Tuesday 30 April 2019

From Tellaro to Montemarcello and back

Having only briefly savoured the delights of Tellaro, a Ligurian fishing village that isn't on the Cinque Terre route so has a relatively unspoilt atmosphere, on the final day of my time last year at Gianluca Marciano's Suoni dal Golfo Festival, I decided I had to come back at the first opportunity, show J the beauty of the place, hopefully swim and certainly walk on the paths I'd only begun to discover. A good map bought at trusty Stanford's showed the further possibilities of the Parco Nazionale di Montemarcello Magra: we would at the least find our way further on from Fiascherino beyond Tellaro

to Montemarcello, another picture-postcard-perfect village, this time overlooking the sea but protected from it (a bit like those Corsican places where the inhabitants had turned their back on marine dangers and invaders).

Opportunity had to be planned for. We arrived from Pisa on the second day of April to spend a wonderful afternoon in Sarzana (more anon) on what turned out to be the last afternoon of Sirocco warmth. Italy hadn't seen rain for at least three months - reports varied - and river levels were worryingly low; the Po was at least three metres below its average. On cue, the Tramontane changed all that and we braced ourselves for two days of stormy weather.

It wasn't so much of a hardship; the Hotel Rosa dei Venti, despite having taken my booking, chose to tell us that it would be closed for two days' renovation work, and would we mind moving along the road to the unpromisingly named Albergo Blueline? As it turned out, that was officially an upgrade; though the room wasn't as spacious, the balcony had a better view over Fiascherino Bay, and it was cosy to be in, walled up with good books, when the storm finally broke, leaving us to muse on how poor Shelley drowned in just such weather on his way back in the Ariel from Livorno to Lerici.

Besides, the staff made a delightful double act. The wife of the owner was incredulous that I swam between storms off the public beach which had been such a delight in September. Now it was deserted, but at 7 in the evening the water wasn't too cold and I took the prize for first bather of 2019 in Fiascherino.

Earlier, I'd managed a preliminary reconnaissance of a couple of hours on the path up from Tellaro,

turning left at the top to take an old mule track back through olive groves to Fiascherino rather than right towards Montemarcello

and catching the glint of white irises through the trees.

The next day was going to be a washout until early evening, so once the morning storm had abated we took the bus down to Lerici, had a long lunch in a restaurant overlooking the harbour and, once the rain had all but ceased, took the lift up to the castle where several of the concerts had taken place last year. So much mud and water had come down from the hills that the sea below was very much two-tone.

Later we walked into Tellaro and down to the much smaller harbour there

after which the clouds were lifting

and a fine sunset formed across the bay at Portovenere.

As predicted, the Friday started sunny and was set to become even fairer: we could do our walk at last. Swallows had just arrived and were swooping over the hotel garden with its olive trees

and the bay.

Perhaps I should have read the sign at the start of the cliff route to Montemarcello: 'trail with steep sections for experienced hikers' - the same legend we found on a later board.

Experienced, yes, in terms of rock clambering, but the only time I've ever had serious vertigo was at the top of the cliff path down to the gorgeous Spiaggia delle due sorelle (two sisters beach) in the Marche's Monte Conero, and I got it again, especially in an open stretch like this - though steadying myself to take a couple of photos -

as well as on a part of the path that seemed to go ever downward virtually to sea level before climbing all the way up again (that bit has never been a problem). Still, though I didn't entirely relish them at the time, the vistas were dramatic

and finally we joined the (more or less traffic-free, minor) road for the last ten minutes into Montemarcello. Arborial traces of what had once been a 'giardino botanico' on Monte Murlo made a change to the landscape

while Montemarcello's fields and orchards sloped invitingly down towards the sea.

We entered the all-but-deserted village through a fine gate

and got our first glimpse of the view across to the Apuan Alps, still in dark cloud,

before winding around the streets

towards the church, which had some old prints of the Stations of the Cross against pleasingly coloured walls.

Wonder of wonders, the one place to eat was absolute perfection - the Caffè delle ragazze, where two very friendly ladies were serving just what we needed in the shape of chickpea and chicory flan. Which we were able to consume in a perfect piazza. Note man on roof to the left.

After this J decided to take a shorter route back to Fiascherino, while I was curious to see the botanical remains on Monte Murlo, which would mean ascending to a fairly modest 362 metres. I'd wanted to go as far as Bocca di Magra, the mouth of the river which separates the national park from the plains around Sarzana, but I did at least get perspectives of the river

and later of the coast towards Viareggio.

This is wild boar territory - hunting only between October and January on Wednesdays and Sundays

I heard a porker or two snuffling and trampling through the woods as I rounded the mountain towards the Zanego valley

with views down to attractive Ameglia

and across towards one of the Apuan hill towns (possibly Falcinello?)

Eventually this lovely path curved round to meet the minor road J had taken at Le Figarole and from that point on I was following in his footsteps, joining the other end of the same mule track I'd taken two afternoons earlier. Again, the fields sloping down towards the sea were so attractive in the late afternoon sun

and I just missed snapping this goat in the act of standing on its hind legs to pull down the branch of a tree, on the blossoms of which it is now munching.

Though an easier route than the lower coast path, the mule track's cobbles were punishing on the feet

but it wasn't a long way at all back to Tellaro, seen from above here,

and by about 6pm I was back at the hotel. If only I could have staved off the desire to rest and changed for a final swim. But idleness beckoned, followed by a wonderful evening meal. And so our little Italian seaside holiday ended in glory and deliciousness before the next day's four-change train journey (no hardship) up to Treviso and a splendid working weekend.

Tuesday 23 April 2019

Bonnard and Ruskin: diamonds and gemstones

From the big picture

to the cabinet of curiosities

I feel enriched by two very different exhibitions. Astonished by so much critical negativity surrounding the huge Pierre Bonnard show at Tate Modern; all artists I know, including my beloved friend Ruth Addinall with whom I went, have nothing but praise for the master. What are the claims? He didn't reflect the upheavals of his times; he couldn't paint animals; it's only about colour. Stuff and nonsense. In the first case, just focus on what he did cover - mostly his various homes and women he knew well - and ask if he succeeded. My answer would be, more than I could have imagined before I visited. To catch the 'thing in itself'ness of people and animals does not require literal forms - these are forms in motion. And it's not just about colour; the ability to see different angles of a scene and to give them depth, even (this surprised me) profundity remains consistent in his work from 1907 up to his death in 1947. I loved all the works on display to varying degrees, with the exception of a few in the last room. And the very first of his Vernon rooms-and-landscapes from 1914 is a stunner, complete with dachshund.

The one so many of us know and love is from 1925, the dining room at Vernon with the dog's snout and brow just peeking above the table.

Maybe Bonnard was a god of small things, but to see into their essence is the task of genius. It helps that all these things I love so much. An airy room with pictures, a dog, a view onto nature. Coffee, too.

His nudes are intimate studies of his beloved Marthe, long-term companion, whose death in 1942 seems to have taken a lot of the elan out of his work. Again, Marthe in the bath is seen from so many different angles and there's a depth to this. Both these paintings are from 1925, but there are others just as fine from 1914 and the early 1940s.

Not a very kind segue, perhaps, to nutty John Ruskin and his horrified reaction to his wife's pubic hair on their wedding night. While Bonnard must have been genial company, Ruskin would probably irritate the hell out of you if you met him, with his ridiculous prejudices against the Renaissance, Die Meistersinger and Palladio, to name but three. But what he did cultivate in art and nature he pursued very beautifully with word and brushstroke, and the selective but rich exhibition at Two Temple Place, sadly now over, was such a joy. As is the building itself, an extraordinary late Victorian mansion commissioned by William Waldorf Astor in high neo-Gothic style which, of course, houses Ruskin rather well.

Downstairs in the exhibition, the looks were more sideways to influences than concentrated on Ruskin himself. But ascending the remarkable staircase - worth a visit in itself; it's all free - you hit two essential rooms. One is a recreation in homage to the museum Ruskin assembled in Walkley north of Sheffield, for the education of 'workers in iron' and other, concentrating on the natural history of the area. Sadly the original museum is no more, but it's been lovingly recreated in Sheffield, I believe, and this room, with the beguiling collection of minerals at its centre, was one big delight of the museum.

Then the pièce de résistance, space-wise. is the Great Hall with its Clayton and Bell windows of Swiss and Italian landscapes.

Here were lodged most of Ruskin's finest natural drawings featured in the exhibition, from the rocks of Chamonix to birds placed among representations by others (Audubon included)

including an exquisite representation of a peacock's breast feather.

So, what's this?

It's an EU-owl - the pun only works in German (EU-le). You might recognise it as the work of Axel 'The Gruffalo' Scheffler. He and other leading illustrators of children's books including Quentin Blake and Judith Kerr have responded, in the words of the blurb for the 12 Star Gallery's exhibition Drawing Europe Together, 'to make illustrated comments on the historical and possible future relationships between the countries of Europe, many of which are extremely touching and heartfelt.' Believe me, they are. And there was such a poignancy about the launch, for this was officially the last show in the 12 Star. Here's the artist speaking (I must get together more about the event, once I get hold of a copy of the book that accompanies it).

BUT. Not only are we not out, but one regional gallery decided the work was 'too political', so it got an extended lease of life. And now another, until 10 May, after Europe Day when we will be celebrating with the annual concert - here's a report of what we thought might be the last in 2018 - in St John's Smith Square (lined up whether we left on 29 March or not).

And meanwhile, here we are. Where exactly, philosophically speaking, is not clear, but still in the EU...