Travel

Australia: Nutcote – gumnut babies, banksia men & the prodigious May Gibbs

gumnut babies galore

gumnut babies galore

As a child, I spent many hours with my friends having adventures in the bush behind our houses in Sydney’s north. I was fascinated by the perfectly formed gumnuts that were scattered amongst the leaf litter. Little wonder May Gibbs found them fascinating too. They were perfect for tiny fingers to collect and perfect for the fingers of an illustrator and writer who would, in the early part of the 20th century, create the fantasy lands of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, and Bib and Bub.

a familiar collection for so many

a familiar collection for so many

My Day with May began with a group of like-minded writers, illustrators, librarians and teachers, from the Children’s Book Council (CBCA). We met in the gift shop that was once the garage of May’s home, Nutcote, on Neutral Bay’s foreshore, overlooking the magnificence of Sydney Harbour.

May's home from 1925 until her death in 1969 - designed by architect BJ Waterhouse

May’s home from 1925 until her death in 1969 – designed by architect BJ Waterhouse

CBCA Nutcoters

CBCA Nutcoters

May was born in England in 1877, and when she was four, she sailed with her family to Australia. May grew up in Perth where she attended Amy Best’s School for Young Ladies. It was here that she came under the spell of our magical landscape and bush. Her first illustration was published when she was 12 and May went on to become Australia’s first resident professional woman cartoonist and caricaturist. She also promoted the cause of Women’s Suffrage through feminist cartoons. When May was drawing her Bib and Bub comic strips (drawing one strip a week for over 40 years) she was paid 5 guineas a strip while Jimmy Bancks was getting 40 pounds for Ginger Meggs!

banksia trees; the larger one on the right is 150 years old

banksia trees in May’s garden; the larger one on the right is 150 years old

Who wasn’t terrified of the villainous Big Bad Banksia Men! I know I was every time I brushed by one of the whiskery bushes jiggling their prickly, shaggy banksias with their poddy, slitty eyes that appeared to follow you. May Gibbs had a brilliant mind and a wild imagination. She hooked the kids into her stories and made them squirm and delight, all at the same time.

such a bad, bad banksia man!

such a bad, bad banksia man!

May’s house is an exploration of enchantment. Each room was designed to capture the harbour view and her studio at the rear of the house is light-filled and filled with her loves: her original travelling easel, typewriter, portraits of her parents and of course the tools of an artist.

There are other artefacts such as the original ice chest (the ice was shipped from Canada), and in the tiny kitchen – the Early Kooka, Mrs Beeton’s Cookery Book and boxes of Reckitts Instant Starch and Velvet Soap. May was one of our earliest entrepreneurs – she designed tea towels, spoons, slippers, calendars, vases and even fabrics that were sold in London – all featuring her Australian flora and fauna designs. Several of these items are displayed in a glass cabinet. May was a lover of picnics and went on many adventures with her husband. Her beloved Scottie dogs travelled with them in a wicker basket attached to the side of her Dodge.

Next year we celebrate the centenary of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. If you get the chance, take a visit to iconic Nutcote @ 5 Wallaringa Ave, Neutral Bay (Sydney) and walk in the steps of the gifted and amazingly diverse illustrator, artist and children’s book author – Celia May Gibbs.

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Australia: art through the eyes of children

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an artful gallery

The members of the Northern Sydney sub-branch of the Children’s Book Council (CBCA) were in for a treat when they gathered on Saturday morning (19h March) in the imposing foyer of the Art Gallery of NSW.

Approaching its glowing sandstone exterior flanked by mock columns and scribed by the names of the greats of Western art, such as: Giotto, Rembrandt, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, and framed by the parklands of the Domain and Woolloomooloo Bay, this edifice to art commands your full attention.

And it was full attention and imagination needed when we started our Storytelling through Art tour with our vice-president and multi-hatted, multi-talented, Lindy Batchelor. Lindy is a volunteer children’s guide at the gallery, and as writers, librarians and illustrators, we were to become the children on the tour.

a sobering truth

a sobering truth

We started in the oldest wing delighting in the colours and images. At John Glover’s 1838 Natives on the Ouse River, Van Diemen’s Land, we looked at backgrounds, middle grounds and foregrounds; we reenacted the action – fishing, swimming and cooking. Then Lindy showed us a map and told us that many in the painting were the last Tasmanian aboriginals before they were rounded up and taken to Flinders Island.

so much to tell

so much to tell

As we gathered at our next painting, David Davies’ From a Distant Land (1889), Lindy handed out tokens: a letter, candle, a woman’s photo, shoe polish. We each had to tell the story of the painting. As the postman rode away, what was happening in the hut? ‘Look into the shadows; look at his shoes,’ Lindy urged. Relating to the kids on her regular tours, she said it was great, ‘because it teaches the kids to interact; to trust their eyes; to tell their own story.’

Lindy's bag of tricks that she carries

Lindy’s bag of interactive tricks

After looking around the 3-D of sculptures, and discovering unimagined treasures that the sculptor had hidden, we came to another interactive part of our children’s tour. We stood in front of Thomas Cooper Gotch’s 1891 My Crown and Sceptre. Lindy knows exactly how to capture the imagination of children as she seats one of our group, Alicia, on a seat in front of the painting. It is the story of Phyllis (Gotch’s daughter) celebrating the Queen of the May. As we decided what Alicia needed, Lindy dressed her until she transformed into Phyllis. Alicia declared, ‘I feel royal and want to be painted!’

Alicia or Phyllis?

Alicia or Phyllis?

We reenacted Sir Frederic Leighton’s white marble statue, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, and listened to the sounds in paintings: ‘What can you hear?’ Lindy kept urging us on. We looked at shadows cast by reimagined eucalyptus poles and pondered over the spiritual metaphor of such.

At Grace Cossington Smith’s 1928, The curve of the bridge, Lindy brought out a handful of brushes for us to contemplate how the artist would have used them.

a brush with the bridge

a brush with the bridge

We looked at the traditional carvings and paintings on the Pukumani grave posts from the Tiwi Islands, and at John Olsen’s 1963 Five Bells, Lindy urged us to ‘take your line for a walk and see where it takes you,’ before she produced a swatch of blue colours for us to try and connect with the painting.

the Pukumani ceremony is unique to Tiwi - a final goodbye

the Pukumani ceremony is unique to Tiwi – a final goodbye

A final walk through the John Kaldor contemporary gallery found us wondering over reimaginings: the playful and dynamic ways modern artists have used colour. Lindy gave us each a coloured pipe cleaner and we had to twist and weave it to create one of the 87 tin sculptures in Robert Klippel’s display. ‘It makes you look more closely,’ says Lindy.

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wire imaginings

At the end of our Storytelling through Art tour we were thinking how lucky children are today who can have this much interaction and fun with so many treasures in such a magnificent building and with such an expert. If you would like to see what’s on offer for your child or school group, see: http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/discover-art/gallery-kids/

grown-up kids of the CBCA - Art through Storytelling - what a happy group

grown-up kids of the CBCA – Art through Storytelling – what a happy group

Australia: flying high over Mudgee

What’s the quietest place to launch a hot air balloon on a cuticle-moon autumn dawn? Paddock? Oval? Guess again …

As our minibus with 17 eager, but apprehensive balloonists drove through the gates in the dark, the outlines of graves became clearer – yep – we were in the lawn cemetery. With its huge stretch of unused grassy section, the hot air ballon was unloaded and laid out on the lawn. With its dumpster-size wicker basket attached, Clay, our pilot, started up the burner and slowly, in the half-light, our balloon burgeoned into its gorgeous colours and pattern.

like a dragon's breath

like a dragon’s breath

And then the basket started to rise and the reality set in that soon we would be aboard.

up, up and almost away

up, up and almost away

We were allotted a space in one of the four compartments and I climbed most unladylike into the basket. And like Phileas Fogg in ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’ (albeit the movie version), we were flying!

Soon, the sounds of dogs barking, birds calling and cows mooing, grew silent. Unlike the pic above, there was the absence of the sensation of wind. It was surreal as we were travelling with the wind, at about 30 kms an hour – we were flying in a vacuum.

With Clay giving bursts from the burner and adjusting the vents at the top of the balloon we sailed –  over dams, vineyards, fields of sheep and roos and the meandering Cudgegong River … we spun as we sailed, west became east and east became west.

Another ballon, with a P-plate pilot, was travelling with us.

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After an hour in the air and reaching a height of almost 7000′ we started to descend. Our ears popped as we again heard the morning warbling of magpies, cows mooing, dogs barking and the early morning traffic heading into town.

We took our landing positions (scrunch backs into the wicker, grab the ropes inside) and watched the fields draw closer. With another couple of bursts from the burner, we shot up again to avoid the row of trees and the powerlines that appeared from nowhere, and with the greatest of ease, we landed in the middle of a thistle paddock. Ouch!

Australia: almost drowning at Avoca Beach

after the ordeal

after the ordeal

This is how I’m going to die …

flashed through my mind as the raging water of a freak wave thrust Gary, me and three others in its fury across the rock platform.

Yesterday we were at Avoca Beach. The perfect day for a stroll, a swim and some reading in the shaded sand of Norfolk Pines.

My swim was short lived. The water was crisp and refreshing, but the rip next to the flagged area kept dragging me out. And then there were bluebottles pulsating about. There was no nor’easterly to blow them in; so benign was the day. Indeed, it was an ominous foreshadowing of my last little excursion, the walk around South Avoca rock platform. I jammed a pen and notepaper into my pocket to write some images for a poem.

If you have walked the length of this rock platform you will know it’s quite wide and high. It’s dotted with rock fishermen and families exploring the trammels of the platform.

The sea looked pretty normal, with occasional waves spilling over the edge. Nothing to cause alarm. And then, out of the corner of my eye I saw something rise. A freak wave roared above the edge of the platform. We ran towards the cliff base, but the raging white water was a metre high. It smashed us off our feet and tumbled us towards the boulders at the base of the cliff.

This is how I’m going to die. This nanosecond thought flashed through my mind. As I struggled to breathe, I was tossed towards a huge sandstone block. I thrust my hands in front of my head. If I was knocked unconscious, I’d be dragged back over the edge of the platform and would drown.

My hands hit the rock with huge force and my legs were whipped around other boulders. I was battered and bleeding as I scrabbled to rise above the water that was now receding and sucking us towards the edge of the ledge. Then the second wave hit. Bigger, higher – waist deep, and more ferocious in its fury. A maelstrom.

It picked us up again and smashed us into the cliff base. As the water hit the cliff, it rose twice as high and dragged us back over the boulders. Underwater, everything was white. I clawed at anything I could find to hold me, rather than be swept again towards the edge.

A fisherman and a man with his teenage daughter were struggling beside me. The man yelled to climb high up the boulders. Gary had been dragged 100 metres away and had been wedged between the boulders. We stood up in shock, shaking, drenched, covered with sand (where had this come from?) and bleeding from our hands, legs, arms.

My fingernails were ripped down to the skin, sunglasses gone, thongs gone, mobile phone gone. My rings are scoured. I have cuts on my hands and feet like they’ve been grated, bruises and welts on my calves and a cut across my knee. Gary’s legs have been chopped by the rocks and we both have sore, bruising backs where we were pummelled against the boulders.

Had there been any children near us, they wouldn’t have survived. It would have been a New Year tragedy.

I have never felt fear like this before, and I’m still shaking.

Ireland: An intoxicating welcome to Dublin

Gathering outside The Duke Hotel

gathering outside The Duke hotel

“If you’re here for the drink, you’ll have to put up with the literature.” Welcome to The Duke hotel in Dublin. It’s a cracking venue to begin the Literary Pub Crawl.

Two actors, 50 people, 4 pubs. Singing, acting, reciting, drinking, laughing, the Gift of the Gab and lots of craic. What a great few hours we ‘crawlers’ had.

Derek and Finbar, two actors of stage and television, greeted us in the upstairs room of The Duke hotel. The song Waxies’ Dargle brought us all together as we raised our pints of Guinness and sang the refrain about cobblers (who waxed their stitches for waterproofing) celebrating at their annual picnic … “I’ll have a pint, yes, I’ll have a pint with you, sir!”

The boys started with a rendition of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. They had us hooked. Pathos and humour so closely aligned.

Waiting for Godot

Waiting for Godot

Swift, Stoker, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett, Behan, Heaney. We were to channel them all through the articulate and witty Derek and Finbar.

Back out on the street we gathered at the steps of Trinity College Library and listened to anecdotes of those writers who had attended the College. It was “a culture stop with no drinks,” said Finbar as he took on the flamboyant persona of Oscar Wilde and his travels to the silver mines of Colorado and then the poignancy of James Joyce … the grey block of Trinity … set heavily in the city’s ignorance like a dull stone set in a cumbrous ring …

the boys weave their magic in Trinity College

Derek and Finbar weave their magic at Trinity College

More serious drinking and stories took place in the snug of O’Neill’s pub frequented by Trinity students past and present.

Meandering the streets of Dublin we stopped at another great pub, The Old Stand; the headquarters of Michael Collins during the War of Independence.

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Awkward beginnings of our global group soon turned to more lubricated interactions as we drank and shared our love of literature.

At Davy Byrnes’ pub we partook in an episode from Joyce’s Ulysses and learned that Brendan Behan, one of the most colourful characters to walk the streets of Dublin, was born “a drinker with a writing problem.” He started drinking at the age of eight and equated jugs of Guinness with holy water.

At the end of the night in a dark alley with the chill wind whipping off the Liffey we huddled for the evening-ending quiz of all we’d heard through the skits, witticisms and history of this city of literature. The last two standing were a lad from Newfoundland and a lass from Australia. He beat me to the final answer, but I was happy with a bottle of Bushmills Irish Whiskey as my prize.

There’s a great irony in replacing the brain cells while drowning them. Pass the Guinness please. Next stop, the Irish Writers’ Centre. Perhaps you have another suggestion for getting under the skin of Dublin.

http://www.dublinpubcrawl.com

yes, Marian, there are leprechauns in Dublin

yes, Marian, there are leprechauns in Dublin

Australia: Interval at the Sydney Opera House

One of the most intoxicating views of Sydney Harbour at night is from the northern foyer of the Opera House.

a view from every angle

a view from every angle

As the orchestra breaks for its mid-concert interval, the audience flows to the foyers within this graceful ivory sail.

My exit door is nearest the northern foyer. I sidle along the crimson seats, squeezing past the fat knees of patrons wishing to stay seated. While many line up at the bar for refreshments, I join the throng who gravitate to the topaz glass wing that suspends us towards the harbour. We are a tumble of furs and jeans, bubbly and beer.

the northern foyer waits for sunset

the northern foyer waits for sunset

Below us, on the path lit by sea-misted lamps, a large heart has been fashioned out of tea lights. The inside is bedded with red rose petals. As if on cue, a young man, hand in hand with his girlfriend, walks towards it. He lifts her into its refuge. Presenting a bouquet, he goes on bended knee and proposes.

The back-dropped harbour celebrates as its lights slide and riff across the pewter-stippled water. The Bridge, like the Colossus of Rhodes, straddles the two shorelines. A chain of climbers, headlamps flickering like fireflies, makes its way up the arch. On top, the red light nicknamed Blinky Bill, winks between the dual flags while the water-rippled pylons guard the harbour like golden sphinx of ancient times.

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Across the harbour, Luna Park laughs; its yellow hair spikes and recedes. Within the fun park’s kaleidoscope of colours, the ferris wheel spins like a giant red chocolate wheel.

The harbour is in its evening ritual, its unique version of la passeggiata. Party boats parade their electric light shows. An eerily rigged tall ship glides. Red-lit water taxis flit and flirt with lumbering, ghost-windowed ferries as they chug towards their dark destinations.

Fort Denison sits like a giant plug in the centre of the harbour. One pull and you imagine the water spiralling clockwise to the centre of the earth giving off its final glug as the chill night air is sucked into its eddy.

fort denison

Opposite the Opera House, the Overseas Passenger Terminal awaits its next arrival in spangled colour. Around the curve of Circular Quay the ferry wharves underpin festooned city skyscrapers whose primary colours waver through the water like the tresses of Medusa.

I gaze towards the darkened north shore of Milsons Point and Kirribilli and think of Kenneth Slessor’s 1930s elegy Five Bells where the poet looked “in the dark at waves with diamond quills and combs of light.” Slessor describes the drowning of his friend, Joe Lynch, who fell from a ferry; the pockets of his tattered raincoat chocked with beer bottles. As Lynch struck out for Milsons Point he vanished in the moonlight, “sucked away, in mud.” I watch the lines of longitudinal swells rippling towards the far shore and wonder where beneath is Joe, “long dead who lives between the bells.” Are his bones scattered among other antediluvian secrets in the sediment of this drowned river valley?

Kenneth Slessor's plaque on the Writers Walk at Circular Quay

Kenneth Slessor’s plaque on the Writers Walk at Circular Quay

The bell tolls for the end of interval and I turn with the human tide and return to my seat. Stretching the length of the facing wall is the panoramic depiction of the harbour’s underbelly in John Olsen’s water mural, Salute to Five Bells. It’s an ultramarine manuscript of shifting notations, its lyrical stave blobbed with psychedelic sea creatures descending with Joe Lynch, as he becomes part of the mythology of the bottom of the harbour.

Salute to Five Bells

Salute to Five Bells

Musings aside, I am back within the mellow light of the concert hall for the second half of the program. I’m again ensconced within this majestic ship’s ribs. Although anchored physically to Bennelong Point, as the orchestra crescendos, my imagination sets sail for foreign landscapes, with bowing strings, lilting flutes and floating bells.

Good night, good night! parting is such sweet sorrow,  That I shall say good night till it be morrow. (Juliet to Romeo)

Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,
That I shall say good night till it be morrow. (Juliet to Romeo)

Australia: Tall ships and tempest on Sydney Harbour

Had I been around a hundred years ago I would have been standing on the bounds of Sydney Harbour watching Australia’s first Royal Navy Fleet sailing through the heads.

A century later I am standing on the harbour’s bounds as part of the celebration of the International Fleet Review. Today will see the coming together of the biggest fleet of tall ships in the Southern Hemisphere.

I’ve long been a lover of tall ships with their sailing grace, cusps of timber and adventurous sailors. Not wanting to miss the opportunity of joining them in spirit, I hop aboard a train to Milson’s Point where I can wander down the hill to Kirribilli, stand in the lee of the Harbour Bridge, look across to the Opera House and watch the flotilla sail by.

Sydney has barely seen rain for the past few months, but today, on October 3, the weather gods have changed the game plan.

As my train nears The Bridge, not only is rain bleating down, but hail as well.

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Inadequately dressed, I fight my way downhill against the bluster. I could have turned around and caught the warm, misty-windowed train back home, but where’s the fun and adventure in that.

Besides, the Harbour Bridge is a HUGE umbrella. Wrong. As I stand beneath its massive, masculine road span for shelter, I may as well be standing beneath a colander. Not only is the rain horizontally shooting in, it’s falling in long vertical lines from above. People are huddled against the pylons seeking shelter, kids are jumping up and down trying to keep warm. Families who had brought in rubber-backed picnic rugs are wrapped in them like tartan presents.

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There are kids everywhere in plastic ponchos and there’s even a man wearing a folding chair on his head as as rather large sou’wester. Kids huddle under golf umbrellas as if they’re teepees.

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“Makes it rather authentic don’t you think, like being in a squall at sea,” I comment to a lady standing beside me. She looks at me with my dripping hair flailing my face, my umbrella flipping in and out like some kind of purple semaphore. She just shakes her head.

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As I’m waiting for the tall ships to arrive, I think of all the ways I could have stayed dry. An unlimited ferry ride would have seen me zigzagging the harbour in relative comfort. Or what about the giant ferris wheel at Luna Park with its bird’s-eye view.

And then, with the rain pelting and the wind whipping there’s a hoot of joy from a bunch of kids. There’s a flyover of helicopters, and a fire boat shooting plumes of water rounds the bend. Behind it are the first tall ships, the Young Endeavour and the replica of Captain Cook’s HM Bark Endeavour. “Do you think Captain Jack Sparrow’s on board?” an excited boy looks up at me wide-eyed. A canon booms and rocks the shore and kids cheer oblivious to the raging tempest.

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More tall ships appear, some with sails and some without. My soaked admirers and I watch the sixteen proud ships sail under the Harbour Bridge towards their berths at Darling Harbour. The Bark Europa has taken eight months to sail here. On the Soren Larsen men stand tall along the yards and up in the crows nest. It’s blustery on land let alone up where they are.

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It’s romance and reality in this flotilla. Wood and canvas sail beneath the rush of wheels and steel on the bridge above.

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But wait. There’s one more bedraggled ship. It’s the Wreck of the Hesperus. Or is it the tempest-tossed me.

The ibis are waiting for the Wreck of the Hesperus.

The ibis are waiting for the Wreck of the Hesperus.

France: Beaune of Burgundy

After decades of quaffing oak-hinted, truffle-tasting burgundy, I’m here at its birthplace, where the veins of rivers, terroir and vine-combed hills of the Côte d’Or meet. I am a few hours southeast of Paris in the wine capital and heart of Burgundy. I am in Beaune.

van Gogh could have painted here

van Gogh could have painted here

I am here to explore the wine caves that labyrinth10 kilometres beneath the cobbled streets.

The Marché aux Vins, in the centre of town, is a former Franciscan church. It is still blessed with its original vineyard where the friars cultivated grapes for their altar wine. Its sole purpose today is to source wine from the Bourgogne region, where each village produces its own distinctive vintage. Fifteen wines are presented for tasting in the kilometres of caves now turned into cellars.

march aux vins - the walk of wines

march aux vins – the walk of wines

€10 gets you a personal metal clamshell-shaped cup called a tastevin. And then it’s down the dusty stone steps and into the chill of the vaults and the slightly musty maze of tunnels that wind beneath the town.

The wines are set up on spaced apart barrels. Notes pertaining to each are read by the glow of a dripping candle. A spittoon is positioned next to each barrel. I note that the aim becomes slightly skewed the more I sample.

deep in the caves

deep in the caves

One hour is allotted for the tour, but no-one is checking and although the rule is one sample per bottle (with excommunication guaranteed if you become a rowdy drunk), I find myself having to check two or three times to see if I really like certain vintages. Four white wines are followed by 11 regional reds; the finale being their finest, the Corton Grand Cru.

About half way through the wine caves I come across the ruins of a 5th century chapel. A chiselled stone sarcophagus is atmospherically lit in the darkness. When it was discovered during the excavation in 1971, the remains of 11 bodies were layered inside. They were victims of the 1581 plague. The monks had entombed their poxy bodies for time immemorial.

plague victims' sarcophagus

plague victims’ sarcophagus

After so much time underground, I emerge with mole-eyes up a flight of stairs into the nave of the church with its stone pillars, arches and flickering candelabra. There’s more tasting with samples of the local aperitifs, Cassis (blackcurrant) and Crème de Peche (peach). Sommeliers are on hand to answer any wine-related questions or organise purchase and shipping.

A note for the purists reading this, the 30 ml capacity of the tastevins does not allow for swirling and sniffing, nor are all the wines top quality, but for the casual quaffer, such as me, this has been the perfect way to get a taste of Burgundy.

my final blessing

my final blessing

 

Italy: Hanging about in Siena

Tuscany is like a Renaissance painting; its beauty and mystique enthral those who step inside its frame. Take your pick, each city has its own story: Florence, Pisa, Pienza, Lucca, Siena. And that’s where this story lays its roots, in Siena, the bejewelled brooch that clasps the tapestry of Tuscany.

Siena rooftops

Siena rooftops

There are many things to love about Siena. Further down the palio track I’ll write more about its medieval charisma, but for this story, Siena’s black humour is my focus.

Had I been squeamish, I might have continued walking through the gloomy Vicolo del Bargello and into the bustle of Siena’s enchanting campo to enjoy a coffee in the sunlight. But the combination of the medieval laneway, the meaning of bargello (a zigzag stitch resembling flames) and the macabre blurb on the poster outside the Museo della Tortura (Museum of Torture) “these instruments show just how much human fantasy knew no limits …” reels me in, hook, line and tongue cutter.

a highwayman's coffin

a highwayman’s coffin

A skeletal hand reaches out from the Highwayman’s Coffin and points to the museum’s first dark chamber. This weathered wretch has been hanging around in his iron cage for centuries. He’s been swaying in the breeze outside town halls, ducal palaces and cathedrals, through winter winds and summer storms until his bones have fallen apart.

Not too far inside the first cold stone and brick cavern, reality sobers me to the horrors of human cruelty. It puzzles me to think of the hours of creativity that went into designing and decorating these devices of humiliation, oppression and torture. Take the iron sandals with the bell at the toe that was fitted to clumsy servants. Every time the bell rang, the master tightened the heel.

stained clothes of a penitent of the Inquisition

stained clothes of a penitent of the Inquisition

There are many gruesome original and reproduced items on display that reflect the time in history where public hangings and punishments were seen as entertainment. Behind a glass panel I examine a beheader’s sword. It looks like an oversized butter knife. It took a long apprenticeship to become professional beheader. With each victim, the apprentice had three goes to get the decapitation right. Who was going to worry about the occasional severed shoulder, arm or brainpan?

No detail is spared of how each instrument worked, which orifice the device was meant for, which limb was dislocated and who was the usual customer.  Women were particularly well represented with breast rippers, shrew fiddles, scold bridles, chastity belts and the ornately designed Pear of Anguish, a disturbing device inserted and expanded in the offensive orifice.

a prickly medieval occupation

a prickly medieval occupation

Rioting prisoners would have been well ventilated, as the wardens in those poxy medieval dungeons wore leather jackets pierced with iron spikes in Hannibal Lecter fashion.

The wry comment on the Inquisitor’s Chair bridges the gap of centuries. “Often a brazier of hot coals was used to heat the spikes before the victim was placed inside. Today, updated versions are used, improved by electricity to minimise tell-tale marks.”

I’ve spent about an hour examining racks, iron maidens and head crushers that inflicted pain and death on heretics, blasphemers and the promiscuous. You may think that the idea of a visiting a torture museum is no better than attending the public spectacle of torture in the past. Yet, it’s the professional display and insightful (often tongue-in-cheek) explanations that make me question how civilised we are meant to be today.

Buonanotte bella Siena

Buonanotte bella Siena

 

 

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.