Monthly Archives: July 2013

Italy: The Medieval Metropolis of San Gimignano

Perhaps I have the haunting look of a pilgrim. Footsore and parched, I have just walked the three kilometre semi-circle around the double walls of San Gimignano. After skidding down a rocky path, I dust myself off next to the stone-arched vaults of the 9th century wool-washers’ baths.

where the wool washers worked

where the wool washers worked

A Spanish hiking party is picnicking along its damp, stone edges. As an offering to a fellow traveller who is pulsating in the midday Tuscan sun, they present me with a glistening wedge of watermelon.

the generous hikers

the generous hikers

I savour its sweetness in the shade next to a stone villa that tumbles into the Chianti countryside. Its backyard is an artwork of fig trees, grape vines and tomato bushes splashed with zucchini flowers. A clothesline is strung between two olive trees. Its bounty of blue and white underpants catches the breeze like bunting.

the best of the breeze

the best of the breeze

San Gimignano, in the ever-popular region of Tuscany, is often described as the Town of a Thousand Towers, even though it only ever had 72. Up until the 14th century, tower building kept warring families busy as they tried to outdo each other – Shakespeare got it right with the Capulets and the Montagues. Then came the Black Death in 1384. The towers fell into disrepair and three-quarters of the townsfolk died. The town’s economy, made wealthy on the saffron that grew on its hillsides, soon collapsed. Nearby Florence rerouted the pilgrims who were making their way to Siena and then Rome along the Via Francigena. San Gimignano became a ghost town. Now, it’s 21st century pilgrims who are the wayfarers.

honey-stoned high rises

honey-stoned high rises

Tuscany is touristy and San Gimignano is part of the hype – Franco Zeffirelli filmed Tea for Mussolini here. It is a romantic hill town filled with ceramics shops and if I could have wheeled and sailed one of its sunflower table tops home, I would have.

lead me not into temptation

lead me not into temptation

Taxidermied wild boars greet you at several shop entrances. Lethally-tusked and motley-bristled, their shiny, piggy eyes invite you to buy a net of wild boar salami, a couple of trotters or a hairy flank. Further into these Aladdin’s caves there are batons of crusty bread, tempting wedges of pecorino, local honey to drizzle over it and bottles of locally produced Vernaccia. All the ingredients needed for a picnic on the hillside.

one-stop shop

one-stop shop

There are must-see churches, palaces, museums, art galleries and a medieval hospital, but it’s the stumble-upon treasures that give that richer dimension to any town. I veer off the main drag and find a clutch of tourist-less shops. A door is framed by photos of the Tuscan countryside and I’m drawn inside. The owner is sitting at his desk and behind him are award-winning shots that I’ve seen in spreads in National Geographic. It’s Claudio Calvani – winner of over 250 awards. He kindly shows me his work. I ask if he uses filters. ‘Only with three,’ he confesses, ‘the rest are a gift of the Tuscan sun.’

Maestro Calvani with his work

Maestro Calvani with his work

The heat of the day calls for gelato and I head back to the main piazza. Gelateria di Piazza has a queue four-deep behind its glistening, pastel mounds. It’s won the Gelato World Championship four years in a row. The walls are lined with testimonials from actors, artists and politicians. My favourite is a 1993 photograph signed by Russian novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

it's worth the wait

it’s worth the wait

As the medieval towers cast criss-crosses over the piazza I find a cool spot overlooking the watercolour hills and combed vineyards of Tuscany. With my waffle cone of fig and passionfruit delight melting, I imagine pilgrims sitting here in the shade and eating gelato.

 

 

 

Book Review : Dandelion

dandelionDandelion by Galvin Scott Davis, illustrated by Anthony Ishinjerro
(Random House Australia)
HB RRP $19.95
ISBN 9780857981028

Also available as an ebook
ISBN 9780857981035

Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

This picture book for primary aged children tells the story of Benjamin Brewster, a young boy in the first years of school. Instead of school being a safe haven of joy and wonder, it’s become a prison, as Benjamin is bullied by older children.

Capturing the sadness and the powerlessness of being bullied, illustrator Anthony Ishinjerro has used the persona of a faceless child (other bullied children might see themselves here) wrapped in a sepia world. It is filled with shadows and the reader looks through a kind of lens at Benjamin’s alienated childhood.

‘Each morning he would count the nine hundred and seventy-two steps that it took him to reach his school.’

But it was hopeless. All Benjamin saw were hovering, ominous figures, barred gates and pointing fingers, so he skips school and hides beneath the shelter of a tree. As he sits and worries and thinks, a field of dandelions sprouts around him. As all children do, Benjamin picks one and makes a wish as he blows the feathery seeds that parachute into the wind.

The dandelion seeds are a metaphor for the bullies (and perhaps his worries) as he blows them away.

The reality is that the bullies are still there. Benjamin calls on the namesake of the flower as dandelion means lion’s tooth, and he begins to let his roaring voice be heard. This, along with imagining the bullies being blown away, helps Benjamin to cope. He finds that if he uses his imagination, he begins to have control over the situation.

On the last page, Benjamin lifts his head to the light; his face is aglow as he looks into the future. Told mostly in rhyme, this poignant story will give many parents and teachers the opportunity to discuss bullying with their children. School Education Minister Peter Garrett said in November last year, ‘One in five students has experienced some form of cyber bullying. This means every family either has a child, or knows one, who is being bullied at school.’

As author Galvin Scott Davis says in his epilogue, he created a story ‘that could transport children and adults to a world where creativity is embraced to solve problems.’

Japan: Irises, Kimonos and Cloud-Pruned Plum Pines

In my last blog on Japan I wrote about the enchanting Sacred Forest of Kashima Jingu, in the water-district a short distance from Tokyo and Narita airport.

Another town in this area is Itako, on the Maekawa River. For hundreds of years Itako has changed its appearance depending on the season. The cooler months become the spectacle of blossoming cherry trees, cosmos, chrysanthemums and maples, but during summer, the iris holds centre stage.

sky art in Itako

sky art in Itako

Beside the Mae River, the Ayame Matsuri, the Iris Festival, is in full bloom. From May to late June, over a million Monet-hued irises brocade the stone-walled river. Wooden bridges arching over mauve fields become viewing platforms for visitors, and cycleways for the local women going about  their daily lives.

Monet-style bridges arch the iris fields

Monet-style bridges arch the iris fields

As the breeze picks up, the irises dance. And a summer tradition that dates back to the 1600s, unfolds. A bride processes along the wooden path through the gardens. She is dressed in a white wedding kimono. Her black lacquered hair is woven through her white tsunokakushi, the silk headdress designed to hide (at least for her wedding day) her horns of jealousy. Traditional music is piped through hidden speakers as her parents escort her to the river where they board a sappa-bune, a bamboo-leaf shaped boat laden with roped casks of sake for her husband-to-be.

 

the bridal party aboard the sappa-bune

the bridal party aboard the sappa-bune

As the boat glides downstream to the wedding ceremony, hundreds of women in iris-inspired kimonos dance in formation through the gardens. Their hand movements mirror the essence of Itako: its water, irises and the mountains of Fuji and Tsukuba.

iris dancers weave through the fields

iris dancers weave through the fields

With thousands of visitors there are vast stalls selling fast-food Itako style. Children from neighbouring schools join in the celebrations.

excited cherubs wait for their teacher

excited cherubs wait for their teacher

I take my own sappa-bune ride on the 12-bidge tour. Megumi, our cheery boat woman propels us through the water.

Megumi and friend

Megumi and friend

We all wear sedge leaf hats and hear stories of the river. We glide past pagoda-style houses and ancient stone monuments used as trade route guides when Itako was on the old trade root from Edo (ancient Tokyo). Peering into backyards abutting the river we see stands of camellias, willows, persimmon trees and the exotic cloud-pruned plum trees.

trees of dreams

trees of dreams

At the end of the iris gardens I follow a path to the Choshoji temple. Tani Genmyo, the Shinto priest in residence tells me that the path has prepared me for prayer, ‘like the prologue of a play.’ Shaded by ancient ginkgoes this 12th century temple was constructed by Minamoto Yoritomo, the warrior who became the first Shogun of Japan and who set in motion the rise and domination of the samurai that would last until the mid 19th century.

master of solace

Tani Genmyo, master of solace

 

 

Book Review : Seadog

seadogSeadog by Claire Saxby, illustrated by Tom Jellett
(Random House Australia)
HB RRP $19.95

ISBN 9781742756509
Also available as an ebook

Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

Fabulous and fun! I loved this picture book from the moment I saw Tom Jellett’s cheeky cover. There are many rascally dogs in children’s literature such as Harry the Dirty Dog and Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy, and Seadog has just as much charisma.

Just like we are all different, so too are dogs. Who wouldn’t love a sea dog? Who couldn’t love a sea dog? Seadog is not a work dog or a fetch dog or a trick dog or a clean dog, he’s a ‘find-and-roll-in-the-fish dog’. He’s a rapscallion and his day at the beach is described in lots of hyphenated phrases, until he is a ‘Pee-ee-euw, Seadog’. After the day is done when he’s all stinky with fish he becomes a ‘sit-still-till-it’s-done dog’ and succumbs to a bath.

With Saxby’s clever use of alliteration and assonance, children and adults will have fun twisting their tongues around the rhythm and rhyme as they go on Seadog’s adventures at the beach.

Tom Jellett has captured the enthusiasm and joy of such a scruffy, lovable dog. The endpapers give the book even more sea-appeal with a patchwork of international maritime signal flags. There are lots of close-up pictures of Seadog that make you feel as if you could give him a pat and hold your nose as you smell his fishy fur.

Claire Saxby is prolific in her writing and admits to being inspired by her own children, memories of childhood and by the children around her. It helps that she has a dog that often pretends to be a cat.

Tom Jellett is not only a bestselling illustrator of books for children; he also has been an editorial illustrator for umpteen print publications.

This is one picture book for 3 and up that will become dog-eared from love.

Japan: Samurais, Shrines and Sacred Forests

As much as I love the bustle of mega cities, like Tokyo, there’s something cathartic about delving into the opposite phenomena. A couple of hours north of Tokyo, and only an hour from Narita International Airpot, where you fly in, take the time to chill out in the Sacred Forest of Kashima Jingu.

There are English-speaking guides at the entrance who will give you a deep understanding of what this 70 hectares of ancient cedar, cypress and cherry trees is about, considering the Shinto shrines scattered throughout were built in 660 BC.

Welcome to Kashima Jingu

Welcome to Kashima Jingu

Firstly, we cleanse ourselves at the small pavilion called the temizuya where we scoop water into our left palms, rinse our mouths and wash our left palms again. Now we are ready to walk beneath the imposing vermillion Romon where my guide enthuses that I ‘feel the air change and sense the spiritual energy.’

Purifying ourselves

Purifying ourselves

As I walk along the winding gravel paths, fringed by ferns and moss-knuckled tree roots I look for the kami – the spirits – believed to inhabit the branches above me.

It’s a day of celebration at Kashima Jingua and there are families everywhere, dressed in exquisite kimonos. Children who are 3, 5 and 7 are being blessed to gain protection from the deities. The god of martial arts is the one enshrined here. His name is Takemikazuchi and his origins go back to the beginnings of sumo wrestling. Centuries ago, the samurais worshipped here to gain their energies from the sun goddess who appeared at dawn.

After the blessing

After the blessing

As well as a deer park, where the resident deers are said to be descendants of the ancient divine messengers, there are ponds and scatterings of haiku scribed on posts – as I found out the Father of Haiku, Matsuo Basho, came here to write almost 500 years ago. There’s a great little cafe where you can lunch on tempura seafood and vegetables along with freshly made soba noodles – and you can watch their making from scratch by Master Chef Mr Sasaki in his glass-walled kitchen.

One amazing place not to miss is the museum at the entrance of the Sacred Forest. It’s an opportunity to get up close and personal to samurai armour over 1000 years old. The armour is made of lacquered wood and leather and their saddles are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. There are helmets with full facial hair and shoes made of fur and feathers. Try and lift the replica 3-metre straight sword, the original is on display and was crafted in the 5th century. You appreciate how strong the samurais were to lift such hefty and unwieldy weapons.

Samurai armour not as big as you'd think

Samurai armour not as big as you’d think

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review : Australia’s Greatest Inventions and Innovations

Australia’s Greatest Inventions and Innovations by Christopher Cheng and Linsay Knight in association with the Powerhouse Museum (Random House Australia)
PB RRP $24.95

ISBN 9781742755649

Reviewed by Marian McGuinness

What a fascinating book. Not everyone is into reading fiction and this latest compendium of inventions that explains and celebrates Aussie creativity has three things going for it. It is sumptuous to look at, simple to read and seriously interesting to learn from.

Australia’s Greatest Inventions and Innovations is a handsome book, generous in size at almost A4 proportions, with each page clearly numbered and glossy to handle. Its layout is fresh with appealing print and visuals and enough white space so that you don’t feel weighed down by slabs of words.

Its catchy cover sparkles in colour and font and cries out to be opened. Sure, you can Google Aussie inventions (if you knew what Aussies had invented apart from Vegemite), but this book is tactile, fun and not intimidating even though it is filled with information.

Simple to read is another plus. With its conversational tone, it’s as if someone is spinning a yarn about each invention. There are nine themes reflecting innovations in science, industry and design. Each theme is colour-coded, such as green for communication, red for leisure and blue for health. Each invention begins with a problem conceived by the inventor, such as ‘How to convert chook poo into a useful fertiliser…’ We’ve all smelt the eye-watering odour around the neighbourhood and here we learn that chook farmer, Norman Jennings took years to work out how to turn the sludge into Dynamic Lifter that is now sold world wide. We get a short bio of the inventor and then find out the nitty-gritty of the process he had to go through. A keyword for each topic is helpful, as is the glossary at the back.

Seriously interesting is my last criteria. Over 45 inventions or innovations are explained that can be dipped in and out of. How would you find clues at a crime scene that are hidden to the naked eye like invisible fingerprints? Check out the Polilight on page 172. What about Spray on Skin or the Supreme Mousetrap Machine? Heard of the Black Box Flight Recorder? Read their stories and more.

This book would suit anyone from upper primary through to teens and adults. It is a result of the collaboration of great minds with accomplished children’s author Christopher Cheng and author and editor Linsay Knight together with the storehouse of all things innovative, the Powerhouse Museum.

Just think. You might be a future inventor. That light bulb moment could happen when you least expect it. What a great idea. Let’s patent it!