Tag Archives: Italy

Europe – IN or OUT?

I love Europe.

In the early 1960s, when I was just 5 or 6 and England still hadn’t won the World Cup, my pioneering parents bought a travelette (a collapsible caravan contraption). The neighbours in suburban West Wickham waved us off, and we drove all the way down to the Costa Brava, spending two weeks on the beach of a blissfully unspoiled and still quintessentially Spanish fishing village.

I honed my nascent German language skills – and snogged Bridget Heap from Clarendon House – in Koblenz, on exchanges with Detlef and his family in the 1970s.

More recently, Gill and I have whizzed all over France on Eurostar

We have a continuing addiction to all things Italian, and have just returned from skiing in bellissimo Champoluc.

In April, we’ll be going to Greece for the first time, visiting Thessaloniki to write an article for the lovely folks at Silver Travel Advisor, then moving on to historic Mount Olympus and Halkidiki.

I embrace everything about Europe…its people, languages, history, food, wine.

Everything.

Except the bloated, bureaucratic European project that is the EU. It’s teetering on the precipice of failure, and I’m leaning heavily towards the exit door.

I’m not racist. I’m not xenophobic. And I’m not rooted in the past. But I can’t believe the status quo is sustainable.

When we signed up for the Common European Market in 1973 – ratified in a 1975 referendum – could our worst fears have anticipated the reality of 2016?

  • an annual EU budget of close to €150 billion
  • more than 750 Members of the European Parliament
  • EU auditors reported that the bureaucrats had misspent €7 billion of the 2013 budgetThe auditors have refused to sign off the accounts for 20 years in a row
  • 2-speed economies of the greatly enlarged EU over protracted periods, and yet no single country being able to resort to interest rate changes to stimulate or slow down its own economy (thank goodness we stayed out of the single currency and retain the £)
  • a plethora of unwanted and stifling legislation handed down from Brussels
  • untrammelled immigration, from other EU countries and – through assimilation over time – well beyond Europe

I may sound like a Daily Telegraph reader, or – worse – a UKIP voter, but it feels like we have lost control, to differing degrees, of our sovereignty, our legislation and our borders.

And I don’t buy the IN camp’s scaremongering that our economy will collapse if we decide to exit. Yes, there will be obviously some significant adjustments required, and there may well be a reduction in GDP and a threat to some jobs. But that impact will hopefully be temporary, until we rediscover old allies, sign up new trade relationships with vibrant emerging markets, and embrace our renewed independence,

But we will regain control of our own British future for the long term.

I love Europe. But I love its separate, beautiful, independent cultures rather than its homogeneous, bureaucratic mass.

I’m walking inexorably towards the OUT door. Possibly regardless of any outwardly face-saving deal Mr Cameron might try to bring back ahead of the referendum, to persuade us to stay IN, as I fear it won’t represent substantive change.

And if we vote to leave, it might just signal the beginning of the end of the grand federal Europe project.

Champoluc ski trip

Just back from a very enjoyable week skiing in virgin territory for us, Champoluc in the beautiful Aosta valley in Italy.

A group of local friends went there last year and enjoyed the village and the skiing. So when old Kentish friends Nigel & Julie Cripps mentioned at a recent reunion that they were heading there in early January, it somehow seemed like fate that we should join them. Whether they wanted us to, or not.

Nigel & Julie are old Champoluc hands, lauding its quietness, beauty, friendliness and good value.

And now we’re converts too.

The skiing domain – even when fully open – is not vast. comprising 45 lifts, 95 slopes and 4 valleys in the total Monte Rosa area. And after the warm snow-free start to the season, hardly any of that capacity was accessible over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Fortunately for us, the white stuff began to fall early in 2016….and at the moment, it just keeps on coming. So we went from the sublime – skiing on decent snow in bright sunshine and good conditions on our first day – to the frankly ridiculous. On our last day, so much fresh powder had fallen overnight that we had to push our way through a snowdrift as we jumped off the chairlift from the base of Frachey.

In a continuing blizzard, on-piste was off-piste and goggles fogged up faster than Sepp Blatter’s memory.

In decent conditions between those extremes, we loved the long intermediate red runs – and occasionally more challenging black ones – spread out above the Champoluc, Frachey and Gressoney villages

It’s hard to find words that capture the simple pleasure of skiing on a quiet mountain in such a beautiful area. Whatever the conditions.

It’s easier to describe the gluttony we indulged in, every night during our hotel’s challenging 4 course dinners and, during the day, at some buonissimi mountain restaurants. Enjoy a freshly baked pizza and a couple of glasses of local vino rosso for lunch, at 2,700 metres, whilst a blizzard rages outside, and somehow your senses feel sharper than the edges of an Italian suit.

And back in Champoluc, the village is a charming enclave of local artisan shops, traditional houses and friendly people, sitting happily alongside the tourist bars, hotels and ski lifts. Long may that comfortable marriage remain…it would be a shame if over-development spoiled the essence of this gentle place.

Melbourne – less is more

Day 17 – Saturday, January 31

When you’re travelling it’s nice to push the culinary boat out occasionally, but it’s just as rewarding to eat simply – as the locals do – to get under the real skin of a city.

Strolling through Melbourne’s main shopping precinct on Bourke Street on a busy Saturday, we wandered off into the maze of more atmospheric laneways and narrow covered malls.

 

Within earshot of an ageing accordionist playing hackneyed but romantic old tunes, we ate in a tiny and basic cafe, hunched up at a narrow counter and surrounded by industrial-size bags of quinoa and enough coffee beans to keep neighbourly barista Simon Ware grinding away for a year or two.

Delicious, healthy and generous portions of chicken waldorf and pumpkin & chickpea salads were just $6.90 each, about £7 for both, eaten reading the local Melburnian newspapers, listening to the old accordionist and people-watching.

In the evening, we ended up climbing the dingy stairs off a dark alleyway between Bourke and Little Collins Streets to eat at The Waiters Restaurant. Opened in 1947 – and with decor, tables and curtains barely changed since then – this humble eaterie was once a place for Italian & Spanish waiters to unwind after work. Anyone can go now, but the simple ethos remains the same.

No wine list, just red or white offered verbally. We had a couple of glasses of excellent Shiraz in petrol-station giveaway tumblers.

No menu, just a blackboard of regular dishes and one with the specials.  We both had pasta, with garlic bread on the side. Honest, wholesome food delivered without pretension. Buonissimo! And all for A$60/£30.

The service was equally simple, but friendly, from two young English girls…one from The Wirrall, studying at St Kildas for a year as part of her International Business degree course in Leeds; the other from Stamford, having fun and with no idea how the rest of her life would unfold.

The Aussie boss wandered amiably around, until huddled by the side of the radio blaring out by the open kitchen counter……The Socceroos were in the final of the Asian Cup against South Korea, and were 2 minutes from glory when the Koreans equalised. The food might have suffered from that point on…..*

Earlier in the day, we had done the official Neighbours tour. Gill is ever so slightly addicted to this Aussie soap, and this was a small price to pay for inflicting 3 days of tennis on her.

It was a fun way to spend a few hours, but somehow the functional, small street (actually suburban Pin Oak Court) and outdoor sets back in the Fremantle Media TV studio lot undermined the glossy vision of what end up on our TV screens. Another dream shattered….

But fortunately the subsequent dining experiences, as humble as they were, reinvigorated the soul.

Less is definitely very much more.

* the Aussies scored again in extra time to win the Asian Cup. Phew!

Bella Italia

Grazie, Alex Polizzi.

I stumbled across the final episode of her Secret Italy series on TV last week. This piece was on Puglia in the south, the heel of Italy’s endlessly fascinating boot.

The concept of the series is Alex reconnecting with her own roots, as part of the venerable Forte family.

Her first language was Italian, but she has been brought up largely in the UK. My own connection with that bellissimo country is more tenuous, but she helped to remind me of the places I’ve already been lucky enough to enjoy visiting, and those still on the list for my retirement years. And also kick me into a more structured approach to learning the beautifully demonstrative Italian language, as animated as a Roman rush hour.

My father used to work in the travel industry, and I could only have been 5 or 6 when he secured tickets for a posh cruise around the Mediterranean. We enjoyed a few days stopover in Rome, in an August heatwave, and brief trips to Pompeii and Capri. I was too young to appreciate the history, beauty and passion of this romantic country, but the seeds had been sown in my youthful soul.

Fast forward many years and the love affair was ignited when Gill and I spent a week walking in the majestic Dolomite mountains. Part Italian, part German and part Ladino, this area is an intoxicating miscela of cultures, language and food. The following week touring round Tuscany was almost an anti-climax, although it sounds folle to dismiss the living museums of Florence, Pisa and Siena so heartlessly.

We found the quieter Lucca more rewarding, sipping chilled glasses of Prosecco in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro as dusk brought to life the locals in the multi-tiered ancient properties encircling the elliptical plaza, like the opening scene in an epic production at the Globe.

Trips to the beguiling islands of Sicily and, more recently, to Sardinia – both with their own distinct history and culture – continued the affair. And back on the mainland, another epic twin-centred Italian vacanza cemented the relationship for ever: a few days in Rome, my first time back there since the 1960s and now in a more bearable temperature; and a week in the Majella mountains and national park in Abruzzo, an unspoiled eastern province with hilltop villages unchanged for centuries and seaside resorts, with the clear Adriatic lapping at its broad, sandy beaches.

A couple of skiing holidays, in the tax-free Livigno domain and the vast Sella Ronda area back in the Dolomites, didn’t provide another full-on Italian affair. But it’s still rewarding to find a tiny piste-side trattoria serving a secret recipe home-made pasta special for lunch, or gargle with a throat-stripping grappa before bedtime….and know that the country’s traditions will endure for longer than I’ll be around to enjoy them.

So where’s next? The rugged Ligurian coastline; Le Marche, Abruzzo’s quieter northern neighbour; the tourist mecca of the Italian Lakes; stay in an Apulian trullo; and visit biblical Matera, in Basilicata, thanks to Alex Polizzi’s own love affair with this ancient community etched into its rocky surroundings, and saved in the 1980s from its poverty-stricken ghost-town status.

And I’d like to immerse myself somewhere in this bellissimo country to learn their language properly. To engage fully with Italians on the merits of this year’s Montepulciano vintage, or who will win the Scudettonow there’s a worthy ambition for retirement.

Bravo bella Italia…e grazie Alex Polizzi.