In Search of Ancient Buildings Abroad - Holiday 2016
For the last seventy years my family have been driving to Italy and back. My grandparents were the first to do it, in the summer of 1947, when Europe was in ruins. They spent three weeks visiting their son’s grave in Argenta, Italy. It took them one week to get there, they stayed one week and they took a week to drive back to England. There were no motorways, or motorway cafes. They took their own teapot, cups, saucers and an embroidered tray cloth. They stopped regularly to make tea on a camping gas stove sitting as shown below, by completely empty French roads.
They had their route mapped out for them by The British Royal Automobile Club since they had to pick their way across war-damaged France where makeshift chimneys were puffing smoke, the only sign that people were living under the rubble. It took them about five days to arrive where we can reach in two. They used Alpine passes while today we glide through tunnels
My grandparents having tea in France (1947) on the way to Italy
with their own radio channels. The car broke down going over Mont Cenis and had to be towed down into Italy.
Since then, we have all lost our way, enjoyed sublime Alpine views, scruffy and elegant towns, stayed in private houses and dismal hotels. We have navigated through chaotic cities, traffic coming at us from every side. We have been bored by seemingly never-ending miles of mid-east France, lacking the visual vitality of hedges, villages or church spires. We have paid a debt of remembrance to the dead of World War One in Flanders and Picardy. We have made the final ‘dash’ many times through the Pas de Calais to catch our ferry. We have arrived, dishevelled and unkempt, all our currency spent, longing for bacon and eggs and gazing out to an empty sea for the first sight of the White Cliffs of Dover. Now that family ritual has ended. I do not intend to drive to Italy again and no one in my family would dream of doing it. Here are some reasons:
Why did we ever do it? First, I like taking heavy books and Nordic walking poles. Second, I want to know where I am geographically. Third, distances, creating carbon emissions should be real in the mind. Two in a car produces the same carbon emissions as going by train. Fourth, I like knowing how far the Alps are from England and want to see undulating landscapes building up to majestic peaks. I like encountering regional foods, little sleepy towns, warm people with differing tastes. Grand Tour travel is part of the education offered by our deeply shared European culture. Land travel helps one to understand more deeply where and what we are, in Britain.
Insights into our relationship with Europe
I read a satisfying quotation on the ferry to France by Henry of Huntingdon (12th century historian) :
‘This, the most celebrated of islands, formerly called, Albion, later Britain and now England’.
Britain is the most celebrated of Europe’s islands, though there are others, like Sicily. In crossing the Channel one realises the romantic aspects of an island set, like an emerald ring in a silver sea with a woman’s white chalky face (Shakespeare’s insights). The English Channel does look silver but only in strong sunlight. Britain is ‘celebrated’ for its contribution to European and world culture, democracy and language, at least in the last 500 years. Globally, there is competition from other illustrious islands, such as Australia and Japan…
Yet is Europe’s major island, European at all? Does the narrow strip of water between Calais and Dover, cutting of an island facing into the Atlantic’s oceanic weather patterns mean that the British are just pretending to be Europeans? This was humorously suggested in a recent episode of BBC’s “Yes Minister”? Are we really Europe’s largest island - or is Western Europe Britain’s extended living space where the British go to seek the sun, Alpine snow and go to wonder at diverse architecture, mountains, tasty food, cheap wine, languages, history, and great beauty? One can never quite tell…..
The life of the Piedmontese nobility
Our stay in Val Pellice, Piedmont was in an AirBnB mansion in Luserna San Giovanni. In England, it would be run as a time capsule by a charity or The National Trust. It was built in 1861 as the elegant summer house of Garibaldi’s Chief of Staff, General, Enrico Morozzo Della Rocca who descended from a long line of Piemontese nobles.
His military career, which peaked from 1848 to 1866 supported the House of Savoy and Italian monarchs from Victor Emanuele 1 to Umberto I. Morozzo, along with a small elite group, was instrumental in The Unification of Italy. After 1866, the retired General was often in Rome at the new Senate, or supporting the education of the daughters of the military in Turin. He died in this house in 1897. His town house in Turin was 24, Corso Vittorio Emanuele which still exists - with its carriage entrance and six floors. We were told that Morozzo met Queen Victoria during Garibaldi’s visit to London in 1864.
His widow was Contessa Irene Varasis di Castiglione. She posed, aged 80, in the garden below our kitchen window for this photo on 11 October, 1911. The Morozzo family left the valley in the 20th century. The house was sold with its contents intact as a kind of museum of ‘fin de siecle’ living (1890s). There are law books dating from 1861 lying around. I noted a cupboard with a classy dinner service which, sadly, I did not use for my own buffet lunch party.
The Unification of Italy was driven by Piedmont’s Victor Emanuele II and by the masonic ambitions of Cavour and Garibaldi. Masonic ideas tend to centralise power and ‘Empire’ Britain supported them. Italian Unification was led by the elite of Savoy not by the native Piedmontese. Most Piedmontese never saw themselves as Italian, having had a long tradition of independence with their own with flag, medieval poetry, their own language, fine foods and wine resulting in a complex French and Savoyard culture. The new Italian state actively tried to stamp out their native language, telling parents not to teach it to their children.
Portrait on the wall
During the holiday, I was re-reading Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ with a more mature mind than that of the half-formed fourteen year old that I was when I first read it. I was struck by how Mr Darcy is not the romantic hero of popular imagination. He is a serious Christian of deep principles with a strong record of charitable deeds and churchgoing habits. ‘Pert’ and slightly arrogant Elizabeth Bennett has poor instincts and a satirical wit that is alien even to her wise, Christian sister, Jane. So did Mr Darcy make a serious error in loving and marrying Elizabeth? Some critics thought so when the book was published but Jane Austen loved Elizabeth (and probably had some similar traits herself).
Increasingly admiring Mr Darcy, I felt this oil portrait, on the wall in the mansion was a kind of ‘Mr Darcy’ - happy married and smiling. The mansion’s owners informed that he was an unidentified member of the Morozzo (or Castiglione) families. Was he one of the sons of the Count and Contessa? Costume experts could date his collar and bushy sideboards.
This house with its impressive wooden staircase, billiard tables, saloon and polished floors was a slice of Italian history beautifully preserved. Tranquil, with musical fountains playing, three bright budgerigars sang sweetly all day in a spacious cage under our kitchen window. Ancient trees bought in Paris in the 19th century were still growing. I thought “So this is how 19th century Piedmontese aristocrats lived”. I felt almost too comfortable living a ‘fin de siecle life.
We made an excursion to Cuneo, a grand town, where my husband comes from. While seeing the elegant Town Hall, we were invited into a private chamber (La Sala della Giunta Comunale) to see its romantic wall paintings, including one of Monviso, the triangular mountain of Piedmont.
We watched 24 hour wall-to-wall coverage of the tragic earthquake in Amatrice in central Italy at the same time as being totally ‘knocked out’ by the heat. The earthquake stopped clocks, broke lives and disrupted communities, reducing ancient and modern houses to piles of dust in an instant. We all mourned for the dead and dying. Italians are fatalistic about seismic risk. They presume that Vesuvius will erupt, kill thousands and even destroy the whole of Naples but not (they hope) during their own lifetime. Sicilians happily live on the side of Etna which, surprisingly, has only killed seventeen people in its recorded history. However, many Italians react like anyone else when it happens and ask God “Why?” A case could be made for no one to live in Italy at all (but I am not going to make it). One should avoid, if one can, living in the high risk ‘hot spots’ down the spine of Italy. Another strong case should be made for earthquake-proof buildings.
I’ve myself have experienced a strong under-sea earthquake in The Bay of Naples. Noise was its major feature which sounded like “Boo-Boom” accompanied by a shock wave just like big boots kicking down the door. Here is the explanation for the noise of earthquakes. Here is a recording of the noise of a strong earthquake (Warning - it is quite disturbing so keep the volume low!)
During the aftermath of this unfolding tragedy, I noticed on TV Nicola Zingaretti, governor of Lazio, brother of actor Luca Zingaretti, the TV detective Salvo Montalbano. That night we watched the film “All the Women in my Life” (2007) in which Luca Zingaretti plays a leading chef, working in Turin. The chef ends up opening a gourmet restaurant on the rumbling volcanic island of Stromboli creating his own ‘secure’ heaven on his home lava. This gives an insight into the Italian attitude to seismic risk. Val Pellice itself is in a low or low to medium risk seismic zone. It suffered a small deep earthquake this summer which caused no damage. There has been no serious damage in the area since the 1830s. A risk in some areas is landslides. Sadly, a woman and child were killed by a serious one three years ago.
Buildings in Val Pellice
I have been asking myself increasingly “Are buildings more interesting than people?”. They last longer and speak to future generations. There are some interesting buildings in Val Pellice. We were invited to join a party in a bumpy van climbing an unmade up road, six kilometres up to a mountain. We finally arrived at the family’s hidden mountain house, used for grazing. We ate lunch under its vine and drank Barbera, looking at a stunning view of Val Pellice (at the top). This mountain house escaped being ‘torched’ by the Nazis during World War Two like so many rustic Waldensian dwellings suspected of sheltering partisans. Resistance to Mussolini started in the Waldensian Valleys and there was much resistance activity in the area. In the case of this house, the owner was away when the Nazis came and as no partisans were found it survived. On the wall, was a photo of the Waldensian/Vaudois great grandfather of our host. He was sadly shot and died during World War One while he was reading the BIble sitting under a tree. He left a young family here, with no road up from Val Pellice. The house is a kind of shrine to him and his resilient descendants, a tribute to the ancient way of life of pious and tough Vaudois/Waldensians. How on earth did they survive the cold winters up there?
We also viewed an ancient Waldensian mill dating from about 1540 which had housed the local community bread oven and had eight small boxlike rooms. House prices are low compared with England but one must choose well. The high level of estate agents’ fees in Italy is off-putting as the buyer has to cover all the vendor’s costs. These fees alone come to about 15% of the total bill. It is best to find a property through private channels if one can and not live above 1000 metres, due to snow and and ice in winter.
Stress and melissa (lemon balm)
In the first week I was subject to a massive de-stress, a sudden drop of adrenaline levels, possibly due to moving house twice this year.
All of us are constantly online mentally processing too much information - equivalent to reading about 200 newspapers a day. Plunging stress levels can be very unpleasant and commonly give executives migraines for the first week of their short annual getaway. Our friend, an expert in herbs, gave me ‘mellisa’ which is lemon balm, its leaves steeped in boiling water. It worked fast and I brought a plant home. It tastes a bit like mint - very refreshing.
As a result, I was able to hold a conversation over several Piemontese dinner courses of polenta and sausages, red peppers with garlic and anchovies, risotto and slices of meat in gravy. Naturally, current topics included Brexit. I explained a bit about Brexit and its damaging aftermath on relationships. On the Continent, it is being keenly noted that the British economy had not collapsed yet, as predicted. I mentioned that that 98% of Bishops of the Church of England came out for Remaining in the EU while the Church of England congregations were very strongly in favour of Brexit. A political ‘disconnnect’ between church leaders and church members is widespread.
I was reminded that The Italian Senate, seen by defenders as a key democratic check on elite power may be abolished by a forthcoming Italian referendum. The recent post Brexit summit of Renzi, Hollande and Merkel on the Italian warship ‘Garibaldi’ was apparently closely connected to two communists imprisoned on a small island off Naples (Ernesto Rossi and Altiero Spinelli) revered by the EU’s elite. They wrote in 1941 a work called ‘The Ventotene Manifesto’ which views democracy as ‘too weak’ - a kind of obstacle to the ‘revolution’ of creating a new Europe without sovereign states. During its formation, democracy as we know it is a dead weight. Anti-EU feeling is certainly not confined to the UK.
A ‘Sentieri Antichi Valdesi’ (Old Waldensian Paths) worship service was held in a former school in Villar Pellice and a few people drove from Liguria and Turin to attend.
We left the tranquility of Val Pellice valley with heavy hearts. I was astonished to learn that while we were there, there were two suicides. Like anywhere, there is quite a lot of loneliness and mental illness - even in such beautiful places. We also heard that a wolf has been spotted in a village square at night - rather distressing for some locals.
We headed for Switzerland, through the Mont Blanc Tunnel, after which I took this wing mirror shot of Mont Blanc, looming behind us. One can take mobile shots from a speeding car without negative visual effects, it seems.
Geneva - Reformation Wall, Cathedral and Reformation Museum
One of Europe’s greatest memorials is in Geneva : The Reformation Wall Monument which features great men of the Reformation Calvin, Beza, Knox, Mayflower leader Roger Williams, Frederick of Brandenburg and Oliver Cromwell looking as if he is contemplating a dip in buskins (thigh boots).
The British owe their democracy to Cromwell’s reformed (Presbyterian) religion. Sadly, his body has no burial place since it was desecrated in 1660, at the Restoration. His skull, alone resides in a Cambridge College. The English text carved on the wall next to Cromwell is relevant to all defenders of democracy. It reads:
“The Lords Spiritual and Temporal (The House of Lords) and Commons (House of Commons) being now assembled in a full and free representative of this nation do, for the vindicating and asserting their ancient rights and liberties, declare that the pretended power of suspending of laws by regal authority without consent of Parliament is illegal...that election of members of Parliament ought to be free (The Bill of Rights). English Bill of Right 1689
This text is taken from a Bill that Parliament presented to William of Orange, King of Holland, King of Great Britain after King William was chosen to champion British Protestantism. He replaced Catholic James II at ‘The Glorious Revolution’. James escaped in disguise from Whitehall Palace, London without his crown, to die in France. William of Orange (and Great Britain) in the same year funded The Glorious Return of the Waldensians to reclaim their own valleys after a 14 day march, from Geneva. This was another public proclamation of inalienable “ancient rights and liberties”. We also saw the Geneva’s Cathedral Church where Calvin preached the Reformation to many religious refugees. Inside, it is plain, but externally it is highly coloured.
The new Reformation Museum in Geneva is slightly ‘dry’ even though it holds some of Calvin’s own letters and books such as The Geneva Bible (which Shakespeare used). It fails to feature The Genevan Psalter or recordings of its wonderful music - a fact that which we noted in the visitor book. The English refugees who wrote the Geneva Bible worshipped in the English Church in Geneva and carried the Calvinist Reformation back to England. What happened in Geneva is behind The British Civil War, political freedom, Non-Conformism and the founding of America....
My husband always looks happy with flags so I took this shot of him in Old Geneva, now devoted not to religion, but to profits from the sale of art. I was rather pleased with this ‘postcard shot’ (below) of Lake Leman. I managed to line up the paddle steamer ‘Savoie’, a swan and the waterspout - though I had no desire to glorify the Swiss flag.
Meaty French Food
In Haute Savoie, France, south of Geneva, once like Piedmont, in The Kingdom of Savoy, we had a menu on which there was nothing but horse, veal’s brains, snails, duck and frogs legs. To stave off hunger, I was forced to eat duck which I had vowed never to do. The taste was wonderful but I much prefer Piemontese food. I find it less traumatic….
Leaving the chaotic traffic system of Geneva, we were sent off course by our sat nav (which had not been updated) and lost our way in France. We ending up in Reims, forfeiting our cheap AirBnB accommodation and having to stay in a hotel. One must update a sat nav regularly or, better still, use ‘Googlemaps’ on one’s mobile, on a stand in the car (which takes into account current traffic conditions).
We saw awesome Reims Cathedral dating from the 13th century where the French kings were crowned. It is a mysterious building with magnificent rose windows The famous facade is being cleaned and its medieval Smiling Angel is now totally white and seraphic. I loved these three blue stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. The building well worth a detour and a mishap. And so home via an AirBnB annex, in a lovely farmhouse in Flanders.
Myself, finally feeling relaxed at Pra del Torno, Piedmont