Brighton Rocks

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'I heart Brighton' (Photo M. Germana)

It’s hard not to enjoy a trip to Brighton. In fact,  you would need to be in a terrible mood not to fall in love with the place, whether you are returning or visiting for the first time.

This time it was for work. A conference with a Gothic theme took me back to one of the least Gothic cities in England. The main mood of Gothic is, of course, dark, and most of us will not see darkness in Brighton. Instead, we are blinded by the cornucopia of colourful tack, the kitsch-chic of the pier, the fairy-wings (as soon as we arrived, we spotted a fully-formed elf entering an off-licence). Burning softly in our nostrils, the iodine makes us high, enhancing our sense, and, making us ravenous. We had the best fish and chips in a long, long time, at the wonderful Bardsley’s on Baker Street, which stayed open beyond closing time to feed our starving mouths. We left with little paper bags of jelly babies, too, a reward for managing to clean our plates!

'sweet decay' (Photo M. Germana)

Like many coastal resorts, Brighton dresses up like a beautiful tart. Trashy, cool, and OTT at the same time. The saturated hues of artificial colourings may cause tooth decay just by walking past any of the shops along the sea front. The Pavilion – built to accommodate George IV’s sensuous aesthetics and general pleasure-seeking attitude to life – might look out of place anywhere else in Britain. But not in Brighton. The king’s excessive tastes, the exotic chinoiserie and oriental exoticism captured by the royal palace in the heart of Brighton, suit the city. The impossible is possible. With the exclusion of Blackpool, where I have yet to pay a visit, Brighton is as close as one can get to the grown-up theme park that Las Vegas is in America.

Brighton is not about darkness. It is a kaleidoscope with a full colour spectrum. Brighton is all about light. The cute fairy lights hanging in small cafes in the Lanes; the boudoir lights of a hotel room; the yellow lights of the Victorian pier; the understated fittings of posher restaurants. Above all, the light reflected on the sea. On an overcast morning it will meet the steel-grey water like a ghost, breaking through the thick blanket of purple clouds to force its way into the sea.

'Tricks of the Light' (Photo M. Germana)

That’s the Gothic in Brighton, then. I wonder whether one could write a Gothic story set in Brighton. What kind of story would that be? A ghost story? Perhaps. What ghosts may haunt the place that’s never dark?

Can we imagine a poltergeist causing havoc in any of the seafront galleries? Zombies ravaging small sweetie shops?

I think of something different. A story about getting lost in the cobbled labyrinth of Brighton’s alleyways. Being stuck on a merry-go-round that never stops spinning. Trapped inside the underground tunnels that run beneath the pebbly beach. Or better still. I saw a man looking for hidden treasures with a metal detector on the beach. The intensified beeping signals a discovery. The man’s cheeks flush with excitement, as he frantically digs through the stoney layers, looking for the sparkle of precious metal. There it is. A wedding band, at last. A tiny diamond, too. A lucky strike, at last. This little treasure will attract a few quid in the lanes. A little more digging. The man frowns. The ring is wrapped around a woman’s finger.

A brief detour to Sicily, via the Southbank

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Sicily on the Southbank (Photo M. Germana)

Sicily is where I’m from and frequently go back to.

Not as often as I would like to, unfortunately. Which is why, on my way to the Lord Mayor’s Fireworks display on Saturday night, I was delighted to stumble across this stunning exhibition of images from my homeland.

The exhibition, organised by the Regione Sicilia and curated by Genius Loci (Sandro Battistessa), will be accessible on the riverside walkway between the National Theatre and the Oxo Tower until 20 November: don’t miss it, even if you’re not planning to visit Sicily anytime soon.

You will be booking your flights on your I-Phone on your way to the theatre!

Walter Leonardi’s 46 shots will remind those of you who have visited Sicily of its ancient heritage: Siracusa, my hometown, was founded around 734 BC!

More than anything else, the images showcase the diversity of Sicilian landscape, frequently associated with the blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea, but rarely thought of as a highly active geological area, domineered, in the eastern part of the island, by Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe.

Walter Leonardi, 'Etna' (Photo M. Germana)

The photographs also evoke lesser known aspects of Sicilian culture, beyond the cliches that we are all too familiar with. It’s a poetic, if perhaps a little nostalgic, reading of Sicily, but authentically drawing from some of its ancient traditions, from the saline (salt plants) to fishing and agriculture. That Sicilian economy and culture is still strongly attached to old-fashioned traditions is, perhaps, detrimental to its inclusion in the markets led by global interests. But it is precisely that raw simplicity, adjacent to some of the most exquisite architectural heritage that makes Sicily unique.

So, don’t waste any time, fly to Sicily… on your oyster card!

Arance di Sicilia by the Thames (Photo M. Germana)

The Italian Journey (1861-2011)

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No, I’m not going to write about Wolfgang Goethe’s travel writing, though I feel like I should read his account at some point!

I want to talk about my own journey back to Italy, and Turin, in particular, the year in which my country celebrates 150 years of unification. I’m sure the irony is not lost on many – within and beyond the national boundaries of the Italian republic – given our politics seem to indicate anything but a coherent sense of shared interests and common values. But leaving scepticism aside, I did travel back to catch the last of the year-long celebrations, many of which, of course, took place in Turin, the first capital of the Kingdom of Italy, and the site of our first parliament, which can still be admired, in its quaint smallness, at the Museo del Risorgimento at Palazzo Carignano.

The first parliament

Turin’s royal past is visible in the topography of the city, run by large boulevards, flanked by the elegant buildings once home to the Italian aristocracy. One of the most enchanting places you could visit, however, is just outside the city: Venaria. Ironically, the palace entrance is on Piazza della Repubblica, a tongue-in-cheek reminder that Italy rejected monarchy by a popular referendum on 2 June 1946, incidentally the first time Italian women were allowed to vote! This magnificent residence was used by the Savoy family as a hunting retreat up until the Napoleonic wars, when the site turned into barracks. The army did not leave until 1978. The complex, whose structure is reminiscent of the late Baroque grandeur of Versailles, is still being restored today. With hardly any furniture around, I was able to appreciate the sheer proportions of the place, its ambitious scale becoming most apparent in the ivory-coloured Galleria Grande.

Venaria, Galleria Grande (Photo M. Germana)

To celebrate the Italy’s anniversary, some of the rooms of the otherwise unfurnished palace accommodate a display dedicated to one of the most significant aspects of the country’s lifestyle, culture and (stalled) economy: fashion. One hundred and fifty years of Italian fashion, 16 decades of dresses, suits, and military uniforms, including the white corseted number worn by Claudia Cardinale in Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963), the film adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel, which poignantly encapsulates the Sicilian aristocracy’s resistance to social change at the time of the unification in 1861. I felt more than a little pride as I walked around the exhibits, pleased to see so much variety in the design history of Italian fashion, which ranged from Ferragamo stilettos worn by Marilyn Monroe, to the design of the first modern tracksuit, by Thayaht (Ernesto Michaelles), whose hybrid Italian identity was made of British, American, German and Swiss blood, and whose TuTa (Italian for tracksuit) becomes one the symbols of modern design celebrated by Futurism.

Thayaht, 'How to Cut the TUTA' (Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto

Speaking of ‘made in Italy’, Turin is also famous for some of the country’s best chocolatiers and confectioners, such as Leone, whose factory outlet you can visit, and, believe it or not, sample any of their products free of charge! I couldn’t resist buying the special anniversary edition of their old-fashioned mints, complete with a picture of Italy in three colours of our national flag, of course. But what makes Turin really interesting to visit is that while one half of the city’s history is made of its aristocratic heritage and discreet elegance, the other, more recent past of the city is dominated by the powerful legacy of the Agnelli family, whose family business, FIAT, is, simultaneously, deeply rooted in Turin’s 20th-century history and Italy’s (problematically) traditional approach to business management.

Fiat 3,5hp (1899)

The car industry heritage is beautifully showcased by the newly refurbished Museo dell’Automobile, which offers you the chance to revisit – and fall in love, unexpectedly! – with the history of car design. I’m not into engines and I have never owned  a car, but there was something utterly compelling in the thematic journey the galleries traced, pointing to the combination of captivating designs and modern technology that underpins car design from the the end of the 19th century to the new Millennium.

Back at Stansted, and having patiently waited for my turn at passport control, I’m (nicely) told off by the Border Control officer for using  instead of the machine-readable European passport,my Italian ID card, which is apparently to blame for the inefficiency of passport control at the airport. I want to complain that queues are getting longer and slower because the UK is getting scarily protective of its borders, but I’m also embarrassed to admit that I’m strangely attached to this easily-forgeable piece of Italian bureaucracy. The officer has spoken to me in Italian; this is unprecedented, and makes me feel happier about returning to the UK.

I’m home. I switch the kettle on. The quickest way to make pasta, I’ve learnt.

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