AGM XX: Saltwell Towers (photos courtesy of Vivienne)

In this blogposting...
*Beastly Behaviour
*1912 Olympic Marathon
*Life Backwards
Now - cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war...

...took place as planned on 14 October at Saltwell Towers in Gateshead. A big Thankyou as usual to the hardy souls who braved the walk from the car park to attend: Hildie, Vivienne, Sid, Linda and - for the first time - her husband Keith.

It was good to see everybody again and I reckon we had a great time. Naturally, the conversation - and the coffee - flowed freely and once again we narrowly avoided being ejected from the tea garden for unseasonably boisterous behaviour. One day it’s going to happen though.

I should also thank everyone concerned for the small mountain of shortcake that made its way onto my plate. This happened because I mentioned my current cravings for the stuff and the fact that it’s unobtainable in France. (Their version of shortcake is a kind of thin, brittle biscuit that looks and tastes like burnt cardboard. How anyone can bear to live in France being thus nutritionally deprived is beyond me.)

The weather was kind, as it almost always is, and don’t worry - I made the pilgrimage to the ginkgo tree on all our behalfs (behalves?).

In France, ginkgos are known as ‘duck paddle trees’. There’s a prize of a round of particularly tasty French country cheese for the first truckshunter who can tell me why.

(I include this (unaltered) item, sent to me by mysterious truckshunter Simon, despite the fact that it may offend blogsters of a nervous disposition. If that’s you, look away now.)

Some people's sexual inclinations remain unfathomable. A pensioner found himself up before Teesside magistrates after he was spotted approaching and stroking ponies. This might appear harsh until you consider the man in question was under an order preventing him from approaching tethered animals after he admitted committing a lewd act with a horse last year.

The retired farm worker had been handed a 24-month community order in December after the owner of the horse saw him acting suspiciously in a field. The farmer was said to have seen the animal's head being pulled down towards the offender's groin. "Shocked and disgusted", the farmer hit the man with a stick. This caused the horse to run off, dragging its admirer across the field.

I love this story and would have thoroughly enjoyed featuring it on the Blue Bus programme, or on The Nightshift. It was sent to me by Peter in South Shields...

Shizo Kanakuri disappeared while running the marathon in the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. He was listed as a missing person in Sweden for 50 years - until a journalist found him living quietly in southern Japan.

Overcome with heat during the race, he had stopped at a garden party to drink orange juice, stayed for an hour, then took a train to a hotel and sailed home the next day, too ashamed to tell anyone he was leaving.

There’s a happy ending, though.

In 1966 Kanakuri accepted an invitation to return to Stockholm and complete his run. His final time was...

54 years, 8 months, 6 days, 8 hours, 32 minutes and 20.3 seconds...

Surely a record that will last forever.

"In my next life I want to live my life backwards.
You start out dead and get that out of the way.
Then you wake up in an old people's home feeling better every day.
You get kicked out for being too healthy, go collect your pension, and then when you start work, you get a gold watch and a party on your first day.
You work for 40 years until you're young enough to enjoy your retirement.
You party, drink alcohol, and are generally promiscuous, then you are ready for high school.
You then go to primary school, you become a kid, you play.
You have no responsibilities, you become a baby until you are born.
And then you spend your last 9 months floating in luxurious spa-like conditions with central heating and room service on tap, larger quarters every day and then...
Voila! You finish off as an orgasm!"

...will take place at 1100 on Thursday 11 November in Mowbray Park, Sunderland. We can share the Armistice Day Silence together.

...either by leaving a comment in the Comments box of the blog or by sending an email to
The busker
In this blogposting…
*Robinson’s Grand Tour: Thirteenth Day
Go on, give it a whirl….

….will take place at 1100 tomorrow, Thursday 14 October at Saltwell Towers in Saltwell Park, Gateshead.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all - naturally.


I spent five nights based in Florence - more than in any other stopover on my Grand Tour. Its nearest ‘competitors’ were Munich (three nights) and Verona (two). And as I sullenly packed my bags on this final morning, I had no doubt that the decision to do so, made all those weeks ago when I was planning my holiday, had been the right one.

Florence had ‘got to me’, as it gets to everyone. I know they say that about a lot of places; I’ve said it myself half a dozen times. But, in Florence’s case, it’s true - probably because it’s not just a matter of opinion. Resistance is useless. Unless you’re prepared to fall deeply and mysteriously in love, don’t spend more than five minutes or so there.

After my five nights with Florence (as it were), I was besotted.

Which meant that packing up my grip (as I can’t help but call it) was a melancholy affair indeed. The souvenir bus and tram tickets (yes, indeed), the street maps, the menus, the guide books. My heart sank a little with each handful, with each item.

Actually, an unplanned-for side-effect of my Tour had been the effect all this souvenir-collecting had had on my luggage, which got heavier by the day. In trying to find room for my Florentine keepsakes somewhere under the socks and shorts, I discovered the dregs of a hoard of ‘anti-souvenirs’; trinkets I’d bought with me from home to give to the people I met along the way on my journey.

Steffa and Gyorg in Brussels got a Durham Cathedral mug between them. Frank and Thea in Munich each received a City of Newcastle bookmark. I know that sounds parsimonious, but at least I tried. And anyway, it’s the thought that counts. For all we know, the mug and bookmarks are now treasured heirlooms to be passed down through the generations while stories of their unlikely origins are embroidered beyond recognition.

On the other hand, they could by now be buried under several thousand tons of landfill. I guess we’ll never know.

As I discovered during my desultory packing, I still had a few left. So my final act, before I closed the door on my lovely, airy Room with A View that morning, was to leave them neatly laid out on the bedroom table for Massimo and Stefano to find after I’d left. Two Sanctuary Knocker coasters, a Radio Newcastle keyring and a sepia picture-postcard of Grey’s Monument.

Perhaps taking ‘anti-souvenirs’ wasn’t such a good idea after all. They looked distinctly out of their depth on the 17th-century antique bedroom table.

Breakfast with my big, huggable bears was almost ineffably sad. They are both such lovely and loving men and had treated me like an honoured guest in their home. They’d cooked for me, booked concert seats for me and had invited me to dinner with their friends.

And now I was about to leave them - and their city - without knowing when, or even if, I was ever going back. Try though I might, I couldn’t prevent the surge of finality that was building up in me. I knew that my Grand Tour still had three whole days to run. I still had momentous train journeys ahead of me. I still had wonderful scenery to pass through and celebrated cities to stay in.

As I sipped my coffee, though, it still felt as if my Tour might as well be over. Until Stefano came up with his Bright Idea.

Why, he wondered aloud, should I not walk to the station, instead of taking the bus? Why not say Goodbye to Florence ‘in person’, so to speak.

It was a masterstroke. I’d been conscious, in Florence as in Verona, that I hadn’t done the city justice. After all, I’d spent so much time away from it. It would almost be uplifting to make my way to the station by wandering its lanes and bidding a personal farewell to its monuments and buildings.

With an almost indecent haste, I grabbed my grip, hugged the lads Goodbye and Thankyou and made my way out onto the street.

As I pulled the front door shut behind me, they were already shouting down to me from my bedroom window. They’d found my gifts. Grazie Grazie. Come back soon! You have friends in Florence now!

I felt a mixture of extreme embarrassment that they’d found my trinkets far too soon - and a kind of weary sadness as I realised that my Grand Tour involved as many waves of farewell as it did smiles of greeting. I hadn’t accounted for that.


But Florence wasn’t quite finished with me yet. It had one more ace to play. It’s that kind of city.

I decided that my route to the station should take me through Piazza della Signoria, the large and strikingly beautiful square which is home to David and several other monumental sculptures. I wanted to feel the square’s atmosphere in the early morning, before the tidal swell of my fellow-tourists obliterated it.

As I walked round the piazza, I could hear a violin playing. At first, I couldn’t tell where the soft, mellifluous morning sound was coming from. I didn’t know what the music was, either. But it comforted and reassured me. Yes, it was saying, don’t worry. Don’t concern yourself unduly. You’ll be back!

It was a busker playing in the arcade of the Uffizi Gallery. When I found him, I sat on the steps directly opposite him and listened. It was too early for the mass of tourists. This was the time of day when Florentines were hurrying to work; everyone had something to do and went about their business.

So I listened to the busker alone. As he played, he smiled across at me. When he finished, I told him how much he had lifted my spirits on this, my final hour or so in his city. He asked me if there was anything I’d like him to play.

Oh yes, I said. Bach’s Praeludium, please. Alex had played it for me in Munich (was that really only a week ago?) but Bach wrote it as a piece of virtuoso violin-playing. That’s what I wanted to hear. Nothing else would do, in the whole canon of music.

But it’s a complex and difficult piece to play. Would my busker know it? And if he did, would he agree to play it?

He invited me to resume my seat on the step. He picked up his violin case and busking cap and came over to me. He sat down on the step next to me, put violin to chin - and played.

It was faultless. The angels of Florence were holding his hands as he played. His eyes were closed as the tumult of Bach’s music filled the air.

I cried like a baby. I could think of nothing but that Florence, and all my adventures there, were already memories. Pisa, Chiavari, Siena. All those Leaning Towers; my would-be Italian tutor; the perfumery and the pottery; my big, friendly bears (who I wanted to turn round and go straight back to).

He finished playing and, refusing to accept any money at all, packed away his violin and quietly disappeared into the growing crowd.

I made the train with precisely 90 seconds to spare, not that I cared. As it pulled slowly northward out of the station, I realised that all I had left in Florence - a city which had given me so much - was two coasters, a keyring and a postcard.

I think there may be a slight imbalance there, which I’ll put right the next time I go. Or perhaps the time after that.

The train had gone less than about 5 miles when I was cruelly distracted from my melancholy reverie in a quite unexpected way.

Picture it. I’d settled comfortably down in my seat, gazing at the world picking up speed outside when I - and my fellow-dreamers - were disturbed by something of a brouhaha.

The source of the commotion was quickly identified as a little, black-clad Italian widow in the carriage vestibule. In front of her - and almost obscuring her from view completely - was the biggest suitcase I’ve ever seen. It was truly the size of a small bungalow; it barely fitted between the door jambs.

It was a big suitcase. And she was a very small old lady. She stood behind the suitcase (which was much taller then she was) and tried to kick it through the door and down the aisle but it wouldn’t move.

Then she leaned against it, first frontways then with her back. It didn’t move an inch.

I blanched at some of the language she was using - and I don’t speak Italian.

The genial-looking man sitting opposite me got up and offered to help her. She refused his offer - to put it mildly. She then started to climb over the suitcase, using the adjacent luggage racks as a kind of ladder.

Another man begged her to stop; the train was in motion and she could have fallen. But she persisted, clambering over the top of the suitcase and plopping down in the carriage aisle.

Everyone watched and wondered what she would do next.

She grabbed its handles and, with a visibly draining effort, succeeded in pulling the monster about a foot. I felt like applauding.

The effort was taking its toll, though. She was perspiring profusely, her hair was messed up and her coat had come undone and was hanging, half on, half off.

On continental trains, it is sensibly against the rules to stow luggage anywhere other than in the plentiful luggage racks provided. Unfortunately, it seemed that none of the racks was quite big enough - or accessible enough - for the Big Grey Valise.

She had flopped exhaustedly down on a seat by the time the train’s guard appeared. Voices were raised. Angry gesticulations followed - oaths and imprecations of the obviously foulest kind filled the air.

Even the audience joined in.

After a while though, the hue and cry subsided. The woman smiled suspiciously smugly and the guard stormed off, muttering something that needed no translation. Everyone settled down to their coffee and pastries.

I found out how the story ended from an English-speaking man whom I met in the cafe-coach.

Apparently, the guard had told her she would have to leave the train at the next stop, which was Milan. He asked her where she had intended travelling to. ‘Milan’, she said.


Milan is where my journey to Geneva involved a change of trains. I had only about an hour or so to spare to get the merest hint of what the city was like. It made quite an impression, even though I only managed a confused view of it from the station portals.

And what a station! It was by far the grandest and most monumental station I saw on my Tour - and that includes Gare de Lyon and St Pancras. In fact it’s so grandiose and over-sculptured that it’s almost ludicrous. Mussolini’s architects definitely overegged this particular pudding.

Three vast, soaring, vaulted concourses - three - bridge the gap between train and street. You have to ascend or descend majestic, palatial, opera-house style staircases to get from one to the other. Statues - and mottoes engraved in 4-foot high gold lettering - adorn every available space on the walls and ceilings.

Mussolini obviously wanted to lend it the grandeur of Michelangelo or Brunelesschi - to make it a Renaissance railway station. It’s breathtaking and - of course - completely fake. And it’s fake in a way that St Pancras is not. There, the unashamedly Gothic facade merely emphasises the engineering behind it. In Milan, the station’s architecture conceals it altogether.


A brief glimpse of Milan’s skyscrapers and bustling traffic was all that I had time for. I had my Geneva train to catch.

And once again, Italy threw an unexpected - and in this case, unwanted - morsel my way.

My train departed from platform 9. But between me and it stood over a hundred bawling, angry protesters. Many of them carried banners but naturally I didn’t understand what they said. And, to be honest, I didn’t much care. All I could do was wonder how I was going to run the gauntlet of the crowd.

Perhaps, I thought, they were protesting against the running of trains to Geneva; in which case, I could be perceived as a blackleg. I could be booed, manhandled and jostled as I fought my way onto platform 9.

I looked helplessly around. The carabinieri were keeping a safe distance away and the train was due to leave; everyone else was obviously safe on board.

There was nothing for it. I gritted the few teeth I have left, clenched the handle of my grip tightly, looked skywards to pray for the intercession of St Cuthbert and walked straight ahead, as if to say ‘Let me through - I’m a British citizen, dammit!’

Because I’m here to tell the tale, you’ll have gathered that nothing untoward transpired. Just the opposite, in fact. As I reached the front row of protesters, one of them realised I needed to catch the train that was about to leave. He took my hold-all, gestured me to follow him and saw me safely onto the first carriage.

I tried to ask him what the protest was about but he spoke no English. For his sake, though, I hope the protest achieved its objectives.

Looking helpless, stupid and British can obviously achieve miracles with Johnny Foreigner. And it’s a look that comes suspiciously easily to me…


The journey through north-west Italy is truly lovely. The line skirts the edge of Lake Maggiore, which is as big as small country, and dotted with islands. It’s a real. old-fashioned chocolate-box of a lake, delimited at its northern edge by soaring snow-capped mountains.

Once again, I was deep in Alpine scenery of the sort I hadn’t seen since I arrived in Verona over a week ago. It was good to be back.

The train clings to hillsides and passes through a myriad small villages before it reaches the border at Domodossola.

I silently said Goodbye to Italy. It had been the ultimate objective of my Grand Tour; a country I’d been ashamed never to have visited. And, oddly, my shame felt even deeper now. This average-sized European country which had, over the course of several millennia, made such an enviable impact on worldwide human culture, knowledge, civilisation and artistic development, had only merited eight days of my time and effort to understand it.

I hadn’t even scratched the surface. I knew then, as I know now, that I would have to go back. I must and I will.


Switzerland makes an inauspicious start, all things considered. On this particular railway line, all thoughts of dreaming Germanic spires, mighty Alpine fastnesses, chocolate, cuckoo-clocks and gnomes disappear straight into a tunnel, which holds you, bored and anxious, for almost 10 minutes.

I don’t want to be unkind about Switzerland. Any country whose citizens manage to function with four official languages and to communicate across mountains that deter golden eagles deserves a vote of support.

But somehow….me and Switzerland just didn’t see eye to eye. The scenery was interesting rather than the heart-stoppingly awesome I’d been expecting.

The farms seemed somehow ‘untidy’, the roads unkempt, the power-lines intrusive. I know that there’s another Switzerland somewhere, with scenic railways, picturesque Heidi villages and perfect William Tell panoramas. Snow-capped peaks, alpenhorns and yodelling.

But I haven’t been there.

Instead, my train took me round the eastern edge of Lake Geneva, through Lausanne and Montreux and eventually, to the city of Geneva itself.

Geneva, I am mortified to say, is the one and only place on my Grand Tour that I wish I hadn’t bothered with. And it’s not that easy to pinpoint why, although I make a stab at it in the Prologue.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate my reactions to the city, and its reaction to me, is via a trifling and unsatisfactory anecdote….

All told, my journey from Florence had taken over six hours. I stumbled off the train and almost fell into my hotel, which was right next door.

It was about 5 o’clock when I hit the streets. Robinson was on the prowl. Exploring another city new to me; on the lookout for bars, cafes and restaurants.

After 30 minutes, I gave up. There were plenty of people around. Lots of cars and buses and trams and traffic lights.

But...there didn’t seem to be anywhere at all for anyone to go. Everyone was in transit, it seemed, between elegant offices and equally elegant houses, but with no distractions in between. And it was only 5 o'clock in the afternoon.

I found a small cakeshop that was still open; there was a dealer in antique carpets on one side (closed) and a photocopier-paper supplier on the other (also closed).

The cakeshop had one small, conical cake left on the display shelf. In desperation, I asked the assistant if she spoke English. She did.

I bought the cake, which turned out to be an almond confection of a very high order.

I asked her if she could point me in the direction of the area where I might find some cafes or bars.

She looked at me as if I were a talking turnip.

I explained that I was a visitor to her fine city and would like something to eat.

She intensified her concrete look.

‘But it’s been raining’ she said, as if that explained everything.

‘Yes I know’, I replied, knowingly.

‘So everyone’s gone home’ she said.

Which just about explains everything.

Later that evening, I called my brother to tell him how utterly bored I was.

Then I went back to the hotel and watched two episodes of EastEnders on BBC World.

Not all those who wander are lost……


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How's these for clever design?


In this blogposting…

*Words, Words, Words

*What I Found Out Today

*John Lennon

*….Deserves Another

So get out there and give ‘em hell…

Hmmmmm. The curse of truckshunterdom strikes again. Sid and Hildie have got in touch to tell me that there is no cafe in Gateshead Central Library; it’s closed for refurbishment until (ironically) two days after AGM XX.

They’ve suggested that we meet in the cafe in Saltwell Park instead.

I will agree to this on one condition only; that we make our customary pilgrimage to the ginkgo tree. That’s the only way that a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

So, if we’re agreed on that, the AGM will now take place at 1100 on Thursday 14 October in Saltwell Park.

A few months ago, truckshunter Natasha sent me a list of her favourite words; not because of their meanings but more because of their sounds, construction and overall intrinsic beauty.

This resulted in a very pleasurable torrent of favourite words from all over the truckshunter universe.

Well I’m thrilled to the marrow to report that I’ve heard from Michael, in Houghton-le-Spring. He’s emailed me to say how pleased he was that I used the word ethereal in a recent blog, ethereal being one of his favourite words.

And just for good measure, he’s added a few more. I love them - although I’ve had to look a couple of them up.






They’re smashing, aren’t they? Especially wafture.

Feel free to send me your own nominations for the Truckshunter Book Of Lovely Words.

They say - not entirely accurately - that you learn something every day. So here’s s titbit of exotica that floated my way earlier this morning, when I should have been doing something else…

Today I found out that bananas are naturally radioactive.

This is because they contain relatively high amounts of potassium. Specifically, they contain Potassium-40, which is a radioactive isotope of potassium.

And it doesn’t end there. Far from it.

The fact that bananas are radioactive has actually given rise to a recognised unit of radiation: namely the banana equivalent dose (BED); this is the average amount of radiation you are exposed to by eating one banana. (I’m not making this up.)

The banana equivalent dose is (it says here) ‘occasionally used to help conceptualise the relative danger of various radiation sources and amounts’. For instance, the amount of radiation typically leaked by a modern nuclear fission reactor.

Stay with me - it's worth the effort.

This leaked radiation is typically extremely small, usually about one picocurie. A picocurie is a millionth of a millionth of a curie.

Now, I know perfectly well that one picocurie still doesn’t make much sense to most people, me included. And that’s why the banana equivalent dose was introduced - to give everyone to whom these things are important an easy way to understand whether X amount of radiation is harmful or not (given that we all know that bananas aren’t harmful).

For instance, living within 10 miles of a typical nuclear power station will expose you on a daily basis to just a bit more radiation than you’d get from eating one banana a day.

(Your assignment today, should you be insane enough to accept it, is to tell someone that fact. Just say 'living within 10 miles of a typical nuclear power station will expose you on a daily basis to just a bit more radiation than you’d get from eating one banana a day' and record their reaction.)

Now before you start boycotting bananas because of this wholly unexpected and deeply unsettling information, consider this….

To cause any degree of illness in a person, it takes about 100 rems. (A rem is a quantity of ionising radiation - a measurement of how much radiation a person is exposed to.)

So, on the basis that eating one banana a day for a whole year only exposes you to 3.6 millirems, you’d need to eat about 10,000,000 bananas in order to reach 100 rems.

So be careful. You have been warned.

Hildie has pointed out - apropos the John Lennon picture in the last blogposting - that, had he lived, he would have been 70 today.

Inspired by the tern revelations last time out, newcomer Stan (about whom I know nothing but his name) has sent me some more bird facts.

*Ducks never lay eggs in the evenings; no-one has worked out quite why this is
*Sea water does not harm albatrosses, which drink nothing else; their digestive tracts remove most of the salt
*The nests of the penculine tit are so strong that they can be - and are - used as carrier bags

Which brings us neatly back to the carrier bag pictures, I guess….

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The paintings in this posting are by artist Victor Molev
and were sent to me by truckshunter Kev
after he saw the pictures in blogposting 223.
From the top: Paul McCartney, John Lennon and the Mona Lisa.
Thanks Kev; they're amazing...
In this blogposting….
*One Good Tern
*Who Do You Think You Are?
*All You Need To Know About American Cuisine
So think on and look sharp

Amazingly, an Arctic tern has been found on the Farne Islands thirty whole years after it was ringed as a chick. It was in Spring 1980 that National Trust warden John Walton placed the ring - number CE60645 - on the bird’s leg, which makes this the oldest Arctic tern in known British ornithological history.

It’s not the oldest known wild bird, though. That honour is shared between a Manx shearwater on Bardsey Island in Wales and a fulmar in Orkney, both of whom are at least 50 years old - and may still be out there somewhere.

By now, Arctic tern number CE60645 should be on its way to Antarctica again - a round trip of 40,000 miles. So in its lifetime, it’s already clocked up more than a million miles. This is a world record - not just for a bird but for any living creature.

Bon voyage - et bon retour!

I received an interesting email the other day from regular truckshunter Dave Shannon, who’s being climbing about in his family tree. Some of the stuff he’s discovered is in true Who Do You Think You Are? style - totally unexpected and inviting you to dig deeper back in time.

His great-great-grandfather was born in Bellingham (in Northumberland) in about 1815 and his grandmother was born in Chester-le-Street around 1820. His grandparents, George and Ann, had 10 children and what’s a little bit tantalising is that they lived near Cologne in 1855 (of all places).

With that kind of titbit you just have to find out more, don’t you? Dave is understandably amazed and wonders why they went there. He reckons it could be something to do with the Crimean War, in which Prussia (as Germany then was) was involved.

Fascinating stuff - which just invites further investigation.

I’m surprised and ashamed to report that I haven’t delved too deeply into my own family history, given that I’m always bleating on about how interested I am in it. The furthest back I can go with any confidence is to the 1880s or thereabouts. That’s when my great-aunt was born. Later, she and her husband became teachers at Pelton Infants School when it opened in the early 1900s.

I have a lovely picture of the entire teaching staff, Aunty Mill and Uncle Will included. They’re all standing there looking po-faced and serious at the camera - between two huge aspidistras.

Have you investigated who you are and where you came from? Does your family have any stories and legends about your ancestors?

Get in touch!

Three wonderful, food-related stories have caught my eye recently, all of them emanating from the gastronomic hellhole that is the United States…

*...a man called Joey Chestnut - aka Jaws - ate 47 burritos in 10 minutes at the New Mexico State Fair in Albuquerque, beating the previous record of 33. He also holds the world record for hotdog eating….

*….Stanley Neace, of Breathitt County, Kentucky, went berserk after his wife didn’t cook his eggs the way he liked them. He took a 12-gauge pump shotgun and killed her. Then he killed his stepdaughter. And then three neighbours. And then himself….

*….a Montana woman saved her own life, and that of her pet collie, from a marauding 14st black bear by hurling a courgette at him….

AGM XX will take place at 1100 on Thursday 14 October at Gateshead Central Library, not far from the Shipley Art Gallery. It’s much easier to park there for people who depend on their cars to get to AGMs.

If you don’t have a car, get in touch. It may be possible to offer lifts.

And don’t forget - a splendid time is guaranteed for all.

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If I could pinpoint the day on which I realised that my Grand Tour was more than just a Good Idea, the day on which it finally occurred to me that nothing was ever going to be quite the same again, then Tuesday 30 March 2010 was it. Nothing could have prepared me for it, and I hope that nothing will ever induce me to forget it.

Today I reached my Grand Tour’s furthest point from home. Today I visited Siena.

In my original plan for the Grand Tour, I hadn’t intended to visit Siena at all. Today was meant to be the day I spent tasting Rome. My friend Sue, though, had suggested to me that Rome - love it or hate it - deserved more than a mere afternoon of exploration. She recommended Siena instead, partly because it was much closer to Florence but mainly, I suspect, because she’d been to Siena herself and was curious to know if my reactions to it would be the same as hers.

My European rail pass entitled me to 10 days’ train travel and I’d already planned for all ten of them. So I travelled to Siena from Florence by bus, which was quite an experience in itself. Florence’s cavernous bus station hides within the bowels of a nondescript office block and is extraordinarily difficult to find. It also serves the worst coffee I tasted on the entire Tour.

But the bus was worth waiting for. It was one of those flash double-decker jobs you sometimes see cruising lusciously along motorways, which is precisely what it did now. I sat upstairs next to an impeccably-dressed and startlingly beautiful middle-aged lady called Elissa who, after the usual pleasantries about my Grand Tour (and her appointment with her ex-husband in Rome later that day), decided that, in order to optimise my appreciation of Siena, I should really learn a little Italian.

It was a complete disaster. I had been in Italy almost a week and had managed to get by (more or less) with Buon giorno and Grazie, filling in the blanks with sign language and relying on the colourful high-school English of the host nation, as you do.

Elissa did her best. She’d point to some feature of the lovely Tuscan countryside we were passing through, and - in excellent, university-level English - would painstakingly translate her words into Italian for me.

She was wasting her time. I don’t remember a single word she taught me. If nothing else, that bus journey proved to me, once and for ever, that any pretensions I have to be ‘good at languages‘ are entirely spurious. I’m not. When I disembarked in Siena, I even said Goodbye to her in English. The coldly blank look on her face told me how obviously disappointed she was.

If she’d been maintaining a Stereotype Confirmation List like mine, she would have ticked the box marked The English only speak English.


As had become my habit, I made straight for the Tourist Office in Siena; they always have free street maps. Then I sat outside a trattoria on Il Campo and tried to take it all in.

Il Campo is a lovely, big semi-circular space, the civic equivalent of the Duomo which sits on the hilltop above it (like the Market Place compares to the Cathedral in Durham City). Coloured cobbles divide the space into nine segments, like cake slices, representing the nine ancient guilds of Siena.
Perhaps most famously, though, Il Campo is the setting for one of the oldest - and certainly one of the most ludicrous - horse races in the world; the Palio. Twice a year, in July and again in August, Il Campo is thronged with spectators as costumed trumpeters and liveried banner-bearing marchers parade around the square as a prelude to the event itself.

And then a dozen or so horses are jockey-ridden at breakneck speed around the piazza, each horse and each jockey representing an ancient guild of the city. This is no role-playing spectacle put on for the tourists. The crowd in the square - and, I’m told, those watching at home on tv - go berserk. The noise increases with every swerve and fall, of which there are many.

There are several videos of the Palio on YouTube. If you watch one of them you’ll see how palpably passionate the event is. And also, to my Anglo-Saxon eyes at least, how potentially harmful it is, too; to both riders (who can look out for themselves) and to horses (who can’t).

But maybe I’m being a little too unItalian about it all. It’s not as brutal or as gung-ho as bullfighting, when all’s said and done. When I visited Seville a couple of years ago, I felt deeply uneasy about the city’s bullfighting reputation (which even many Spaniards baulk at) but decided, like the mercenary tourist I obviously am, that even ritual human sacrifice thrice daily at the foot of the Giralda would not detract from the beauty of the city.

As for Seville, so for Siena. I had, in fact, already decided that I could forgive her anything. Anything at all.

In any case, my thoughts that morning were wandering elsewhere as I sat with my coffee on Il Campo, looking around me and upward to the top of the cathedral’s campanile, visible on the hill above the rooftops.

I had this stupendous city to explore. I quickly dispensed with the map. After all, I had no particular destination to make for except the Duomo and I realised quickly that all I needed to do was take any turning that led uphill. Sooner or later, I was bound to find myself gazing at it on level ground.
As I began my wandering walk up from Il Campo to the Duomo, something very odd indeed started to happen, though. I fell into a kind of daydream. Nothing I looked at seemed out of place. Everything seemed to be exactly where it belonged; exactly where I would have put it had I had a hand in the city’s layout. It was almost as if I knew what ought to be round the next unknown corner - and there it was. A small square, a statue, a flower bed, a coffee-shop.

With each narrow street I walked up, with each corner I turned, the reverie became more intense. I seriously wondered whether someone had slipped something into my coffee. Siena seemed to be monumental urban perfection of a kind I had never seen before.

When I reached the hilltop piazza, I sat on a stone bench and looked at the Duomo and the campanile for a while in a kind of daze.
Slowly I retraced my steps and, back on Il Campo, I ordered another coffee, took Hildie’s trusty notebook out of my satchel and began to write furiously.

I have the notebook in front of me now. The relevant pages are scrawled with notes, some of them illegible. There are rapturous descriptive passages, short phrases, allusions of every conceivable kind. In attempting to record what I was feeling, I scribbled notes which, at this distance, are an unbelievable revelation - even to me.

Time and again I have tried to distill them. To make sense of them. To order the confusion of thoughts, feelings and reactions.

Siena is the Queen of Cities.

The tumult of places I visited on my Grand Tour - many of which possessed sumptuous beauty, legendary magnificence and very great charm - cling to Siena’s coat-tails as she rises majestically above the Tuscan hills. Pisa, Munich, Verona, Regensburg - even Florence and Venice - can only gaze at her in wonder and envy.

For Siena improves on Nature by adorning the ground on which she reposes so gracefully, like she will adorn every memory of my Grand Tour. She is a sensuous Renaissance painting come to vivid and pulsating life. She is the Italian city whose existence we believe to be purely imaginary, so unlikely and so beautiful are her smiles and tresses and poses.

To exchange glances with Siena is to suspend disbelief and wallow in improbable seduction.

I know perfectly well that this may all seem a little pretentiously over-emphatic to those who’ve never been there and seen her. But those who have will know what I’m trying to say. They will also know that my task is impossible. Siena renders you weak at the knees and wordless. And grappling for superlatives is pointless because language is notoriously inadequate at expressing the deeper secrets of our dreams and memories.

And that’s where the Queen of my Grand Tour resides; I remember her and think about her every day and I dream about her.

Throughout this description of my Grand Tour, I have tried - with greater or lesser success - not to write simple, effervescent hymns of praise about the places I was lucky enough to visit. Rightly or wrongly, I like to think I’ve cast a mildly critical eye over my Tour’s destinations.

But it’s just not possible with Siena. I don’t want anything I say to upset or offend her; she is far too precious for that. And anyway, nothing of that kind occurs to me.

I can honestly still feel the sense of numbing wonder I felt that day as I wandered along her narrow, cramped lanes - up and down the alleyways and marble-paved streets and squares. They twist and wind and turn. They disorientate and they beckon. They seduce and they lure.

Such is the steepness of the city’s site that you are compelled to look not just right and left, not just ahead and back, but - most importantly - upwards and downwards. Every arched passageway, every cobbled or marbled twist in the street, leads the eye up to the cathedral and belltower which crown the hill or along and down to Il Campo, ‘the Field’ - which beats at Siena’s heart.

This is not a place of broad and generous boulevards and avenues. It is a city of corners and turnings. It is a narrow city inviting exploration. Your relationship with Siena is personal.

She is not only sensuous; she is sexy.

This is because she captivates all the senses.

I kept catching enticing glimpses of her rooftops and facades out of the corner of my eye, when I thought I wasn’t looking. I saw visitors smiling and silent, as awestruck as I was.

You hear her, too. When you’re there, it sounds as if the Italian language developed over the centuries simply in order to be spoken in Siena. Its tones and forms, its emphases and cadences, fill the lanes and squares and burst out onto Il Campo, which was built in Italian.
The city is the embodiment of her own language.

You can touch her, of course. The Renaissance stones and bricks want you to touch them. That is, after all, the only way to make sure it’s all real.

And smell and taste the coffee! The cakes and pastries. The pizzas, flans and pies.

This was one of the very few occasions on my Tour that I regretted my aloneness. On reflection, I think it was the only such occasion. Throughout my journey, I took positive delight in having only myself to amuse and entertain and divert. Being on holiday on my own was, after all, a completely new experience for me.

But when Siena introduces herself to you, you feel vaguely inadequate to the task in hand. And you feel frustrated, too. Experience has taught me not necessarily to subscribe to the view that the deepest pleasures and delights are better shared, but I would gladly have donated my worthless body to science there and then to have had a friend with me; someone who knew me of old; someone with whom I could suspend my disbelief; someone with whom I could be sharing my Sienese memories right now.

And someone who could temper the purple patches to which Siena has made me prone.

I want to introduce her to everyone I know.


Once in while - far, far too rarely - we all have days which make us not only glad to be alive, but glad to be who we are, where we are, right at that moment. Days when you think that things couldn’t get any better - and then they do.

Massimo and Stefano had advised me to be back in Florence for about 7 that night. They had, they said, a special treat lined up for my final night in the city.

I met up with Stefano at the Ponte Vecchio and immediately began ranting and haranguing him about my beautiful Sienese adventure - but he told me it would have to wait until later. Because tonight, Massimo (his partner) was singing the bass part in Mozart’s Requiem at an international performance in the church of San Stefano.

And I had a seat in the front row.

Any efforts I’d made on the bus to bring myself back down to earth had been a waste of time. I left my Mozart-cynicism at the door of the church and immediately the performance began, my mind was once more in the clouds as a full orchestra and chorus gave voice to his masterpiece. The setting could not have been better - a large, candle-lit Baroque church in which the music seemed to rise up to the extravagantly painted ceiling - and then out into the warm evening air of Florence.

To see my big, friendly, goatee’d bear summoning up the deep bass notes from somewhere in the underworld - all the while, smiling sweetly at Stefano and me - was wonderful. The applause at the end was deafening and Stefano’s broad smile of pride as Massimo took bow after bow was lovely to behold.


There was one final, and totally unexpected, ritual that marked my last night in Florence and in Italy.

In 1993, a car bomb outside the Uffizi Gallery (and just round the corner from the church of San Stefano) killed five people and severely damaged the gallery itself.

But the potted olive sapling near the car survived.

Today, it’s over 5 feet high and protected behind a wire fence; a plaque on the wall behind it explains that this humble olive tree is a memorial to the darker and less uplifting side of the human condition. Passers-by of all kinds leave notes of condolence, coins and flowers around the base of the tree. It has become Florence’s modern symbol of sorrow and also of hope for the future.

We passed the olive tree on our way out of the church. Massimo removed from his buttonhole the large white rose he’d been wearing for the performance and pinned it to the wire round the tree.

He does this after every performance at San Stefano.

Not all those who wander are lost.....


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