Friday 27 May 2022

The Stone Axe-Head — a Long Journey in Time



In the British Museum’s stunning exhibition Stonehenge[1], is a beautiful and remarkable object. It is a stone axe-head and it has a story, a long story.

In 1942 BCE (that is 4,000 years ago) in what is now Germany, a family buried their father, a man whose name we do not know.  With him, they buried the stone axe-head that I gazed at and revisited at the British Museum.

The axe-head is about the length and girth of a boy’s forearm from elbow to wrist.  It is symmetrical in two planes and pierced at its heavier end by a precisely circular hole for the haft.  The colour of the stone is elusive. At first glance, it is dark grey, just short of black. As you look at it, the darkness varies; there is a hint of green.  Someone has polished the surface to a deep shine.  There are flecks and hints of red, blue and green appear.  One end comes to a rounded chisel tip.  The other, the haft end, is thicker and blunt like a hammer All its edges are pleasingly rounded.  If I could have picked it up, it would have had heft.

The axe-head is ornamental far beyond utility.  A rougher piece of rock would do just as well at cracking a skull.

This object is a masterpiece of Stone Age art and artisanship.  Someone working with stones, sand and animal hide spent weeks making it.

The man it was buried with lived at a time when, in Europe, the Stone Age was giving way, after 1.3 million years, to the Bronze Age.  The man’s sons may have wondered at their father’s attachment to old technology before laying it in his grave.  The British Museum describes the axe as a symbol of power.  It requires no greater speculation to think they placed it in the grave as a mark of respect.

The man lived long before Homer. He was a near contemporary of Abraham.

But it is the axe-head that has the story.  By the time it was buried with him, it was already 2,500 years old.  We can never know the name of the Stone Age Artisan who perfected this object 6,500 years ago, when the Sahara was green and work would not start on Stonehenge for another two millennia. What is truly extraordinary is people revered and cherished this work of art for 120 generations before they buried it with its last owner.

Sunday 15 May 2022

Phoney Portofino and Congenial Camogli



The ferry from Santa Margherita disgorged about 150 of us onto the quay.  Another ferry was close behind.  At the top end of the tiny town, buses were unloading 50 tourists at a time.  We were not alone in making a day trip to Portofino. Every holiday brochure for the Italian Riviera shows a picture of Portofino.

Portofino is said to have permanent population of just 450.  There was five times that number jamming its only street.  Portofino is a fake.  Its appearance is fake; its charm is fake.  It is a celebrity of a destination, famous for being famous because famous people have made it so. Its buildings are painted in trompe-l’oeil to make them appear stone built with elegant arches and folderol.  The variation in colours comes from a palette determined by the local commune drawing on some long-forgotten tradition.

Over a century ago, in the days when it was an unspoiled fishing village, rich and famous people built gorgeous villas above the town.

New generations of the rich and famous discovered this rich man’s hideaway. They bought up or rented the villas and moored their gigantic yachts in the little harbour.

And so, the day-trippers, me, included come to see this celebrity enclave.  The town has developed to welcome us.  Restaurants line the streets and their tables surge out onto the town square and the quay. In between there are smart shops; I spotted Dior and Balenciaga.  A few local clothes boutiques offer classy summer wear at a price. Then there are cheap pizza takeaways and tacky souvenir shops for the rest of us.  There is still money on show.  In the restaurants were high maintenance people who would not look out of place at Henley or in Sloane Square.  If you had that sort of money, why would you choose to eat your zuppa de pesce inches from the great international public shuffling past your table gawping at you?

In the harbour were three suspiciously picturesque fishing boats.  They would be entirely inadequate to supply the industrial quantities of seafood consumed in Portofino’s restaurants.  There are only about thirteen fish left in the grossly over-exploited Mediterranean Sea.  Italy imports 5.5 billion Euros worth of fish each year.  Portofino’s catch of the day arrives in a lorry.

Finally, no visitor to Portofino should miss the sad little sculpture park guarded by six nail-varnish pink meerkats.

One good reason for visiting Portofino is that there is a boat from there to the Abbey of San Fruttuoso and its submerged statue, Christ of the Abyss.  I am told that this is well worth a visit but on the day we were there, it was too rough for the boat to make the trip, which probably added to the congestion in Portofino.  You can also reach the Abbey by boat from the charming and unspoilt town of Camogli, a few kilometres north of Portofino and accessible by train.



Camogli is a small town with a small harbour. While not exactly off the tourist trail, it has a character of its own, feels properly Italian and we spent a very good day there.  There is a descent from the railway station to this small town.  If you take the steps, you will find yourself at Camogli’s intriguing Maritime Museum. It closes at midday on weekdays.  Please check the website for opening hours. Camogli Maritime Museum  The museum looks as it has had some money spent on it. It is fascinating for those of us with an interest in ships and the sea and there is a lot to interest the more casual visitor.  I particularly liked the portraits of ships.  Some of the sailing ship pictures had sails made in fabric that billowed in 3D. They have a digital archive and they showed me a 19th century Lloyds of London insurance contract written in Italian. I have seen plenty of ships in bottles but here they have an entire harbour with ships in a bottle.

It doesn’t take long to walk to the harbour and the main street of the town.  The street is lined with cafes and gelateria.  The harbour itself has the shape of a crab’s claw.  The outer curved wall makes for a nice walk and there are two whale tails made of blue metal netting that make for a dramatic view.

In the town, there is a church that is worth visiting.  It was closed the day we were there. 

I also noticed a bookbinding and bookshop.  It is closed on Thursday. That probably saved me money as, peering through the window, I could see beautifully bound notebooks and journals.

If I have given the impression of a rather closed sort of place, that is wrong.  The town is quiet and unassuming but it is charming in a non-touristy way.

By the inner wall of the harbour is the ticket office for boat trips to San Fruttuoso.  I did not have time to make the trip that day though with a bit of forward planning, I could have done.  Camogli is a better place to embark on your trip to the Abbey.

It was time for lunch. At the very end of the inner wall of the harbour, we found a small café called I tre merli, the three blackbirds.  We sat outside enjoying bruschetti and then it seemed necessary to have gelati and then coffee and limoncello.  An hour or so passed as we watched the comings and goings in the harbour.  A perfect interlude.  I tre merli looked and felt like a small family run place.  They also offered a locanda or rooms to let. But no ordinary rooms to let; the brochure shows that each room has a sensational view of the harbour and there is a spa, whose delights have been translated into English as “cuddle yourself in the SPA” and why not indeed?

There was a surprise on their business card that came with a very modest bill.  I tre merli establishments can also be found in Genova and there are four in New York. It has  quite a story that you can read n its website.  I Tre Merli

The gloss of Portofino or the charm of Camogli?  Camogli every time for me.

Friday 6 May 2022

Writing My Travel Journal Again

After a long spell of not travelling and not travel writing it has been good to get back to it by way of a train journey to Italy and back.  I still find it a marvel that one can get from London to Nice or Turin in twelve hours of sitting in a comfortable chair, reading, listening, writing or just enjoying the view, while someone else  does the driving.

Writing my journal in Turin's most fashionable café (very expensive but delicious chocolate cake) or,

At Baratti & Milano Torino

Writing my journal on a stone bench by the banks of the River Po, with graffiti for inspiration (very cheap).

Photo Credit: Adrienne Higham

While travelling, I very much enjoyed reading Italian Ways by Tim Parks.  Parks has lived and worked in Italy for more than 30 years.  He knows and loves the country.  Basing his book on the idiosyncrasies of Italian Railways, he shares many aspects of life in Italy with the reader.  Ideal reading for an Italian train.  I also took D H Lawrence's Twilight in Italy but found it very hard going and abandoned it. 

It's good to be back.  More writing to follow.

We travelled with the excellent Great Rail Journeys

Monday 2 May 2022

The Man in the Piazza at Santa Margherita Ligure

    Nearly everyone else in the Piazza Caprerer was milling about or gazing at the 18th century Basilica di Santa Margherita, whose walls glowed the palest lemon in the morning sun.  One man was not, he came from one corner of the piazza.  His stride was slow but steady and determined; nothing would come between him and the opposite corner of the square.

The peak of his blue gabardine cap seemed to lead the way. From the fact that it was ten thirty in the morning and from the look of him, he was retired. His coat was a slightly darker shade of blue than his cap.  Under his elbow was his folded copy of the Corriere della Sera, he would open it and read it from front page to back once he had reached his café.

The basilica bell sounded the half hour. The man nodded his head, a tiny movement.

The man’s face was that of a man who had worked outdoors and his eyes were fixed ahead, towards his destination.  From his lower lip, kept there by years of practice, hung his half-smoked morning cigar.  He was a man content with living his life in the unchanging Italian way.

I was travelling with the excellent  Great Rail