Impressions of Italy

There we were sitting in the garden of our bungalow in Mallorca when in flew an exotic visitor.

“What’s that bird?” asked my wife, not expecting an answer apart from an admission that I was as clueless as she.

“It’s a hoopoe,” I told her in a tone of absolute authority and it says much to my power of inventiveness and imagination that she did not believe me, thinking I had made it up on the spur of the moment to impress her.

Fortunately, in the office of the resort, there was an illustrated chart of birds which, if we were lucky, we might expect to see on the island and my good lady was impressed when she saw, with her very own eyes, that what I had told her was nothing less than the truth.

Like a conjuror’s trick which is always rather disappointing when you find out how it is done, the explanation as to how I came to know something that you would only expect an ornithologist or a twitcher to know, is rather simple. Once upon a schoolboy I was an avid stamp collector and had once stuck a specimen featuring our feathered friend into my album and simultaneously stored this piece of information into a back drawer of my mind. To me those miniature works of art were a sort of pictorial encyclopedia by which I effortlessly absorbed a great deal of information about their countries of origin: kings and queens, presidents and people of note, flora and fauna and much much more, such as the date Sweden changed over to driving on the right. [September 3rd 1967 if you really want to know!]

Looking back at it now, I can see my dabbling in philately was also a form of armchair travelling and in the days before cheap flights made it commonplace, in those far-off, short-trousered days, I never dreamt that I would ever travel abroad, let alone as extensively as I have done. I made my first foreign expedition, when, as a university student, a bunch of us hired a van and we travelled through France, Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg, camping all the way. It was a method I adopted after I graduated, married and the kids came along, driving all over Europe accompanied by our trusty tent. Since then, having shed the kids and like snails, the home upon our back, but the feet still being as itchy as ever, we are now spending our pensions and their inheritance by continuing to travel, only in a little more comfort and further afield.

The essays which follow, “Impressions of Italy”, date from these later years.

For your being able to read them now, thanks are due, firstly to Dr Thomas A. Christie, director of Extremis Publishing Ltd, who urged me to post some of my writing on and to Mr Arup Chatterjee, editor of Coldnoon: Travel Poetics, who saw them and kindly invited me to be a contributor to his prestigious journal.

Seeking the Bones of St Francis

In which we delve into church history, frescoes and crypts in search of St Francis's earthly remains.

Sound and Silence in the Pursuit of St Francis

In which we visit the Basilica of St Francis, Talk in Whispers and see Giotto’s frescoes.

Santa Chiara and Poor Clare

In which we come to Assisi and come face to face with the cross that spoke to St Francis.

Some Hairy Driving on the Way to Assisi

In which, travelling from Naples to Assisi, I come across some unusual driving styles and drivers.

Pompeii: House of Ill Repute and Other Houses

In which we visit the brothel (yes my wife really did allow me to), followed by the theatre. Afterwards we take in a fast-food joint. So like our lives today! Finally we visit some pretty swanky mansions. So unlike our own humble little house.

Pompeii: Baths, Bodies and Bread

In which, seeing some bodies of poor Pompeiians, I have an idea with what to do with my own mortal remains. I also visit a bakery and the baths and on the way to the brothel I view a pornographic fresco.

Dearest Water, in Pompeii

In which we visit Pompeii, come across an ingenious method of crossing the street and the secret of how the Romans turned brick pillars into marble columns is revealed. Cunning devils these Romans!

The Via Spaccanapoli and the Castel dell’Ovo

In which we embark on a long and weary walk along the “Naples Splitter” with more churches and palazzos than you shake a pizza at. In the evening, after some time spent recovering, we brave the evening passeggiata to see the Castel dell’Ovo and visit the Gran Caffè Gambrinus, the former haunt of Guy de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde.

A Walk in the Centre of Naples

In which, accompanied by our guide, I give my take on some of Naples’ top tourist attractions and we are made aware of a curious legend.

Naples by Night

In which, from the roof of our hotel, seeing the floodlit Castel Nuovo beneath our feet, we step out into the warm Neapolitan air to see what we shall see – and come upon some surprising sights.

Neapolitan Street Party

In which, at the start of our Italian Tour, in Naples, and on the way to our hotel, we come upon an unexpected scene and are given a surprising introduction to Neapolitan street life.