Saturday, 16 June 2007

She drank a great Campari and drove a Red Ferrari...(Song lyrics that failed)

The poster in the window of a comic-book store is enough to end my self-imposed exhibition purdah. A black and white photograph from the 1950s of a woman sitting on the bonnet of a Ferrari. The image is promoting “Ferrari and the Cinema” at the National Museum of Cinema, housed in the Mole Antonelliana, the “symbol” of Turin. This is the world’s “tallest” museum, for those that calculate these things. There is a lift to the top, for an 85 metres above Turin kind of experience.

I’m with the exhibition: cinema, cars and actors…even Tom, had he not been hungover and so missing “all” of Turin, might have approved.

For while the greatest couplet in rock music, (in Rod Stewart’s seminal early 1970s album track, “Italian Girls”), She was tall thin and tarty and she drove a Massaratti, has the right idea about rock-visions of romance, it’s just the wrong car – stupid. The Turin based car manufacturers are 60 this year, it says inside the exhibition, though I feel sure Ferrari existed in the 1930s: then again, I know nothing of cars. And to celebrate they have co-curated an exhibition of films about Ferrari, and big famous films with Ferrari in.

In a massive – 85 metres high, I guess – central atrium visitors recline on full-length sofas with stereophonic head speaker-cushions, and watch the films. The movie-extracts have over 60 selections, including Roger Moore and Tony Curtis in The Persuaders. The 1970s was such a Ferrari moment, you feel. Even for a non-driver it is intoxicating stuff. The sports car as the ultimate vehicle of sophisticated travel, two seated, fast and free – and red. These are the cars that should be winding the mountain roads from Val Cenis – except that the owners of these cars will be in the south of France, or the Hollywood hills, not La Chambre with the biker-boys.

The show is very clever, combining the romance of pure cinema with the romance of Ferrari’s brand freedom. Because this is all about escape. Mid-life “Roberts” buy cars like this when the Porsche or the BMW 4x4 seems a little dull. Rock stars crash them; rappers have big-bootied babes who bounce in them – in videos. In “Goldeneye” the Russian ex-fighter pilot and man-killer beauty “Onatopp” races Bond across – yup the mountain roads around Cannes: owning a Ferrari doesn’t make you nice, but it does make you sexy.

The extracts are mostly a flashback to an era when this stuff was glamorous, and very unusual: rather than an exercise in bling culture. Faye Dunnaway sitting on her Ferrari filming Steve McQueen’s Thomas Crown (the one and only Thomas Crown) playing polo…then there’s…actually there is no need to go on, that image says it all.

Of course this is the city of "The Italian Job" (the one and only), and cars mean more here than many places, for work as much as anything. But the show, integrated perfectly with the permanent exhibition is a double vision of escape, betwixt film, cars and freedom.

The museum itself is a warm, quirky and iconic celebration of cinema, the best I’ve ever seen. Quotes from Baudelaire and Goethe frame the first displays: shadow puppets, moving lanterns, slide shows, a curtained-off exhibit of a stereoscopic woman not quite pulling a rabbit from a hat (reminding us that pornography has always been a driver of any newer technology or art form, from the canvas, through sculpture, photography, film, video, DVD and new media).

Perhaps this is why they police the Italian web so much...

Ascending around the sides of the curved building we see various examples of cinemas, numerous films, displays of how the “living room” and television have evolved (the last room is full of redundant piled-high old televisions, some playing back images of us walking around the show). The whole thing elides into a blur of sound, images and moods. It is as if travelling through a history not just of cinema, but of moments in the way we have seen ourselves. Being almost contemporary, the exhibition has far more impact than “classical” Italian art. We’ve seen too much of that.

It is easy here to think about the way we have been shaped, how the cinema has marked the way we behave, see, dress, and consume. My “Paris” has always been as much about the “Nouvelle Vague” as the tourist sights or the romances conducted; my alps as much about Bond (or the Sound of Music) as Franz Klammering down the slopes.

French film, Turin set. Don't ask. Late: no Belmondo

In fact so much of my mental geography takes its shape courtesy of cinema, older cinema, the stuff of youth and adolescnce most of all. Thus Thomas Crown. Ferraris. Freedom. It is interesting that a few of the later clips of Ferrari, set in McMansion Land in wealthy America, look a little tacky. It is simply not the same when an American man pulls a girl in hot pants because he has a big fast red thing to drive. Ferrari is Europe. European means Sophisticated. This is very old, reductionist thinking, naturally, but that is the mood here, unashamedly.

And so we leave exhilarated but a little sad. Sad not just that glamour is so commoditized these days, but also asking where are the great modern iconic films that everybody sees? Here at this show in mournful Turin (I quote many of the Grand Tourists, and tend to agree) I fall utterly for the magic of cinema again: I feel my age as well, enjoying the 50s and 60s and 70s far more than anything more modern. What is most saddening is the realization that the collective experience of cinema has atomised into markets: the multiplex, the living room, the many rooms with television, the personalized download – legal or not.

A Ferrari store downtown.

Back at the hotel I find England Under 21 versus Italy Under 21 at football on tv. I rush out again into the night to find a bar in which to share this moment of Anglo-Italian togetherness. Football, along with festivals and free concerts being the only times we truly come together now. I run down a portico’d street in the rain, thinking of Antonioni movies in Bologna, of Jean-Pierre Leaud in “Last Tango”, of Mario Brava, and Dario Argento. Great film makers with the architectural – and populist, almost – touch. I turn a corner and…”schuss”. A girl stands with a clipboard in one hand, her finger to her mouth in silencing gesture. They are making a film, tonight. It is a secret, no photos please,” she says.

The actors begin. In French. I look in vain for Belmondo. Or Connery. No matter, those guys are in the National Museum of Cinema. Turin’s great secret shroud. There we can think about an art form that changed us all; and perhaps its gentle message is that the form is shortly to be a museum piece itself. At least in stormy-mournful late night Turin the magic is still being made.

England 2: Italy 2. Everyone is happy, after the second Campari. But outside there is only one Ferrari to take us home.

Right opposite the Gramsci hotel as well.

Probably a football player.

Business Travels

The Turin rail station, the Porta Nuova, is a sea of rubbish; the computer is down at the tourist kiosk, “because of all the construction – here’s the photo-copy”, and outside building works are beached on every corner, including the “balcony” of the hotel room which is sheathed in my first Turin shroud, comprising plastic, rubble and girders. No religious image; that’s on the postcards down the portico.

Not so much a first impression, as a “moment”, the kind all cities can produce after, say, crossing the alps, or spending a lot of time in small towns. It is still a moment; a moment that evolves by taking the “wrong” turn from the station-side hotel and entering a bleak world of other cheap hotels, porno cinemas – so they still exist? – and the atmosphere of an Eastern European smelting town, circa 1965. It’s like turning left at Euston station and thinking you’re about to find Sienna. Thus the miseries of travel.

Which, of course, is all very unfair: the product of tiredness, sun and the ways of cities. If I was a surrealist (and this was 1920) I’d be happy to be confronted with these symbols of city life: the come-hither hookers, the tall and imposing office buildings, the wide car lanes and the (quite terrible) drivers. I don’t dislike this, for it is how cities are beyond the marketing plans; it’s just different from La Chambre or even Rivoli.

To use an anology it’s like coming to Manhattan first via a long walk in Queens, and then circling Central park (in this case walking a few miles along the Po river, gazing at hundreds of empty riverside cafés, a lot more building work, and gaggles of policemen buying ice creams or esperessos). It is fair, perhaps, to say that Turin is not yet a true tourist destination. Later, when I have walked and walked through the porticoed centre, seen plenty enough culture, and sat outside squares as big as the People’s Palace in Bucherest, I never quite shuck-off the idea of industrial surface, a “B” grade INSEAD project in urban renewal, no matter how hard I try.

The “myth” of Turin lies somewhere between the vectors of business, football and cars: only the former would Tom have had to consider, probably at the market-place in what is now the Piazza del Republica (and still as multi-ethnic as Tom’s time, I suspect). The closest he would get to the football-car thing is a troubadour on horseback. Or a bandit, resting from hard labours in the mountain passes.

The Dukes of Savoy ruled from Turin, and its location makes it very “nodal” for business, coming from either Venice, or Lyon. It’s said to be a city of the “night”. So at vampire hour I go to the piazza Vittorio Venetta to do the business.

“I’m surprised,” says American Robert, “by how people make some money by self-publishing and working with small companies these days.” He’s one of those men, easy in easy soft clothes, coiled-up in relaxation; and quite often utterly bald.

But shiny.

They exist everywhere in big cities, where they often to be found talking about ‘where next?’

“It’s a busy August,” he tells The Apprentice. “Nairobi, Cologne, home, Cambodia. I’m really looking forward to Cambodia.” The Apprentice has the role common in international business – yes man. When TA states an opinion it is so that “Robert” can reposition it. You’re right: but I am righter. Avoiding eye-contact (which is only for superiors) Robert stares towards the Po river, not for inspiration, more a semi-benevolent though weary stimulus to his explanation. Or a tiny act in the perpetual power play of business man-hood, you take your choice.

“With Amazon, and some of those other sites, a writer can publish and broker a small income,” Robert says, following a standard convention of explaining the snow-blindingly obvious truth with the air of Homeric Ode. I once worked for an Englishman overseas who “found” words in the OED, and made up new definitions for the “marketplace” - trade-marking them if he could. He relied on difference, eye-contact (all his clients were superiors), and a fine eye for the fine chance.

TA asks Robert about his role in Turin, then tries, hesitantly, to define it for himself.
“It isn’t that simple. What I do is very hard to explain [to simpletons and inferiors]. I usually say ‘management’: most people can understand that. The thing is, what we do has its own special language, and people can’t understand its frames of reference. ‘Platforms’, ‘Integration compatibilities’, ‘optimized thinking.’ If I said I was working for the UN improving on the accountable performance matrixes, people would get the wrong idea.”

The Apprentice Nods, as Apprentices Must. I think he has the idea. He’s the IT guy, and Robert has to prove he “knows”.

“This Wikipedia is good,” Robert says. “We were trying to get this guy from Grozny – that’s in Chechnya [ spoken slowly, for the slow]. So we talked to our travel guys and they told us Chechnya doesn’t have an airport. So I had someone check, on the internet, and we used Wikipedia, or Google, and we found that it was re-opened in March. It isn’t even on the Aeroflot website yet. We sent the code [web address?] to the travel people and they said they’d sort it. It’ll still be a miracle if he makes it. But I’d love to meet him. Chechnya, there’s a market.”

It is one of truths of being overseas for any length of time, working and living, that characters change – or rather they morph into a defensive aggression that is, in part, constructed out of the implicit question: “what went wrong at home?” We become bigger, more confident than at home, less risk averse. Though the world is small now.

When I moved to Budapest, knowing nobody, I soon met some ex-pat Americans. One, some kind of musician, popped out of the bar we were in, Googled me, and returned to ask about some part of my old life…the whole exercise took about 15 minutes, and my history was then part of my new life, despite the inaccuracies of the article. Hence the construction of social fortifications; this “biggerness”: “abroad” we can be mysterious, imperial, libidinous, “big fish.”

Robert is riffing on new media now. “So this guy, he’s an Armenian, you been there? He’s the secretary of the Farmers’ union, and he hasn’t got email. Imagine that.” Apprentice does, to no conclusion. He asks about the “deal” brewing: there are “complications” it seems. “Couldn’t you set up one of those ‘China funds’ and just buy it?”
“In Russia?”
“Yes, in Russia.”
“In Russia that would be like boxing from the floor."

Which is how I feel a little in Torino, where for no definitive reason, other than a noticeable change in masculine self-regard – it’s ratcheted up considerably since France, even with foreigners – I’m thinking about commerce. Commerce and male anxiety. Am I mistaken or is there some kind of crisis going on here?

“It is the law, the fight against Terror,” Maria says. “Since 2005. If you want to use our computer we have to know everything about you. Are you a terrorist?” Maria leans forwards, she’s wearing a small pink bra and has a good tan. Then she takes my passport, sees my age, leans away, romance over. “So old,” she says. “I guess you’re not a terrrotist. Three euros, one hour.”

Thus continues my odyssey in the suspicious world of Italian Internet. At the internet point in the hotel the “law” is photo-copied about the terminal. The manager, Pietro, cannot find the password to log on, though. And this after numerous attempts, a geeky assistant’s assitance, two mobile phone calls and two re-boots. On the third I get some kind of access. “Firewalls,” Pietro says, “so we can protect ourselves.” I try and surf, but so many sites are blocked, so many pop-ups pop-up advising me that this is being monitored. By who? The police who aren’t buying ice creams on the Po?

Maria works afternoons and nights at the cyber point near the University. “It’s busy but not mad,” she says. “students and strangers, mostly.” Perhaps it is good that technology isn’t so easy here: it forces a different kind of social interaction, though I’d love to have Cesare Pevese or Umberto Eco’s details at my fingertips. I ask the American artist, Jim Hake, who has lived here for eleven years how much he uses it.
“It’s an illusion, not real,” he says. “You move someplace and try and keep a sense of identity you email friends back home. But when you meet them face to face you realize you’ve changed, and they have. There’s nothing there.” His work – which I’ll feature separately – is about the betwixt nature of modern art; Hake investigates in sculpture the ideas of mass reproduction in the age of the digital…

Eileen works for a language school here. She’s organizing the business travel of one of her investors, from Ireland. The office wi-fi is down, so they are in the cyber café. “If you fly via London you can be in Cork by…it’s much cheaper…no wait, let’s try this one…”

“Good, finally,” says another (Irish) Robert, sitting annoyed and unencumbered with labour.

Cesare Pavese committed suicide in a hotel, the Alburgo Roma, down the road (Wiki tells me: 'The circumstances of his suicide, which took place in a hotel room, grossly mimic the last scene of 'Tra Donne Sole' (Among Women Only), his penultimate book') but I don’t know why; but I am struck by thoughts of business pressure (this is Fiat Town, after all), and the curious and very evident Madonna-whore vision of many of the men here. Even the porno cinema was advertising “mature” products, illustrated by women of “age and size”. I haven’t seen the films, so who knows? Turin, despite its grandest squares, “the biggest in the world”, and its stylish outdoor lifestyle, has in turn a heavy thunder-clap of claustrophobia, and old-fashionedness . Is this just the war on terror? I don’t think so.

On the World Service last night Kristen Scott-Thomas talked long about the benefits of French life, most specifically the rights for women, and mothers. “It’s fantastic,” she says (I’ll look for the transcript). Here I’ve already seen three shouting matches and stormy separations between pouty men and women. That’s more separations than an entire season at Crystal Palace football club. I’m sure these things are true in other cities, other countries. Anxiety, “proving yourself”, being part of the male-female dynamic, are three sides of the contemporary triangulation. Strange still, to be having these thoughts in sunny Torino.

Up a porticoed street somewhere in the city Umberto Eco is presumably working on the answers right now; or showing how simlilar signs and signifiers were present in Renaissance Italy. The same issues of power, position and gender politics were, after all, the concern of the Florentine, Niccolo Machiavelli. Who, incidentally, died not knowing that his “Prince” would have any influence, let alone be a bible for the “Roberts” of this world. Eco is Casuabon style knowledge with PowerPoint simplicity of prose, sort of. Tom would have liked Umberto Eco, so would I: but he’s not answering his emails.

Outside the university a group of students are filming an elderly white-haired man, Umberto Two, quite possibly. I can’t hear what is going on because the men who drink in the car-park opposite are singing a loud song, and the police are still running the squares in search of an over-long skirt or a under-priced Campari. Perhaps the song is about love; I can’t tell. As Robert might say: “The thing is, what we do has its own special language, and people can’t understand its frames of reference.”

Almost home and I bump into the Gramsci hotel, named, I hope, after the Marxist thinker, imprisoned (and dying) for his views. Gramsci’s ideas meant something twenty years ago, another way of seeing how society might work, “Marxism today” and all that. Now he’s a hotel in the seedy part of town. That’s the market for ideas, these days.

Thus much of business. Next is art, cinema and fun.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Rude Rivoli

There is a great hill top palace, Napoleon was here – the Corso Francia goes Roman Straight for Turin. There is a lovely old town, hilly and rambling, full of art galleries and bookshops with glossy interior decorating coffee-tablers. The palace is now a fine art gallery, Bruce Neuman is being shown. Couples come here to smooch-away the daylight.

“About sixe miles beyond Saint Georges, I saw a very memorable and admirable thing, if that be true that is reported of it. Rowland one of the twelve Peeres of France, and the sisters sonne of Charlemaine…did cleave an exceeding hard stone in the middest, of a foote and a halfe thicke, with his sword, which stone is there shewed as a monument of his puissance, and his picture in the wall hard by the stone on horse-backe brandishing his sword.

…In many places of Piemont I observed most delicate strawen hats, which both men and women use in most places of that Province, but especially the women. For those that the women weare are very prety, some of them having at least an hundred seames made with silke, and some pretily woven in the seames with silver, and many flowers, borders, and branches very curiously wrought in them, in so much that some of them were valued at two duckatons, that is, eleven shillings. (about a hundred pounds now

“I rode from Rivole about three of the clocke in the afternoone that Sunday, and came to Turin which was four miles beyond it, about five of the clocke. I observed three things betwixt Rivole and Turin…I saw Rie reaped a little on this side Turin which is about sixe weeks sooner then we se to reape it in England. I saw infinite abundance of walnut-trees in that part of Piemont, and wonderfull plenty of corne, especially Rie, and a marvailous evennesse and plainenesse of the ground for a great space, and store of vines that grow not so low as in France, but upon high poles or railes, a great deale higher from the ground.

There rode in our company a merry Italian one Antonio, that vaunted he was lineally descended from the famous Marcus Antonius of Rome the Triumvir, and would oftentimes cheer us with his sociable conceit: courage, courage, le Diable est mort. That is, be merry, for the Devill is dead.”

In the bustling central piazza young and very old mix and watch the electrical storms loom [I’ve had one every day since Paris, May 23: in northern France at 4, further south between 5 and 6; here it arrives at 6.15]. Anyway, so far so good.

But Rivoli does not have a hotel. The only one is two miles away, betwixt Rivoli and Alpignano, where the Turin train stops. The hotel, let’s call it The Hotel, is brand new, marble-floored, fancy, furniture is Ikea-style copies of famous designs. In white, red and modernist black. Around the corner is a sister bar/restaurant with cocktail glasses and concoctions available. There are no other guests; the bar has two customers.

No smoke, just mirrors

My view is a barracks. Perhaps this the WAGs hotel, for those post-match get togethers? No sign. In the morning the hotel card-reader is illiterate. It is a four mile return march to get the cash to pay. And I’ve been woken by a morning “Revallee” of the imperial Italian march. No soldiers emerge: the only life I’ve seen are rats running between the store rooms.

After Rousseau, Shrouds and Trompe L’oeuil, I’m ready for smoke and mirrors, but determined not to fall into stereotype. But I’m thinking that I smell a whiff not of rat, but of that Italian “myth” and Interpol (of Lyon) reality: money laundering. I’ve seen these places before in Eastern Europe” spotless, perfect and utterly pointless. There are many illerate bank ATMs on my walk back through Rivoli, until I find a more universal brand.

At the “Internet Point”, finally found (I’m walking Tom distances these days, just to find technology) I’m given a long lecture about the “war on terror” and the internet. [All will be explained in Turin]. I leave, walk three miles back to Alpignano, because none of the tabacs have bus tickets (which is curious) – it is the first time I’ve gone backwards, a symbol, slight as it might seem, that has a little “haunting”.

Rivoli: a nice town. I just wonder who owns it. This may be rude, but a tourist destination, as this is, usually has – like – accommodation.

Thus much of Rude Rivoli.

Over the Top

There are 100 ski resorts in the Val Cenis – which is west of Chambéry and heading for the Alps and Italy. In Mondane there are posters: it is the regions 40th birthday. Happy birthday piste n’ pissed. Mondane is commemorating another birthday: it is 50 years since it was flooded, the high-street 15 feet under water, deaths. There is a small exhibition with testimonies in the local museum – to “mechanical pianos”, a speciality here, it seems.

“The worst wayes that ever I travelled in all my life in the Sommer were those betwixt Chamberie and Aiguebelle, which were as bad as the worst I ever rode in England in the midst of Winter: insomuch that the wayes of Savoy may be proverbially spoken of as the Owles of Athens, the peares of Calabria and the Quailes of Delos.

…I commended Savoy a pretty while for the best place that ever I saw in my life, for abundance of pleasant springs, descending from the mountains, till the last I considered the cause of those springs. For they are not fresh springs, as I conjectured at the first, but onely little torrents of snow water, which distilleth from the toppe of those mountains, when the snow by the heate of the sunne is dissolved into water. Of those torrents I think I saw at the least a thousand betwixt the foote of the ascent of the Mountaine Aiguebelle and Novalaise in Piemont, at the descent of the Mountaine Senis; which places are sixty two miles asunder.”

Bikers and HGV drivers are the staple of Mondane; in La Chambre, a stop-off post for the former, and cyclists, I met four Australians. They were in their 60s, wiry-fit. On three month trips: one couple will cycle the rest of France and catch a boat for Cherbourg, then fly home from England, the others are off to ride the Danube.

La Chambre is where Jane Fonda, Rousseau, Hell’s Angels and Lance Armstrong come together in my mind – there being not many things to do, other than interview bikers, cyclists, and Serbian jailbirds. For, surrounded by the first vision of “proper” mountains with their five weather in an hour peaks, and without wi-fi (“lost”, and anyway it’s not the season, yet…a few more weeks,” says Julie returning from holiday and about to start her summer lodge-work up in “Two Alps.”) I think about us as travellers in search of fitness and health.

“The swiftest and violentest lake that ever I saw, is that which runneth through Savoy, called Lezere, which is much swifter than the Rhodanus at Lyons, that by the poets is called Rapidissimus amnis. For this is so extreme swift, that no fish can possible live in it, by reason that it will be carried away by the most violent fource of the torrent, and dashed against huge stones which are in most places of the lake. Yea there are many thousand stones in that lake much bigger then the stones of Stoneage by the towne of Amesbury in Wilt-shire, or the exceeding great stone upon Hamdon hil in Somerset-shire, so famous for the quarre, which is within a mile of the Parish of Odcombe my dear natalitiall place. ..The cause of the extraordinary swiftness of this lake is, the continuall fluxe of the snow water descending from those mountains, which doth augment and multiplie the lake in a thousand places. There is another thing also to be observed in this lake, the horrible and hideous noyse thereof. For I thinke it keepeth almost as terrible a noyse as the river Cocytus in Hell, which the poets doe extol for the murmuring thereof, as having his name Cocytus from the olde Greeke word…which signifieth to keepe a noyse.

I travelled many miles in Savoy before I could see any snow upon the mountaines, but when I came something near Aiguebelle I saw great abundance almost upon every mountaine.

The Alpes after I had once descended from the mountaine Aiguebelle, towards Chambery inclosed me on every side like two walles till I was past mount Senis, even for the space of sixty miles.”

Expensive spas, fitness hotels and spiritual retreats are flecked around these valleys: they are fly-drive territory, off the “trade route” I and Tom (and Tim) follow. Appearance, not in the Parisian, nor the Lyonaise, sense is important here. The “look” is sportif, leather or lycra. Though my McQueen doesn’t count, the bikers tell me. Tant pis.

The Floods of Modane, 1957

In a spotless marble-floored café on the via Vittore Immanuel in Turin I realize something is missing, standing at the bar. What it is, is smoke. “Impossible in Italy now, illegal,” a Slovene waitress tells me in Susa, just over the border.” And in this new era of smoke-free eating and drinking there is just a little more of a return to the “natural”.

“…The countrey of Savoy is very cold, and much subject to raine, by reason of these cloudes, that are continually hovering above the Alpes, which being the receptacles of raine do there more distill their moisture, then in other countries.

I observed an admirable abundance of Butter-flies in many places of Savoy, by the hundreth part more than ever I saw in any countrey before, whereof many great swarmes, which were (according to my estimation and conjecture) at the least two thousand, lay dead upon the high waies as we travelled.

When I came to Aiguebelle I saw the effect of the common drinking of snow water in Savoy. For there I saw many men and women have exceeding great bunches or swellings in their throates, such as we call in latin strumas, as bigge as the fistes of a man, through the drinking of the snow water, yea some of their bunches are almost as great as an ordinary foote-ball with us in England. These swellings are much to be seene amongst these Savoyards, neyther are all the Pedemontanes free from them.

I rode from Aiguebelle about two of the clocke in the afternoon, and came to a place called la Chambre, which is eight miles beyond it, about nine of the clocke in the evening: this was the ninth day of June being Thursday. Betwixt Aiguebelle and la Chambre, I observed no extraordinary matter, but such as before in Savoy.

…At a towne called St. Jean de Morienne, which is about six miles beyond la Chambre, I saw a goodly schoole and a great multitude of schollers in it. The Parish Church is a pretty thing, having a faire steeple.”

Even my “bikers” are following their own, carbon-heavy, form of mind, body fine-tuning. The “Rocketman” tells me: “It’s about calculating what you can and can’t do, about knowing.” Knowing, that is, at 240 kilometers an hour on curvaceous mountain roads with “Sherlock Holmes is dead” drops.

Exceeding is the abundance of woodden crosses in Savoy, and a marvailous multitude of little Chappels, with the picture of Christ and the Virgin Mary, and many other religious persons, wherein I did oftentimes see some at their devotion.

“I observed a great multitude of poore woodden-bridges over al Savoy, which were only made of beech trees, that were cut down from the sides of the Alpes. Some few stony bridges I saw also prettily vaulted with an arch or two. These bridges are the necessariest things of all Savoy. For without them they that are on one side of the river, cannot possibly get over to the other side, by reason that the violence of the lake is so great, that it will carry away both man and beast that commeth within it.

I noted one thing about sixe or seven miles before I came to Lasnebourg that is not to be omitted. The waies on the sides of the mountains whereon I rode were so exceeding high, that if my horse had happened to stumble, he had fallen downe with me foure or five times as deepe in some places as Paules tower in London is high. Therefore I very providently preventing the worst dismounted from my horse and lead him in my hand for the space of a mile and halfe at the least, though my company too adventurously rod on, fearing nothing. In Lasnebourg which was the last towne of Savoy that I lodged in, situate under the foot of that exceeding high mountaine Senis, I observed these three things. First the shortnesse of the women’s wastes not naturally but artificially. For all women both of that towne and all other places besides betwixt that and Novalaise a towne of Piemont, at the descent of the mountaine Senys on the other side, some twelve miles off, did gird themselves so high that the distance betwixt their shoulders and their girdle seemed to be but a little handfull. Secondly, the height of their beds: for they were so high that a man could hardly get into his bedde without some kinde of climbing, so that a man needed a ladder to get up as we say here in England. Thirdly, the strangenesse and quaintnesse of the womens head attire. For they wrappe and fold together after a very unseemly fashion, almost as much linen upon their heads as the Turkes doe in those linen caps they weare, which are called Turbents.”

If La Chambre is a staging post, then Lansleburg is a resort proper: even the cows ski. It is betwixt seasons, but the sportswear stores are open and ready. “It’s nice at this time of year, not too many people, says Hugo, who with two mates is cycling, camping and hiking for a few weeks, post college.

As I walk a way up the valley Mont Cenis, in Tom’s footsteps – and the horse-tracks of a thousand Grand Tourists afterwards – I am aware of thinking how good this is for me, healthy, gently tanning, aerobic. There are few cars on these roads, just vans small enough to pass muster (HGVs are banned, must go by the Fréjus, via Mondane), the occasional cyclists pumping for the tops, and schoals of bikers. This is “eden” for bikers. Alois, my Slovene white van man says. He’s almost my age, but seems far older. Communism, even the “soft” Slovene kind under Tito, hasn’t given him the taste for fitness, self-improvement – youth. He seems happy enough. In fact, watching him hop across the meadows in search of Marmot holes, I’d say he’d got the balance pretty good. Tonight he’ll sleep in Verona. The next day: home in Slovenia. He lets me off at Susa. I walk to the piazza, sit down and order a coffee. Opposite me two stick thin Germans in top-to-toe leather. “A good morning,” one says, sliding off his boots. “Time for a water, I think.”

[Sees “Roch Melow”, “…said to be the highest mountaine of all the Alpes, save one those that part Italy and Germany. Some told me it was fourteene miles high: it is covered with a very Microcosme of clowdes. Of this mountaine ther is no more then a little peece of the toppe to be seene, which seemeth a farre off to be three or foure little turrets or steeples in the aire. I heard a prety history concerning this mountaine which was this. A certain fellow that beene a notorious robber and a very enormous liver, being touched with some remorse of conscience for his licentious and ungodly life, got him two religious pictures, one of Christ, and another of the Virgin Mary, which he carryed a long time about with him, vowing to spend the remainder of his life in fasting and prayer, for expiation of his offences to God, upon the highest mountaine of all the Alpes. Whereupon he went up to a certaine mountaine that in his opinion was the highest of all the Alpine hills, carrying those two pictures with him, and resolving there to end his life. After he had spent some little time there, two pictures more of Christ and our Lady appeared to him, whereby he gathered (but by what reason induced I know not) that he had not chosen that mountaine which was the highest at all; so that he wandered a great while about til he found a higher which was this, unto the toppe whereof he went with his pictures, where he spent the rest of his life in contemplation, and never came down more. My author of this tale or figment (for indeede so I account it and no otherwise) is our Maron [guide or conductor] of Turin, and told us this upon the way.

The descent of the mountaine I found more wearisome and tedious than the ascent. For I rode all the way up being assisted with my guide of Lasnebourg, but downe I was constrained to walke a foote for the space of seven miles. For so much it is betwixt the top and the foote of the mountaine: in all which space I continually descended headlong. The waies were exceedingly uneasie. For they were wonderfull hard, all stony and full of windings and intricate turnings, whereof I thinke there were at the least two hundred before I came to the foot. Stil I met many people ascending, and mules laden with carriage, and a great company of dunne kine driven up the hill with collars about their neckes: in those waies I found many stones wherein I plainly perceived the mettall of tinne, whereof I saw a great multitude. One of them I tooke up in my hand, intending to carry it home into England, but one of my company to whim I delivered it to keepe for me, lost it.

We’re all healthy now. Next stop: why? Does it make us better? I should email Jane Fonda. In Lanleburg I watch BBC World. Kirtsy Lang is interviewing Robert Service, an Oxford academic, about the “end” of communism, not as practiced in Sloenia, Russia or Bulgaria, but as an idea. As another mind-body-control biker zooms past it all makes a curious healthy sense.

Val Cenis has 100 resorts.

Chambéry, natural high, smoke and mirrors?

The Road to Rousseau

"Chambéry had been blandly pleasant – the first graffiti less town I’d visited, sharp air, even a bit of history in Coryate’s revelation that it was once home to the Turin shroud.”

Continental Drifter, Tim Moore.

Chambéry is French, but could at a squint be Italian. It houses a palace to the Dukes of Savoy, the original Dukes of Hazard, so often was this region sacked. Bandits ruled the mountain passes that took Lyon silks to Italy, where the ancestors of Georgio Armani got cracking. Lyon was Dufy’s home for a long while; the artist working on textiles. There is much, in a different life, to write about the trade links between France and Italy – and the Alps played a central part.

So Savoy is, perhaps, an archetype of “betwixtness”. Nowadays Chambéry is a busy university town, with a business park full of start-ups working in the environmental/ecological fields. And this betwixtness is manifest in the contrasts, and little smokes and mirrors, around.

The Cathedral where I first met “Davide”, the spiritual troubadour, is one such example: Patrick has recommended I visit because of its tricks. For almost the entire internal experience is based on trompe l’oueil, painted columns, buttresses, adornments. The effect is spiritual – and with a hint of mischief. In praying here the mis-en-scène is about being fooled. Amiens cathedral this is not.

But it is a half an hour walk from the centre that this betwixt quality reveals itself most fully. For here the philosopher of nature; the original “romantic”, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, came in exile from Geneva. He lived in Les Charmettes with one of his many patrons, a woman this time, and he walked. He walked and he thought.

“In 1749, as Rousseau walked to Vincennes to visit Diderot in prison, he read in the Mercure de France of an essay competition sponsored by the Académie de Dijon, asking whether the development of the arts and sciences had been morally beneficial. Rousseau claimed that this question caused him to have a moment of sudden inspiration by the roadside, during which he perceived the principle of the natural goodness of humanity on which all his later philosophical works were based.”

From Wikipedia

He walked and he thought and he wrote. And what he wrote changed the way we see things. The mountains had long been thought of as pagan hubs of evil, an Axis of Ices, as it were. It is Rousseau, rather than the much later Wordsworth or Caspar Friedrich David, who finds contentment and deep spirituality in walking these paths high into the mountains. The view from his garden is enough to encourage a landscape painter to emigrate here. And yet, for all the beauty, there is always a bust trade-route town half an hour down the hill. A balance, smaller and more perfect, less Rabelesian, than Lyon, but a fine betwixtness all the same. Rousseau – in the why we travel stakes – is important not just in terms of political development, human psychology, and aesthetic sense, but also in shifting the “vision” of the world. As did Favre, whose face appears on one of those “Lyon” style trompe l’oueil building paintings. Favre was a grammarian, got the French language into shape, before Voltaire buffed it further. It is one of those ironies of being “betwixt” that Chambéry has within its haunting a man who opened up the GPS of aesthetics to us, and another who closed down the vagaries of the French Language.

“Rousseau saw a fundamental divide between society and human nature. Rousseau contended that man was good by nature, when in the state of nature (the state of all other animals, and the condition humankind was in before the creation of civilization and society), but is corrupted by society.” For a primer on his life, of which this part is a small affair, there is always the “wiki”.Or here.

In beginning the process of shift towards nature as expression of God, as pantheistic principle in which man can find himself, Rousseau created a kind of tourism. These days the summer sees hundreds of thousands of people coming to walk these same walks. Perhaps, as with the Englishmen I met in Lansleburg, they come armed with GPS; mountain rescue men are laden with portable defibrillators, hooked up by cell-phone to the hospitals of the region, but they come and they experience nature – without the aid of skis or boards. They are the heirs of Rousseau, even if they don’t think about quite so much.

Catherine has been walking these hills since she was a little girl, it is part of her ritual now. She’s 31, and says she’ll keep exploring, “til she drops.”

In Turin now, debating whether to see the Cathedral “with” the Turin shroud – which was for a time housed in Chambéry, for Turin was the court of the Dukes of Savoy – I realize I’m very betwixt today. I’m missing the calm of the mountains, and the peace of the painterly landscapes. Turin is a Fiat-football city, striving for “tourist” status, but with quite a long way to go. Considerations of the Rouseau-ian kind are light years away here. Instead: a museum: “Ferrari and the Cinema”, that’s the sort of thing Cities should do, not confuse us about textiles (probably from Lyon).

Film with Betty Blue Girl and the Theatre Dullin reflected. Sunday Morning

The one thing Chambéry isn’t is “bland”. It is one of those liminal, “nodal” points, that pushes us onwards up the mountains and towards new ways of seeing. And these days that means seeing that the Environment around these parts, is in serious trouble. Petrol guzzling Rolls Royces don’t help, of course.

Thursday, 14 June 2007


I am five posts behind, but here is a vision of the first Italian city, Turin. Just five minutes of first things. There is still Rousseau, Trompe L'oeuil, Dukes of Savoy, Hazard, Mont Cenis...The Age of No Wireless Anxiety.

Ways of Travel