in pure Glaswegian: “Thurr’s been a murrdurr in Nuggrrh”.

“Huh?”

“Never mind. Tell you later.”

Naggar appeared perhaps half an hour later, with the usual dusty, traffic-snarled street, chaotic with people and noise. This was far from the idyllic village I had pictured, “like Switzerland!”, the Croat had said in Kasol. But as we rode upwards, round hairpin after hairpin, the signs of development fell away and we entered a more timeless and tranquil environment. Cows grazed in the front gardens of small houses, and women trudged uphill with enormous baskets on their backs. The narrow lanes were improbably steep, like ascending a staircase, and with the bike fully laden and two of us on it the 500cc engine was labouring even in first gear. For the last part I had to slip the clutch to prevent it from stalling, and the front wheel kept lifting off the ground – it was like walking a tightrope that bounded up and down beneath you. Finally we saw the sign to the lodge we were booked at, and I roared up to the gate in a cloud of dust and switched off. No sooner had I done so than a smiling Himachali face appeared at the door and said: “You can park the bike just there, on the grass opposite.” Sighing I fired it up once more and did a tricky three point turn on a 45 degree slope, bringing the Machismo to rest on a small patch of lawn that was occupied by three grazing goats. Climbing off the bike wearily I patted the fuel tank – it hadn’t let us down in the end. It was the last time I ever rode it.

The room we were shown to was wood-panelled throughout like a mountain chalet. We fixed a price for 700rs a night – a great improvement on the exorbitant prices in Kasol – and retired to the garden for chai. Just next door was a small stone temple covered in scaffolding, and opposite were wooden houses with ornately carved balconies that looked almost Balkan. In the distance loomed the peaks of the Pin Parvati Range, their summits dusted with fresh snow, and all around us conifer-covered hillsides climbed steeply to the mountains behind the village. Through the heart of them a trail led over the Chandrkhani Pass at 3,666 metres, leading to the holy village of Malana, famed for its hashish, then on down to Kasol. The wind sighed through the trees, and colourful butterflies chased each other around the garden in the sunshine.

That evening we walked up the lane past the temple to a small rooftop restaurant that advertised itself as a pizzeria. A large Indian family had arrived shortly before us – perhaps a dozen of them – and the patriarch occupied himself by issuing a series of orders to all and sundry: “Here, you – sit over there. Waiter! Move that table closer to this one. Now, children, what do you want to eat? No no no you don’t want that – it’s non-veg. Have this instead.” It was obvious that he liked to be in charge. He kept jumping up out of his seat and rearranging things. Small, balding and with a bristling moustache, he reminded me of the character Zebedee in the children’s programme Magic Roundabout, who had a large spring in place of his legs. The wives all sat on one side of the table and looked at us disapprovingly as we entered, and even more so when K spoke Hindi to the waiter. What was an Indian girl doing with a foreigner twice her age? They were those sort of people – snobbish, suspicious, judgmental and afraid. The children – all girls – chased each other around the terrace and shrieked excitedly.

The smallest one, who was perhaps six – a curious, frog-like child with spindly arms and legs and a perpetually snotty nose – kept trying to join in. But she was terribly clumsy. She bumped off our table, and then managed to run into a pillar. At one point she somehow missed her footing and went down with a great clonk, followed by a plaintive wail. Gathered up by her father she eventually subsided a little, before escaping again and making her way across to the steep concrete steps to where the other kids were watching the chef take the pizzas out of the oven. This coincided with me heading down the stairs to find the bathroom. The minute I got up the family became sharply attentive. I followed the child to the top of the stairs, where she halted uncertainly. “Come on,” I encouraged her. “Slowly slowly.” She looked around for reassurance, found none,  then decided to trust me, and took the first step carefully. I shadowed her every move, ready to catch her if she fell. As we descended, I looked up to see that her father had come over to the railing and was looking down at us, keeping a watchful eye out. She reached the third step, where the stairs turned sharply to the left, and halted nervously. “Sit down, na?” I told her. “Go down that way.” She looked up at me trustingly – showing far more trust than any of the adults in her family – and did so. Slowly together we descended the stairs, and when we reached the pizza oven the entire family exhaled a collective sigh of relief.

When you travel a lot sometimes other people with more settled and sedentary lives comment on it and say things like: “Oh I wish I could do that! I’d love to travel all the time”. But it can be utterly exhausting. After months on the road a sort of long-term sense of demoralisation can creep in; you live out of a backpack and endlessly recycle the same clothes, which progressively fall apart. You are never really, properly clean: there’s no hot water, or the bathroom is filthy and every surface adhesive with grime. Each night a different bed in a different room in a different town. Each night different problems to deal with, or different species of vermin. In Goa it was ants that invaded the apartment each day. In Old Manali it was swarms of flies – 30 or 40 of them in the room, all the time. In Kasol it had been giant spiders. In Naggar it was both flies and spiders. And in Vashisht it was silverfish – small wiggling creatures that appeared in the bed, every night. It’s exhausting, disconcerting and debilitating. Bad food, hideously uncomfortable transport, endless problems. You get tired of being ill – a sort of continual low-grade sense of unwellness. And repeatedly you recall Rimbaud’s metaphysical enquiry writing home from Ethiopia, and echoed by countless other travellers over the years as a nomadic refrain: “What am I doing here?”

And yet somehow these tribulations make you more accepting of things in the long run. Everything becomes relative. Your train home is delayed by half an hour? Then you laugh at the time it was delayed for nine hours when you were in India, and you sat at the station in infernal temperatures because you had nowhere else to go, trying not to fall asleep because there were thieves about. The restaurant brought you the wrong order? You remember the time that a restaurant had no food whatsoever and you went to bed hungry because it was the only place in town. You’re fretting about driving through a small country town in Europe because it’s five o’clock and rush hour? Then you think about the time it took you five hours to travel 50 kilometers on a bus which was standing room only and the man next to you had obviously waded through sewage to get on board because he stank so badly you wanted to retch. What am I doing here?  

In Naggar there was a simple answer. Resting up. Recovering. We made light of it, with a sort of robust humour. One morning K came out of the bathroom with a wry smile and said: “Just check when you use the towel.”

“Kya?”

“You’re not going to like it. There’s a damn big spider hiding behind it.”

“Oh god. Here too?”

“Yaar.”

I went into the bathroom. There it was, on the geyser, impressively large. It appeared to have a marshmallow stuck to its body in a sort of white foamy ring. Eggs. I was becoming exasperated with all these enormous arachnids – or more accurately, exasperated with myself for being so freaked out by them all the time. I seized the plastic jug that furnishes every Indian bathroom in place of toilet paper and clapped it over the spider, then slid a piece of card over the top – actually the front cover torn off the Rough Guide. The book had proved worthwhile in the end: it was smeared with deceased Manali flies. “Get the door!” I called, and carefully carried the jug and its contents out into the lane. I marched over to the few steps that led down to the street, upended the jug and the spider fell out onto the step. It crawled a couple of feet and then stopped. At that moment a mynah bird which had been perched on the wire overhead swooped down and landed just in front of me. It looked at the spider, then cocked its head on one side and looked at me, emitting a low whistle, as if to say: “Do you not want that?” Clearly I didn’t. The mynah hopped up to the spider, pecked a hole in it, then flew off with it in its beak, the legs sticking out either side like whiskers. Shrugging I went back inside. Wheel of life.

Insect life aside, Naggar was tranquil. The air had a mountain freshness, and there was little traffic this high up in the village. The sounds were older, more timeless: birdsong, the sighing wind in the trees, the lowing of cattle, the ringing of bells from the temple… and the drumming. Every evening there was a procession from the temple, and the sound of the drums echoed around the narrow valleys. On and on it went, until you fell almost into a trance with it – a rumbustious thumping exuberance of percussion. I clenched my pipe between my teeth and adopted a clipped, pre-war accent: “When the drums stop, that’s when they’ll attack”. I thought of the town band at home in Suffolk – boys and girls in red uniform jackets like guardsmen, marching along like clockwork soldiers in time to the snare drum and glockenspiel. Naggar was altogether more chaotic. The drums were syncopated and had a wonderful barbaric wildness to them. Nobody marched in step here – they ambled along, each at their own pace. There were no uniforms either, other than the ubiquitous Kullu caps on the men, made of grey felt with a colourful band of embroidery round the front of the forehead. What must the British have made of it all when they were here?

One foreigner who documented an answer of sorts was the Russian artist and mystic Nikolai Roerich. Initially a stage designer for Borodin’s Prince Igor and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, as well as a member of Diaghilev’s World of Art society, he became interested in Eastern religions under the influence of his wife Helena, and began to explore Theosophy, Vedanta and Buddhism. In the 1920s he mounted a five-year-long Asian expedition, “from Sikkim through Punjab, Kashmir, Ladakh, the Karakoram Mountains, Khotan, Kashgar, Qara Shar, Urumchi, Irtysh, the Altai Mountains, the Oyrot region of Mongolia, the Central Gobi, Kansu, Tsaidam, and Tibet”, with the aim of establishing a spiritual utopia that he called The Sacred Union of the East and discovering the lost kingdom of Shambala. As Colin Thubron describes in his book To a Mountain in Tibet:

The precise location of this kingdom of Shambala is uncertain, but it is said to lie encircled by impassable snow peaks somewhere north of Mount Kailas. Yogis have thought it a three-month journey beyond the mountain, but the path is so elusive that pilgrims find themselves wandering hopelessly. Some even have a notion that Shambala floats in another dimension of time, as if through a galactic wormhole, and can be accessed only through ice doors in the Himalaya. Patterned like an eight-petalled lotus, radiating tributary kingdoms, it has been ruled for two and a half millennia by a dynasty of godly kings who reside in a jewel-built palace, as at the heart of a gorgeous mandala. No word for ‘enemy’ or ‘war’ is known here. Its founding king was taught by the Buddha himself, and as his subjects grew more selfless, so their country faded from human sight. Yet its rulers continue to watch over the human world, and after 400 years, as that world falls deeper into ruin, the last redeemer king will ride out from his sanctum to institute a golden age.

For almost a year the Roerich expedition was feared to be lost as nothing was heard from them. They had in fact been detained by the Tibetan authorities and forced to live in tents through the harsh winter – leading to the deaths of five members of the party. Eventually released, they travelled south to India and settled in Naggar, where Roerich founded the Himalayan Research Institute.

It still exists today. A museum now, it sits high above the village overlooking the Kullu Valley. A gallery displays many of Roerich’s paintings, mostly of mountain scenes in Tibet, Ladakh and Spiti, the palette consisting almost exclusively of shades of blue and white, snow and shadow. There’s a purity to them – the boldness of the colours appearing almost psychedelic, surreal peaks looming over unearthly landscapes. I recognised the style at once – I had seen it before, decorating the cover of Robert Byron’s book First Russia, Then Tibet. That one was titled Tibetan Monastery 1944. Next to it on the gallery wall there was a self-portrait of Roerich in silk gown and skullcap, like a Central Asian merchant, and next to that a photograph of the family, attired in the fashions of the time – Norfolk jackets and plus fours. In the dining room the table was set for dinner, European crockery somehow at odds with the Indian furnishings throughout the room and the Buddhist thangkas around the walls. In the garage outside a large vintage car was parked – a Dodge. The badge on the bonnet said “Royal Automobile Association of North India”, and in the background was a photograph of the car being towed out of sand by three Bactrian camels. Down below the main house, along a narrow path that winds along the hillside, lies the memorial samadhi, or cremation site, marked by a large stone with Hindi script around it: “The body of Maharishi, Nicholas Roerich, a great friend of India, was cremated at this place on 30 Magh 2004 of the Vikram’s era, corresponding to December 15th, 1947. Om Ram.” (Let there be peace.) Lilies grow at its base, and the site is overlooked by a huge tree, a deodar cedar, whose gnarled branches creak and sway gently in the ceaseless Himalayan wind.

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Nikolai Roerich – Tibetan Monastery, 1944.

 

 

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The Invisible City

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Just below the surface of consciousness I am hanging in suspension, occasional muffled sounds and flashes of dappled light reaching me. I can hear people’s voices – a crowd, all talking. There’s a cry of a vendor in a three-bar song, distant laughter, a child’s fluting call. It is the sound of a street full of people, all going about their business, and there’s something timeless in it – we could be anywhere, at any period in history. I do not recognise the language, but there’s a rhythm to it, vaguely discernible above the babble. There comes the rattle of shutters, somebody whistling, a softly muted glassy chime – some instrument, perhaps – and the patter of quickly running feet. I could swim upwards towards it, or drift down again into unconsciousness. Caught somewhere in between I become aware of the clamour going on in my own inner world – an endless cycle of conversations, sounds, people and imagery: the faces of strangers, so familiar somehow and yet unknown to me as individuals – and simultaneously I can hear the world outside. Treading water, suspended, slowly I begin to float upwards, detaching from one world and heading towards another, until I break through the surface, opening my eyes.

On the wall before me is an enormous picture – a drawing, an ancient map. In each corner are the heads of four gods emerging from the clouds, each one captured in the action of blowing: Septentrio, god of the north wind, bringer of winter, is wild-haired and angry looking, a chilling blast emanating from his mouth which scuds the waters into a malevolent chop. To the west Favonious is a youthful god, half-smiling as he ushers in spring and the light breezes of summer, lips pursed as if to bestow a kiss. Auster, from the south, is forceful – head back and cushioned by waves he brings the gales of autumn. And Subsolanus, looking on benevolently to the east, fans his breath softly across the map. Four lesser ‘venti’, or wind gods, occupy the north-east, south-east, north-west and south-west winds respectively, as back-up. The distant mainland towers with boiling cumulus clouds… or are they mountains? Land merges with sky, city with water.

The map across which these gods waft their zephyrous airs was created by Jacopo de Barbari in the year 1500. It is of an ancient fantasy city set upon a shallow littoral, ringed about with smaller islands, guarded by a forest of masts and spars belonging to sailing ships that lie at anchor festooned with rigging. It is bisected by the sinous twist of a grand waterway through its heart, along which progresses a fleet of smaller vessels. The houses are densely packed together in crooked streets overlooking canals, a hump-backed bridge joining the two halves, domes and spires of dozens of churches punctuating the skyline. In the foreground a triton straddles a gigantic fish, a sea monster, having just speared it. And right in the centre of the map is a large piazza, surmounted by an enormous clocktower, measuring out the pace of the inhabitants’ lives in a timescale of centuries. But this is no fantasy city, no dream-island of the imagination. This is Venice.

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It is a floating city, blurred at the edges with liquefaction, the wash of watercolours fading as the palette runs together. A mackerel sky with a sheen of bluish-silver fish scales, houses picked out in shades of sea-pink and lemon. The green sea mutters to itself, jostling its waves together, becoming calmer at the edges as it turns over, softly respiring. The suck and gurgle of water heavy with sediment around the dark pontoons causes the prows of gondolas, etched like hatchets in black and gold, to nod in mute agreement, tossing their heads like horses. The babble and ripple of wavelets, lapping the edge of an ancient stairway, sipping at beige-grey stones which descend in darkening shades of green, stepping carefully downwards into the depths as currents swirl across them. A sparkling, iridescent, Canaletto morning marked by the low growl of marine diesels as small white craft nose into the jetties, then raise their voices in a snarl as they bound away across the waves like excitable dogs.

Down the zig-zagging cobbled alleys in the dark, through small windswept piazzas – tiny squares with shuttered houses, following the quick clip of heels from two girls ahead of us. As we turn a corner they come briefly into sight before disappearing round the next one. Lost in the Venetian labyrinth. Pools of light from streetlamps overhead fading into the night, glowing orbs with halos of golden mist that seem to visibly fizz in the air. The distant sound of a violin – a lone busker in a square. Echoing laughter and the rattle of shutters descending. Fallen leaves chase each other round in circles, then are suddenly swept away by the wind – a cool hand placed upon a brow, smoothing worries away. In the background the endless sigh of the rise and fall of the sea.

We arrive at a junction that we recognise – the yellow sign high on the wall indicates San Marco and Rialto with a thin, straight arrow. Turning into another narrow alley, just wide enough for two abreast, we meet groups of people coming the other way, and all smile apologetically while passing; in Venice pedestrians unthinkingly drive on the right. Then suddenly there is the canal before us, and Accademia bridge. Lights are winking into life along the water, the sky a thin glimmer behind the blue underwash of clouds. There is the cafe where we had lunch a couple of days ago. Together we stand at the rail of the bridge looking along the canal, shivering in the wind. I imagine myself being here alone, and it feels like the loneliest place in the world. We have become used to distance, you and I, have we not? Some lines of Rilke come to mind – Rilke who loved Venice and visited many times:

You must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.

Rainer Maria Rilke – Letters to a Young Poet

I could inhabit this dreamscape until the end of time and you would still be with me. This city is suffused with a beautiful melancholy, elegiac as a shift to minor key, notes falling like tears.


When Luchino Visconti chose the Adagietto of Mahler’s 5th Symphony as the soundtrack for his 1971 film Death in Venice, he captured that atmosphere perfectly: the shimmering strings of reflections on the water, the tremulous longing that beauty can inspire. Thomas Mann, who wrote the novel upon which the film was based, modelled the physical description of the lead character Von Aschenbach on that of Mahler, also giving him the first name of Gustav. The two had met in Munich previously and Mahler had made a strong impression on the novelist; Mann is said to have been deeply moved on seeing Mahler break down in tears when departing Venice by train.

In the novel Von Aschenbach is a writer himself who, suffering terribly from writer’s block, takes a holiday to Venice in search of curing it. Observing a Polish family at dinner one night in the hotel, he finds himself mesmerised by the beauty of their son, a youth of around 14 dressed in a sailor suit, called Tadzio. In his mind he likens Tadzio to a Greek sculpture, and feels a rekindling of, as he sees it, artistic passion. Gradually, over the following days, he finds himself seeking out the family in order to catch a glimpse of him, transfixed by the boy’s looks. When, one evening, Tadzio glances at Von Aschenbach and smiles openly, he is so discomfited by the ensuing emotional turmoil that he rushes outside into the garden, and furiously whispers to himself under his breath, in a mixture of reproach and astonishment, “I love you!” For the hitherto ascetic and repressed von Aschenbach, locked into a state of tension where he is unable to create, this sudden allowance of sensuality begins to spin out of control, and he becomes enslaved by beauty and desire.

Increasingly besotted and tormented by erotic dreams, he takes to obsessively following the boy – who seems aware of the admiration and even flattered by it, but without perhaps fully realising its form, nor indeed its danger. The culmination is when von Aschenbach takes to a deck chair to watch Tadzio standing by the sea, gazing out at the sparkling water, and as the music swells Tadzio turns, extending an arm, seeming to beckon to von Aschenbach. He attempts to rise, to join Tadzio at the water’s edge, but collapses into the chair and dies. Tadzio, standing in the waves, is blissfully unaware, and turns to look out to sea once more.

Von Aschenbach had justified his interest in Tadzio to himself in the Platonic ideal of beauty, taking refuge in the cerebral coolness of Apollo – god of restraint, form and the intellect. If there was love, it was a rationalised appreciation of aesthetic beauty to him – nothing so base as an erotic charge that would threaten the idealised, internalised romance. But it is Dionysus, god of passion and unreason, who takes over and dictates a destructive obsession. In Von Aschenbach’s attempts to dye his hair and use make up lies a clumsy vanity to compensate for the total loss of dignity in the throes of his hapless love; in his adoration of a boy he never speaks to we see the timeless story of age mesmerised by the beauty of youth, confronted by its own inevitable decrepitude.

The novel had its genesis in actual events. In a 1974 book, Mann’s wife Katia revealed that they had travelled to Venice together in 1911, and that there had been a family of Polish aristocrats at the next table, whose young son was wearing a sailor suit:

On the very first day, we saw the Polish family, which looked exactly the way my husband described them: the girls were dressed rather stiffly and severely, and the very charming, beautiful boy of about 13 was wearing a sailor suit with an open collar and very pretty lacings. He caught my husband’s attention immediately. This boy was tremendously attractive, and my husband was always watching him with his companions on the beach. He didn’t pursue him through all of Venice – that he didn’t do – but the boy did fascinate him, and he thought of him often.

Katia Mann – Unwritten Memories

The young Polish boy was the Baron Wladyslaw Moes. Just nine years after the Venice holiday with his family he volunteered in an Uhlan regiment in the 1920 Polish-Soviet war, taking part in a cavalry charge at the Battle of Komarow against Soviet troops on horseback – the last entirely mounted engagement of the 20th century. Captured by the Germans in the Second World War, Moes was held prisoner for six years, and on his return to Poland found that the Communist regime had stripped his family of all its estates. He became a translator at the Iranian Embassy in Warsaw, and died in 1986.


In Venice I found I had some sympathy for Evelyn Waugh, who in an uncharacteristic moment of self-effacement, felt himself utterly unequal to the task of describing it:

What can I possibly write, now, at this stage of the world’s culture, about two days in Venice, that would not be an impertinence to every reader of this book? Perhaps if I made my home in Venice for twenty years and attained a perfect command over its language, history, art and culture, I might decently contribute a chapter here to what has already been written by those who have mastered those accomplishments. Meanwhile, since there seems no probablility of my ever becoming anything more considerable than one of a hundred globe-trotting novelists, I will pass on to Ragusa.

Evelyn Waugh – Labels

Ragusa seemed drastic. After weeks of not writing anything at all because there was too much to say and I couldn’t choose what to leave out, I close my eyes briefly and see the invisible city, offer up a plea for literary mitigation and turn to the keyboard once more.

In the Piazza San Marco at dusk, rival orchestras competed – one outside the Grand Cafe, and another outside Florian’s, both establishments boasting countless luminaries that have patronised them over the years, too tedious to list here. Tonight most of the clientele were Chinese tourists photographing themselves with selfie sticks over €10 coffees. Out in the main square little green lasers flickered over the stones, and occasional glowing parachutes fell to earth: the vendors from Goa’s Anjuna beach had moved in to colonise St Mark’s – this, the heart of the loveliest city on earth, which Napoleon once described as “the drawing room of Europe”, turned into some tawdry parody of a tripped out tropical beach.

We stopped at a small bar for cicheti – a kind of Venetian tapas of small, bite-sized snacks usually involving fish. There was smoked eel, hard-boiled egg decorated with anchovies (the Italian word “acciughe” somehow conveyed K’s expression at the prospect of eating one), fresh tuna and baccalà – dried and salted cod, which I’d seen hanging on wooden drying racks in Norway’s Lofoten Islands. I’d tried it there – one revolting mouthful from a packet labelled “Fisksnaks” which was proffered to me by a local with a dark sense of humour. It was disgusting – like a lump of wood which slowly softened and became slimy, while releasing a powerfully fishy flavour tinged with ammonia. Happily the Italians, as always, had made a much better job of creating something edible out of such inauspicious material – the baccalà was delicious, if powerfully salty.

These different sestieri, six distinct districts, had their own individual mood and atmosphere. San Marco was busy, armies of tourists endlessly streaming past designer boutiques, the outlets of global chains with these flagship stores in this, the most exclusive of addresses. In one monstrous act of consumerist vandalism, the exquisite outline of the Rialto bridge was hidden by an enormous billboard for a brand of jeans which was draped over its parapets. To the north, across the Grand Canal, lay San Polo and Santa Croce – smart neighbourhoods with hidden pockets of local colour, where tourists tended to stick to well trodden routes. Castello felt poorer, more lived-in – small convenience stores and kebab shops, housing estates, and the functional outline of the Arsenale naval base. Dorsoduro was narrow and crooked, authentic and more solid underfoot – its very name means “hardback”. Cannareggio was quieter, prettier and residential, and from its Fondamente Nuove small craft set sail across the lagoon to their final destination – the cemetery island of San Michele, Isle of the Dead.


As a birthday treat I bought two tickets to the opera. Not the famed La Fenice – it was sold out – but a smaller production to be held in a palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal. Given the labyrinthine nature of Venetian navigation, we decided to do a reconnaisance that afternoon, and found ourselves repeatedly coming back to a small junction marked by a little bridge. According to the map it was just here. We nosed speculatively along a kind of wharf which appeared to be nothing but the backs of warehouses. There was the streetname, however. Spotting an elderly gentleman with shopping bags fumbling with his keys at a doorway nearby, I approached him for directions. He was tall and slightly stooped, with a patrician mane of swept-back silver hair.

“Scuzi Signor, dov e Palazzo Barbarigo-Minotto?”

He looked round and blinked. “Il palazzo?” he replied. “Ecco!” he gestured with his chin to the building next door.

I looked up at the blank wall along which we had walked several times. A small alley appeared to lead off to one side of it. “Down there?”

“Si, si. Musica! Musica a palazzo!”

“Yes, that’s the one. Molto grazie.”

We followed the alley, which was dingy and lined with old wooden pillars. It didn’t look terribly promising. But then, on a door set into the wall, I saw a small flyer advertising that evening’s performance. This was the place alright. Retracing our steps we headed back towards Dorsoduro, mentally marking the turns. Right at the cafe, left at the church, over the bridge and along the canal.

That evening we dressed up as best we could in a mixture of ethnic chic left over from the wedding in Sardinia. I wanted to be in plenty of time, and we arrived back at the junction with half an hour to spare. A glowing doorway nearby advertised itself as the American Bar, so we decided to have a drink beforehand. Despite my forays into the medicinal powers of brandy in Sardinia, I didn’t intend to make a habit of it, and ordered a non-alcoholic cocktail called a Shirley Temple, which was aptly named: genderisation aside, it was the kind of thing a young girl might enjoy, being bright pink and sweet and fizzy and bedecked with clusters of berries. K ordered a double Jameson’s, no ice. The barman, entirely understandably, placed the whiskey in front of me and the Shirley Temple in front of her. There you go dear, your first grown-up drink. The sweetness of it made my teeth jangle, but a sniff of her whiskey gave me the shudders, so I sucked at the elaborately curling straw while keeping a gimlet eye on the clientele.

I was trying to spot fellow opera-goers. I recalled an entry from The Road to Oxiana by Robert Byron: “After inspecting two palaces, the Labiena, containing Tiepolo’s fresco of Cleopatra’s Banquet, and the Pappadopoli, a stifling labyrinth of plush and royal photographs, we took sanctuary from culture in Harry’s Bar. There was an ominous chatter, a quickfire of greetings: the English are arriving.” They were arriving in the American Bar too – respectable pensioners in cords, beige anoraks and shoes like calzone, treating themselves to a small sherry or a G&T.

Heading back out over the little crooked bridge we made our way back along the darkened wharf, past the spot where the old man had given us directions, followed by a small platoon of Home Counties retirees. Turning once more into the alley we saw that the doorway we had noticed earlier was now open, and a line of candles marked out a path across a courtyard and up a flight of stairs. There were other people there already, smartly attired in dinner jackets and evening dress. We queued on the stairs, everyone speaking in low, reverential voices – it’s not every day one gains admission to a 15th century palazzo by candlelight.

The opera – The Barber of Seville – was organised by Musica a Palazzo, a club which one became a temporary member of in order to attend a performance. We duly filled out forms at a low table and were presented with our membership cards by a young man in black tie. Taking our places on small wooden chairs in a long, gilded room, the lights dimmed, the four-piece orchestra struck up, led by a large, bearded figure who was so enthusiastic in his playing that he had trouble remaining in his seat, and then, suddenly, from behind us, a powerful baritone voice. Coming down the aisle was Figaro. He passed within feet of us, making his way toward the front of the room, singing all the while. The effect was extraordinary – to hear these voices in a relatively small room gave them a power and resonance entirely absent from larger performances. It was magnificent.

Each act was in a different room, and for the next we made our way into a small drawing room, taking our places around the edges. In front of a tall rococo mirror Rosina laced her corset an arm’s length from where I sat, the vibration of the high soprano notes creating an extraordinary fluttering sensation in the room, like the wingbeats of a trapped bird. Paintings lined the walls, and my eyes were continually drawn upward towards a vast painting across the ceiling – The Triumph of Virtue over Ignorance, by Tiepolo, who had decorated the entire room. We moved again, to a baroque boudoir for the finale. Cherubs cavorted overhead upon ornate plasterwork that exhaled the cool damps of the Grand Canal outside, the room heady with the scent of powder and perfume. And then suddenly it was all over, and we all filed out, back down the candlelit path of the stairway, and out into the alley, only to find ourselves in another stage set of moonlit canals and spires, with soft voices passing in the darkness and the endless, lapping water. Serenissima.


On a thin, grey day spattered with flecks of rain blowing in from the Adriatic, the ferry across the lagoon to the airport was full, the passengers all slightly subdued, clutching their luggage, smiling grimly or looking sombre, trying to put a brave face on things as they headed back to other, less lovely destinations and lives. Off to the right lay San Michele, and it felt appropriate; take this channel to the airport and the world of the living, that one past the line of buoys and the mournfully clanging bell that leads to the Isle of the Dead. The narrowest of lines separated the two. Behind us, beyond the corkscrew of the white wake, the crooked rooftops and spires began to sink slowly beneath the waterline. Say goodbye to Venice as she is leaving, as Cavafy might have said.

I knew that part of me would somehow always return to inhabit those same narrow alleys, those small windswept squares, and that various scenes would repeat themselves in my mind: a girl in a white lace dress sitting on the parapet of a bridge as she brushed out her long red hair; the nodding gondolas beneath a lighted window full of music and laughter; and you would always be standing beneath the last lamppost on the promontory of the Salute, lost in wonder at the view. The lights would still spring up along the Grand Canal at dusk, the paintings would hang in Ca’ Rezzonico and Accademia for centuries yet to come, only the crowd that swirled before them like the tide changing slightly in manner or appearance, and operas would continue to be sung in the old palazzo by candlelight before a rapt audience. Others would come to discover the invisible city, and it would be a different city for each of them, but I knew that it had become one of those places that had established itself in the vast gallery of my dreams, to be revisited over and over again.

Isn’t it time to free ourselves, with love,
– from the one we love, and,
trembling, endure…?
For to stay is to be nowhere at all.

Rainer Maria Rilke – Duino Elegies


 

 

A Cold Wind off the Arno

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The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the invention of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes…

Lawrence Durrell – Justine

Although we were far from the sea, and it was a golden day in late summer, there was no better evocation of the weather and landscapes we were passing through, travelling across the spine of Italy. The tops of the plane trees were swaying in the wind that swept down from the Apennines, the sun a nacreous glimmer behind the white sky, the sound of cicadas on the platforms of drowsing train stations. The Tuscan landscape slowly unveiled itself to reveal low, undulating hills upon which stood the small stony outcrops of villages, with square church towers punctuating the skyline. It was a local train on a Sunday afternoon and we stopped frequently, picking up passengers who were heading to Florence.

Florence… there was something lovely in the name; something flowering or flourishing, with perhaps a promised ending of romance. The kind of city that you didn’t consciously decide to love – you just found that at some point you had begun to. It was as if the banality of various practical civic functions went on as a backdrop to a place governed by aesthetics, where art was steeped in the very atmosphere. Everywhere you looked there were statues, buildings of extraordinary beauty, galleries. It seemed, in some respects, the very pinnacle of human civilization.

Our taxi nosed along cobbled streets that were thronging with people, where it felt as if the mass of pedestrians dominated the spaces rather than vehicles. Through the open window I heard snatches of conversation as we passed people at little more than walking pace. There seemed to be lots of Americans. We entered a small square and the taxi halted. “You have to walk from here,” said the driver. “Just down that street.” A short way along it, past a bicycle shop and then a flower stall, who seemed to have combined their interests with a bicycle parked outside full of flowers, we found the address of our apartment. It was an old building which had been converted into separate flats, just across the street from the Palazzo Vecchio – the imposing town hall. The rooms were huge and airy, exquisitely furnished, with tall windows that looked out across the rooftops. Across the walls of our bedroom hung dozens of paintings; it was like being in a gallery. Everywhere the eye came to rest there was something beautiful.

If Florence inspired romance, however, there were many suitors vying for her attention. Everywhere you went there were hordes of them: a line of sightseers stretching round the Duomo and off down a side street; huge queues for the Uffizi; a wait at the viewpoints on the Ponte Vecchio as people took turns to photograph themselves pulling silly faces before the River Arno. Even in early October the city was groaning with tourists. They marched about in phalanxes following tour guides who had little coloured signs held aloft, sometimes emblazoned with their national flag. Sometimes, incomprehensibly, a group broke into a trot; perhaps they had got too far behind their leader, someone had panicked and the herd galloped to catch up. I saw one couple walking up and down a street repeatedly, nose in their guidebook, until on their third pass they spotted the building they were supposed to take a photograph of, and duly did so. It put me in mind of Lucy Honeychurch in E. M. Forster’s novel A Room With A View, who, having forgotten her guidebook, wanders around Santa Croce wondering which of the many tombs she passes is the one really worth seeing and whether she has missed it. With no authority to tell her what to see, she has to fall back on the uncertain reserves of her own personal taste: “Of course it must be a wonderful building. But how like a barn! And how very cold!”

It’s not easy to be a traveller these days. On the one hand it’s easier than ever – international flights  deposit you anywhere in the world in a matter of hours. Local currency is easily available from cash machines. The notion of spending weeks in considerable discomfort just to get somewhere is, for most, inconceivable. But what this has done is blurred the line between travel and tourism, as the industry is known, into a seamless elision with nothing left between them. Whether you are on a week-long tour of Italy’s cultural artefacts or a six-month fully-paid-for expedition into the rainforest with a side order of volunteering at some worthy cause, you’re a tourist, like it or not.

You don’t have to be a good tourist, however. We were not. We missed the Duomo entirely, put off by the queues. The Uffizi was closed – it was a Monday. We failed to muster the enthusiasm to line up to look at Michelangelo’s David – the original one in the Accademia. Instead we admired the replica of it in the Piazza Signoria, which is where it was originally intended to stand. Ironically by moving it indoors and placing it behind a glass barrier for protection after one of its toes was smashed by a hammer-wielding vandal (reminiscent in many ways of the mummified corpse of St Francis Xavier in Goa having its toe bitten off by a devotee in search of a mouthful of holy relic), David is completely out of proportion for the space he currently occupies in his Accademia alcove: huge-headed, with overlong arms and a posterior which, frankly, was not exactly as pert as the rest of him. He was in good company in the piazza – there was a veritable crowd of statuary along the alcoves – and Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus was designed as a companion piece for David in its original location. Cellini was unimpressed, describing the muscles in Hercules’ bulging back as looking like “a sackful of melons” – a description so shrewdly acerbic that once you’ve heard it it’s impossible to see in any other way.

Lucy Honeychurch, presumably, hadn’t noticed. Forster captures all the yearning, all the longing, of a young woman on the brink of something without quite knowing what she wants or how to set about it:

“Nothing ever happens to me,” she reflected, as she entered the Piazza Signoria and looked nonchalantly at its marvels, now fairly familiar to her. The great square was in shadow; the sunshine had come too late to strike it. Neptune was already unsubstantial in the twilight, half god, half ghost, and his fountain plashed dreamily to the men and satyrs who idled together on its marge. The Loggia showed as the triple entrance of a cave, wherein dwelt many a deity, shadowy but immortal, looking forth upon the arrivals and departures of mankind. It was the hour of unreality — the hour, that is, when unfamiliar things are real. An older person at such an hour and in such a place might think that sufficient was happening to him, and rest content. Lucy desired more.

E. M. Forster – A Room With A View 

Naturally it is romance that Lucy desires, and naturally enough, having thrown away her guidebook and begun to actually enjoy herself instead of continually striving for self-improvement, she finds it in the end. By literally falling into its arms, as it happens.


The notebooks:

Wandering hand in hand along a street after dark we suddenly heard the most beautiful singing. We halted entranced outside a church. Through the open doorway we could see twelve girls in long black gowns, standing in a semicircle, singing in a choir. The interior of the church seemed full of golden light, their voices high and pure and clear, echoing around the interior. Gradually other details came into focus: there was an audience before them, sitting in rapt attention on folding wooden chairs. We stood listening… and then, suddenly, a small group of tourists rushed over from the street and began crowding around the doorway. One man took out an ipad and began filming, blocking the view. I twitched in annoyance. K looked at me, slipped an arm through mine, and we walked back down the steps and into the street. I could still hear the singing behind us, and smiled, determinedly recalling their angelic voices, not allowing the boorish tourists to ruin it.

Just around the corner, not five minutes later, we came across a small crowd in the street gathered in silence around a television set outside a restaurant. The diners had abandoned their meals, and sat craning their necks to see. Chefs in their whites stood in a line, watching, arms folded. The security man from a nearby bar was a head taller than everyone else and oversaw proceedings from the back. What could have happened? Some disaster? The mood was tense. I squinted and made out… an expanse of green. Small figures running. The camera panned over a crowd of spectators. And at the top of the screen: Fiorentina 0 – Inter 0. It was the football, and it seemed as if the entire street had come out to watch.

Round the next corner we heard music. The limpid plucking of a lute, the hoarsely mellow baritone of woodwind, and then, soaring above it, a violin. A chamber orchestra, playing baroque instruments, seated beneath the colonnades. It sounded like Albinoni. From behind us came a sudden roar, cheering, car horns: Florence had scored. Seconds later, with a slight delay, another loud cheer from a nearby apartment. The conductor gave the faintest of smiles, paused the fluid movement of his hands just for a moment as the cheering died away, and then the chamber orchestra played on. How could one fail to love such a city?


 

A friend in London had long been extolling the virtues of Italian leather jackets, and claimed that Florence was the best place to buy one. There certainly seemed to be many shops selling them – we passed dozens on our walk that evening. However, none that I saw looked particularly inspiring – they were all in a similar ‘bumfreezer’ style, rather short and cut very slim. But then, just around the corner from our apartment, I stopped in my tracks. There in a shop window, adorning a mannequin, was the nicest leather jacket I have ever seen. It was in a kind of mid-brown or dark tan, and looked very soft. I hadn’t planned on buying one, but took a picture of it, just in case, noting down the street name. On we walked, up to the Ponte Vecchio – the old bridge which was lined with buildings just as the bridges of London used to be in Elizabethan times. Sitting on the low wall we looked out at the lights of the city as their reflections swam in the dark water. A cold wind was blowing off the Arno, scalloping the surface, the river burnished gold in the setting sun.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that jacket. Turning to K I said: “Would you mind if we go back for another look? They may still be open.”

“Sure, OK.”

We walked back towards the shop. There it was again in the window, just as I had remembered. I wondered if it would look anything like as good on me as it did on the mannequin. We went in.

The shopkeeper was Jordanian, it turned out, and had the bustling sales patter familiar from countless souks, which somehow implied an understanding that you, the customer, clearly appreciated quality merchandise, and that for someone with such heightened aesthetic sensibilites, something as sordid as money shouldn’t be of paramount importance.

“Here, try these on,” he said, laying out jacket after jacket upon the counter. He rather casually flung them down, just as I had seen carpet sellers do in Marrakech, and then fingered the material lovingly. “So soft! And sir, admire please the quality of this stitching. This is only possible to find here in Florence.”

“How much are they?”

“Sir!” He looked shocked. I had, indeed, committed a breach of protocol at this stage in proceedings. “What value does one put on something? I could send you to this shop, that shop, who sell factory jackets” – he pronounced the word with a moue of distaste – “but I can tell that you are an admirer of fine products, beautifully crafted. Where from sir?”

“London.”

“Ah, London. Welcome in my shop sir. Now, this one is very latest Italian style. Here. Let me assist you.” He held it out behind me and I slid into it. It was nice, certainly. K looked me up and down noncommittally.

“I’m not sure it’s me, really. How about that one in the window? On the mannequin?”

“That one sir, is our finest quality. Very beautiful jacket.” He took it off the mannequin as if helping a lady out of an evening cape, every gesture solicitous. I admired his act immensely. It was working on me alright. Then I caught a glimpse of the price tag, and recoiled.

“€780! You’re kidding. That’s way over my budget.”

He batted away such technicalities with a wave of his hand. “Sir, please! Budgets… We can make discount. If this is the jacket you desire, we shall do everything to accommodate you.”

“Yes, but still! I’m not spending that.” He slipped around behind me and held it out. I put my arms in. It really was a very nice jacket. Looking up I caught K’s eye. She slowly nodded, suppressing a smile.

So now the work really began. As far as he was concerned, I was English. He didn’t know the extent to which I had been trained by the vendors of India. We took our places for the theatricals that were to follow. I took off the jacket, and he twitched. I laid it on the counter and picked up another cheaper one in a sort of hideous dung-brown. No – they really don’t have anything we like, do they dear. Shall we go back to the hotel? What time is it? Fancy some dinner? He picked up the jacket again and helped me back into it. “Look sir, you can roll up the sleeves! So soft! It is made of goat! Mountain goat!” K, poker-faced, turned to inspect the street outside. I knew she was trying her utmost not to laugh. If I caught her eye we’d be sunk. Bakri, bozak, buzechini. A crazy old goat in a goatskin coat. I had to have it.

The calculator came out. He typed in a negligible discount. I took off the jacket. He picked it up again and knocked a significant chunk off the price. Mollified but playing hard to get, I put it on, and stabbed out an outrageously low price. He looked insulted. I took it off and made for the door, pursued by him, brandishing calculator, this time with another figure. Better. But still. I made another offer, prompting a long lament. I began speaking to K in Hindi, which unnerved him. He tapped out another price, and laid the calculator gently on the counter for my inspection. I began to unzip the jacket and he hit Clear and knocked off a bit more. I visibly became attentive. It was already a tremendous bargain now. But then, with the full ruthlessness of Chandni Chowk bazaar, K intervened. For the sake of 30 euros. I was pretty much set to take it then and there, but no. She wanted a number and would get it. He begged. I demurred. She curled her Parsi nose at him and rolled her eyes at the door.

At that moment, with wonderfully serendipitous timing, two Americans walked in and began browsing along the rail. His attention was torn – he wanted to go over to them, you could tell, but we weren’t going to budge. I tapped out 250 on the calculator. He looked at the Americans desperately – they showed signs of leaving.

“Cash?” he said.

“Sure. Cash.” I counted out the last of my money, and borrowed more from K. He stuffed the jacket unceremoniously into a paper bag, I gave him the cash, and that was that – he went over to the Americans and started work on them. We glanced at each other and left.

“Did we just get a leather jacket priced at €780 for €250?”

“Yah.”

“How the fuck did we manage that?”

“Teamwork.”

“Haan. Teamwork. Would a high five be appropriate?”

“I believe it would.”


 

Rising early in the grey half-light of dawn the next morning as K’s warm shape slept on beside me, I went out onto our small balcony to look out over the rooftops. You could tell it wasn’t a place that got much rain – the tiles were full of gaps and wouldn’t have withstood one decent autumn gale. In the bathroom I inspected myself in the mirror, stooping over the low sink as I washed my hands. Then, turning to take the towel off the rail beside me, there was a sudden loud snap in my neck and a bolt of pain along my spine. I let out a gasp of surprise; I knew something had just gone seriously wrong, and fervently hoped it would right itself in a minute or two. It didn’t. Carefully I straightened upward, then ducked again, wincing, as a spasm shot through me. I couldn’t stand up.  It was 6.45 in the morning, K was asleep next door, and we had to pack up, check out, get to the station and catch a train across half of Italy to Venice that morning. I wasn’t sure if I might in fact be going straight to hospital instead. Was my travel insurance still valid? I tried to remember what date I had gone to Australia the year before. I had a nasty feeling it had run out a week earlier. I tried to stand upright again and there came a series of cracking sounds like a brushwood fire, each sending off little sparks along my neck. This was not good at all.

Painfully slowly I made it along the corridor, opened the bedroom door and crept into the room. My stealth was betrayed by a loud groan as I tried to turn my head. Keeping it dead level as if I were balancing a book on it I sank to my knees and lay down on the floor, trying to find some relief. It was no good.

“Hun? You awake?”

“Mmmmf.”

“We’ve got a problem. I think I’ve broken my neck.”

Long pause. Then, flatly: “Again?

This was true. I had technically broken it years earlier, sustaining a small fracture in a rock climbing accident. I had been carried off the mountain and transported on the flatbed of a truck along a dirt road to the nearest hospital. It had never been quite right since.

She sat up blearily. “What happened?”

“I dunno. I just turned round and it went snap. I think it’s quite bad.”

“I’ve got pills if you need some.”

Like all Indians travelling in parts of the world with dubious healthcare systems, such as Europe, Australia or North America, or indeed anywhere outside Mother India, she carried a small suitcase full of medications which listed their ayurvedic credentials. And, open-minded as I am about these things, I wasn’t sure it was going to cut it. Still, worth a try.

And so it was that dosed up on “Combiflam”, which sounded like something out of the 70s cookbook, and slathered in enough Tiger Balm to make anyone’s eyes water within a 5 metre radius, we somehow managed to pack the bags. But I couldn’t lift it. It was pathetic – I was helpless. What is a backpacker without a backpack? A tourist, I suppose. I thought of the octogenarians I had seen bravely shuffling around assorted piazzas the day before, and sympathised with them wholeheartedly. Fortunately the owner was solicitude itself: she recommended that I try shiatsu, which had helped her back problems, called a taxi for us to the door, and carried my bag down the stairs herself (no small feat for quite a small lady), seeing us safely into the cab. The route the driver took led around the back streets towards Santa Maria Novella station, which naturally were all cobblestones. I groaned periodically as we bumped over them, and received reassuring pats from K.

Pulling up at the station, nose in the air like a governess, I minced carefully across the concourse towards the information board, checking what platform we needed. As I did so, there was a voice at my elbow. A girl with a big backpack decorated with the Canadian flag:

“Hey, do you happen to know which platform for Venice?”

“Aaaah!” I went, as a spasm shot through me. “Aah. Um, no – I’m looking for it myself. The 1255?”

“Yeah.” She looked at me a little strangely. “Are you OK?”

“Faaark! Sorry. It’s my back. It’s busted.”

“Oh wow, sorry to hear it. Hey, are you Briddish?”

“Yes. If you find out what platform it is, would you mind coming and telling me? I don’t think I can move.”

“Sure, no problem. Hey, feel better.”

“Let’s hope so.”

It was now 1240 and our train still wasn’t listed. Then the pixellated letters flipped through their cycle and there it was: the 1255 Italo to Venezia. But there was something not right. The train number didn’t match the one on my ticket, bought weeks earlier. Surely there couldn’t be two? What if the original train had broken down? Did they base the numbers on engine, or was there a different code? Through a mental fog of pain and Combiflam I fretted, wincing occasionally. Two Chinese girls with enormous wheeled suitcases barged into me, and I snarled at them. They fled. This was not the time to lose my temper. Seeking consolation in literature as always, I recalled an entry by Robert Byron in The Road to Oxiana:

BANDAR SHAH (SEA-LEVEL), 26 APRIL 1934
Under arrest! I am writing on a bed in the police-station.

We are in the wrong, which makes it the more annoying. Having waited at Gumbad-i-Kabus till four o’clock, when there were still no horses to be had, we decided to go back with the car, and avoiding Asterabad, reached here at ten o’clock. There was nowhere to sleep but the station, and the station-master, a wilting young man, was not pleased at our disturbing him so late. The train this morning was due to leave at seven. He told us to have the car ready by the siding at six. It was. But the truck for it did not arrive till ten to seven, and we suddenly saw that the station-master, out of spite, had sent the train off without us. The pent-up irritation of seven months exploded: we assaulted the man. There were loud shrieks, soldiers rushed in, and pinioning Christopher’s arms, some struck his back with the butts of their rifles, while their officer, who was scarcely four feet high and had the voice of a Neapolitan tenor, repeatedly slapped his face. I escaped these indignities, but we share the confinement, to the bewilderment of the police, who find us a nuisance.

They threaten us with an ‘inquiry’ into the ‘incident’ in Teheran. We must grovel to avoid this at all costs. It would take weeks. I wonder—we both wonder—what madness came over us to jeopardize our journey in this way.

Robert Byron – The Road to Oxiana

Well, it happens to the best of us. But no, in my condition I didn’t need slapping by a four foot high Neapolitan tenor, of which there seemed to be several about, nor indeed by anyone else. Reasoning that since they travelled along the same track, that there could only be one Italo train bound for Venice at 1255, we decided to get on it.

The problem was, there were people already in our seats – a pair of sun-wizened rustics, man and wife, who showed no inclination to move. I showed them my ticket and sighing, he dug his out. We both had the same seat number. Then I saw his departure station. Napoli. They must have been on this train for hours. Was he in fact four feet tall? Could he sing? We tried two more seats but another couple arrived, profusely apologetic, and claimed them. I certainly wasn’t going to stand for three-and-a-half hours. We spotted two empty seats in the next carriage, and stole into them surreptitiously. I plugged my ears with headphones, stuck my shades on and put my hood up. Do not disturb. We slid silently out of Firenze SMN station, the train pouring through a tunnel until the sudden reappearance of apartment blocks sliding by the window. We picked up speed steadily, until we were whizzing almost soundlessly through the Italian countryside in air-conditioned comfort. A speedometer on the TV screen overhead indicated we were travelling at 250kmh.

After halting briefly at Bologna we resumed our flight across the fertile flatlands of northern Italy, the speed now showing 280kmh, briefly crossing the River Po, longest river in the country, in a flash of water and a whoosh whoosh whoosh as the bridge went by beneath us. The conductor entered the carriage and began making his way down it. I hoped there wasn’t going to be a problem with the ticket; being kicked off the train at some tiny hamlet, unable to carry my own backpack, was something that I wasn’t really in the mood for, although it did fit our general pattern of spontaneous adventures. He reached us and I proffered our tickets.

“Grazie,” he said, checking us off against a list of names. His pencil paused. He looked at the ticket again, and switched to English.

“You are in different seats?” Clearly our names were hopelessly unItalian compared to the ones on his register.

“Yes, there were another couple in our seats, so we moved here,” I said.

The train was half-empty by now anyway, and he gave a slight but clearly visible shrug, ticked us off the list and moved on. We were in the clear.

The train halted again at Mestre, the unlovely industrial city on the mainland overlooking the Venice lagoon. At that moment the music changed on my headphones and I found I was listening to Scheherazade by Rimsky Korsakov, played by the St Petersburg Philharmonic, who I had seen perform it at the Proms a few weeks earlier. The wonderful, lyrical longing of the strings tightened around the heart, accompanying us as we made our way out onto the bridge across the lagoon, over green water flecked with whitecaps. My first sight of Venice was of a low smudge on the horizon transforming itself into distant spires which grew in size as the music swelled, the city assembling itself before my eyes. There was a quickening sense of excitement; which of the invisible cities would reveal itself to me first? I knew there were many.

I was reading Jan Morris – her wonderful book Venice is essentially a long love letter to this most extraordinary of cities, or perhaps a romantic, impressionistic painting of it, and one particularly interesting given that she first visited as a young man named James Morris. As she put in a preface to a later edition, “It is Venice seen through a particular pair of eyes at a particular moment – young eyes at that, responsive above all to the stimuli of youth”.

It is very old, and very grand, and bent-backed. Its towers survey the lagoon in crotchety splendour, some leaning one way, some another. Its skyline is elaborate with campaniles, domes, pinnacles, cranes, riggings, television aerials, crenellations, eccentric chimneys and a big red grain elevator. There are glimpses of flags and fretted rooftops, marble pillars, cavernous canals. An incessant bustle of boats passes before the quays of the place; a great white liner slips towards its port; a multitude of tottering palaces, brooding and monstrous, presses towards its waterfront like so many invalid aristocrats jostling for fresh air. It is a gnarled but gorgeous city: and as the boat approaches through the last church-crowned islands, and a jet fighter screams splendidly out of the sun, so the whole scene seems to shimmer – with pinkness, with age, with self-satisfaction, with sadness, with delight.

The navigator stows away his charts and puts on a gay straw hat: for he has reached that paragon among landfalls, Venice.

Jan Morris – Venice