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.
"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.
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 www.oebb.at 80 euros one way with couchette.
Hotel Hoffmeister Prague www.hoffmeister.cz
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.
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!"
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 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.”