Dreaming of Kotor

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Am I in paradise or on the moon?” I wondered, while I was gazing outside my cabin as the ship was languidly slipping into the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, Europe’s southernmost fjord. Actually, those words were not so original as it was exactly what George Bernard Shaw quipped when he first visited these places and before him, a worshipper of nature like Lord Byron had fallen into the spell of such an enchanted spot.

A year ago I had complained so much about the extraordinary cool and rainy Italian summer, that I am sure that the gods that govern the climate and the winds had decided to punish me with the hottest and most infernal summer ever this year.  Mr Run and I had tried to reverse our fate, escaping from that tremendous oven Rome had become, to go to Venice and sail for a cruise to the Adriatic sea. But gods are not easily cheated, so a nasty demon called Charon kept on pursuing us everywhere we went : Venice, Trieste, Split, Dubrovnik;  till one early morning we thought we had finally made him lose our tracks, when we saw this like in a dream :

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As the sun was rising, we could see distinctly the silhouettes the mountains that surrounded us. A sense of euphoria pervaded us, as we imagined the feeling of the fresh breeze on our skin. While we were magically floating on the waters of the inlets, sleepy villages mirrored in the sea and even our huge cruise ship seemed to sail more silently than ever so as not to disturb the beatitude of their rest.

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The steep hillsides of the Bay of Kotor are littered with Greek, Roman, and Illyrian ruins and dilapidated Venetian Gothic buildings, signs of  the Venetians domination that lasted more than four centuries from 1420 to 1797.IMG_0718

Once arrived at the port of Kotor all our illusions instantly faded away in a blink: Charon was already there sneering at us. The melting heat of that late July was just unbearable.

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The walled city of Kotor has been an important Mediterranean port since Roman times. In the heat of the day, when every sensible person was enjoying a siesta or diving in the clear waters of the bay, we dragged ourselves to the old town to visit its architectural riches: the Pima and Drago palaces, the clock tower, and the Cathedral of St. Tryphon, a twin-towered Romanesque beauty consecrated in 1166.

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Behind the cathedral, the Venetian defensive walls—almost three miles long —snaked up the steep rocky hillside to the ruined 14th-century fortress of St. Ivan. Earthquakes have struck here with devastating effect, but the walls somehow always survived. Kotor also prides itself on never having been taken by force. The Outstanding Universal Value of the Cultural-Historical Region of Kotor made it a UNESCO world heritage site

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Around the central Square of Weapons (Trg od Oruzja) you may find shops, boutiques but for once in my life I was more interested in any place where I could sit and and have something to drink.

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Unfortunately, being on a cruise, we didn’t have more time to visit all the other precious spots that region may offer, but at that moment we really didn’t mind, as we couldn’t but think about the bliss of the air conditioning on the ship.

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Charon decided to remain there; and now that summer is becoming autumn and school is about to start, well, maybe I miss him a bit.

The Prophecy of Rapanui

 

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ea1When the first Polynesian settlers arrived in Easter Island  with their large canoes more than a thousand years ago, they found a luxuriant, heaven like land covered with palm trees.The place was actually less hospitable than it seemed. The island was volcanic in origin, but its three volcanoes were dormant. Both temperatures and humidity were high and the only fresh water available was from the lakes inside the extinct volcanoes. Only a few species of plants and animals inhabited the land: there were no mammals, only few insects and two types of small lizards. Furthermore, as the waters that surrounded the island weren’t very fishy, the first inhabitants had to learn to live basically mainly on sweet potatoes and chickens.

ea6The islanders heavily depended on its native plants: giant palms, toronimo trees and basswood (hau).The woods from the giant palm trees were used for shelters and in particular for big canoes which enabled the settlers to fish in richer waters and catch dolphins. The basswood was used as fuel to cook or to keep warm and its fibers were used to make ropes or fishing nets. However, the forests were slowly cleared to improve farming and grow sweet potatoes. All this brought to a rapid increase in population (more than 15.000 inhabitants), but as the island was very small, its natural resources declined rapidly.

ea2Instead of taking measures of life sustainably, the clan leaders started to build large stone platforms, known as Ahu, which were used as burials, ancestor worships and to commemorate past clan chiefs. The majority of these constructions were built near the coast, around the island’s perimeter. One day they stated to erect huge monolithic stone statues (Moai) on these platforms, which took up immense amounts of  labour. Almost all the Moai have overly large heads three-eighths the size of the whole statue, which seemed to represent their deified ancestors. More than the carving, the greatest problem was the transport of the massive statues from the quarry to the Ahu and as they lack any draught animals, they had to rely on the effort of men who could only drag the statues across the island using tree trunks as wheels.

ea7The enigmatic faces of the Moai rapidly spread all over the island and they were always more and more enormous, in fact the bigger was the statue the stronger was supposed to be the clan which had made it, therefore a never-ending, competition among clans started; a devastating contest which required amazing quantities of timber. By 1600 as the island was almost completely deforested, the statue erection had to be stopped leaving many of them stranded and incompleted at the quarry. But, when did they exactly stop? When it was too late.

ea5The shortage of trees had already made people stop building houses from timber and find shelter in caves. Canoes couldn’t be built any longer, so it was now impossible to go fishing or even abandon the island. It had also become impossible to make nets for fishing. Furthemore the early deforestation had brought the island to a rapid desertification.The only source of food on the island was the chickens which became precious and primary object of theft. The lack of proteins available brought to cannibalism.The islanders were now trapped in their insane world and they  couldn’t escape the consequences of their self-inflicted, environmental collapse.

ea8Moreover the drop of the resources resulted in a state of almost permanent warfare. One of the main aims of warfare was to destroy the Ahu of opposing clans, therefore only a few burial places remained and many of the magnificent stone statues – which had cost so much – were pulled down. Only few remained standing.When the Dutch Admiral Roggeveen visited Rapa Nui on Easter Sunday 1722, the island had now become a barren wasteland, whose 3,000 inhabitants lived in a primitive state in squalid reed huts or caves, had resorted to cannibalism in order to escape famine and were still engaged in perpetual warfare.

 

The question is, how can it be that they didn’t realize what they were doing to their environment? Why didn’t they stop in time? Or better, will we be able to stop in time?

The parable of the iguana

ig2I’m a shopaholic. I’ve learnt I suffered from this disease, when I read the whole Kinsella’s saga about shopping. Whoever thinks it is all about the love for fashion, he may prove wrong, as it’s about the thrill. The thrill of finding and owing the perfect thing, which matches wonderfully with the perfect outfit, shoes or bags. It is the thrill. And for that emotion we lie first of all to ourselves and to the people we interact daily, saying that we do need it, that we cannot do without it and, of course, it will be just the last time. I will not be so. The psychological traits of Becky, Sophie Kinsella’s heroine, may seem absurd and comic at the same time, but they are actually real, so real that when my mother read “I Love Shopping”, she commented reproachfully :” it seems she knows you”

ig4However, in the opulent western societies the word “need” is not exactly what it meant years ago, as the powerful messages and stereotypes, we are bombarded with through medias every day, confound us in such a degree, that we find hard to distinguish the difference between what we want and what we need. Do I really need that brand new pair of shoes, the 85th pair in fact, or do I want it? Can I truly live well without the last technical gadget? Do I really need it? We slowly become addicted to that intense but short emotion of possessing the thing of our dreams and as soon as that moment of pleasure and satisfaction burns out, we need to replace it quickly with another one even stronger that might fill the emptied space of our soul and on, and on, and on. Till nothing will satisfy us. Just like the iguana.

ig1Which iguana? I guess you would say, if you ventured to read this post this far. Well, few years ago I made a fantastic trip down to Costa Rica. We drove along the Pacific coast, till we reached the most renowned national park of the country: Manuel Antonio. The scenery was breath-taking: tropical white sandy beaches surrounded by a luxuriant, wild nature. We decided to explore it all in the quest of the most beautiful beach. It was August, and after an hour of walk under the heat of the sun of those latitudes, we were so sweaty and worn out that we decided to stop. The nearest beach was named “Puerto Escondido”, well, it wasn’t actually the most dazzling one we had seen, furthermore, the sea bank was mostly inhabited by hundreds of huge colorful crabs and iguanas. However, we were too tired that we resolved upon stopping anyway. All the crabs instantly disappeared in the sand, leaving large holes in the shore, but the iguanas didn’t move and stood there not at all intimidated by our presence.

ig5After a refreshing swim, we lay down on the beach to rest and sunbathe. The iguanas had kept on observing us motionless like greenish prehistoric statues, till I decided it was high time to fraternize with the hosts of that secluded place using the language of food. As I had some Pringles with me, I approached the nearest iguana and I handed delicately one crisp. After some long seconds of immobility, the inanimate creature attempted a move, craned its neck, smelt the Pringle and gave a small bite. It was a great success. The iguana devoured the first, the second, the third crisp and seemed to be wanting for more. I was so proud of my experiment till a French tourist, who had seen the whole scene, came by and told me, well….he actually lectured me, that iguanas are vegetarian, that they are not used to salt and that with my “feat” I was destroying their sense of taste. Once tried those strong artificial flavors, they wouldn’t have gone back any longer to their usual, now tasteless, food. I learned the lesson and I kept on thinking about those words. We are the iguanas of a society that feeds us with artificial emotions, thus creating addiction for the sake of profit. And you know what? I don’t think this will cure my “little” compulsive problem. 🙂ig3

Spello’s Gold

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The quaint alleys of Spello

 

What I really miss of my husband’s (short) running career are those fantastic week-ends, when his races took us to visit many picturesque towns and villages. We used to choose the competition according to what the place had to offer for what concerns artistic beauties and, why not, food tradition. First you run and then you eat, it was a great combination after all, even for me that I didn’t run and the only task I had to accomplish was to welcome him at the finish line. So, as there are no races in sight, what did we have left? Well, the answer is simple: food.

Yes, food. After all, Italy is the land of food, and this is so true that we celebrate food every weekend, in every corner of the country. I’m talking about “sagre“, annual country festivals in honour of the typical products of the land: strawberries, cherries, chestnuts, pasta, mushrooms, bread, even flowers, only to mention the most famous ones just around Rome. These festivals are major attractions and a fantastic reason to quit the big city, take a breath of the fresh country air and taste juicy traditional food. Last week’s destination was Spello, an ancient town built of stone and enclosed in a circuit of medieval walls on Roman foundations in the province of Perugia (east central Umbria). Spello also boasts about two dozen small churches, most of them medieval, but the reason why we were there, was gold, Spello’s liquid gold: olive oil.

spello4Certainly this hasn’t been the best year for olive oil. A combination of bad weather (very mild winter 2013/14 followed by a rainy summer) has led to Italy’s most disastrous olive harvest of the century. Furthermore an insect called tignola plus some fungi belonging to the Anthracnose family have plagued what had remained, completing the disaster. Despite the adverse fate, the annual festival hadn’t been  cancelled and hundreds of local people put on their traditional costumes to welcome tourists and make the celebrations start.

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street dance

Even the children were happy actors of the ceremonials.

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lovely little girls following the procession

Everywhere you could see people playing, dancing and having a good time. The city streets were filled with stalls offering “bruschetta” ( grilled bread rubbed with garlic and topped with tomatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper), and extra-virgin olive oil, skewers, sausages etc..

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tasty skewers

All of a sudden the most amazing pagan procession started. Rather than the usual religious statues of saints or the Virgin Mary, dancing and singing people started to follow their local gods: olive trees adorned with food carried by old tractors.

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“bardascitti” means young boys in the local dialect.

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the festive procession

In this genuine, joyous atmosphere, made of the little, simple things typical of the past rural tradition, I couldn’t help but wonder: even if those people didn’t have all the comforts of modern, technological societies, weren’t they happier after all?

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the future of tradition

 

The Romantic snapshot

pic2I have got mixed feelings towards snapshooting, I mean, I do enjoy the language of pictures, I also follow a lot of amazing blogs about photography, however, whenever I have the opportunity of seeing something worthy of being captured in a shot, well, I always feel strangely reluctant to pick the camera and  take that picture. I still remember the overwhelming emotions I felt, when I saw my first Maldivian atoll. It was the first stop of an adventurous cruise on the Indian Ocean ( local ship and crew and just a bunch of tourists that barely knew one another). I wasn’t actually an atoll, but rather a white, sparkling sandy beach that surfaced in the middle or the most crystalline water I had ever seen.The sea had all the nuances of the blue and became whiter and whiter near the shore. Being a sea lover and beach hunter, I was dazzled. It was my dream that came true. I stood there, gazing speechless the magnificent colours for a long time and even if perfectly equipped, I completely forgot about taking pictures. The only photos I have of that trip belong to my husband, as I met him there.

pic4If I want to psychoanalyze myself to explain my idiosyncrasy about snapshooting, I could get to the conclusion that, very likely, it is grounded on my perception that it is all about catching the perfect instant rather than living it. For me it is as if I were missing the flow of the emotions in the effort of fixing them on a pic. Maybe this is my “romantic” vision of life, as I am pretty sure that Mr William Wordsworth would certainly agree with my point of view, if only he could. He was all about the ”  spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”  that arouse from the sight of amazing and unexpectedly beautiful natural landscapes. Wordsworth didn’t have cameras for sure, so he used the language of poetry to fix them. But how and when? Well, he believed in “solitude” and “tranquillity“.

pic 3Solitude” for Wordsworth is the privileged condition that allows you to see and feel in a unique, powerful way. If you are not distracted by words and noises, your self is more likely to enjoy the spiritual force of nature and be part of it. In  “Daffodils”, the poets tells us the sight of the beautiful flowers filled his mind leaving no room for anything  else ” I gazed, I gazed, but little thought” and in that moment he was overwhelmed by and incredible joy, a beatitude that you feel once you feel in harmony with the whole universe. Could he feel this way, if he had to bother about the perfect light to capture those daffodils?

For Wordsworth, in fact, poetry takes its origin from those emotions, but “recollected in tranquillity”, that is, from memory. Hence, both a poem and a picture have the same function: recreating a kindred emotion in order to be enjoyed (“My heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils“), but who has experienced the greatest bliss: the poet or the photographer?

Back to Rome

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After many years, I’ve been back to London for a few days, this time as a holiday maker. I wanted to show my husband one of the places I’ve loved the most in my life. Well, what can I say, apart for the unusual Caribbean weather, London is crowded, gaudy, lively, just as I remembered, a unique synthesis between modernity and tradition. Certainly, this time I saw it from a different angle: that of a tourist, and  from that angle I have to say that I found it mooooore expensive that I remembered. Whatever monument,church, exhibition you want to visit the average admission fee is 15 pounds (each) and wherever you want to go to eat, avoiding top restaurants, we spent 25/30 pounds (each), but this was our choice. We did all the stupid things tourists do,  just like trying those places – tourist traps – which are more advertised and seem to be so popular. For example we’ve queued for half an hour to taste The Five Guys’ burgers which I found just ok (the fries were horrible). But it was at Harrods that I reached the top of stupidity. While I was absently strolling in one of the many departments, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a sort of espresso “saudade” . As everybody knows, anything can be found at Harrods, in fact there was a Lavazza corner. I immediately ventured there and I asked for an espresso, without caring about the price, after all, how much can an espresso cost?  Well, at Harrods, in case you want to try, an espresso is 4 pounds plus 50 pence V.A.T., that is the equivalent cost of two packages of Lavazza coffee in Italy. I silently paid. It wasn’t even good. But, pay attention, I’m not complaining; I just want to say that even if one is perfectly aware of the dynamics tourists are usually entrapped in, just like in any other part of the world, London is so welcoming and organized that in the end, when it’s time to leave, you don’t have that nasty feeling of having been cheated. Well, I ‘m Italian, the country were there is the 60 per cent of  the world’s artistic patrimony,  and I live in Rome, which, well, you know it’s Rome, but it seems we can’t make the most of all the beauties and wealth our country is rich of, in fact, for example, the flow of tourists in Rome is about half of that of London. And you know why? I’ll give you an example. When we arrived at Fiumicino airport at 11:00 p.m. we had to wait forty-five minutes to get the luggage and not a soul to give us any information about the delay. Once safely out ( it was past midnight), we tried to get a taxi to go home, but as we lived too close the airport, the taxi drivers didn’t want to take us, because it wasn’t profitable enough for them. Yes, we were back to Rome.

P.S. My husband wants everybody to know that HE paid for the coffee. 😉