The Silver Travel Book Club goes to Sardinia

The story of my trip to Sardinia, for the Silver Travel Book Club, following in the footsteps of an author, her characters and locations in Sardinia.

Silver Travellers may already be aware of the Silver Travel Book Club (“STBC”), set up recently as a result of our new partnership with TripFictionSilver Travel Advisor members can now access TripFiction’s database of location-based fiction and travel-related memoirs, set in thousands of alluring global destinations.

Debbie Marshall, MD and founder of Silver Travel Advisor: “The worlds of travel and books go hand in hand, and we know that our members will enjoy browsing the wide range of novels and memoirs on the TripFiction site, providing ideas and inspiration for their future travels“.

Rosanna Ley, the authorThe first STBC book of the month was The Little Theatre by the Sea, written by Rosanna Ley. Two lucky Silver Travellers received a free copy of the book, and have been reading it along with Andrew Morris, one of our regular writers and Literary Editor of the STBC.

The Little Theatre is firmly rooted in Sardinia, and Rosanna’s vivid prose transports you to the wild, unspoiled west coast of this intriguing island. Newly qualified interior designer Faye visits friends Charlotte and Fabio in charming Deriu, where she is employed – by brother and sister Alessandro and Maria Rinaldi – to draw up plans to restore the crumbling old theatre in the village.

Bosa StreetThis engaging romantic mystery is a classic destination novel. Close your eyes, and the author will have you walking through the narrow cobbled streets of Deriu’s centro storico, where pastel-coloured houses tumble down from the old castle to the Temo river, just a short distance from the sea and the marina. Or eating local speciality spaghetti con bottarga, washed down with a bottle of Cannonau wine.

But our intrepid Literary Editor wanted to get even closer to the author, her characters and locations…so we packed Andrew off to Sardinia to see if he could track down Deriu and solve the mystery of the Little Theatre by the Sea.

Over to Andrew

Before heading out to Sardinia, I contacted the author – Rosanna Ley – and she kindly answered a few questions, giving me an insight into her writing approach and a few clues about hunting down some of the places, characters, food and wine she included in Little Theatre. You can read the detailed Q&A session on the Book Club Forum thread here.

Bosa rooftops from near the castle, looking down to the snaking river TemoMy first port of call had to be Bosa. Rosanna: “I wanted somewhere that didn’t already have a theatre so that I could make it my own! I renamed it Deriu because it is easier then to “make it your own”, and hopefully none of the locals will be offended by anything I write about places & people which they might construe as being taken from real life.”

I wandered along the banks of the river Temo, spotting the converted houses on the river bank, where Faye stays with Charlotte and Fabio, and the ponte vecchio, where Faye gets closer to Alessandro.

But it is the centro storico that engaged Rosanna most, and which enchants Faye too: “the jumble of buildings lay mainly between the far riverbank and the hill beyond; Faye could see what looked like a castle on top of the hill, the other old buildings sheltered beneath. The cluttered houses were painted various shades of pastel, the river snaking from the cradle of the lush mountain valleys in the east through to the sea beyond.”

“That’s the centro storico, the old mediaeval town. It was originally founded by the Phoenicians – because of the fertility of the soil and the river.”

Malaspina CastleI too fell in love with beautiful Bosa/Deriu, home of the mythical Little Theatre. I ambled through the labyrinthine cobbled streets, craning my neck to see washing stretching from one pastel-coloured house to another. I climbed ever upwards towards the Malaspina castle, as Faye does when describing her quandary to her mother, and from where: “a prickly pear was outlined against the summer sky. From here she could see a jumble or orange roofs and flower-laden terraces; vines twisting around wooden pergolas, purple jasmine blossoming in a blue haze.” And I visited the Deriu Museum, from which Rosanna borrowed the name for her fictional town.

Outside Bosa, I went north – via a spectacular coast road – to Alghero, a fortified Catalan city jutting out into the sea. Faye eats “a delicious lunch of aragosta alla catalane, lobster with tomatoes and onions” with her father here. I had spaghetti con bottarga instead, another local speciality eaten by Faye back in Deriu, with Allesandro:Spaghetti con bottarga, local speciality with mullet roe “a type of caviar made from the roe of grey mullet. Faye’s bottarga was good; she loved the deceptive simplicity of Sardinian recipes and produce.” I also saw the restored Teatro Civico in Alghero, part of Rosanna’s inspiration for Faye’s redesign of the crumbling imagined old theatre in Deriu.

I found the marina at Bosa, where Alessandro works at a boatyard, but it was too large and on the wrong side of the estuary. Through the magic of social media, Rosanna pointed me in the right direction, teasing me perhaps in a game of literary cat-and-mouse.

Following Rosanna and Faye was a joy. I would love to have had more time to visit some of the other places seen by Faye, on different trips away from Deriu with Alessandro and with her visiting father, but I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing what literary stalking I did manage to achieve in Sardinia.

Where next, I wonder?

Book review – The Sound of Gravity

What would you say is your preferred environment….beach, forest, jungle, desert or mountain?

Margate town and seafront viewed from harbour wall.

My Mum & Dad have always been drawn to the sea, escaping from suburbia to buy a hotel in Margate in the 1960s, living on the south coast in later life and spending long winter holidays in Spain & Portugal, as close to the sea as they could find.

But my own addiction is definitely mountains. Climbing up or skiing down them, or just admiring from afar, I marvel at their infinite variety and the constant challenge they provide.

Fortunately, my adventurous wife Gill feels the same. We have been lucky to enjoy many holidays in the mountains – the Swiss and French Alps, Spanish Pyrenees, Italian Dolomites, the Majella in Abruzzo, and more. And still not sated, I summited the Big One – Kilimanjaro – for my 50th birthday.

But I’m definitely a walker, rather than a climber of mountains. Climbing is a vastly different technical skill and an altogether greater challenge. Just watch films like Everest or Touching the Void to begin to understand the sharp contrast.

Joe Simpson, a renowned mountaineer,  wrote the book Touching the Void, turned into a memorable docudrama film in 2003.

I have just finished reading his novel, The Sound of Gravity, published in 2011.

An unnamed man and his wife get caught in a terrible storm, high up a mountain, somewhere in the Alps. The man’s wife dies and he is haunted with guilt.

The first part of the book is told almost in real-time, describing with hypnotic detail events leading to her death, and how he ultimately survives the devastating storm.

The narrative is compelling, but even for mountain lovers the amount of climbing jargon and flowery language could prove as challenging as a difficult summit.

In the second part – 25 years later – the man – now known to be Patrick – spends summers in the hut, close to where his wife’s body fell.  The story becomes more human and readable, in my opinion, as other characters and story lines are introduced.

But the mountain remains the main protagonist, and despite some issues with the narrative, I enjoyed the book. How could a mountain-lover not, with descriptions like this:

The ice cliffs had changed in the waning shades of dusk. Where before they had been sharp-lit and bright-edged, they now glistened in faceted aquamarine. The colours had intensified, highlighting the dark, deep blue caverns yawning at their feet.

The encircling mountains threw up a snow-capped palisade to guard the glacier bay below him. Sinister layers of bruised purple veined the advancing storm front. In the shadowed valleys beyond he glimpsed the sheen of a distant lake, bright-sparkled by a flash of weak sunlight.

Sardinia with Sardatur Holidays

My feature on a sponsored trip to Oristano, Sardinia with Sardatur Holidays  – published on Silver Travel Advisor.

Felice Soru, founder of Silver Travel Advisor partner Sardatur Holidays, told me before I went that a trip to Sardinia is a discovery. The island is like a separate continent, with different landscapes and cultures – even languages – and with a wild, ungovernable centre.

I went to the central west coast, to the province of Oristano, an area of Sardinia that is also wild and relatively unspoiled, which is rich in history and with plenty of nature, activities, food and wine to enjoy, whilst remaining accessible.

History

Unpeel layer upon layer of history as you explore this continuously surprising area.

Sinis peninsulaGo to the Sinis peninsula, a marine protected area, to see the remains of the ancient settlement of Tharros. Reputed to have been founded by the Phoenicians towards the end of the 8th century BC, it was one of the most important cities in Sardinia through the Punic age, from the 6th century BC until Roman occupation. But there is some evidence suggesting that Tharros was occupied before the Phoenicians, by the Nuraghic civilisation in the much earlier Bronze Age.

TharrosThere are an estimated 7,000 examples of nuraghe, stone-built tower-fortresses from this ancient civilisation, dotted around Sardinia. One of the most important is the nuraghe Losa, near the village of Abbasanta. Here you’ll see a large complex construction in the shape of an old tomb, with a central triangular shape. A turreted wall is linked to this impressive core, and surrounded by later additions from Punic, Roman and Middle Ages occupation.

Back on the Sinis peninsula, visit San Giovanni di Sinis, one of Sardinia’s oldest and most important churches. Built with blocks of sandstone, probably brought from nearby Tharros, it is Byzantine, with distinctly Arabesque features.

Giants of Monte's PramaAnd one of the most important historic finds of recent years on this beguiling promontory is the Giants of Mont’e Prama. Farmers working the land a couple of kilometres from Cabras in the 1970s uncovered remains from the late Nuraghic period. Painstaking work has since pieced together Sardinia’s version of China’s terracotta warriors. As of today, 25 statues of large stone men – including warriors, archers and boxers – have been reconstructed, some of which are exhibited in Cabras Museum.

Nature

Wildlife abounds around Oristano. Flamingos inhabit the marshy lagoons, as do several rare aquatic bird species.

S'Archittu sunriseFor breathtaking beaches, head to Putzu Idu or the quartz-laden “rice sand” of Is Arutas and Maria Erma. But my favourite was probably S’Archittu, taking its name from the photogenic rock arch, one of Sardinia’s largest natural bridges, and through which you can swim or kayak.

If you’re adventurous, drive further south to explore the largest sand dunes in Europe, at Piscinas on the remote Costa Verde, and formed by the natural forces of the Mistral. But don’t get stuck in the sand.

Go inland to discover the special environment of the Giara di Gesturi, a high volcanic plateau now rich in flora and fauna, and inhabited by the island’s cherished wild horses.

Activities

Swim from the many beaches. Play golf at Is Arenas. Hike, cycle or twitch in the nature reserves. Take a boat out to the tiny island of Mal di Ventre (Italian for tummy ache!) for a snorkelling or diving expedition. It was near here that a shipwreck was discovered as recently as 1989, uncovering a scarcely believable cargo of almost 1,000 trapezoidal lead ingots, each weighing 33 kg and inscribed by their Roman owners from the 1st century BC.

Towns

BosaOristano is the provincial capital but take the coast road north to enchanting Bosa. Explore the narrow cobbled streets of the centro storico, head ever upwards amongst the crumbling pastel-coloured houses towards Malaspina Castle, and for a dazzling view over the red-roofed town, down towards the river Temo, snaking back towards Bosa beach and marina.

And enjoy the even more scintillating drive north along the coast – just into Sassari province – to Alghero, a vibrant Catalan fortified town, with towers, trebuchets and cannons a reminder of its more violent past.

Food and wine

Spaghetti con bottarga is a local food speciality, a simple but exceptional dish of pasta and mullet roe. Do NOT add cheese! Fregula (fregola) is the Sardinian equivalent of couscous, typically toasted semolina dough balls and often served with clams. Or try malloreddus, a gnocchi style pasta cooked with saffron and a tomato sauce.  Porcheddu – roast suckling pig – is a prized dish but not one for vegetarians.

But even in a trattoria in a small village, you’re likely to enjoy simple food, from well-prepared local ingredients and served with a Sardo smile.

Sardinian wines are much improved in recent years. Try the local dry white Vernaccia di Oristano, or the red Cannonau, little known outside the island, both excellent.

Where to stay

Is Benas Country LodgeHead for the Is Benas Country Lodge, an intimate retreat tucked away on the road to Putzu idu. With only 18 bedrooms and outstanding food and service, it feels more like a private country house than a hotel. A little isolated, it is a quiet refuge but within reach of all the many fascinating gifts this lesser know part of Sardinia offers the mature and inquisitive traveller.

Theatre review – Austen’s Artifice

Austen’s Artifice – review for Essential Surrey website.

4 STARS, June 19-20. Andrew Morris enjoys an energetic stroll through the works of Jane Austen in Kate Napier’s superbly executed play about writing a novel

This charming literary stroll through the works of Jane Austen was written by Kate Napier – at the request of Chawton House Library – to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Sense and Sensibility.

Kate considered a traditional adaptation of the novel, but opted instead for a teasing glimpse into many of Austen’s characters, plucked from both her best known and much loved classic novels, but also from less familiar works.

A loose structure explores the different characteristics of Sense – Elinor Dashwood, prudent with good judgement; and Sensibility – sister Marianne, emotional and spontaneous. Through this artifice we meet other female characters from Jane’s genteel society, illustrating the journey of an Austen heroine through the somewhat rarefied atmosphere of her world.

Susan Fitzgerald – now the eponymous Lady Susan Lesley – tries to dissuade her brother from falling helplessly in love with her new step-daughter, whilst Frederica Vernon also seeks to avoid the oppressive control of her imposing, beautiful mother.

Laura and Sophia follow disparate paths through the 15 letters of epistolary Love and Freindship (sic).

Catherine Morland pops up to receive some guidance from Isabella Thorpe before coming across Henry Tilney, from Northanger Abbey.

And from little known Lesley Castle, a searingly comic novella, Charlotte and Eloisa Lutterell ponder the primary concern, should a bridegroom be fatally wounded on the eve of the wedding….what on earth should one do with the splendid food, to avoid it going to waste?

You get the drift.

This is a whimsical and hugely entertaining dive into the literary genius of Jane Austen, allowing us to dissect the social structure of her time through so many of her well-crafted characters.

What is remarkable about this production of Austen’s Artifice is that the panoply of characters is performed by just two female actors. As Jane (played by a bonneted Cath Humphrys) sits at her writing desk, Claire Ni Ghormain and Charlotte James bring the stories to sweet, vivid life, as effortlessly as the author skewers the social niceties of her period.

And whilst the inevitable focus is on female Sense and Sensibility, the male presence is well represented by malleable-faced and multi-accented James Sygrove.

Mention must also be made of Musical Director Andrew Hopkins. He may have been tucked away behind Jane’s writing desk, but he provided the perfect soundtrack to proceedings.

This was a hugely rewarding immersive theatrical experience, filling the Farnham Council Chamber with literature, love, laughter…and plenty of both Sense and Sensibility.

Artifice is a company of professional writers and actors, whose mission is to perform classical plays in beautiful places, bringing together period text and period locations.”Artifice is part of LynchPin Productions Theatre Company, based in Godalming, and Austen’s Artifice will be performed at various locations throughout the summer.

Book review – Tragic Shores – “A Memoir of Dark Travels”

One of the nice things about working with Tina & Tony at TripFiction is their access to publishers, and books I might not normally read.

Tina passed me a copy of Tragic Shores – A Memoir of Dark Travel – for review. Written by Thomas H Cook, this haunting collection of episodic travel stories is published by Quercus, and is the first work of non-fiction from this prolific crime writer.

Publisher’s “blurb”:

Thomas Cook has always been drawn to dark places, for the powerful emotions they evoke and for what we can learn from them. These lessons are often unexpected and sometimes profoundly intimate, but they are never straightforward.

With his wife and daughter, Cook travels across the globe in search of darkness – from Lourdes to Ghana, from San Francisco to Verdun, from the monumental, mechanised horror of Auschwitz to the intimate personal grief of a shrine to dead infants in Kamukura, Japan. Along the way he reflects on what these sites may teach us, not only about human history, but about our own personal histories.

During the course of a lifetime of travelling to some of earth’s most tragic shores, from the leper colony on Molokai to ground zero at Hiroshima, he finds not darkness alone, but a light that can illuminate the darkness within each of us. Written in vivid prose, this is at once a personal memoir of exploration (both external and internal), and a strangely heartening look at the radiance that may be found at the very heart of darkness.

Cook’s writing is profound in its content, and almost poetic in style. His use of tone and language force you to think deeply about these dark places he has visited over the years. It is no surprise to learn that he studied philosophy at Columbia University, before teaching English and History.

The way he links some of the Tragic Shores with others in the book, or with parallel events in life, is never contrived but clearly contemplated with gravitas and empathy.

Excerpt from The Forest and The Bridge:

But there are also public areas that attract private suicides, and two of these, the Aokigahara forest at the base of Mount Fuji and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, have been officially designated as the second and first most “popular” suicide sites on earth.

True, many suicides are rash reactions to some moment of grief and anguish or disappointment, one that might well have passed, and its passing, opened to a fuller, or at least more endurable life, and these we must do everything we can to prevent. But others are the product of a protracted ordeal, and it is these, if we cannot prevent them, that we must judge more tenderly, as I found myself doing that morning.

For it seemed to me that here, on this bridge, a final evaluation had been made, and a final judgement rendered, one that utterly rejected my long, trivial list of why a given human being should fine reason to live. For what is food when one no longer cares to taste? What is music when one no longer cares to hear? What is work when one no longer sees its purpose? What is the value of your life if it has grown so torturous that neither the fear of pain nor the fear of death can hinder you from taking it?

But from the writer’s experiences and thoughts on his own travels to dark places through history comes light, and hope. And he weaves his deeply personal – and touching – narrative thread from the same loom as others sowed fear, hatred, war and torture.

On literary location in Sardinia….

I read The Little Theatre by the Sea recently, written by Rosanna Ley and chosen as the first read for both the TripFiction Book Club and the Silver Travel Advisor Book Club.

Thanks to Silver Travel Advisor, their partner Sardatur Holidays and Is Benas Country Lodge, I shall soon be following in the literary footsteps of Faye, Rosanna’s lead character in the novel, to explore the blurred world of fiction and reality on the unspoiled west coast of Sardinia.

In anticipation, Rosanna kindly answered some questions I posed about the places she had used in the book, the characters, food, wine, culture and history of this intriguing island that had influenced her research…..

Rosanna

Your latest novel, The Little Theatre by the Seawas published by Quercus in March 2017 (hardback) and on 1st June (paperback). 

The intriguing romantic mystery – can I call it that? – takes place mainly in Sardinia. As you know, Little Theatre was chosen as the first read for both the TripFiction Book Club and for the Silver Travel Book Club.

And thanks to Silver Travel Advisor partner Sardatur Holidays and Is Benas Country Lodge, I will be travelling to Sardinia in June to follow in the footsteps of your principal character, Faye.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about The Little Theatre by the Sea, Rosanna, and about your writing approach.

I’m delighted. This is so exciting! I can’t wait to hear how you get on – and yes ‘intriguing romantic mystery’ sounds good to me.

Q. Your previous novels have been based in Cuba, Marrakech, Burma, the Canary Islands, Sicily, and now Sardinia. How do you decide where to base your stories, and how important a role does location play in the novels?

A. It’s different for each book. With Return to Mandalay, for example, my husband’s family had a fascinating story and a wealth of sources concerning the country and my late father-in-law’s life there. While the book is in no way a biography, it did inspire me to visit and use much of the material in my story.

For ‘The Saffron Trail’ the original seeds for me were saffron and the ‘hippie trail’ – I formed a story around these and Morocco was the obvious choice of setting. ‘Bay of Secrets’ came from the plot (based on a true story) and Last Dance in Havana I chose because I wanted to write about dance and because the history and politics of Cuba fascinated me. With ‘The Villa’ however I visited Sicily for a holiday and was simply inspired to use it as a setting. When it came to Sardinia for ‘Little Theatre by the Sea’ I wanted to write about transformation and I immediately imagined my crumbling theatre to be in Italy. It seemed the perfect setting for the story.

Location is a big part of a book for me – they have been called ‘destination novels’!

Q. Once you’ve decided on a location for a novel, how do you approach your research on “place”? And do you then write while you’re in the location, or can that creative process take place back at home in Dorset?

A. I read about the place both in fiction and non-fiction – anything I can get hold of really, and research it thoroughly using the Internet and libraries. I may also watch films or documentaries. I go there to get the flavour and travel around with my husband taking photographs and me making notes. I find the places I imagine the characters to live, work and play and the journeys that they might travel in various scenes. I generally write a few scenes while I am away but much of the work will be done when I am back at home using my notes and the photos to remind me.

Q. Your Little Theatre lead character Faye, a newly qualified interior designer, is invited by old friends to restore a crumbling old theatre in the Sardinian village of Deriu. Can you please describe where the inspiration for that fictional village came from?

A. I chose Bosa before I went there, just through research really. I wanted somewhere that didn’t already have a theatre so that I could make it my own! When I got there I realised that Bosa was perfect for the needs of the story. I re-named it Deriu because it is easier then to ‘make it your own’ and hopefully none of the locals will then be offended by anything I write about places and people which they might construe as being taken from real life! The truth is that all the people I wrote about were fictional but a few of the real places crept in, sometimes disguised…

QBosa sounds like a charming, traditional Sardinian town on the north-west coast, in the province of Oristano. What should I do and look out for there, to feel that I really am following in the footsteps of Faye and her creator? And how much do you think history has shaped the town today?

A. History has definitely shaped the town into what it is today. I think you can find the converted houses on the river bank (where Faye stays in Charlotte and Fabio’s house) including the museum. You can cross the bridge where Alessandro and Faye have a few ‘moments’ and admire the colourful houses on the other side. You can visit the Castle by walking up the steps through the olive grove as Faye did when talking to her mother on the phone about relationships and the mistakes we make and see the stunning frescoes in the chapel at the top and also the view of the town Faye reflects on. Casa Deriu is also worth visiting because although it does not feature in the book, I took the name for the town and you will see why when you visit this charming museum. At the marina you can see where Alessandro’s boatyard might have been and walk round the bay as they did. Best of all, just wander the old mediaeval quarter of Bosa to explore the area, the pretty piazzas, the artisan markets, the narrow cobblestone alleys that make up the old town. With a bit of luck you will find a building in a piazza which is actually an old chapel but has a rose window and could very well have been used as the basis for the Little Theatre itself.

Q. Where did the inspiration for the old theatre come from, if not from Bosa

A. Partly the old chapel (see above) but I also used the theatre at Sassari and other old Italian theatres that I found images of online. But basically, it was a madeup building, a fusion of all these parts.

Q. Food and wine play an important role in Little Theatre, as they do in Sarda cultureWhat local cuisine can you and Faye recommend…and what is your favourite wine from that part of Sardinia? 

A. Oh yes, lovely food! Some of my favourites were: burrida (a spicy fish soup), spaghetti con bottarga (with mullet roe) and malloreddus (a gnocchi style pasta cooked with saffron in tomato sauce). I also loved fregola – an unusual pasta similar to cous-cous, often served with clams. The seafood pasta was always good. And as for the lobster… Take me back there – now!

A lovely wine to try is the golden dry Vernacia di Oristano DOC.

Q. Whilst in Sardinia, most of the plot develops in Deriu. But Faye also discovers other parts of this intoxicating island, with theatre owner Alessandro and also with her father. Where should I go beyond beautiful Bosa, to see and feel what Faye experienced? Have you explored many other parts of Sardinia…and how would you say that this western coastal area differs from the rest of the island?

A. We travelled around the island in our motorhome to explore and research and spent three weeks drinking it all in. We didn’t get the whole way round, but focused mainly on the west of the island and the South, rather than the more touristy but stunning Costa Smeralda in the east. I would say that the west is more rugged and dramatic and is much less touristy and developed, which suited my purposes for the story.

We began by driving through the cork forests of the interior to the West coast from Olbia. We started at the National Park of Asinara in the north and basically drove down the coast. Some other high points were: Capo Falcone, the white beaches at Stintino, the ‘ghost’ mining town of Argentiera, Alghero (see below) the stunning coves on the magnificent Costa del Sud from Teulada to Chia which were also inspirations for the beach scenes, Nora (see below) and Cagliari.

In particular, Cala Domestica leads to the secret beach where Alessandro takes Faye. In the novel, this is near Deriu but it is actually a lot further down the west coast from Bosa and near the old mining town of Buggerru.

Nora is the site of the ancient village Faye visits with Ade. It is south of the island near Cagliari and is where she sees the ancient amphitheatre. This is a very interesting historical site.

Alghero is in north west Sardinia and Faye visits with Ade. It is a fascinating Catalan city which is a fusion of Italian and Catalan in food, history and architecture. It is also home to Teatro Civico.

The capital of Cagliari doesn’t feature in the book but is well worth a visit if you get the chance!

Q. There are some other lovely characters living in Deriu in Little Theatre. Are any of them based on real people you met while researching the story? Who should I try to meet while I’m in Bosa?

A. No, sadly none of the characters are based on real people! However, you will see women sitting outside their houses lace-making and men playing dominoes outside or in cafés. Down at the Marina you will also hopefully see fishermen – perhaps even mending their nets as we did!

Q. Do you know yet where your next novel will be based, and when we can expect to read another romantic mystery in an exotic location from you? I may have to follow you and our characters there too….

A. The next novel is entitled ‘Her Mother’s Secret’ and is set in Belle-Ile-en Mer, a small island just off the southern coast of Brittany.

Grazie mille, Rosanna, for giving us some insight into your latest novel The Little Theatre by the Sea and into the location that inspired your characters and plot. Good luck with promoting Little Theatre and see you at the location of your next novel!

An absolute pleasure. Thank you so much, Andrew and I hope you have a wonderful trip to Sardinia.

Borgo Tranquillo in Italy’s le Marche region with One Off Places

My feature on Borgo Tranquillo, a remarkable One Off Places property in Italy’s le Marche region – published on Silver Travel Advisor.

One Off Places

Fancy staying in a shepherd’s cottage in Spain? A South American jungle lodge? Or perhaps a cave house in Andalucia?

Well, you could.

One Off Places specialises in individual, quality holiday accommodation around the world, and is a response to bland mass market tourism and properties.

Tabitha Symonds established One Off Places in 2007, after many years searching for her own perfect holiday property. Today, castles, gatehouses, windmills, lighthouses and train stations are among the quirky – but classy – places to rest your inquisitive traveller’s head.

So, Silver Travellers, if you’re not excited at the thought of yet another glitzy cruise, or a week in a large impersonal hotel on the Costa del Tourist, why not look instead at staying in a One Off Place?

Borgo Tranquillo

I was very lucky to spend a few days recently at the remarkable Borgo Tranquillo estate. Perched on its own spectacular hilltop, high in Italy’s le Marche region and in the foothills of the mighty Appennines, Borgo Tranquillo sits in 15 Marchigian acres and is a world away from its brash Tuscan neighbour, on the western side of the mountain range that divides Italy.

View from private balcony of Borgo TranquilloA couple of the years in the planning, and taking more than 3 years to build, Borgo Tranquillo is the epitome of a One Off Place. Designed by Frank and Ariane Andrew and completed almost 10 years ago, it is an antidote to their previous lives, Frank as an international designer and Ariane as a senior manager for Bloomberg.

An innate sense of space, calm and understated luxury pervades the whole estate. Stay in one of the four self-catering 88m2 1-bedroom loft-style apartments, or the 150m2 2-bedroom villa, and feel any stress you might have arrived with evaporate in minutes. Or as long as takes to drink the bubbling Prosecco you’ll be offered as soon as you arrive.

Borgo Tranquillo apartmentWe stayed in one of the apartments. Interiors are starkly contemporary, white minimalism interrupted judiciously with injections of vibrant colour and whimsical design features. The furniture and equipment in the beamed high-ceilinged open-plan lounge and kitchen, and bedroom, are of the highest quality and yet calming and comfortable.

Externally though, the buildings are more traditionally constructed, blending perfectly with the verdant, hilly landscape.

The separate Clubhouse and Spa building is the beating heart of the Borgo Tranquillo estate. Upstairs is a spectacular space for reading, relaxing, drinking from the generously provisioned free bar, and planning your day as you gaze out of the vast windows across the foothills of the Appennines.

Downstairs – via the unique locally crafted curving staircase – is the high quality spa. Warm up in the sauna and hammam before stepping outside to laze on one of the sun loungers, or chill out in the black infinity pool.

Hammock time on the Borgo Tranquillo estateNear the Clubhouse is a large boules – bocce in Italian – pitch and a small football area. Or why not beat the bounds of Borgo Tranquillo, walk around the undulating perimeter of the entire estate, listening to birdsong, watching for wildlife and just absorbing the beauty and calm of this special environment.

But if that’s all too energetic, just find the hammocks strung up under the shade of some canopy-providing trees, or take your cocktails to the sunset bench, along the thoughtfully mown path, perched peacefully on a prominent western hillock.

Le Marche

If you can ever drag yourself away from the luxurious serenity of Borgo Tranquillo, there are plenty of other attractions to explore in le Marche, which is often described as Italy’s best-kept secret.

Ariane and Frank thoughtfully provide an encyclopaedic guide of nearby restaurants, wineries, sightseeing, shopping, walking and much more.

The charming hilltop village of Arcevia is only a 5 minute drive away, and has artisan butchers, bakers and grocers, a couple of friendly local bars, a few restaurants and some beautiful ancient palazzos, churches and houses in its enchanting centro storico.

Beating the bounds at Borgo TranquilloAnd within the wider municipality of Arcevia, you can explore many other interesting, timeless towns and hamlets, each with their own character. On a sunny May Day holiday we stumbled across Avacelli, a small village just a short drive from Arcevia, and holding its annual Asparagus Festival. There wasn’t much of the vegetable on display, but it was a great excuse for local people to eat, drink, listen to traditional music and dance in the rough gravelled street.

The larger towns of Ancona and Urbino are also within easy reach. Art lovers will know that Urbino is the pinnacle of Renaissance art and architecture, and is the birthplace of Raffaello Sanzio, better known to us as Raphael, equal of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and whose masterpiece The School of Athens is one of the Vatican’s main frescoes.

For more athletic activities, the walking and cycling around Borgo Tranquillo are magnificent. Or swim in the Adriatic in the unspoiled seaside town of Senigallia, just 40 km from Arcevia and also offering some outstanding seafood restaurants.

One Off Silver Travellers

So why not explore the very individual properties on offer at One Off Places. And if Silver Travellers love Italy, the mountains, comfortable luxury, relaxation and activity, you really should think about staying in the Borgo Tranquillo. If you can avoid the peak summer months, the spring and autumn would be perfect times to stay at this special place, and to explore the beautiful region of le Marche.

Watch a video about Borgo Tranquillo Clubhouse

 

Book review – Left for Dead

303 yachts left Cowes on 11th August 1979, at the start of the famous annual Fastnet Race.

Image result for 1979 Fastnet Race

Two days later the fleet was confronted by the deadliest storm in the history of modern sailing. By the time the race was over, 15 yachtsmen had perished, 24 crews had abandoned ship, 5 yachts had sunk, 136 sailors had been rescued and only 85 boats managed to finish the race.

Nick Ward was one of the crew on the Grimalkin, a 30-foot boat owned and skippered by David Sheahan. There were 4 other crew members, including Gerry Winks and Matthew Sheahan, the skipper’s 17 year-old son.

Image result for left for dead book by nick ward

Written by Nick more than 20 years later and first published in 2007, Left for Dead is the absorbing account of what happened to the Grimaldi and its crew over that fateful 48 hours in 1979, after which David and Gerry were dead, and Nick was left wondering why the others had abandoned him and Gerry, both unconscious but alive on the storm-tossed boat, in favour of the life-raft.

Nick acknowledges his debt of gratitude to journalist and documentary film-maker Sinead O’Brien, without whom he says he would not have written the book, and certainly not so graphically. Indeed, it is a testament to their joint contributions that the reader is enthralled for over 200 pages in which Nick struggles to survive, badly injured and with only the stricken Gerry for company.

In the same genre as Touching The Void, Left for Dead is a gripping first-hand survival story, with a touch of moral jeopardy. I would love to hear the version of events from the other 3 crew members of Grimalkin in an effort to resolve that jeopardy, but I fear that won’t happen now.

Left for Dead as an intriguing account of a terrible few days at sea, with fatal consequences for some, but an astonishing story of survival for one man.

Image result for 1979 Fastnet Race

 

Theatre review – You Give Me Fever

You Give Me fever – review for Essential Surrey website.

5 STARS, May 23-27. “What an intelligent antidote to the Jukebox Musical gravy train Jack Lynch has written”, says Andrew Morris

Was the huge success of Mamma Mia! responsible for the deluge of so-called “Jukebox Musicals” invading our theatres over the last 20 years, do you think? We Will Rock You, Our House, Jersey Boys, Thriller… the list of musicals with contrived plots woven loosely around artists’ songbooks goes on and on.

I guess it’s all about the Money, Money, Money, so how refreshing to see a more thought-provoking, entertaining and intellectually challenging work from that over-extended genre, performed on a much more intimate stage.

Head down to The Back Room of the Star Inn, Guildford to see You Give Me Fever – “the Phaedra Cabaret”, an innovative production from LynchPin for the Guildford Fringe. I bet you didn’t know that the tragic heroine of Greek mythology loved the jazz and blues classics, did you? Or that she mixed a mean Aegean Fizz cocktail?

Sultry siren Pippa Winslow is Phaedra (“Fey”), luring us into her tangled mythological web of Greek gods, bull-headed Minotaurs and doomed love affairs as she mixes drinks and sings us jazzy standards. Mad About The Boy, Let’s Face the Music and Dance, One For My Baby, Crazy…. Fey seduces her enthralled cabaret audience in perfect harmony with the sad narrative of her life story.

Thwarting her sister Ariadne in pursuit of Theseus, falling in love with Hippolytus – son of Theseus by another woman – Fey warns us from the outset that her story will not have a happy ending. But along the way, thanks to brilliantly synchronised song choices and some crazy cocktails, the mythological minx serves up a whole lot of fun.

Pippa delivers a seductive performance as Fey in this one-woman show, equally adept at singing, acting and mixology. No wonder Theseus and Hippolytus fell for her significant charms.

Also on stage throughout is James Shannon, a jazz guitarist recently graduated from Guildford’s very own ACM, and whose moody finger-style arrangements breathe even more life into Fey’s songs. Watch out for James’s brief – but perfectly pitched – acting cameo….

You Give Me Fever – “the Phaedra Cabaret” – is written and directed by Jack Lynch, co-founder of LynchPin Productions Theatre Company. What an intelligent antidote to the Jukebox Musical gravy train Jack has written.

And thank you to the Guildford Fringe for another 5* piece of stimulating and entertaining theatre.

The Big 60th birthday marathon

I wrote recently about some memorable big birthday celebrations I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy over the years. A 29-and-holding party in Bermuda, a surprise 40th party at home whilst working in Germany, a wild weekend in Soho for my 50th after an earlier fund-raising trek for World Vision up Kilimanjaro….

Well, I’ve come through the other side of my 60th and I reckon it may just have been the best yet. It all ended up being completely over the top, more like the so-called world series of baseball. Or the Queen. I’m exhausted, grateful, blessed….and officially old.

Round 1: Gill, my lovely missus, had said she was whisking me away somewhere for a long pre-birthday weekend. It turned out to be Cheltenham. For the last jump meeting of the season at the beautiful racecourse on Friday, and a spectacular Indian meal at Prithvi on Saturday….with old friends of various vintages arriving throughout a glorious weekend of surprises.

Round 2: 10th May, 60 years after my arrival in this often troubled but always amazing world. A low-key Italian-themed evening at home with family, friends and neighbours. Why Italian? Because I’m learning the language, because we love the country, people and food…and because I cracked open a few bottles of the rather special Sassicaia given to me as a leaving present from ex-colleagues.

Image result for sassicaia tenuta san guido

Well, it started off low-key, but escalated into something dangerously resembling a party. I definitely felt 60 on the morning of 11th May…

Round 3: on 12th May, a group of 14 headed over to Greece for 5 days, as a belated celebration but also to show the natural beauty of hidden Zagori to family and friends.

(images below courtesy of Mark Melling, with the obviously less professional ones from my humble Samsung)

Collaborator and friend Mark and I have made the villages and people of Zagori the first project for our travel publishing venture Great Escapations. I had discovered it last July, Mark and I had researched and interviewed people there last October.

I hope old age hasn’t addled my senses, but I think everyone else fell in love with this magical area too, with its friendly people, healthy food…and tsipouro.

Too many adventures to list fully, but here are a few selected highlights:

  • the Papaevangelou Hotel in Papigo…..Giorgos and his family have created a very special place to stay. If the natural surroundings don’t astound you, the level of service and quality of the breakfast surely will. Read about Giorgos’s story and meet him here 
  • a memorable evening at Anemi with lovely Lila and Pavlos serving up a feast for the senses, using food foraged from the landscape near Kato Pedina and cooked with love. The wine and tsipouro flowed, we shuffled around to Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me To The End Of Love, Pavlos whipped out his bouzouki and nephew Steve sampled Pavlos’s pipe collection. Read about Anemi, Lila & Pavlos and meet them here  
  • a walk down into the majestic Vikos Gorge on a glorious spring day. It’s a measure of how beautiful, calm and cooling the Voidomatis spring is that I was almost forgiven for underestimating how far it was from Papigo. Almost….
  • the 3 hour hike up from Papigo to the 2,000 metre high Astraka refuge, sitting below the jagged peaks of Astraka and Gamila. Some went back to the village after this ascent, others ventured on, through a flower-strewn high Alpine valley to the mythical Drakolimni – Dragon Lake – still edged by snow and a mere appetiser for the even more breathtaking and expletive-inducing (thanks, Genovefa) main course….the yawning chasm towards Konitsa. Words really are not enough to describe the views that made our legs wobble and our hearts pound 
  • 5 brave souls swapped the luxury of cosy hotel rooms for a night in the mountain refuge. Nephews Steve & Dave, Dave’s girlfriend Lissy, Gill and I hunkered down in a dormitory – with a Bulgarian couple – after hearty bowls of spaghetti bolognese, tin jugs of local wine and a couple of games of cards, warmed by the stove as a hailstorm raged outside 
  • while others loved the rafting trip through the icy water of the Voidomatis river, Gill and I dropped in to see Lena at the agritourism venture Rokka. Despite being very busy running the Guest House and organising the first Wool Festival in Greece, Lena dropped everything to share some tsipouro and home-made meze with us, and to show Gill her 3 weaving looms. Such warmth and hospitality is an integral part of life in Zagori. Read about Lena, Kostas, Rokka and meet them here 

And that was my hyper-extended 60th birthday. Well, almost….

Gill and I swapped the mountains for coast, and spent a glorious couple of days chilling in Lefkada, one of the Ionian islands, off the west coast of mainland Greece. The others were unable to catch a ferry back from Igoumenitsa to Corfu, because of national strike action…and ended up chartering a boat to get them across the Ionian, under cover of darkness and in fear of being found by the coastguard or striking ferrymen.

A fitting finale…..just sorry we weren’t there to share the refugees’ fun.

 

Not dead yet! Make the most of your post-work years