Sunday, January 30, 2011

Ils dansent mais ils ne marchent pas

In the words of a recent correspondent but apropos something else, ils dansent mais ils ne marchent pas

It's been good interlude, but it's time to begin again with connections and circles within circles.  

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I ain't doin' it, Robbie!

Last week, Lindaraxa was kind enough to give me the Stylish Blogger Award. I was touched, of course, flattered certainly, and in a private email I thanked this near neighbour, but, actually, I was at a loss as to what to write about myself that is not already known. Twice before I been awarded something similar - the first time I compiled a list of things about me that might be of interest and the second I'd written about books that I was reading. Besides I felt my blog posts are threaded through with aspects of my character and my life - how could this occasional diary of opinion, history and derring-do be anything else?

For a while I've toyed with the idea of writing about a dinner party I'd like to give for fellow bloggers - and today, January 25th - Robert Burns' birthday - gives me the ideal opportunity to give a dinner party and throw the rules of the CBA out of the window with the haggis, as it were. While on the subject of Haggis, the so-called national dish of Scotland, let me say that I ain't doin' it - at least, not in the way it has been presented to me at past Burns Night Suppers. A sheep's belly stuffed with offal, oatmeal and spices, might be explained away as a large sausage, and here I must say I really do like the Haggis, but presenting it , whether followed to the table by a kilted piper or not, in all its steamingly inflated, grey bagginess, to the delicate sensibilities of my American guests does not bear thinking about.

The Celt, as you know, is Scottish, thus this Burns Night Supper is heavily influenced by his tastes but very definitely modified by mine!

The Burns Night Supper in The Blue Remembered Hills

The first course, caramelized fois gras on pain d'epices and Scottish smoked salmon sandwiches, tiny triangular morsels, would accompany cocktails in the living room. Champagne will be on hand, naturally, but my choice would be a Manhattan made with Talisker whisky, that lovely smokey distillation from the Isle of Skye. I'm not sure there's a Scots version of the Negroni, the cocktail likely to be the Celt's choice.

Then to table where the Selkirk Grace would be spoken.

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae let the Lord be thankit

Haggis has to be the star of this evening's meal - a meal taken at a table dressed to the nines with linen, silver and crystal - and very difficult it is to make it so given its aforementioned unprepossessing appearance but I'd probably have the Haggis taken out of its bag and baked in a thin hot-water crust, very like a Melton Mowbray pork pie, and served with the obligatory bashed tatties and neeps. Lor' help me, but I must tell you that despite my liking of Haggis, I find the combination with mashed potatoes and mashed rutabaga totally tedious. Nonetheless, its the traditional combination.

What to drink with Haggis? In our house, it probably would be a shiraz but whisky should always be within reach for any toasts that will surely be made -  the Address to the Haggis (that great chieftain o' the puddin' race), and the toasts to the Lassies and the Laddies.

Dessert in our house is always the most discussed part of any dinner party and frequently the only possible option according to the Celt is trifle - a pudding, in the Brit sense of the word, he deems suitable for any meal, any occasion and any dinner guest. There are more traditional Scottish desserts, perhaps, but trifle defeats Cranachan every time. Trifle, not quite the bagetelle the name suggests, is much beloved in all its forms but has over the years distilled into one particular version for which one needs first the prettiest, deepest crystal bowl, in which sugary lady finger cookies, gobbets of apricot jam and amaretti, piled layer upon layer and soaked in sherry and brandy - not for us the delicate sprinkling from a spoon, more the upending of both bottles until the trifle base sings softly to itself - and followed by lightly sweetened cooked apples topped by home-made vanilla custard that itself is covered in deep billows of whipped cream. Drambuie with the dessert is possible, though I would have it brought to the living room with coffee.

As I said last time I was awarded something similar, if you're on my blogroll you can be assured I'd like to see you at my dining table. If you comment frequently, either as a fellow blogger, or as commenator - The Ancient, Home Before Dark, Bruce, et al, or write to me privately as does the Gentleman in Washington, I'd also love to see you at table.

My guest list

The Down East Dilettante
Treasure Hunt
Reggie Darling
A Devoted Classicist
Architectural Tourist

If you are not on this list it simply means you will be at the table next time. If I thought I might have got away with a Burns Night cocktail party then the guest list would have looked much different - thirty-seven bloggers plus commentators. What a time we could have had!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Antica formula

Perhaps I was tired after a long morning at the Uffizi Gallery and the train journey from Florence, but Venice did not immediately appeal - it seemed crowded and cold - both of which it was, of course, but in that not an exception. Rome had been cold, wet, incomparable but exhausting. Florence, colder than Rome, comfortably walkable and a delight. Venice, thus, had a lot to live up to and at first glance, candidly, it did not. Odd, though, considering we'd walked out of the Venezia Santa Lucia right onto the vaporetto and taxi dock and there spread out before us at the beginning of the Grand Canal was Venice in all its colorful, crumbling variety under a blue metalled sky.

However, after a taxi ride the length of the Grand Canal and, not an hour later, a shivery stroll from our hotel - a converted Gothic convent, next to the Santa Maria della Salute, that great Baroque thanksgiving for deliverance from the plague epidemic of 1630, standing sentinel at the mouth of the Grand Canal - past the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, towards the Accademia Bridge and over to St Marks Square, where the Basilica in all its Byzantine splendor, the brick and stone campanile, and the Doges' great gothic pink and white palace glowing in the westering sun lightened the mood as feet, nonetheless, got heavier and the wind off the water, sapping what strength remained, finally sent us to Caffè Florian where a pot of hot chocolate, a glass of wine, two tramezzini, and a few bemused glances outside to the frigid square were all it took to comfort both body and spirit - and bring the city of Venice into beautiful focus.

Light, by turns clear, shrouded, enveloping, transporting, mercurial, is one of the aspects of Venice that has made it a subject of paintings for centuries. A cliché, I know, but it's obvious the omniprescence of water that makes the light, even the lack of it, what it is. In twilight we walked back over the Accademia Bridge, to the hotel bar for a Manhattan, this time alas without the antica formula vermouth I'd been introduced to in Rome, and for the Celt, a Negroni. Hotel bars, like hotel lobbies and buses in New York City, are perfect places for sharing sometimes surprisingly personal anecdotes and experiences, practicing second or even third languages, tricking, comparing notes, taking advice, or just sitting by the window watching reflections dance on the water as the world sails by.

That evening, after sprucing up in our gold-leafed bathroom (floor, ceiling, walls and shower stall all covered in squares of gold leaf behind sheets of glass) we strolled alongside narrow canals, by empty market places, through cramped, ill-lit alleys and on over small squares, to dinner. Dramatic after dark, Venice is one pool of light after another, mostly given over to an amusingly noir chiaroscuro, yet the city is unthreatening and happily friendly. The crowds being mostly absent, walking is easier at night - wandering under a starry sky over the innumerable small narrow bridges, with the help of an iPhone, Google Maps, and the frequent hand-lettered signs pointing towards San Marco, Rialto, Accademia, and Santa Croce, is one of the best of things.

The Celt took the photographs mostly with his iPhone.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

It almost slipped by

without me noticing, that yesterday was the second anniversary of The Blue Remembered Hills.

I'd like to thank everyone who reads this blog; everyone who has commented and contributed and made the last two years a joy. As I said recently, it's the discourse that makes The Blue Remembered Hills what it is, and I'm grateful for it.

Thank you.

Photograph, copyright the Celt, of Borromini's wonderful helicoidal staircase at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. Onward and upward!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A feast

Having once been fooled or, rather, been naive enough to believe reviews on TripAdvisor, I've become leery about hotel and restaurant recommendations - except in person, that is. Let me say, before I continue, that only once did I feel we ate badly in Italy and that probably was because we were too tired after a night flight and a walk around Rome to take a taxi on a wet night to a recommended restaurant. We stayed in the neighborhood of the hotel and ate, not actually badly, but certainly gracelessly in a room reserved, it appeared, for tourists who did not speak Italian. And therein, not speaking the language of the country one visits, lies the essence of the problem.

Assuming, as I must, that you and I are of like mind, let me say that we all have a list of places we want to visit; the architectural icons, repositories of history and culture, that frequently play a role as signifiers of quality in advertising, serve as identifiers of location in movies and television drama - for which film star has not been involved in a car-chase by the Ponte Vecchio, the Duomo, the Colosseum, the Eiffel Tower, Houses of Parliament, depending on the need for local color in what are increasingly homogeneous cityscapes?

In most cases, modern guide books and travel magazines serve us well, but my skepticism is awakened when I read recommendations especially of those secret, known-only-to-the-writer, small off-the-beaten-path restaurants serving gobsmacking food from a kitchen the size of a closet, furnished with a miniscule stove and staffed by a man who learned to cook at at the knee of nonna - a woman who used no recognizable means of measuring - and whose wine is always local if not from his own vineyard. The world is too small for this or that best kept secret and probably if somewhere has been unknown for so long there is a good reason. Anyway, best kept secret really just means now being marketed.

Of course, it's the language of persuasion: the use of superlatives; the implication that if one goes to these places; is able to get a reservation; eats this ineffable food, one becomes a member of a select band of great refinement, and, latterly, is able to have yet another set of photographs for Facebook.

But what of food - that purely late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century reason for being a tourist? Before this vacation, our experience of Italian was limited. Not that we subscribe to the tomato-saturated pasta, greasy garlic bread and overdressed salad - staples of chain restaurants that rely heavily on family and friendship in creating their image. No, we are blessed with two, to my mind, excellent Italian restaurant restaurants here in Atlanta, which coincidentally are my favorite places to dine.

Last Friday, not a week after we came home, we ate at one of them and during that meal mulled over what I had eaten in Italy compared with what was on the plate before me. In one of the two local restaurants, Pricci, I usually eat fettucini alfredo with a dusting of nutmeg and, in the other, Veni Vedi Vici, spinach gnocchi with gorgonzola, speck and cream. I worked out a long time ago - and I recognize this might be considered picky eating or even a lack of curiosity - that when you find a dish to your taste, stick with it: a situation that cannot obtain in a city unknown to one, and nor should it. If either fettucini alfredo or gnocchi were on the menus in Rome, Florence and Venice, I have no recollection, for we were at pains to eat local, as it were.

On the subject of breakfasts, let me say that they were of superb quality, varied, and more than ample. Coffee, for that is my choice at breakfast, was of two sorts - the delicious smear of dark brown liquid with crema, or what is known, tragically in my opinion, as caffè Americano - the Italian version of the swill available in any gas station or restaurant in this country. What a pity that such a thin, stewed, brown liquid should be called American!

In Florence we ate very well, as we did in Rome and Venice. Breakfast at the Hotel Savoy was perfect and sufficient to keep us going through long cold days of walking until late afternoon when a chilled Manhattan served with aperitivi - delicious tapas-like snacks that accompany every drink - sustained us for our walk to dinner.

When we arrived at La Pentola d'Oro, we were shown to a basement room of white-clothed tables. We asked instead to sit upstairs in the main room by the door, on wooden stools at bare tables where it seemed to me, locals - and so it proved - were more likely to eat. Pappardelle alla lepre, wide noodles in hare sauce, were perfect for the Celt and surprisingly good to me. But, oddly, I'm not sure what I ate though I clearly remember telling the waitress, and meaning it, that it was one of the best things I'd ever eaten. I suspect what I ate was il pepos del Brunelleschi, beef in red wine, but mostly I remember the smiling face of a young baby lying quietly by her parents and who seemed to be so happy to see me.

Cibrèo, highly recommended, was disconcerting at first and my heart sank when we were told that someone would come to the table and explain what that evening's menu was. Perhaps Cibrèo is aimed at tourists, as I surely felt it was, but it turned out it didn't mean the food was unconsidered or the experience poor. In fact it was excellent. After the manager sat at our table and explained in perfect English that the restaurant specialized in game - the mention of roast pigeon made the Celt's eyes light up - I had the distinct feeling I was in the wrong place. The Celt, indeed, chose roast pigeon stuffed with fruits in mustard (marvelous combination) whereas I went for what I thought was a fish stew. Fish it was, if squid are fish, and stew it was if squid cooked slowly with spinach for hours make it a stew. What arrived at my side of the table was unprepossessing - a bowlful of dark green sludge that at first I couldn't even consider dipping a fork into it. I tried it, declared I was unable to eat it. The Celt, who had just begun dissecting the pigeon with all the delicacy of a surgeon, murmured sympathetically, and I being the big boy I am, speared a tiny amount on the tip of one tine, then another and another and another until, three or four minutes after announcing I couldn't possibly eat this damned muck, I was wolfing it down.

Walk we did, as in Rome, seemingly all over the city, but really within quite a small area, for the centro storico of Florence is not big. Brunelleschi's Pazzi chapel, part of the church of Santa Croce, where Michaelangelo, Galileo, and Ghiberti are buried, and the ruined Cimabue crucifix hangs, is a beautiful and subtle feast for the eyes - its interior as empty and as beautiful as the grey skies above it. The chapel, it struck me as I shivered my way around it, does not have the grand scale some textbook photographs have implied. It also occurred to me that as a tourist one needs balmier days and more supportive shoes if one is to do the job properly.

The perfect pre-prandial to get used to the idea of getting out in the cold again. With the aperitivi.

A fellow guest. Probably not a local.

Photo of the Basilica di Santa Croce from here. All other photos by the Celt.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

If, by chance,

you had a map of Rome to hand, and if you had the inclination, you could see quite how far we walked that day, the wettest of Christmas Days: from our hotel atop of the Pincian Hill, by the Villa Borghese, to the peak of the Janiculum and down the other flank. Easily written, those few words - from the top on one hill to the top of another but, as I say, if you had a map ...

That morning, rather than take the Spanish Steps, we turned left and descended the hill along the Via Veneto, one of the main characters in La Dolce Vita, to the Piazza Barbarini with its Fountain of the Triton. There's a thrill to walking in a city that makes itself known in great baroque crescendos - and there are many such amid the slow marching bands of tourists like, and yet very unlike, yourselves - when passing by the small, closed-for-the-day shops selling pork, fowl, pasta, each with its wares neatly covered in sheets of white paper, a corner is turned and there, its pool rimmed by camera-wielding barbarian paparazzi, stands the diva of all fountains, the Trevi, reduced to being a mere backdrop to photographs of proudly smiling children, wives, husbands, boyfriends, et al. That there might be a place reserved in hell, it seems to me, for the inventor of the phone camera - not mine, you understand, just everyone else's - appealed at that moment to my sense of justice.

From there,  over the cobblestones, surely the most cruel surface for tired feet, via the monstrous Victor Emmanuel II monument, to the the Forum where, wielding umbrellas, we walked its sodden paths towards the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine and, eventually, rounding the Palatine Hill with the Circus Maximus to our left we headed off in search of Bramante's Tempietto. We passed the beautiful sixth-century church, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, with its simple twelfth-century Romanesque campanile bell tower and portico, reading too late that the crowds in the portico were there likely not for a service but for the Bocca della Verità in which, famously, Gregory Peck did not lose his hand whilst losing his head to Audrey Hepburn, yet with the Temple of Hercules, its neighbor the temple of Fortuna Virile and the remnant of the Theatre of Marcellus in view, it was hard to notice anything else - even the traffic swirling around the puddled lawn where they stood.

Across the Tiber, swift, swollen, and snuff-colored, to the tiny Isola Tiberina with its church and orphanage, then the Cestio Bridge, to Trastevere where we began what became a gruelingly wet climb towards the summit of the Janiculum hill.

Coffee in, coffee out is a phrase that always brings to mind the mother of an old friend who made the Celt and me as much part of her extended Jewish family as her own children - at least, because of her warmth and pleasure at seeing us, that's how it felt. Well, coffee in it was on a cold, dripping cafe terrace, and coffee out in the tiniest of toilets and the first where I noticed what became an Italian phenomenon, a toilet pot without a seat - not that one could have sat if one tried.

There are moments in Rome when the past, not intrusively, is as real as the day. Walking across the square towards the twelfth-century basilica, Santa Maria in Trastevere, we entered to find the nave flanked with spolia columns, and filled with tables at which sat much of the local community lunching, glumly it seemed to me, and listening to a much-applauded ancient priest, a cardinal I think, propped upright by a younger co-worker. An event as old as the church, perhaps, with deep roots in the community - no echo this of Saturnalia with its licensed overturning of social order but more a confirmation, Janus-like, that so it once was, so shall it be.

The facade of Santa Maria in Trastevere is covered with or, rather, built of spolia - irregular blocks of stone with fragmentary inscriptions - an absolute delight of Roman lettering which since I came home has led me to Nicolete Gray's A History of Lettering on my bookshelves.

Taking a short flight of steps we began the climb up the Janiculum Hill to find the Tempietto which, on reaching the plateau with its Baroque fountain-termination of an aqueduct built by the emperor Trajan, and the Garibaldi memorial, was not to be found and indeed was not mentioned by a single sign. We did find it, eventually, as we turned from the view of Rome beneath us - a column or two, part of the drum, just visible behind a narrow, locked iron-gated entrance to the courtyard of San Pietro in Montorio. We had to kneel to photograph the little temple and no bad thing, perhaps, on Christmas Day, to kneel at the place where St Peter was crucified. I wish that gate had been unlocked, but I had seen, however imperfectly, one of the two Roman buildings, each separated by fifteen hundred years and many a sodden kilometer, I'd looked forward to visiting.  

Back down the hill we went, past the Villa Farnesini and on over the Tiber, back through the Piazza Navone and the Via della Scrofa to the Spanish Steps, and up to the hotel and a long, hot soak, and a deep, chilled Manhattan.

That evening, Christmas night, we ate an excellent dinner, accompanied by a seagull on the window ledge near our table - an enormous bird watching all that went on in the restaurant and waiting to be fed under the barely-opened window - at the Hassler Villa Medici hotel. The view from the restaurant out over the city to the Basilica was magnificent, especially when viewed while eating the most surprising item on the menu, Christmas pudding!

Photograph of Santa Maria in Trastevere from here. Cannot think why we did not photograph it ourselves. All other photographs by the Celt! 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The ancient world, pink fur cuffs, rain and writing

Rose and I discussed it on Saturday over tea in the National Portrait Gallery's Portrait Restaurant, this sometime inability to write anything of satisfaction. The view, by the way, from the restaurant, out over Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall past Lutyens' Cenotaph, Horse Guards Parade, and Inigo Jones' Banqueting Hall where King Charles lost his head after Rubens painted the ceiling, to the clock tower, usually and quite wrongly called Big Ben, at the Palace of Westminster, is pretty grand but not dramatic enough to detract from the conversation-stopping tower of sandwiches, cakes, scones, creme brulee, clotted cream and jams, delivered to the table for the delectation of the Celt and the lady, our blind date, dressed in the finest of navy blue bracketed with pink fur cuffs. I nibbled a crumb or two whilst the three of us got to be very comfortable at the table in front of the window - I'd like to say a window streaming with the setting sun but actually is was just rain.

It seems the Celt and I cannot walk by St James's Park without it beginning to rain. There had been a New Year's Day parade that day in central London so our taxi driver, unable to take us near the National Portrait Gallery, dropped us at the end of Downing Street and we scurried in increasingly heavier rain, eventually squelching our way around the Thomas Lawrence exhibition - an agreeably sized presentation of brilliantly alive portraits of the Regency period.

Rain it did too, the day we arrived in Rome - a day earlier than planned because of Heathrow being snowed under, and the day we began the first of our walks around Rome - solidly and torrentially, so heavily in fact that Bernini's great Tuscan colonnade at St Peter's Basilica, sheltering many a dripping tourist, leaked like a sieve. The ellipse in front of the Basilica, centered with a Nativity ensemble at the foot of the obelisk and furred with rain held a long, huddled line of umbrellas shambling its way to the entrance at the foot of the steps, dwarfed both by the basilica and the downpour.

We turned around, umbrella aloft, leaving to another day the path across the piazza to join the queue, and walked back past the Castel Sant'Angelo, talking about the Corridor, that papal escape route to what had been Hadrian's mausoleum, as we crossed the Tiber between Bernini's angels – each holding a symbol of Christ's agony – on eventually to the Piazza Navone with its Christmas market, finally coming to the Broken Boat fountain where we took the Spanish Steps up to the Pincian Hill and our hotel.

So, this occasional inability to write is a merely a symptom, it seems, of the process of discovering, a finding of the one drop in the rain of ideas that could become a river - what one really wants to write about, but rarely that which brings one to the keyboard - in my case, at least.

Silenus and the baby Bacchus, a sculpture I saw on St Stephen's Day in the Vatican Museum, took my breath away - such an unexpected version of the parent and child, the grouping that predates the midwinter festival celebrating the birth of a child. That so much beauty remains from the ancient world took me by surprise and that definitely is a tale for another day - a rainy day, perhaps.