Tuesday 29 June 2010


'If it rains, you can always go on a tour of the mine', said our Tarvisian hotelier when we asked about getting to Lake Raibl/Cave del Predil on our three-day excursion into the eastern Julian Alps from Trieste. I'd rather...etc, thought I, but having been to Cave, I'd say it would have been well worth it.

Yet the weather held and allowed us to do a full day's circuit above and around this beautiful Alpine lake. I was going to launch into a paean of the thousandfold flora around it, but as I reviewed the photos of our brief jaunt into Slovenia en route, I realised that both the mining village and the border crossing would need an entry to themselves.

So we took the morning bus from Tarvisio to Cave (as usual, there were only one or two other passengers, who sit at the front and glean or give all the gossip from/to the driver). Cave looked mighty grim, but it's beautifully situated and full of interest with its extraordinary history.

Mining of Monte Re for lead-zinc ore started here, they think, in Roman times but was certainly well established by the 11th century. The village of Raibl, as it was then called, sprang up between 1500 and 1800. At the peak of its operation in 1950 it employed about 1130 men. The notice outside the museum told us that here was a unique instance of Austrians, Italians and Slovenians all working together in complete harmony. It closed only in 1991, so I guess you have a very depressed population. Wouldn't have known it from the cheerful activity in the one of the two bars we liked best, run by one of those vivacious Italian women who presumably still know how to keep their men and seem very proud of it. Clearly the older of the bars, its walls are covered with trout from the lake

and photos of keen local as well as Udine mountaineers - these people clearly didn't ignore the nature around them.

My pamphlet tells me that 'the continuous obsession for the cliffs originated the first organised Alpine Emergency Unit (Soccorso Alpino) in the valley as well as a group of the most skilled climbers in the area and the whole region'.

Our own trek was rather more modest, but took us higher than I'd anticipated. At a key point we looked back on the archetypally Dolomitic Cinque Punte which tower above Cave del Predil

and then forward to the lake itself.

When we joined the upward-snaking road, I realised from the map that we really were as close as the path was going to take us to the Slovenian-Italian border, and that a diversion up the mostly empty highway before rejoining our forest route was well worth it.

How exciting it was, for me as much as for the diplo-mate who was duly photographed in front of the signs but won't appear here, to walk across a deserted border crossing, and a moment of pride to see the European Union stars twinkling around the names of the two countries.

That's 'Italija' with a j from the Slovenian perspective. Across the Italians' own sign are more political stickers.

The crossing into the Triglav National Park had a special significance because we'd originally intended to split our holiday between Trieste and Bovec in the Socer vallery, where friends Stephen and Kate had recommended a very singular hotel. But connections between Italian and Slovenian transport seemed more or less non existent, so we'll explore the Triglav zone from Ljubljana in due course. Here, we could just have walked on and got to Bovec by nightfall.

A cafe and a well-kept garden indicated habitation

but there was no-one around. Anyway, we had a lake to see and a picnic to eat, and the rest of the walk was pure heaven. More on that in due course. I should, though, return to Cave, as we did at the end of our circular route, visiting the second bar for final refreshments before the bus back to Tarvisio and taking a look at the two churches, old and new.

The newer one of solid, rather impressive construction,

was apparently built because more miners and their families needed to worship than could be contained in the original. That has a pretty painted illusion of an organ

which is rather preferable to the two speaker boxes above left and right of the modern church's altar; and a pulpit with paintings of the evangelists.

We liked Cave, if only because inevitably it has a more authentic feel than tarted-up but exceptionally pretty and well-situated Valbruna a valley or so to the west. But in the afternoon of that second excursion, the weather break-up finally hit and we spent four character-forming hours trudging down the mountainside in the pouring rain. At least we were rewarded at the end by the sight of these brightly coloured beehives.

Monday 28 June 2010

Travel in a time of football

I haven't seen a good match in years, which is not to say that I wouldn't be drawn in if I were at the house of a friend who wanted to watch the World Cup. But I don't think I'll easily forget where I happened to be when key games took place. How many years ago was it when England played the Cameroons in the quarter-final and I was sitting in the since-defunct Lumiere Cinema with six other people watching Eric Rohmer's A Tale of Springtime?

This year I've been on the move or in a theatre while the action was being played out. On Wednesday I had to give a talk in Leicester - station depicted above - before one of Temirkanov's three major Prokofiev/Tchaikovsky concerts with the Philharmonia (I caught the first programme in London and wrote it up for The Arts Desk; and all I'll say about it here is that the man is surely the greatest Tchaikovsky conductor still living).

So at about 3pm I strolled up to Barons Court tube - too hot to cycle to St Pancras - and caught diverse roars through open windows and outside The Curtains Up pub (never sure how they mean that to be punctuated). But from Barons Court to Kings Cross on a surprisingly packed underground and from St Pancras to Leicester on a fairly busy train, not one whimper of news about the match's progress. As I strode up the hill towards De Montfort Hall, it was impossible to tell who'd won. A couple of twats in tall England hats lurched around noisily, but gave no hint of victory or defeat. It wasn't until I was in the hall that I found out.

Anyway, Leicester is worth a quick digression, though I still haven't had time to see the Curve (was still in the middle of the Coppelia script on Wednesday, and had to rush back to meet Ruth and friends after her Cork Street opening, more of which anon). The concerts have a loyal if ageing following, and while I spoke they were unveiling a new memorial sculpture in memory of a Philharmonia friend:

The walk to the hall through the back streets is leafy and pleasant, the odd rolling drunk or drug addict excepted. I love the railings of the bizarrely if aptly named Oval Square.

And so back to London that evening in an atmosphere of calm, and a nearly full moon above St James's (the clock time, like the one in the photo further down of Trieste's Caffe San Marco, is of course way out).

There was, though, a midsummer madness in the air around Piccadilly owing to the Cork Street bacchanalia. Doziness reigned the next morning as I pedalled to the BBC to record the Building a Library programme. A white van man nearly knocked me off my bike as he turned without indication across the cycle lane and into Earl's Court. Sundry specimens of erratic driving compounded the feeling that the Englanders were hung over after celebrating the match.

Finally - thank God, they're out now - there was the question of negotiating London before and after the England v Germany match. Our only chance to catch the ENO Tosca, and it started at the memorable hour of 3pm. Must have been more exciting than England's trashing - in fact I was almost delirious after Act One, mostly with the sheer pelt and skill of Puccini's theatricality as projected by Amanda Echalaz and Julian Gavin - unquestionably the most convincing lovers I've ever seen in this opera - and by Ed Gardner's sensuous-pacy work in the pit (what beauty in the orchestral postlude to the love duet).

Act 2, in ex-diva Catherine Malfitano's period setting, went through most of the usual motions but had a few ideas of its own, and Michaels Moore was almost convincing as an elegant, sex obsessed sadist (the basic dark-baritone timbre hasn't weakened over decades, though the detached low notes don't come out well). Loved the way Echalaz's poor girl broke down after the murder and got frightened by the roll of drums anticipating the execution. The line in her 'vissi d'arte' ('love and music' as ever was in Edmund Tracey's well-wearing translation) was a little disrupted by the vibrato which could quickly become a problem, but she soars thrillingly and she's such an intelligent singer. The final touch, an artistic death, was superb and banished memories of Jane Eaglen looking like Robbie Coltrane in drag lumbering up the ramp to flop off (though that was her heyday, and how superbly she acted with the voice then). Both production photos of the current ENO production here by Robert Workman.

Echalaz's was easily the best Tosca I've witnessed since Nelly Miricioiu's in the early 1980s, and I'd love to see her as Salome. Ma guarda, cara, guarda.

By the opera's half way mark, it was impossible to tell whether Julian Gavin's ringing 'vittoria!' ('victorious' in the translation) was being echoed in the streets.

At the second interval it was all a bit quiet to start with. Then police vans started shooting up Charing Cross Road, sirens blaring. The nice man in Pret a Manger told me the bad (good?) news - 4 to Germany, 1 to England. Then we saw a pack of angry youths with feral, scrunched up faces looking for trouble.

Yet I have to say that over in Trafalgar Square after the show, despite the heavy police presence,

if you hadn't known of England's defeat, you'd have thought the fans were celebrating.

Note Yinka Shonibare's splendid newcomer on the Fourth Plinth.

Once through Admiralty Arch, it was the usual summer-in-the-city Sunday scene of brass bands and tourists ambling along the cycle lanes. The hot but glorious weather might just have taken the edge off the disappointment. Well, come on, Ghana.

Saturday 26 June 2010

Triestine temples

That's to say, of worship, commerce, consumerism, refreshment and feline sanctuary. Where better to start than the west front of Trieste's Duomo on the hill and down to the synagogue, one of the biggest in Europe and flamboyantly constructed in 1910?

Ancient Trieste plays little part in Jan Morris's inspirational meditation on city and self because, as she fairly says, 'I long ago conceived my own idea of this city's real purpose', and that essentially begins with Maria Theresa's Hapsburgian free port. The Romans do of course briefly come into it, because Mussolini's Fascists made quite certain to draw parallels with their own regime, restoring the forum in front of the cathedral and plonking their giant headquarters bang opposite the similarly reconstructed Roman theatre. Most Triestine's favourite ancient sight is the misleadingly called the Arco di Riccardo - but the Lionheart never was confined here, apparently - put up to honour Augustus in 33 AD.

Anyway, since Morris doesn't purport to be a guidebook, you won't learn from her that the Duomo boasts, either side of its hideous 1930s-decorated chancel apse, two of the loveliest old mosaics in Italy. This one, from the 13th century, depicts Christ flanked by one of Trieste's two resident Saints, Giusto, drowned in the bay with a lead weight attached to his neck, and St. Servulus.

Note the fabulously pretty decorated border, especially the bit beneath Christ's dove-refreshed feet:

Like everything else in Trieste, the Duomo is a bit of this, a bit of that. Essentially its Byzantine pillars are fine and its atmosphere, at least when we visited on a warm evening, very peaceful (oh dear, yes, the word everyone writes in church visitors' books, but isn't it what many of us agnostics want from a space like this?)

There's a chapel with a tomb for the last of the Spanish pretenders - the Carlists were here - and an eccentric bit of 20th century composite work on the west front, incorporating - rather brilliantly, I think - six busts from a Roman tomb, three on either side of the entrance.

Winckelmann's monument next door I'd better save for another entry: its surrounding sculpture garden is surely the most enchanting corner in all Trieste.

And what of the synagogue? It holds itself proudly, not hidden away as it would be in other cities, symbol of an unusually proud and happy diaspora, an invaluable mercantile input, for 150 years.

Sadly, a civic committee which tried to get them all out to Palestine in the early 1930s went unheeded by many, and 700 were deported and/or killed. But there's now a thriving Jewish community in Trieste which helps to keep the massive synagogue going (and millions must have been spent on the restoration, which looks as new). A Greek congregation also packs out the Church of San Nicolo on Sunday mornings, a favourite ritual for James Joyce to attend when he was here. We popped in briefly on our way to the station, but the previous day we'd inspected and been made very welcome by the attendant.

Within a couple of hundred yards there's also the Serbian Orthodox church of San Spiridione and the neoclassical Sant'Antonio, another thriving hub of worship when we visited and closing the view up the Canal Grande.

We broke up our tour of this part of town with a coffee and tramezzini in one of Trieste's two most celebrated cafes, the Tommaseo.

It's the earlier of two major irredentist haunts and named after the celebrated patriot who launched many of his most impassioned speeches here.

Despite the presence of a few old locals here, I much preferred the darker haven of the Cafe San Marco just around the corner from the synagogue (many of whose worshippers were welcome here).

It was opened in 1914, burnt down in an anti-Austrian protest and now retains its atmosphere, again a little bit for tourists but mostly for the residents, who enjoy film shows and concerts in one of its long halls.

The San Marco feels very Viennese, partly by virtue of the Klimtian gilding but also because of the celebration of world theatre in its little round panels.

Svevo and Joyce both loved it, and so did I.

A quick whizz, then, through other churches of sorts: mercantile splendour

furs with reflected art nouveau extravagance in the heart of the shopping district

and finally sanctuary for the city's enormous cat population. We saw a number of little old ladies, one very elegantly dressed in twinset and pearls, putting out lavish fish and pasta suppers in bowls. In the courtyard of the huge old Hapsburgian hospital, still in run-down use, numerous shelters have been made for the feline inhabitants - do they keep the mouse and rat population down, I wonder? - and food is never short.

And this complacent puss was to be seen night and day basking beneath his protector's shrine high on the hill every time we walked past.

Morris has got it exactly right, I think: 'in Trieste animals are rarely scared of humans, to my mind a sure sign of civic integrity, come wealth or poverty, fame or ignominy, empire or dictatorship or Autonomous Region'. Brava.