Last Tango in Pisa

Sunday night in this opulent 18th century hotel that once belonged to the Grand Duke of Tuscany. I am here to review the spa. Massage is fine but mud wraps, salt scrubs etc make me anxious. Who has to clean this place once I have wafted off in my towelling robe and slippers? I always seem to find the draft, or get landed with the invasive piped music; I lie on the table fretting about the working conditions of the sweet spa girls. After pounding, pummelling and stroking all these strangers' bodies, do they have to sluice the place down?

I stub my toe in  the jacuzzi. It throbs, turns black and seems about to drop off which is a shame because on Sunday night in this hotel that once belonged to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, there is a Tango Evening in the ballroom. When was the last time any of us were in a hotel where the ballroom was used for dancing? The locals wander in - a few couples but most of them singles, of all ages and in their best clothes. They pay a few Euros to a woman who sits at the door and wander in. I wander with them and for the first time in my life, get to participate in that early 20th century ritual of standing on the edge of a dance floor, waiting for someone to ask me to dance. This is Italy - no dancing round your handbag or with your best friend. Men and woman strut solemnly  round the floor together while the piped  tango music plays.  

Bagni di Pisa's thermal waters were once visited by the Shelleys and Byron but the ballroom is more of  a scene from a Fellini film - not that the dancers are grotesque. They are optimistic and proud and valiant in their dedication to learning the steps that carry them across the floor. I, who grew up with the solo wrigglings of Mick Jagger, as my only model, watch them with envy for the romance that has never been mine.

Torre del Lago - Puccini Festival

When he wasn't killing his heroines off in 'orrible ways (Butterfly by her own knife, Tosca over the ramparts and Mimi by that good old 19th century stand-by, TB) Puccini was very fond of shooting small birds and animals. So, he left the lovely town of Lucca where he was born and made his home in Torre del Lago, near Viarregio. As its name says, the little town lies on a lake. It's not so little these days. When Puccini arrived there were 7 families. Now the population numbers around 7000 which makes the town's decision to build an 2000 plus seat open-air theatre, a little bold to say the least. They've painted it a bold dark blue - to blend in with the lake that will serve as backdrop for all productions. I suppose if you wanted to be really authentic, the Castel San Angelo ramparts at the end of Tosca, could be wedged up against the back of the stage so that when Floria Tosca takes her leap (which theoretically should land her in Rome's Tiber) she could take a dive into the lake. Or, more romantically, the long-awaited Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly could sail in across the lake as Butterfly and the audience watch his return.

Torre del Lago's Festival has made some odd artistic choices in the past. (We draw a hasty veil over some barmy director's decision to have all the characters in Madama Butterfly represent insects. Didn't anyone tell the pretentious fool that Butterfly was a nickname. What's the Italian for nickname? Someone get me a dictionary.

That said, I'm optimistic about this year's festival - a big one to mark the 150th Anniversary of what the New York Met would probably call, the most 'beloved' of opera composers. They've got a premier in the form of Edgar with gorgeous designs by Roger Dean plus Turandot, Tosca and Butterfly. And when you're not at the opera, there's the Great Man's house to be visited. He's buried in the walls by the way.

Probably the sweetest moment of my visit to Torre Del Lago was an afternoon boat ride across the lake from in front of the composer's house. The captain put a recording of Tosca on the CD player and we sailed across the water to visit the church on the other side of the lake where the bells that inspired the third act of Tosca still ring to this day. And, as if to make up for all those poor dead birds and beasts, LIPU, the Italian equivalent of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Birds, has set up shop on that opposite shore.

Lucca and Puccini on 150th anniversary of his birth

Giacomo Puccini was born 150 years ago this year. Fortunately for us, he chose one of the most perfect towns in Tuscany for his earthly debut. Lucca is a gorgeous town - human scale, perfectly preserved within its wide medieval walls but big enough to provide all the good things of life - great restaurants, elegant shops, an opera theatre and views out to the Appenines beyond the Tuscan hills.

I first visited Lucca about 10 years ago arriving by train on the short ride from Pisa. Lucca's train station is just outside the walls. I walked out on a September morning and saw bales of golden hay neatly rolled and leaning against those great walls in the autumn sunlight. There was something cosy and reassuring about those hay bales so close to the ancient gates to the town. They were a reminder that, although it is NOT a hill town, does not have stunning views and vertiginous ascents, Lucca does look outwards to rural Tuscany. Lucchese love to stroll the old walls in the evening, in the shelter of a ring of old horse chestnut and plane trees that line them. Beyond the walls is another stately ring of chestnuts and beyond them, the mountains.

Every one in Lucca seemed to be riding a bike when I first visited. And in 2008 that hasn't changed. If anything there are more and better bikes and more diverse riders: the very old, the very fat and the very fashionable, in impossible stilettos and short skirts, all ride through the narrow streets where cars can't pass. If a visitor does nothing else in this town, an afternoon on a rented bike with a tour around the 4.5 kilometre walls is a must. There is a bike rental, "Cicle Bizzarri" right next to the tourist information office at Piazza Santa Maria that rents bikes for 2.50 euros an hour.

Lucca has some of the loveliest old shop fronts in Europe. A stroll along the main shopping street, Via Fillungo, takes you past Carli, the jewellers, with its ornate wood and glass display cabinets on the pavement and Di Simo, the elegant cafe that Puccini himself frequented.

Theatre, as always in Italy, extends to the church and few churches are more theatrical at first sight than San Michele with its gigantic Archangel Michael looming over Piazza San Michele - one of the central squares in the city. The most theatrical square in the city is the extraordinary Piazza Anfiteatro - once a Roman amphitheatre and now an oval of apartment buildings and cafes built around the peaceful piazza.

A good, reasonably priced cafe on this Piazza is the Cafe Roma. Just behind it, through the arch is the excellent local favourite - the La Baralla trattoria. The ravioli with basil, fresh tomatoes and pine nuts is delicious.

The Amalfi Coast Road

Oh dear – the editor wants me to write about the Amalfi Coast. But tucked away on the Amalfi Coast is one of my favourite places on the planet. Do I really want to tell anyone else about it? Why don’t I just talk about the rest of this glorious coastline and see if I can deviously omit to mention it? ,

The 43 mile stretch of Amalfi Coast starts just beyond Sorrento and swoops and soars along Homer’s ‘wine dark’ Mediterranean through Positano and Amalfi to Salerno. I’ve never been seasick at sea but the Amalfi drive has frequently left me feeling queasier than a cross channel hovercraft. And wondering whether my last sight of this world will be of tumbling magenta bougainvillea, languid jasmin, dark olive groves, Saracen watchtowers and mules carrying baskets of lemons down to sparkling white villages.

Positano is the first stop. American novelist and former resident, John Steinbeck, said of this chic little pink and white town that hugs the limestone cliffs, “You do not walk to visit a friend, you either climb or slide.” There are a few too many fashion shops for my taste but if you totter down the stairs to the sea, it’s a good place from which to take a boat to the nearby Emerald Grotto.

Another 50 tortuous minutes along the road is Amalfi itself . A heartier, earthier town, this was once great sea-faring republic but a tidal wave destroyed it in 1343. These days Amalfi is a tourist hub but with a stunning cathedral and good walks like the short stroll along the coast to the lovely unspoilt beach village of Atrani. If you are feeling really ambitious and fit you could make the big hike up to my personal favourite…no come to think of it stay in Amalfi and treat yourself to a sfogliatelle, the local breakfast speciality of puff pastry and orange flavoured ricotta.

Oh all right, here goes, I suppose I have to say it: A long hike or a fifteen minute bus ride above Amalfi, “suspended between sea and sky”, as French novelist Andre Gide once said, is the little town of Ravello. Attend a concert in the gardens of the Villa Rufolo that inspired Wagner to write Parsifal. Stroll along the headland to the ‘terrace of infinity’ and the Villa Cimbrone where Greta Garbo met with her lover, conductor Leopold Stokowski. Eat at the Cumpa Cosimo trattoria where Jackie Kennedy was once a regular. And after a while a strange buoyancy will come over you – a sense of euphoria from being constantly surrounded by absolute beauty. Ravello holds a magic that few other places on earth possess but please don’t say I said so. And whatever you do, don’t tell anyone else.

An Italian "Inspector Morse"?

No, he doesn't listen to Wagner, nor does he drive a sleek maroon jaguar although I suspect he might like one. Sicily's Inspector Salvo Montalbano has, however, attained a similar cult status in his homeland and, increasingly throughout the world. Montalbano is the creation of Andrea Camilleri. His crime novels have been translated into many languages. In Italy the tv series based on the books has attained such popularity that Italians now travel on literary pilgrimages to the setting of the novels in much the way that Morse fans regularly make their way to the Oxford settings of Morse's world.

Inspector Montalbano lives in the fictional town of Vigata - in reality Punta Secca in the southern Sicilian province of Ragusa. Every morning he swims in the aqua waters of the Mediterranean that laps the beach in front of his house. When a case is tough to crack, Salvo takes a stroll along the golden sand beach. So, a pilgrimage to this lesser-known province of Sicily is not exactly a hardship.

Southern Sicily - Baroque and Chocolate

They make a strange sort of chocolate in Modica - not smooth and unctuous - the sugar granules are not smoothed out so it tends to trip the tongue up as opposed to rolling off it. But once you get used to that it's delicious - dark, dark and comes in orange, lemon and hot chilli flavours. On a sunny Sunday morning in early March, I'm sampling chocolate in a shop on Modica's main street.

Modica's main street was once a river. Two rivers met in the heart of the city - the town was called a little Venice. A great flood soon took the romance out of that notion and the good burghers of Modica decided to pave over the rivers in a massive engineering feat. So as I walk along the bustling Sunday morning-after church street, I'm walking over an enclosed river.

Modica, like the rest of the Noto Valley had already encountered natural disaster. The 1693 earthquake had destroyed most of the towns in the region. But it also resulted in their being rebuilt in the glorious romantic new Baroque style. Along with Ragusa and Noto, Modica is a wonderful little town in which to explore this extravagant, slightly delirious, building style.
Look out for the 'mascherone' or gargoyles that populate balconies and rooftops.

The countryside around these towns is surprising - drystone walls and kelly-green fields would have you believe for a moment that you have arrived in an Italian version of Yorkshire. Unlike many parts of Sicily, the beaches here are the real thing- long stretches of sand lapped by a turquoise blue sea. One almost science-fiction aspect of the landscape is the ubiquitous greenhouse. Or rather hundreds and hundreds of them. Agriculture is in sharp competition with tourism as an industry down here. For the time being agriculture, all the tomatoes, zucchini and oranges that grow here and head for our Northern European tables, has the upper hand.

White truffle hunt and auction in Piedmont

In a castle high in the Piedmont hills, an auction is taking place. In the auction room, a medieaval place more suited to a meeting of round-table knights, three satellite links have been set up – with Milan, Berlin and Hong Kong. Gorgeous and slightly absurd Italian babes with lots of cleavage, dewy lips and very, very high heels stand alongside the auctioneer offering ‘un bacio’ – ‘a kiss’ as a bonus to a would be bidder. As the value of the item on offer rises, so does the nature of the kiss. I wander out of the room when a woman with abnormally thin arms and abnormally large breasts offers “un bacio sulla bocca” “a kiss on the lips” to he, and it is certainly a he, who will bid 10,000 Euros for the item on offer. All is quiet outside the auction room. The earlier excitement of the ‘mini palio’ that welcomed us – a row of Alice in Wonderland knights, bugles held aloft against the stunning background of a Piedmont autumn and the distant, snowy Alps has now been re placed by the good-natured and slightly tense bidding in that hot, crowded, baronial hall.

But, sitting on a red velvet cushion, alone in a back room is the object of all this desire. I walk into the room and gaze down at it. There is nobody in sight. I could reach out and take the gnarly, nubbly, muddy white truffle, for that’s what it is, and tuck it in my pocket. This is the annual international white truffle auction – held at the Castello di Grinzane in Piedmont. I’ve come to Piedmont to discover the white truffle. Over 3 days I’ve eaten truffles with every meal. I like them but, to me, the biggest discovery in coming to Piedmont is Piedmont. Why do we all just keep going so religiously to Tuscany? The gentle Piedmont hills (and they have plenty of charming hill towns to match Tuscany and Umbria) have one very, very big feature that Tuscany can only dream of. Beyond the hills and the towns, float the Alps – gleaming white in the slanting autumn sunlight. And, if mountains don’t do it for you, then a town as charming as Alba, certainly will. But back to those truffles, and by the way, I’m still alone with the prize specimen. Later it will be purchased for 143,000 euros by a restauranteur in Hong Kong.

White truffles, I have learnt, must never be cooked. They are grated and added to other dishes. They don’t work well with dramatic dishes. Simplicity is the key. Adding them to eggs is supposed to be one of the finest delicacies. Frankly I found it a bit bland. And, adding parmesan to kick the flavour up a notch is frowned upon.

I did spend a wonderful afternoon in another castello in the Piedmont hills in the company of a truffle connoisseur. His nose is trained in the way that of a perfumeur ‘nez’ or a wine connoisseur. He looks for a combined scent of hay, honey and garlic. Before meeting the truffle ‘nose’, I spend a morning out with a couple of truffle hunters. Their dogs are muzzled ‘to protect them from potential poisoning by saboteurs.’ The hunters take me through a birch wood, the dogs dig up a couple of small specimens. But this is a charade. Real truffle hunting goes on at night and in secret. The bounty is too valuable to be hunted in. The dogs are not forgotten at the auction. Each time a truffle is paraded across the stage on its cushion, the name of the dog that found it is announced. Pluto, found that 10000 Euro specimen, by the way. But his master’s name is kept secret.

One of the loveliest places on earth - Ravello, Italy

As the bells in several churches chime 11, Boris the mongrel slinks out to the piazza, high above the Amalfi coast. He is an ugly and wretched old mutt but in the midst of Ravello's astonishing beauty, he seems to be trying to pass unnoticed. The local taxi driver who occasionally feeds him shrugs: "The same thing will happen to you and me one day, signora." In the meantime, he suggests that if I am truly worried, I could invest in a can of dog food. I had planned to attempt some "proper" tourism and visit the Duomo, one of Ravello's three or four historic sights, but I turn my back on its plain white facade and on the two honey-scented lime trees that guard its entrance, and spend the morning trying to buy dog food from the grocer without him knowing just who it is for.

"Ravello is situated in the most beautiful of all Mediterranean settings - a fact that is not at first apparent." So says its long- time resident Gore Vidal. In fact, he says it again and again on each menu of the cafe San Domingo, where I am writing this. And he is right. The sublime beauty of the place is not immediately obvious. The piazza is quite plain on three sides, then, with typical Ravello drama, it drops off on the fourth to reveal terraced green mountains, clustered clifftop villages, umbrella pines and the blue haze of the sea.

I have come to Ravello for the Wagner week of its music festival. Wagner came here while he was writing Parsifal and each year the town pays him tribute by presenting one of his works. The performances take place in the open air in the gardens of the Villa Rufolo, on a platform suspended high above the Mediterranean. While Boris devours his dog food, Brunnhilde and Wotan wander across the square. In the heat and silence of the Italian afternoon, they are off for a costume fitting. Before he goes off in search of his eye patch and spear, Wotan pauses to recommend the penne alla contadina - pasta with aubergines, roasted peppers, and courgettes - at La Colonna trattoria. This is not a festival for the Wagnerian perfectionist. It is to be enjoyed for the combination of potentially glorious music, magnificent setting and excellent Mediterranean cuisine. Over the centuries, Bocaccio, Verdi, Andre Gide, DH Lawrence and Graham Greene have all crossed this small square. Greta Garbo came up here in the throes of an affair with Leopold Stokowski. Jackie Kennedy came alone. Ravello paid them little attention - the town has its own concerns.

On 27 July the town celebrates the feast of its patron saint, San Pantaleone. Brunnhilde is soon followed across the square by two gorgeous young Italian men carrying a large portrait of the Madonna off down an alleyway. "Anywhere else and they'd be picking up girls on their Vespas," I murmur. But for the rest of the afternoon the beautiful young men string fairy lights across every rooftop in town. For her feast day, Ravello will sit at the top of her mountain, sparkling like a cruise liner in the sky. It is the only time the town ever works at its looks. But the beauty is never twee. If the view of the silent blue sea from the terrace of my hotel seems too sublime, the tiles on the balcony are worn and a little cracked; the waiter is a little shabby but benign. If the geraniums in the pots seem too uniform, then a morning glory will weave its wild way around their base. A couple of fine lawns in the garden are reserved for guests but they must share the paths with wheelbarrows full of courgettes and aubergines and knee-high basil destined for the kitchens. This is the busiest week of the year but the high season in Ravello looks like out of season elsewhere. I set out on the circuit recommended by Gore Vidal, along a pathway of bougainvillaea and honeysuckle. There is not a soul in sight. Only a mynah bird cries "Ciao!" out on the terrace of the Villa Amore, and a cook in the kitchen sings in a fine baritone. But, on the evening of the festival, the piazza fills up with people from as far away as Naples and Rome. The evenings get chilly on the hillside and some of them do not stay the course for Tony Palmer's fine production of Die Walkure. It doesn't matter. Their seats are taken by the taxi driver and Netta, the padrona of the excellent Cumpa Cosimo trattoria, and her team of waitresses. As they sit and listen attentively to Wotan's great farewell, I feel a heat around my cold legs: warm, mongrel breath. Poor old, ugly Boris has found his way into Wagner's enchanted world and snuggles down for a snooze as the orchestra plays its last notes.

Night Train from Venice to Prague

The night train to Prague leaves from platform 6 of Venice station. The night train to Budapest is on the neighbouring platform. The Venice dusk is dank and dark. Only a few passengers – all men – board the Prague train. The Budapest leaves later and is shuttered and empty. I wonder if I am about to enter Graham Greene country and have a vague hope of travelling with mysterious men on louche missions. My train , however, refers back to another man and another time. It is called Don Giovanni. I will, therefore, be travelling with one louche man even if his mission – to seduce as many women as possible – was always abundantly clear.

It is late January and this is a newly introduced train. I and a lone Korean in the next compartment are the only passengers in the couchette car. As we pull slowly across the causeway that separates Venice from the real world, Daniel, the guard, raids the closed sleeper compartment and brings back chocolates and an orange “because I just have you two.” There is no restaurant car.

In Prague, I have a room waiting for me at the Hotel Hoffmeister. The brochure shows an elegant hotel in the old quarter that claims to offer saunas in its own 15th century caves but who cares about immobile hotels however opulent when you can ride a night train?

The Don Giovanni stops at most of the stations along the way. It is a train of big adventures – a night journey to Prague, and small routines – restaurant employees commute to the next town after the day shift in Venice. As I prepare for bed, I forget this ‘milk-train’ aspect and start to undress. As as we pull into a station, I find myself standing in my underwear as a local train pulls in at the opposite platform. The weary evening passengers, faces sallow in the fluorescent light, stare vacantly back at me.

As I get into bed I am absurdly excited. I’m enchanted by the idea of having my own mobile bedroom moving anonymously through dark, snowy fields and forests and towns that I will never visit, whose names I will never know..

At 2 a.m. I am wrenched out of sleep by a shuddering and rattling in the compartment. For a moment I am righteously indignant, convinced that Daniel is bouncing up and down on my bed. These kids in the service industry have no respect. I pull the blanket over my head and attempt to remove the offending guard with a sharp kick. But still he bounces so I sit up, turn on the light, survey my empty compartment and listen to the hammering that is, in fact, coming from the end of our carriage – the, formerly peaceful last car on the train..

Night trains have secret lives. Italy has vanished behind us, the Venetian hotel workers have long since left and gone to beds on solid ground. We’re now in the Austrian town of Villach where raucous, helmeted , hammering men in greasy yellow outfits seem to be welding us to the train behind.

Venetian rain has been replaced by snow. I leave the blind up and watch the thick flakes falling onto the deserted platform. I could happily ride forever on trains through snowbound landscapes which is probably a good thing because this is 14 hour journey and Daniel says the train is often an hour or two late. I fall asleep reading about Mozart and Prague. The great man himself conducted the premier of Don Giovanni there in 1787. And he had to get there in a horse drawn carriage.

I wake up in a snowbound village in Bohemia. My Don Giovanni’s first stop in the Czech Republic is Horni Dvoristi which seems appropriate enough. The steeples in the villages are different here – more elaborate, extravagant and romantic than in Austria. The tracks are lined with pale blue spruce trees – the only colour in a vast white land where snow seeps into sky – until the beige of a lone baby deer in the forest.

Daniel brings breakfast of tea and roll. The white emptiness suddenly fills with warehouses, factories, paper mills, grain silos and Czechs on their way to work, some of them cycling along ice-covered streets. How do they manage that? Tescos and McDonalds loom as Prague approaches.

An hour later, I’m lying in a candlelit cave at the Hotel Hoffmeister having the rattling night on a couchette smoothed out of my back by a warm oil massage. This hotel is the Prague base of “Amadeus” director Milos Forman. I’m feeling pleased with the Mozart/Don Giovanni connection until later in a real bed in my peaceful room when I leaf through the train timetable and see that the Don Giovanni train broke away, in fact, at 4 am in Salzburg and headed for Vienna. Typical.

Austrian railways Venice-Prague 80 euros one way with couchette.

Hotel Hoffmeister Prague

Stresa, Lake Maggiore and Ernest Hemingway

The manager of the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees in Stresa on Italy’s Lake Maggiore hands me a photo of Ernest Hemingway. The Nobel laureate is sitting at the hotel bar. He is leaning slightly backwards, clutching his stomach, his eyes are closed. He looks as is if he is about to slide peacefully on to the Persian carpet. Has he just consumed yet another of the “cool and clean martinis” that Frederick Henry, the hero of his novel, A FAREWELL TO ARMS,” mentions twice in one page as he sits at the same bar?

“Hemingway stayed here many times,” says the manager. “He first came in 1918 and kept coming back right through to the fifties.” He shows me the hotel’s Golden Book of illustrious guests where, along with John Steinbeck, Clark Gable, assorted Carnegies, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and various maharajahs and kings, (the hotel does have its own heliport) Hemingway has signed himself as “an old client.” He always stayed in room 106 which was, in fact, a suite on the first floor, looking out on Lake Maggiore and the peacocks, statues, topiary and terraces of the dream-like “Isola Bella.”

“You cannot, alas, visit,” says the manager. “It is occupied.” I will later learn that the suite is booked for a long stay by an Arabian princess.

Hemingway’s protagonist, Frederick Henry and his lover, the English nurse, Catherine Barclay arrive at the Grand Hotel just before the book begins it final, tragic climax. The novel opens on the Austro-Italian frontier where American ambulance driver, Henry, is based with the Italian army. The Italy of Hemingway’s novel is a grey land of the north and of war. Mud, mountains, mist and most of all, rain, fill the landscape of A Farewell to Arms.

I first read this novel when I was twelve. The only Italian place name that I recognized in the novel was Milan where the love affair between Frederick Henry and Catherine Barclay is consummated in an empty American hospital after he undergoes major knee surgery. My twelve year old self was too innocent to wonder, as I did at a recent reading, about the logistics of lovemaking within days of such surgery. At twelve I knew nothing of war or Italy or passionate love and yet I devoured this book.

If Milan marks the beginning of the lovers’ happiness, Stresa marks the beginning of the end .

I would glimpse Stresa four years later in 1970 from a train window. It was my first sight of Italy and I felt woozy from what seemed then to be the sultry, sensuous, radiant Mediterranean charm. There was a palm tree (the first I’d ever seen) on the station platform, there were rounded red tiles on the roofs and a royal blue lake dotted with mysterious islands as a back drop.

Hemingway’s hero also travels by train around this region but he is wounded and moving through the greys and browns of the war zone in winter. He tells how he vomits on the train floor but “it did not matter because the man on the other side had been very sick on the floor several times before.”

As his disgust and disillusion with the war increase so does Frederick Henry’s passionate love for Catherine Barclay. When he narrowly escapes a random execution during the chaotic Italian retreat from the front, he joins Catherine in Stresa. But by now he is wanted for desertion. Stresa’s vibrant beauty is marred by the November rain that greets his arrival in the town, and by our awareness that the lovers’ time in this lovely place is fated to be cut short. When the Italian army comes looking for Henry, he and Catherine are rescued by the hotel barman who warns them and helps them to slip out of the hotel and into his boat. He explains the route that they must row to escape to neutral Switzerland at the north end of the lake.

The hotel manager is handing me another photo of Hemingway in a small boat fishing in front of the hotel. No guests go fishing during my stay. The couples who pause for a cappuccino at La Verbanella café on the lake shore or buy an excellent sandwich from Rosaria at the Cambusa delicatessen and wine shop in town are more likely to hire a mountain bike or follow the percorso vita, an obstacle course of gymnastic equipment set at intervals along the lakefront.

“Stresa is one of the few resorts that has grown quieter,” says Rosaria in her excellent English. “There used to be orchestras in all the lake front cafes - now they are too expensive.” The town does seem to be fading gently into its past. Majestic villas stand abandoned behind stern padlocks guarded only by headless statues or winged lions with rusty halos. Buddlea bushes grow out of the rooftops.

Back at the Grand Hotel, music and the modern world reappear in the form of another American, singer Billy Joel who is sitting at the bar ordering tea for his daughter. The Arabian princess wanders by on her way to the gym.

A journey to Verdi country in Italy

When Verdi lay dying in the Grand Hotel in Milan, the people of the city put straw down on the cobbles in front of the window so that he would not be disturbed by the clatter of horses’ hoofs. Silence was the only gift that they could give to the innkeeper’s son from the Po plain who had filled their world with such beautiful sound.

Verdi died on 27 January 1901. The surviving giant of 19th century opera (Richard Wagner had died 17 years earlier) set a hesitant foot into the tumultuous century that was to follow, then left us forever.Giuseppe Verdi had already seen enough upheaval for several lifetimes. The little hamlet of Le Roncole, an hour’s drive from Parma, where he was born in 1813 was then part of the French Empire. His birth certificate records the arrival in French of "un enfant du sexe masculin." The tuneful and musically unsophisticated operas of his youth carried enough rousing choruses of oppressed masses for the Unification movement to use his initials as a cry for the scattered kingdoms of the Italian Peninsula to unite under one king: V -ictor Emmanuel Re D’Italia. By the time he died Italy was a prosperous nation that was considered to be one of the six great powers of the world (in those days an exclusively European concept that did not include America or Japan.) In Verdi’s own world, the theatre, with which he had such a turbulent love-hate relationship, La Scala had been lit by candles when he first arrived in 1839. By 1851 it was lit with oil, then gas and in 1893, when the 80 year old composer’s Falstaff was premiered, the theatre was entirely run on electricity.

And somewhere in the middle of his long life when Aida was in production in 1872 and the Franco-Prussian war caused the costumes and decor to be blocked in Paris, French librettist, Camille du Locle sent messages of progress to Verdi by hot air balloon. The wise and wily, taciturn farmer that Verdi remained would have viewed this rush of technological progress with a wary eye. He had little time for any of life’s trimmings, preferring to wander alone down the lane of Lombardy poplars on his estate at St Agata to survey the fields of beetroot and potatoes. Irritated by the sycophancy and overblown emotion of the operatic world, he had withdrawn to his farm decades earlier, turning his back on a fame so great that Czar Alexander II, autocrat of all the Russias had once remarked to him: "Ah, Verdi, you are more powerful than I!" With, in the words of an American biographer, "a talent so profuse it couldn’t stop to explain," Verdi had little hope of being left in peace to peruse his catalogues of agricultural machinery. The musical journey from an early opera like Nabucco to his valedictory Falstaff is so long and covers such a vast and varied landscape that it becomes apparent that this gloomy, suspicious man just could not stop the music inside him from growing and evolving . At the end of his 54 year long career, Verdi’s music would take us to places that no-one could have imagined upon hearing those first bouncy, barrel-organ tunes that he brought from the brass bands of Bussetto. Although Bussetto was virtually his home town (Le Roncole is little more than a crossroads in the flat farmland) Verdi was frequently at odds with the place just as he was frequently at odds with La Scala and the Opera in Paris. Geniuses rarely know much serenity and Verdi’s life for many years was one of restless conflict with his environment. In Bussetto, the local grocer, Antonio Barezzi had championed his young talent and provided financial support. Verdi was even briefly and happily married to Barezzi’s daughter, Margherita but would lose her and their two children to illness. Many years later, however, he managed to upset the peaceful, provincial town when he brought his mistress, the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, to live there. The ensuing gossip and prejudice may have inspired "La Traviata" but it left Verdi angry enough with the locals to refuse to support their plan to build a theatre in his honour. He described it as "useless" and to this day, his statue sits with its back turned to the Teatro Verdi.

He was in conflict with the Conservatoire in Milan for refusing him entry in his youth. He would also remain at loggerheads for many years with the city’s principal opera house, La Scala.. Verdi was critical of the orchestra and chorus and scornful of La Scala’s claim to be in Milanese dialect "el prim teater del mund" - the first theatre of the world. He was heard to mutter that Vienna deserved that title. Verdi stayed in conflict with the Opera in Paris for many years even though he lived for a time in the French capital, on the Place des Victoires where he first set up house with Giuseppina Strepponi in 1847. (Twelve years later she would become and remain his wife for 38 years.) He was scornful of as he called it where the Jockey Club could hold sway and demand from a composer of his stature, a ballet inserted into the opera during which their members would have time to settle into their seats after supper.

Verdi travelled to London for I Masnadieri at Her Majesty’s Theatre. He hated the smoke and the fog but loved the energy and excitement of what he called "A magnificent town." He would journey to St Petersburg for the premiere of La Forza del Destino. He and Giuseppina equipped themselves with the obligatory fur hats and coats and had the obligatory photos taken of themselves wearing those hats and coasts and riding in a troika. But when the prospect of cabbage soup loomed, Giuseppina packed the ingredients to ensure that the maestro would be able to get a decent risotto.Eventually, however, he would be drawn back to the flat, misty Italian heartland of his birth where he settled in his villa and farm at St Agata, just a few miles outside Bussetto. There, in dark, overstuffed Victorian rooms, he breathed life into Aida, Don Carlos, Otello and Falstaff. He buried his dog Lulu in the grounds and to this day those grounds and those rooms remain as Verdi left them. Theatres throughout Italy and the rest of the world will be celebrating the long life of the composer in 2001 but a visitor who wants to undertake a Verdi pilgrimage in his centenary year would do well to start in this peaceful region. The upstairs room where Verdi was born in the little inn at Le Roncole Verdi , can be visited in an afternoon along with the church across the road where he learned to play the organ.

Bussetto, with its fine porticoed main street, has preserved the home of Verdi’s patron, Antonio Barezzi. Just across the way are the apartments where the unmarried Verdi and Giuseppina so shocked the locals by living together. Along the street is the church to which an unbelieving Verdi would accompany his fervent Catholic Giuseppina each Sunday, taking her just as far as the door before turning around to go home. Across from the church on the main square just next to the Teatro Verdi, legendary tenor and local resident, Carlo Bergonzi provides fine regional cuisine in his hotel "I Due Foscari."

But it is out at the villa at Saint Agata where the old composer spent his final years that I have always felt his presence most strongly. On my first visit almost fifteen years ago, I looked into the mirror in his bedroom and realized with a chill that for decades the maestro’s greying hair and beard and wise blue eyes had been reflected in that same glass. The collected works of his beloved Shakespeare are still on the bookshelf next to his bed where he left them, as is a life of Beethoven and notes that he wrote to himself. Just occasionally Verdi would venture out to local events. He once tried to attend a fiesta in nearby Zibello but when his arrival was cheered by the locals, he took umbrage, turned around and went home. This may have been his loss for since 1897, the inn of La Buca in Zibello has been serving excellent local culatello hams, porcini and sweet pasta deserts. It has always been run by women, the grandmothers, mothers and daughters of the same family."Who needs useless men?" demanded Signora Miriam last time I ate there.

In Saint Agata they have reproduced the room where Verdi died in the Grand Hotel et de Milan. The original room has also been preserved in the Grand Hotel but before visiting Verdi locations in Milan, it is worth making the hour long drive to the city of Parma, home of Italy’s most notoriously critical opera audience.Although there are stories of inadequate tenors being chased to the train station by the audience at the Regio theatre in Parma, the city is a gentle, peaceful place where the most a non-operatic visitor risks is being knocked down by one of the hundred bicycles that ply the pedestrianized historical centre or succumbing to a surfeit of the butter and cheese that dominate the local cuisine. For all his ambiguous loyalty to his home province, Verdi died in Milan, where one surprising last work was nearing completion. Whereas his rival, Richard Wagner had busied himself building a shrine to his own music in Bayreuth, Verdi chose to found a rest home for retired musicians: Casa Verdi, "most beautiful work" he would call the home, leaving it the royalties from his operas. In his will, he asks to be buried there but the home was not quite finished when he died. This delay gave the people of Milan a way around his other demand to be buried silently at dawn. They respected that wish but when, a month later, his coffin was moved to a chapel in the home, an excuse was provided for the massive show of feeling that the people had been denied. Toscanini conducted the Orchestra and chorus of La Scala, members of the royal family accompanied the funeral cortege. In those distant days before, radio and television, old photos show crowds on the Milan streets that outnumber those that bid farewell to Princess Diana almost a century later in London. Upon the death of his friend Carlo Tenca, Verdi managed to write to Tenca’s mistress, his dear friend, Clarina Maffei the most depressing letter of condolence: "I think that life is a stupid thing, futile even. What do we do? What have we done? What will we do? The answer is humiliating and very depressing: NOTHING!"

Hidden Palaces of Palermo


Towards the end of Lampedusa’s classic Italian novel, The Leopard, a Sicilian Prince and his family squeeze into a carriage in their swathes of satin and silk to travel to a grand ball through the dark, narrow streets of Palermo. The year is 1862. Two years earlier, the people of Sicily had voted yes to the unification of Italy, following the arrival of Garibaldi’s troops on the island. The young Princesses are delighted at the prospect of a ball. Their world-weary father, Prince Fabrizio - the leopard of the title, named after a coat of arms still to be found all over southern Europe, approaches the evening with little pleasure. Garibaldi’s arrival has heralded the end of the leisurely, sensuous world of gilded palaces, fragrant gardens and country villas that the Prince has always known. The rigid social structures have crumbled. Within the Prince’s own family his beloved nephew, Tancredi, has fallen in love with the beautiful daughter of the newly rich local grocer.
In what E.M Forster called “a great lonely book”, Lampedusa, himself a twentieth century Prince, writing the story of his nineteenth century counterpart, looks through the eyes of Prince Fabrizio as his world gradually collapses around him. When Visconti made his sumptuous, opulent film of the book he cast Burt Lancaster as the Prince, Alain Delon as the nephew and Claudia Cardinale as the grocer’s stunning daughter, Angelica.
In the book, the ball is held at Palazzo Ponteleone in a ballroom of “a faded gold, pale as the hair of certain nordic children” where “From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches gazed down .” Into this not quite faded grandeur, the author’s voice suddenly interrupts to tell us that those gods may have “thought themselves eternal but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943.”
And so it will be with almost every one of the novel’s locations. As I make my way around Palermo, Lampedusa’s world proves as stealthy and elusive as the great cat of the title.
A 1968 earthquake destroyed Lampedusa’s country home at Santa Margherita Belice - the fictional Donnafugata of the novel. Back in Palermo where the dark, huddled old town hides from the sun and turns its back on the royal blue sea, Lampedusa’s family palace was also bombed by the allies. I wander towards the sea for a glimpse of the Hotel Trinacria on Via Butera where Prince Fabrizio will die twenty years after the ball. A guide published in 1996 says that it is being renovated but I will learn that in slippery Sicily, your guidebook must be up to date for I find only a boarded-up facade and a plaque marking its former glory.

I am about to give up in despair when I remember that just before I left London, the woman at the Italia nel Mondo travel agency had handed me a piece of paper with the address of a Countess. Another agency faxed me the phone number of a Princess. Like their British contemporaries, the Palermo nobility needs money to keep up palaces that can date as far back as the 12th century. And so they have decided to hold dinner parties in their palatial homes. Perhaps I will find the lost world of the leopard here. I make two phone calls and find myself invited to a Saturday night dinner party with an American study group at the Princess’s palace and a Monday night dinner with the Countess and a group of Germans.
On the Saturday, I ring the bell of the Pietratagliata Palace beside an immense wooden door on a shadowy, cobbled street. A market is closing up; this is not a place to linger. A small door opens within the large one and I find myself in a great courtyard at the bottom of a marble staircase. The Principessa Signoretta is waiting at the top. No faded glory is she but a slim, beautiful, vivacious brunette. She leads me through baronial halls into the ballroom where, with the Americans, we dine on Sicilian specialities beneath the largest 18th century chandelier in the world.
Two days later, the blonde and stunningly lovely Countess Alwine Federico, originally from Salzburg and a trained soprano, guides the German group up to the twelfth century tower of the vast and opulent Palazzo Conte Federico. Before we sit down to dinner and a song recital by the Countess herself, she shows us the Pleyel piano on which Wagner once played.
Wagner would have been a contemporary of the fictional Prince Fabrizio. So the world of the Leopard is still here in Palermo, hiding behind the high, dark doors. “But I don’t want to be a leopard,” had sighed the Princess two days earlier, “just watching it all go away. I want to be a tiger and fight for a renewed Palermo!”
She may not entirely approve of him but I think Prince Fabrizio , a man who even in the deepest of melancholies, never failed to notice a beautiful woman, would have applauded these clever, beautiful 21st century nobles who are building their own version of the leopard’s world.
Flights to Sicily, hotels, countesses and palaces can all be arranged by Sicilian specialists: Italia nel Mondo : 0207 828 9171,