The Retro-blogs

Santa Monica Ivy martini
Dee enjoying a martini at the Ivy, Santa Monica July 2014

There are a number of pieces I wrote two years ago but never got round to posting because on our return from America my wife became ill and was, after many false starts, diagnosed with genetic ovarian cancer. After multiple chemotherapy treatments and major surgery Denise died in December 2016.

I’ve decided partly for my own benefit as much as for anyone else’s enjoyment (although I hope there may be some of that too) to retro-blog the remainder of our US trip in 2014 and some of the things we did last year (2016) which circumstances prevented me from recording at the time. Dee’s indomitable spirit was not going to stop her enjoying what transpired to be our last year together. Her love of life, care for people, enjoyment of landscape, literature, art and music, food and wine – and the occasional cocktail – will live on with me. It’s a sad time but there are also 22 wonderful years we spent together to celebrate.

Adding to this pinned post after a year makes me realise just how lucky I was to have shared my life with Dee and how grateful I am to the family and friends who have helped me through my first difficult year of loss. It’s been a busy year in which I’ve cried, complained and been creased up with laughter at various moments. I started blogging when we were planning our trip to Japan in 2013 so it will be five years old in January 2018. Thanks to all of you who have followed it and commented. I enjoy keeping a record of my travels in this way and I’m delighted that some of you enjoy reading about them.

Not so wintery break 3

So after a great gig and a late-ish night for an old bloke like me, it was a lie in to watch Match of the Day – at least the bit featuring Watford’s win, which had been followed by all in the sound check yesterday through my phone updates. After a leisurely breakfast I took a tram ride to Central Station ready to catch a train to Utrecht. Once again the ease and efficiency of travel were everywhere apparent, And to make things better there had been an upward temperature shift of more than ten degrees. We were now in + degrees and layers were back in the suitcase. I knew I’d arrive ahead of normal check in time but went to the Dom Hotel first to leave my bag, Getting out of Utrecht station is a bit like getting into the London Stadium – you have to go through an enormous shopping mall, Hoog Catharijne. And it could easily double as Westfield as, sadly, almost all the shops and cafes are international brands. Just one caught my eye that might not do so well in England – a menswear shop called Sissy Boy.

Dom TorThe hotel was an easy ten minute walk towards Utrecht’s defining monument, the Dom Tower. Even I couldn’t get lost looking for Domstraat. I did have a slight worry when I had to ring the doorbell to gain entry. It’s a hotel in progress as the eleven suites (they are worthy of the epithet rather than just rooms) are all there and beautifully appointed but the bar and restaurant won’t open until next week end, Staff were helpful and went to check whether housekeeping had a room available and I was quickly signed in and shown to a spacious second floor room with windows on two sides and views out over the inner city.



Dom Hotel suite 3

I got a call from Alan to say they were leaving their hotel and would be at the venue in about an hour, Just the right time for a stroll back towards the north side of the station via a modern bar restaurant for lunch and a beer. It was so modern that it’s the first I’ve ever been in where you can only play by card – no cash accepted.


Tivoli Vredenburg extI haven’t Googled it but I guess there was an old Tivoli theatre as there is an older building behind the massive new music centre which opened in 2014. Do we have so many modern music and/or theatre venues in the UK? If not, and I suspect not, maybe the “creative industries” should step up their lobbying. This place had several gigs on and a cafe that must have been making good money for it. There are nine different halls each designed with an acoustic suited to particular music forms. We were in Cloud Nine the blue semicircle that sticks out at the top. A good name for a jazz club. I make my way up through the public area and collect my guest ticket which ominously bears no number but the words “Rij Stoel ” but also the legend Vrijkaart which meant I was a guest and there indeed I later found an isolated chair to the right side of the stage. But again a helpful employee said “You must be Mike” and I was escorted through to the green room and met up with all my new friends from yesterday and Skid. They had done the sound check by the time I got there and we had time for a few jokes and general chatter and it was time to go on stage. This was a 4 pm Sunday Afternoon Jazz slot. Again it’s a very modern room but with a great atmosphere.

They played a slightly different set list from yesterday but the saxophone summit was soon burning up the hall. There was a long bar along one side but it was notable that very few people got up to get a drink during the set and then there was a rush at the interval. Truly jazz at the highest level and I don’t just mean because we were on Level 9. The Rein de Graaff Trio play together frequently and are a tuneful, slick and inventive rhythm section worthy of playing behind anyone. I’ve long admired Alan Skidmore‘s ability to play the hardest of hard bop and tender lyrical ballads always with solos that intrigue, dazzle and entertain. I had not heard Benjamin Herman before but was very impressed with his performances and likewise Tineke Postma was unknown to me before these gigs but her albums will be on my download list very shortly after I get back home. She, as they say, really ripped the place up.

Another chance to chill after the gig and take my farewells from Benjamin, Tineke and Eric – I went to the garage again with Alan, Rein and Marius who were heading off back to their hotel out in the countryside. It was not too difficult to get out this time and I popped back to the hotel to sort out photos before going out for a pleasant dinner in the busy heart of Utrecht to a restaurant recommended by the helpful staff at the Dom Hotel.

Canal with Dom TorI had some work-related stuff to do on Monday but once that was complete had a chance to walk around other parts of this delightful city. I decided that my feet were too old to climb the 465 steps to the top of the Dom Tower and of course the top part is clad in scaffolding  at present during restoration – well it was built in 1382 to it probably needs a bit of tlc. It rises to 112 metres making it the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. I did take a look at St Martin’s Cathedral next door which has a very fine cloister and then walked along the Oudegracht or old canal, sparkling in the unexpected warm spring sunshine and with the Dom Tower dominating the skyline. Then back up through another canal-side park towards the market place and the old centre. I realised I was running short on euros and consulted Google maps for the nearest ATM. I dutifully followed the steps but there’s no bank in sight. The map said it was bang next door to Lush, the soap shop. Now I’m not very fond of the odours that emerge from Lush but I manned up and walked in with my phone to enquire if they knew where it was. Total blankness from the first assistant but then her colleague said that it was inside the Hema shop opposite. Now able to buy a coffee I continued to walk through old Utrecht.

Cafe societyIt was interesting to see that the minute the sun comes out again people love to eat and drink outdoors and there were many examples of lunch time cafe society as I moved through the city. I joined them and then it was then time to catch a train back to  Amsterdam, the Thalys to Brussels and Eurostar back to London, completing a highly enjoyable short break.



Winter break 2

Amsterdam did have a flurry of snow overnight so I took the concierge’s advice and caught the tram to Museumplein for my art morning, Transport was easy to navigate, trains are informative so you know where you are. One thing I noticed with taxi driver, waiters, hotel staff and the tram employees was that they are Dutch. As one used only to being served or driven by east Europeans, this came as quite a shock and was continued throughout my stay. Are such jobs better paid here by comparison or as in Spain just treated with greater respect? Proper jobs perhaps?

I think it was probably more than 30 years ago that I was in the Rijksmuseum and rather like the BM and V&A they have built a great glass canopy over the courtyard which makes for a more pleasant and warmer experience. And what a delightful museum it is. Paintings displayed with space to view them. Only a few cases where you have to crick your neck to look at images high on their walls. Which incidentally I did in the concert last night – the stage in Concert Gebouw is very high and I thought I may have been better off with a seat in the balcony rather than the stalls.

I’ve seen reproductions of the Night Watch before but it does take your breath away with the staggering amount of narrative detail Rembrandt included. There’s a brilliant printed guide in the gallery that points out the most salient aspects – I would not have spotted them all without. There are several brilliant other Rembrandt’s and a series of gorgeous but surprisingly small Vermeers. The galleries are well supplied with benches from which to sit and contemplate and although it was getting busier as I left around two o’clock, it had been a very pleasurable visit. No eye-glazing and a  handy highlights leaflet to save you looking at absolutely every Dutch landscape which – heresy – can start to look a little samey and as we’re in the Netherlands dare I say flat.

3207F4F2-F621-4F79-825D-6924C6CF3120Just along from the museum is Amsterdam’s famous Vondelpark so I went for a stroll  there with loads more skaters on the lakes including an impromptu ice hockey game, joggers on the pathways and cycles ridden it seemed by Michelin men and women – puffa jackets seem de rigeur. Leidseplein is the tourist epicentre for bars, restaurants and clubs so it was now time for a beer and a snack. I found a good traditional bar Reynders and after refuelling I walked back to the centre. On the way I had a very reassuring phone call from my neighbour John who had heard me coughing in the night earlier in the week, noticed that the  window shutters were closed and called to check that I was alive and well. Aren’t neighbours just wonderful?

BimhuisIt was a great route crossing all the big central canals and finishing up in Dam Square. From there it was a further kilometre or so to Central Station and then along the Ij to reach Bimhuis a magnificent music venue built about ten years ago where I was due to meet my friend Alan Skidmore for the sound check before their concert that evening. It was quite fun arriving across a angled bridge over the canal up to the empty venue and being escorted from reception to the green room with the greeting “You must be Mike”, They knew I was coming, had they baked a cake? Well no but there was beer in the fridge and an unbelievably warm reception for a random Brit who just happens to be Skid’s mate and webmaster. Despite being an ace saxophonist, Skid’s a drummer manqué and got a chance to sit at the kit in the sound check.


While waiting for crew dinner, I bought my own by the way from an excellent menu in the Bimhuis café, we discovered an advertisement in a magazine for the Skidmore Jazz Institue so this deserves further investigation and maybe some royalty payments. I have to say that I’ve always found jazz musicians a friendly bunch and these were no exception. Jokes were told – which many had heard often before no doubt – but were well received. Then it was time to leave the backstage and get up to the venue again.

Alan Skidmore (tenor), Rein de Graaff (piano), Tineke Postma (alto and soprano) Benjamin Herman (alto) Marius Beets (bass) and Eric Ineke (drums) about to mount the stairs for the saxophone summit.

The gig was an absolutely stormer. A superb Dutch rhythm section who have played with all the jazz greats on tours in Europe really got things swinging and then the front line of Skid who doesn’t know the meaning of giving less than everything even though he’ll be knackered next day, Benjamin who is English but lives in Holland and is applying for a passport with some speed and plays a mean solo and the rose between the (t)horns Tineke Postma who was an absolute revelation to me. Where does all that power, lyricism and invention come from? There were two sets which were rapturously received by the full house. John Coltrane’s Impressions was the closing number and he would have been nodding his approval had he been here.

Bimhuis Benjamin soloing   Bimhuis Tineke alto solo  Bimhuis Skid close up

Then it’s back to the green room for more beer and wine and try to chill a bit while adrenaline levels are raging. I then help the guys down to the basement car park with their gear as they set off for a hotel near Utrecht ready for tomorrow’s gig. I then try to find my way out of the nearly deserted building into the very cold night air. Fortunately I was able to flag down a cab before too long. They didn’t play Round Midnight but that had long gone so walking back to the hotel was not really on tonight.

Wintery break 1

I went to a Japan Foundation talk by Hideo Furukawa called Murakami and I at King’s Place on Wednesday the last day of February. It was touch and go as to whether Southeastern Trains would get me to London Bridge in time to get a tube to King’s Cross. At least I didn’t have to walk along the tracks at Lewisham. It was odd being back at King’s Place because last year at this time I was there every Wednesday for six weeks on my Guardian masterclass writing course. By a coincidence I had just finished the first draft of the promised novel that afternoon. A layoff for a while and then much revision lie ahead followed by the quest for an agent and publisher. The talk was interesting and as much about Furukawa as Murakami and a bit too narrowly focused on a couple of  books for my liking but worth struggling through the snow for.

Thursday should have seen the official opening of the Watford Community Trust’s 25th Anniversary exhibition at the Watford Museum but it was sensibly postponed. So my plan to drive after the opening to Southend for a flight to Amsterdam on Friday morning needed revising to. EasyJet had cancelled all Southend flights on the Thursday and after a lengthy time on hold I spoke to a customer services person who  advised me that they wouldn’t be flying on Friday either. So in the hope and promise of a refund I booked a Eurostar train for Friday morning as being the more likely option. The train from Lee to London Bridge on this occasion was on time and I got to St Pancras in good time only to discover that there would be a one-hour delay before departure. So it was off to Pret for a coffee and read the paper patiently. Because of the late departure and slow running speeds on the UK track I’m entitled to a partial refund. There was a bit of confusion at Brussels where we had to take a different connecting train to Amsterdam (of course there’s a direct London Amsterdam service but that starts next month!) but in the company of a young trainee doctor whose luggage I’d pulled down from the rack we made it onto the Thalys to Amsterdam expecting to stand all the way but miraculously there were two seats and we enjoyed a lively conversation all the way to Amsterdam. I was very surprised given all the weather maps displayed on TV this week to find that there was no snow at all in France, Belgium or the Netherlands. But it was very cold so I took a cab from Central Station to my hotel which was opposite Amsterdam Zoo – I didn’t visit but was regaled with a wide variety of animal and bird calls. It’s in a pleasant part of the city and I chose it because it – according to Google Maps – was less than thirty minutes walk to my main destinations in the city: Concert Gebouw and the Rijksmuseum to the west and Bimhuis to the north east.

The concierge at the hotel was amazed that I was setting out to walk and advised me of suitable trams or I could rent a bicycle. However you see a place better on foot so I set off for Museumplein winding across canals, being terrified by whizzing cyclists who seem to have all rights of way. I knew it happened by it still came as a shock to see people skating on the canals, especially those that included liquid water too. Despite the Winter Olympics I resisted the temptation. D5570E3A-12E5-42AA-91C2-7A74B3A56A71After a pleasant stroll, well wrapped up against the minus 8 according to my phone, it was time for a pause in the journey for a beer. A fine old cafe Mulder presented itself on my route and it seemed rude to refuse. Wooden bar and tables and a good old-fashioned atmosphere with a selection of drought and bottled beers – just what was required. I soon after arrived outside the imposing Rijksmuseum which was on the agenda for tomorrow. 4AD41ECE-0EE5-4E20-B018-9DDA462E7D0DAcross the park behind it was the concert hall for which I had tickets for 8.15 pm in an hour and a half. Perfect time to find another bar and have a pre-concert snack. Again I was lucky to find a table in a very popular place Gruter – it was reserved from 7.30 but I promised to be gone by then. It was very lively and I struck up a conversation with a couple from just outside Utrecht who were flat sitting while their daughter was off skiing. They said I’d done well to find the bar as it’s reckoned to be one of the hidden gems.

Time for classical music. I’d never been to Concert Gebouw and as one of the world’s most famous auditoria I thought I should. The programme with the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra and Choir was fairly safe: Vaughn Williams Tallis Fantasia and Faure’s Requiem both of which I know well. But the first item was the world premiere of a piece by Guillaume Connesson, a French composer who I’m afraid had escaped my radar. Called Liturgies of Light it was an accessible piece which did indeed depict the idea of light falling in different ways. The choir sang beautifully and the music progressed serenely to a great climax. The Faure was a poignant experience because the last time we saw it performed was in Canterbury Cathedral where our good friend from Boston Pat Weiler was singing in a visiting choir. Dee and I had dinner with Pat after the concert and sadly neither of these two wonderful women is with us any longer, so I sat through it with a rather lumpy throat. It is a great concert hall with a fine sound and I enjoyed my evening thoroughly. They even provide a free glass of wine at the interval. I was idly admiring the plaques with composers’ names that surround the hall when I was struck by Dopper whom I’m afraid I’ve never heard of and Roentgen who I thought invented x-rays, among most predictable candidates like Bach, Mahler and Wagner. The walk back to the hotel was extremely cold so I was grateful for my many layers. So Friday was travel and classical music, tomorrow brings art and jazz.


Il ritorno di Michele

I have now been back through the Rome blogs and add photos so if anyone 
wants to flick through them again you'll be most welcome.

Sorry Monteverdi – it was all that baroque last night and then on iTunes while I was writing. Ulysses’ return was a more dramatic story than mine and made for a fine opera we saw a couple of years ago. My return journey began with packing my one carry on bag – first time for a long time I’ve travelled without checked in luggage. Breakfast, checkout, store case with porter and set off to Galleria Borghese for a final cultural treat. The concierge advised the metro to Flaminio and then walk through the lovely Borghese Park. It is sunny and bright, not too cold and I stride off purposefully through the, indeed, lovely park. It dawns on me quite early that to get to the gallery it’s all uphill and nearly two kilometres. The signage is plentiful but confusing as there are several other museums and galleries in the park so the map had to come out a few times to confirm I was on the right path.

Red squirrel
Red squirrel munching nuts in the park

Borghese Park - Copy


A couple of pauses to watch red squirrels cavorting – why do they look so much more agreeable that the grey vermin I constantly shoo off my bulbs?  – and I make it to the gallery shortly after my timed admission slot from 11:00 till 13:00 – one occasion when I really appreciate the timed-ticket system as it meant I was able to admire the works on display.

Borghese gallery - Copy
Galleria Borghese – at last!


Painting perfection

The permanent collection houses lots of Berninis but also had a special exhibition showing his work as a painter at which he excelled in his early years and then largely abandoned once commissions for sculpture and architecture filled his days. The first floor sculpture galleries contain pieces from ancient times, mosaic floors of great beauty and loads of Bernini busts in an amazing row through a long gallery. Perhaps the most startling piece is the prone statue of Hermaphroditus from the second century AD, reclining on a mattress sculpted by Bernini which you are sure will respond to your touch. But I was soon headed up the spiral staircase to see the paintings. Fortunately their Caravaggios hadn’t all gone to Florence and David with the Head of Goliath, Boy with a basket of fruit  and others only seen in reproductions were there to marvel at. As indeed were Raphael’s brilliant Lady with a Unicorn (as on trend in 1506 as in 2017), and Deposition of Christ. There was a fine Bernini self-portrait and then Titian’s amazing Sacred and Profane Love which reignited my musings about secular and religious art prompted by last night’s concert. My time was up but I would happily spend another two hours absorbing the works in this elegant setting, where they are so admirably displayed. It was great not being shuffled and squeezed along a toothpaste tube of visitors.

Tempus fugit but memories remain

I decided to walk out of the park by a different route clocking a location for another visit, the highly regarded Museum of Modern Art on the way. Its facade was tempting but I did have a flight to catch. I arrive on via Flaminio close to a tram stop for the number 2 that I had used on Wednesday so waited for the next tram to take my tiring limbs back to the metro stop. I looked at my watch and it was exactly 12:25 the time my wife died a year ago.

Tram 1225So I had a little moment and resumed my journey on a packed tram. I had time to raise a glass to her in the Piazza del Popolo and found another birra artiginale this time from brewery Beatrice with a pale ale called Diana – all very British royal family! With some complimentary crisps and nuts I was ready for the last leg. I had done very well using metro, trams and a bus and decided to treat myself to a luxury ride to the airport in the hotel’s shuttle bus which proved a good plan as we arrived in good time and I was able to find a seat and write a previous blog.

Dies irae

All good things come to an end and my very enjoyable first taste of Rome ended in anger with the inefficiency of Ryanair’s ground handling subcontractors at Ciampino airport. As this was my first trip for ages without checked baggage, I had paid the extra six euros for priority boarding that enables you to take your wheelie case into the plane. There was no priority line for check in and as I arrived at the top of the steps I was informed that my bag would have to go in the hold. I explained that I had paid for priority simply to be able to place my case in the overhead locker. ‘Well you should have checked in earlier.’ ‘I would have done but having gone to the desk to find there was no Priority Lane I had to join nearly the end of the Other Q, as you so nicely put it to the plebs.’ To be fair a helpful flight attendant did look at a number of lockers but to have removed the bags of non-payers to make way for mine would have delayed the flight so I reluctantly allowed my case to go to the hold and sat down to sulk my way home. Given all the alarms I’d heard about problems at Stansted during the week I guess I was lucky to be coming back at anywhere near the scheduled time. We landed and of course mine was the last case onto the conveyor – fortunately identifiable since no one gave me a baggage claim receipt.

All’s well …

Faith in customer service was refreshed as I arrived at the mid-stay parking exit. When you have pre-booked the gate opens on recognising your number plate. However on Christmas Eve I actually arrived an hour early so it didn’t clock my reg and no one answered the help button so I had to take a ticket. I half-expected to have to pay the price at the exit and then reclaim my costs later but a splendid operator, who did answer the help button this time, checked me on the system and opened the barrier with no charge for my extra hour. A quick run down the M11, a clear Blackwall Tunnel and back home after a stimulating and enjoyable trip. Exhausted but happy and with a welcome home hug from neighbour Jan, who lost her father two days before Christmas.


Movies and music

Insurance cover

First stop on Thursday morning is the mini-market on the way to the metro to buy an umbrella. At €5 it beat the queue touts’ €8-10 and it springs into life at the press of a button unlike their manual ones. A few clouds are about but the sun is out as I descend for not-quite the longest possible metro journey. The A line starts at Battistini one station west of where I get on at Cornelia and stops at Anagnina one stop beyond Cinecitta my destination for today. There’s an amusing occurrence as the subway emerges from tunnels to cross the Tiber on a bridge. On Sunday and again today, the fashionable youth of Rome reach for their sunglasses – for all of thirty seconds! The journey takes a little longer than the concierge predicted – or maybe it was my umbrella stop that screwed the schedule – but I arrived at the gates of the studios at 11:33, presented my voucher and was told that I had missed the 11:30 English language tour but could wait for the 13:00 one in Italian. I declined and said I’d go and see the permanent exhibitions anyway for which you don’t need to be part of a tour.

Cinecitta entrance - Copy

A funny thing happened …

As I walked across to the building marked Teatro 1 the introduction to Cinecitta, I spied a group emerging from it. I approached and enquired if they were the 11:30 English tour for which I was late and the French group leader Michelle confirmed this, let me join and explained that I’d missed the history of Cinecitta which she had just outlined. She also told me that today’s tour would actually be in English and French because of the make up of the group. This was a very fortunate encounter as she then led our group of twelve through a locked gate into the studio lot proper where casual visitors cannot go.

High Five for Fellini

Venusia from CasanovaAs you enter the site you walk past ‘Venusia’ a prop used at the beginning of Fellini’s Casanova. Once through the gate we walk along a rough a roadway lined by large terracotta painted buildings each with a Teatro number. Teatro is the Italian equivalent of Stage in English film studio parlance and our first stop, as I try out my new umbrella, is outside Teatro 5 one of 22 in all. I already knew this was their biggest with two submerged tanks for underwater and water surface filming and a massively high ceiling for crane shots. I had also read that Fellini (a favourite from my 1960s film-going days along with Pasolini and Antonioni) held it as his favourite space. I asked whether they had shot the famous scene in La Dolce Vita here in which Anita Ekberg inveigles Marcello Mastroianni to join her in the iconic Trevi Fountain. They hadn’t.  It was apparently shot at 05:30 in February with Mastrioanni demanding a wet suit under his tuxedo while Nordic ice-queen Ekberg strolled through the waters, shoulders bare, in her evening gown. There’s a brass plaque on the wall outside Teatro 5 dedicating it to Fellini who did in fact recreate whole streets in the studio for this and the many other films he made here.

Ancient and medieval


We walk on with quite persistent rain and so observe the first of the outdoor standing lots from under the access arch. It’s a recreation of the Temple of Jerusalem made for an American movie the name of which escaped me between the translations and the patter of rain on the brolly. As with all good set building it’s all scaffolding and fibreglass but looks authentic both to the human eye and the lens.

Rain in FlorenceNext to it they are just starting to build an outdoor set for a new film version of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose which we weren’t allowed to approach – secrecy or construction hazard I’m not sure. We then move to Assissi built for a film about St Francis but since much adapted to be Florence and other towns in medieval times.

Roman ramble

The next big set was built for the recent BBC/HBO/RAI TV series RomeIt has a huge variety of individual homes, official buildings, temples and the forum – sadly the Colisseum is no more. At the side of the forum is the Basilica of Emilia which you can hire for corporate events. Toga party anyone? It was a huge project that cost over a hundred million dollars for each series and the sets will I’m sure be used many more time in the future.

Ancient Rome set - Copy

We then walk back to the original exhibition area where I catch up with the history I’d missed. There are great displays – although the text panels are located a knee-height which made for a lot of neighbourly head bumping and ‘mi scusis’. There are excellent interactive segments where you can dub dialogue, make sound effects and perform in your preferred green screen scenario. Hoots of laughter from a group of teenagers running through a series of comedy and sci-fi scenes. There are several screens with interviews and extracts from films by Fellini, Rossellini and a fascinating piece on Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns that he sees as retelling of the Greek myths. You walk out through a submarine interior from a 2000 film U571 which had escaped my notice.

Cinecitta playground - CopyThe entrance area also has a brilliant children’s play area made up from the letters of Cinecitta.All in all a fascinating morning and I was very glad I’d caught up with the guide.



Birra and baroque

I took the metro back into the centre and had a short time to spend before a concert I’d booked for 18:30 this evening. So I discovered that Italy is about more than Peroni and Moretti in the birra stakes. In a small bar near Piazza Tritone, home to another famous Bernini fountain, I asked for a beer and was offered three craft bottled beers from a brewery called Baladin at 5, 6.5 and 7.5 proof. Since I want to stay awake I opt for the least alcoholic a crisp IPA style beer that was very tasty. The bar was quiet and I had a conversation about the changes in beer consumption in the last fifteen years or so when Italy started to brew other than the famous lagers we all know. There are over 600 small breweries now and the taste for different flavoured beers is growing. I’ll know to look out for them next time as I did throw my coin in the Trevi Fountain which supposedly guarantees a return to Rome, on my way to Piazza Navona .

Trevi dayI found an old UK pound coin in my camera bag and rather than take it to a bank I cast it to the waters. I hope it’s valid for Roman myths.

I was still half an hour early for the concert so had a quick coffee in a great cafe in the Museo di Roma building at the south of Piazza Navona. It’s called Vivi and is all organic. Coffee was great and being afraid of rumbling tum I had a slide of very tasty morello cherry pastry slice. It was obviously a popular meeting point for the young of the area. Four riversOn into Santa Agnesa in Agone right opposite Bernini’s famous Four Rivers Fountain which represents the Danube, the Nile, the Plate and the Ganges with mythical creatures and is topped by a huge obelisk. One of the characters is holding his hand up to shield his eyes from the light but popular Roman tales have it that Bernini had this man shield his eyes from the awful facade of the church built by his greatest rival Borromini. Great story, not true – the church came fifteen years after the fountain but hey – it’s a fun way of explaining the rivalry between the established master and the young pretender both eager to attract sponsorship from popes, princes and patrons.

Profana e sacra

I enter St Agnes and am directed to the sacristy off to the left rather than a seat in the main church nave. After a fashionable delay our performers file in. Soprano Paola Alonzi explains the music, sets it in context and sings beautifully accompanied by a duo – father Stefano Sabene on traversa (an early flute) tambour and tambourine and his son Lorenzo on baroque guitar and lute. They are not the best I’ve ever heard but in the setting and the circumstances, I was very glad I booked this to be transported back a few centuries. After some Frescobaldi, Monteverdi and – flying the flag for England – a lovely John Dowland piece we were asked to remove ourselves to the main church. The first half had all been secular: dances, love songs and ballads. The second half was church music – so we were allowed into the nave. Actually the acoustics were worse in here but I wondered whether composers (and artists, architects etc) chose different ways of working depending on whether they were producing sacred or profane works. Certainly there was more restraint in the Monteverdi in church than in his previous song. Maybe I’ll see one day if there is any writing about this.

Santa Agnes altar
Bernini’s altar in Sant Agnes in Agone

Trevi e Rossini

Trevi nightI walked back from the concert past the Trevi fountain and flung in some euros just in case my invalid pound bars me from returning. I looked at several restaurants and was attracted by the option of Ristorante Rossini – what a musical contrast! It proved a good choice with a starter of sauted clams which I’d never seen before. They were in fact steamed like mussels in a white wine and parsley sauce and very tasty. It was also a nod to Dee whose favourite pasta was spaghetti alle vongole. My second course (and last – I’m not Italian) was a delicious lasagne in which the pasta sheets were paper thin and the meat and tomato ragu a little spicy and just what I needed. I was frowned at a little for declining my main course but explained that as an oldie I don’t get as hungry as I used to – thank you Google translate!

Back to the metro, hotel bar for a nightcap and another great day in Rome comes to an end.

Maxxi, musica e pioggia maxima

After two marathon walking days I have a lie in on Wednesday as I have my Vatican tour booked for 14:00 and plan to visit some new arts buildings in the north of Rome. This involved my first tram ride which was very efficient except that I had no idea where to get off but, soliciting halting help from a fellow passenger, I disembarked at the right spot quite a way up via Flaminio. Left along Guido Reni and there it is – polished grey concrete of Zaha Hadid’s fine museum for 20th century art and architecture. It’s a great building with sweeping lines, unusual projections and it sits very well in an industrial area of the city. Insider the curvy features continue with a NY Guggenheim-style sweep to higher levels and a wonderfully fluid black staircase to get back down.

Maxxi exteriorMaaxi interiorThere is a mixture of installations, archictects’ drawings and models, which I’ve always loved whether in balsa wood or Perspex, photography including a magic Helmut Newton series of Rome and a special exhibition of art from war torn Beirut. I spent a very stimulating 90 minutes and could have explored other areas but wanted to see the work of another superstar architect Renzo Piano.

The Parco Della Musica is ten minutes’ walk from Maxxi and consists of three auditoria that look a bit like tortoise shells or anteaters. These indoor concert halls surround an open air amphitheatre where I’d love to come back in summer. All set amid tall pines it is the best definition of a culture park. Rain started so I popped in for a coffee until it abated and then got mildly damp walking back to the tram stop to head south for my two o’clock tour.

Very vet Vatican
As some will have read already, I found my tour group at the appointed spot at the foot of some steps opposite the museum entrance. Roll called, badged up and ready to shuffle we head towards the special groups entrances where I resisted umbrella sales in the drizzle to my later soaked cost. Eventually (45 mins eventually) we enter, take 15 minutes for loo breaks, audio guides and multi guide chaos and actually move into the museums. Well you could spend a year here and not see everything and what you do see is mostly at a slow shuffle a bit like trying to get up Occupation Road after a capacity crowd stayed till the end. (For non-Watford fans that’s a very slow shuffle.) The place is a total maze as well so you have little idea where you are.

Sicily map roomHighlights for me were the map room in which you can walk from south to north of Italy in five minutes with brilliant relief representations of the various areas of the country either side of you as they were thought to be in 1580. As a geographer, Dee would have taken some persuading to move on but Tatiana was strict and we were ushered on towards the Raphael frescoes. These are quite wonderful except for one which I think was the Expulsion of Heliodorus where most of the wall is in his usual style but the a handful of figures in the lower left side are much more dramatic, muscular and frankly Vincian. Tatiana told us, the probable urban, myth that Raphael stole the key to the Sistine Chapel and had a sneak preview and decided to copy the master. While beautifully done he really should have stripped off the plaster and started over for consistency.

On then finally to what everyone is there for. nine years of Leonardo da Vinci’s life spent on the ceiling and then the end wall with the second coming. Not for the first time this trip did I have severe neck ache but worth every moment as the pain is alleviated by the sheer beauty of the vision above. Another special Dee moment was standing right below the finger of God creating man and hearing the South Bank Show theme in my head. Quite stunning, it was well worth the soaked shuffle.

The tour ends in St Peter’s basilica another awe-inspiring building with my favourite of all the sculptures Michelangelo’s Pieta carved when he was only 24. I managed to skirt round take square under cover and then dash through the torrents to the metro and back to the hotel for a shower, change and some fortification and post my first blog of the new Rome series, humiliated by my earlier gloating about the fine weather in Rome.

As I sit in the hotel bar, coyly named The Office, it’s BB King night on the playlist a pleasant change from the slightly too loud medleys played on other nights. Service is good, staff chatty although leave me in peace when I’m hammering at the keys and I meet another solo traveller who is spending his second Christmas away after divorce ended his 28 year marriage. Maybe I should start the WDCTC – the Widowers and Divorces Christmas Travel Club.

Boxing Day diversions

Boxing Day saw me leaving the hotel bright and early to get the metro to Colisseo which meant a change at Termini, the only point where the two lines cross. I thought some of the tube interchanges in London involved quite a few steps but it took more than five minutes to get from one platform to the other – maybe there was a shorter route for the locals but Termini reminded me a bit of the subway in Japan where you are tempted from your journey by a plethora of retail opportunities. The tour party assembled just outside the metro station with a clear view of the Colisseum which is absolutely massive and breathtaking – and most of it is missing! Start time 09:45 for a prompt ten o’clock entrance.

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Into the arena
This was my first experience of paying in advance for a ‘skip the line’ tour. By the time we’d all assembled, been equipped with headsets and radios to catch our guide’s wise words we were already fifteen minutes after start time and after struggling through the groups entrance, airport type security and general faff we didn’t actually get into the Colisseum until twenty to eleven. We were a motley group on Americans from Iowa and Florida, an Iranian couple who vanished midway through and of course a family of six Chinese one of whom did her best to interpret for the others who lacked her command of English.

The structure is incredible and one has to remember that it would all have ben clad in marble. The Romans obviously gave us a lot but I couldn’t help relating current coverage of Qatar’s brutal methods of building prestigious stadia for the World Cup and what must have happened as this and other magnificent structures were built. Life is cheap in these circumstances. The rich must be glorified in the manner of their choosing. The other thing that was cheap was wood and as I’m reading Annie Proulx’s fabulous book Barkskins about the deforestation of New England to build British ships, homes for migrants and the displacement of the native Americans, I couldn’t help remarking that lack of respect for both life and natural resources is nothing new.

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Showing the underground area where gladiators and animals  and condemned criminals waited to be brought up to the arena by rope-pulled elevators

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We leave for the next part of the trip, the Roman Forum. We wait for fifteen minutes at another security check because we’re two numbers short (the Iranians) and I suspect guide Emilia gets charged for any radios missing at the end as she seemed in a real panic about it.

We admire the Arch of Titus parts of which are well preserved and show him clearly bringing home the loot such as menorah from the sacking of Jerusalem. We had already been staggered by the arch of Constantine which sits between the Colisseum and the Forum across the Via Sacra which was the route for the religious to St Peter’s later on. What surprised me most about the Forum – you get blasé about 2000 year old objects in Rome – was the difference in levels.

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It’s like a trifle or a layer cake with a difference of some 50 metres between the current excavated floor thought to be around 100 BC to the entrance to the Senate House built in 283 AD, The general explanation is floods and alluvial deposits from the Tiber and demolishing buildings for new edifices and leaving debris behind.

Doors that got awayThese bronze doors – apparently one of only three that weren’t melted down at some stage are high above the level we are now walking at.

The Forum was of course where Romans came to gossip, plot and make the laws – mostly done on Twitter today. Our trip has overrun so we miss the Palatine Hill and I exit up to the Capitoline and down into the Jewish quarter for a refreshing beer in Bar Toto a recommendation from another gift Jo sent with me, a leaflet with hints and tips on unusual things to do in Rome. This was a very relaxed local bar in a great people-watching location.



Gone Galleria

My next port of call was  the Galleria Doria Pamphili which guide books raved about. I found it easily, paid my fee (no discounts for the elderly) and entered this amazing palace. It had a great courtyard, fine staircases and then room after room of overhung galleries. By this I mean large paintings exhibited three high on walls about 5-8 metres tall giving you severe neck ache. The main attraction of two important Caravaggios were absent on loan to Florence and apart from a superb Velazquez portrait of Innocent X next to Bernini’s bust of the same pope there was little to delight the eye. The Bernini-Velasquez juxtaposition was fascinating viewing but the rest I found dull in the extreme – room after room of gloomy Dutch landscapes. It smacked of art acquisition not art appreciation – so what else is new?

Crazy old man and the altar of peace

Bernini ElephantI walked through Piazza Navona passsing more Bernini fountains  – I especially liked his elephant supporting an obelisk on its howdah. – and I pass the church where I have a concert on Thursday night and on up the Tiber to the Ara Pacis museum. This had not been on my original agenda but I’m easily diverted. This is a glass box built recently to house the Altar of Peace of Augustus which was consecrated in 9 BC after Augustus had conquered France and Spain and people and animals had to be sacrificed to celebrate. It was buried under silt until 1939 and is in remarkable condition and a very beautiful structure despite its deadly purpose.

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To my delight there was an exhibition of Hokusai woodblock prints in the temporary exhibition space beneath. There were old favourites like Red Fuji and The Great Wave but many that I hadn’t seen before. There was also one room that bore the legend ‘Adults only beyond this point’. It had Hokusai and Eisen shunga, the very filthy erotic works they used to produce to educate brides and grooms – well that’s one story we heard in Tokyo.

Home cooking

I walked back to the Piazza del Populo a massive square with people statues, legionnaires for selfies, bubble blowers and buskers – also a bar, and just beyond a convenient Metro stop on the A line which whisked me back to the hotel.

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My hotel at night

I went out again and found a very fine local restaurant, Joseph, with a great family atmosphere  and good simple food in my case a succulent veal chop, salad and fries.