Wednesday, 9 September 2009

SEPT 7th

Sept 5th. This is the last blog. The ferry docked in Portsmouth this evening after 28 hours at sea. It was quite a different ship from the ferry I took from Livorno to Barcelona. That ship was smart - and that's all. This one has everything - on the one hand it is sensitive to the wildlife in The Bay of Biscay and I went to a presentation and found out a a lot about whales and dolphins and the seabed. Did you know that the English Channel is only 80 metres deep but that the seabed plunges away into the abyss as you enter the bay of Biscay - it's almost a sheer cliff down 5,000 metres. You could put the whole of Switzerland down there and you wouldn't see a thing! And the top deck is full of people with binoculars whale watching. Inside there are people playing bingo and showtime is scantily dressed girls singing all the hits. It was like Margate or Blackpool on a wet Sunday. And at 9.30pm we disembarked and for the first time sat nat misbehaved.

I am going to stay that night with Patrick in Southampton. Sat Nav says it's 22 miles and tells me to turn left. I do and find myself on the M275. Sat Nav immediately gets in a state - the arrows spin around and tell me to go go back but I can't do that so I keep going and leave at the next exit which is only a mile down the road - and now it's only 15 miles to Patrick's house. I think Sat Nav did it deliberately to save me going into the centre of Portsmouth and driving so many unnecessary miles. Cheeky thing! Such a joy to get to Patrick's house. The sad fact is I haven't spoken to anyone for a week and now I can bathe in his beautiful company. Bedtime.

September 6th and the ride from Southampton to Cambridge is a long one. 5 hours. Sat Nav is back on its best behaviour and we don't go on any motorways. I am familiar with the journey from Cambridge to Southampton but never on these little roads. I had no idea Hampshire was so beautiful. Got home just as it was getting dark and it feels like I left just yesterday.

Sept 7th and I go into the doctors surgery - just to say hallo and let them know I'm back safe and sound. The wall is covered in photos of me and Rosie. A hug from the doctor. A hug from the nurse. Emotions all at sea. And later today I have to go to Addenbrookes for a scan. 'Good luck,' said the doctor. And I said, 'It doesn't matter.' What a stupid thing to say! Of course it matters! Me and Rosie have got a long way to go!


Saturday, 5 September 2009

SEPT 3rd

Sept.3. Bilbao. What a delightful place! The people are smart and their houses are pretty and around 7pm all these smart people leave their pretty houses and fill the streets, parks, bars, and restaurants. And what a lively place! Maybe there was a time when it was built around a river. And maybe there was a time when it was built around a cathedral.

Today the new building is going up all around The Guggenheim - a whole new architecture of ovals and ellipses. There isn't a right angle in sight. The artists who created the installations have responded to the building and the city responds to the artists - no dysfunctional dreamers here - but a tough partnership between engineering, industry and design. Come back in 2000 years and The Guggenheim will still be here. The leaning tower of Pisa means nothing to the shanty town all around it. The Guggenheim is the seed for tomorrow's Bilbao. I spend the whole day in The Guggenheim - it's a treasure trove and if you live near Portsmouth it's only a ferry ride away.

(And this is a floral cat or dog outside The Guggenheim. It is difficult to tell by the size whether it's a dog or a cat but the flowers are all flowers!)

I don't make yesterday's mistake and I find a restaurant at 8pm - somewhere to sit, eat, drink, and think without looking at the clock. Artichokes and a rice dish with fish. They don't call it paella round here. I've only got ten more miles to go to the ferry in the morning. Nothing to be afraid of. So why am I afraid? There's a bonus on the way to the ferry. A dear friend suggested I might like to see the bridge over the river - a bit like a horizontal Eiffel Tower and cars and passengers cross the river in a gondola that hangs from the girders. See it, my dear friend!

(This is a picture of a Scottish Pipe Band in Bilbao who may have been sent to make me feel welcome - or maybe they had another reason for being there. Who knows?)

In order to get to the ferry me and Rosie had to go on it! And now I've reached the P&O check in and discover that due to adverse weather conditions the ferry is running two hours late. Well that's better news than I heard from the chap who sells the tickets on the gondola who told me there was no ferry today. And that was a heart sinking moment. Well, there is. It's just late. And now I've just got to sit here and wait. But you don't need to hear about that. So I'll just get on with it on my own and write again when me and Rosie get to Portsmouth.


PS. I've just heard why the ferry is late. There was a sick child on board and they couldn't get a helicopter out so the captain took his ship to a French port to get the child to hospital. Isn't it good to know that time and tide does wait for a sick child?

Thursday, 3 September 2009

SEPT 2nd

Sept. 2. It's my daughter's birthday today. Happy birthday, Lucy.I bet I was up before Lucy. 6am Barcelona. That's 5am to you sleepy UK readers! I wanted to get out of Barcelona before the traffic. Surprising how busy the streets are at 6am with folk getting to business - and the Barcelona street parties didn't calm down until 3am. Me and Roisie make our escape in the morning twighlight. Sat Nav is invaluable with a new instruction every 500 yards. We join a motorway and leave it to join another and another... Sat Nav's in control and so is Rosie, and so am I. Rosie and me are joined not by a sacrament but by a satelite navigator. It's hand eye coordination. I look at the screen and then lay hands on Rosie and my confidence flows through her onto the road. I am a horse whisperer. I tell her that at the next roundabout we're going straight on. And we do - up into the cold damp cloudy sky. The humid twighlight has become a cold morning and that massive treeless wall on my right must be the Pyrenees. It looks awful. There's a bonus to leaving so early. We might just manage the 12 hours to Bilbao and get there today. And now we're in a landscape that looks unfinished. Hillocks that look like they've been raised by a JCB, flattened, and planted with fruit trees. There's fertiliser in the air and the landscape smells like a slaughterhouse - dried blood. The soil looks pink. This is where Picasso's 'rose period' was born. I thought I might visit the village high in the Pyrenees where Picasso and Fernande lived - but my mind is set on Bilbao. And then, abruptly, there is a new landscape. The hills are covered in trees and it looks like Perthshire. And we keep climbing and emerge into the most extraordiary geology. Huge fingers of stone several hundred feet high.

This is the landscape of Clint Eastwood - 'go ahead make my day'. But my day is already made and it gets better round every corner. Now the soil is white with Christmas trees growing on cement! And the Pyrenees are still there on my right with a ripple of an echo of hills to my left and we drive through a broad valley with a hilltop village in the middle.

And now the road descends through an alpine landscape _ green with running water and birdsong and we're driving down to Bilbao and I wonder if we haven't really driven from sea to shining sea - from New York to San Francisco - Atlantic to Pacific - instead of Mediterranean to Atlantic.

Bilbao is not Barcelona - it goes to sleep at 10 pm. But it is very pretty and very clean. I try to take a picture of a street sweeping machine - Bilbao's nightlife - because I want to try and please you but it is driven by Michael Schumaker's other brother and the photo is a blur. And now I'll join in with the rest of Bilbao and put out my light. Hasta La Vista!

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

SEPT 1st

Sept 1. Last night me and Rosie finally got on board - cars and lorries and camper vans first. Vespas last. I'm out of my depth in the bowels of this ferry where everyone else seems to know what to do and everyone speaks Spanish. It's not easy to get it all unpacked and upstairs. There are four pieces of luggage and a helmet and I'm wearing the dragster jeans and buffalo jacket which give me great protection on the road but are useless on a flight of stairs. One of the stewards takes a bag from me and shows me to my cabin. Heaven! There's my own bed and my own shower. I peel off my clothes - every thread of it is soaked - and I stand in a hot shower of relief. The arthropod that went into that cabin emerges as a human being. Two beers, a plate of chicken and chips and a long sleep full of strange dreams.

On the map the Mediterranean looks small. There's land all around it. Well I can't see any and we've been steaming west all day and now the sun is setting right in front of us. You can sit on deck and take the sun - or go up another level and take the wind. Right now I'm taking the wind.

Getting off the boat was just as stressful as getting on it. Maybe the problem has to do with leaping into the unknown. I don't know where I'm going to stay - don't know what I'm going to do - but here we are driving up Las Ramblas and 'There's a Small Hotel' I know right in the centre of town. Maybe they'll have a room? Rosie's overheating. So am I.

Have they got a room!! Only my very favourite room in the world!!! This is where I wrote the Picasso show (and when I got stuck I just nipped across the road to the museum). The balcony overlooks the cathedral and that's what it looks like from my balcony with a Spanish moon beaming down on us all.

Buonas Noces

AUG 31st

Aug 31st. Oh what a day! I drank coffee and orange juice in Pisa. Lots of Italian tourists ask me the way to the tower and I tell them what the Venetians say, 'sempre diritto.' In Venice that gets you nowhere but in Pisa it takes you to the tower.

I browsed in the bookshops and then decided to go to Livorno - went back to the hotel and picked up all my luggage, packed it all onto Rosie, and set off. That was a mistake. I should have thought of this before. I can lock up Rosie but I can't secure the luggage. So I can't leave her and I can't check in for the ferry until 9pm. And the problems are mounting. The Sat Nav fell off. I have become totally dependent on it. I trust it's every instruction. Something is missing in the mounting. I don't know what. I'm driving with it in my left hand. This isn't safe. And the oil light keeps flashing and now the fuel light has come on. Calm down, Mike. Stop at a garage and refuel and get an elastic band to secure the Sat. Nav. Refuelled at a self service, cash only, no mechanic petrol station where a kind Dutch camper van driver gives me an elastic band. I try and find the ferry. Livorno is buried under a million huge containers with large lorries everywhere. They know where they're going. I don't. Thank goodness I'm so early. And then I find the ferry at the end of a maze of unfinished road building. And look what happens to the roads when a little yacht wants in. The arrows tells me where to go. The cones tell me I can't go there. Then I find it. That's when the guy says, 'Come back in six hours.' So I drive into Livorno. Everyone in Livorno rides a scooter. There must be a Vespa dealer. I drive around until I find it. He checks the oil. 'Basso!' And he tops it up. No more problems left for today. It's only stupid o'clock and I'm still far too early. But I find a dirt track that takes me down to a place by the river. You can see the boats go by - you can spend a life forever.

There's no one to touch with my mind and I lay me down and unwind. The tide's rising and the river is flowing backwards.


Monday, 31 August 2009

AUG 30th

Aug 30. Leaving Hotel Sacre Cuore just before midday and the sat nav immediately takes me onto an unmade road. It isn't even a farm track and it falls so steeply that I don't think me and Roisie can turn around and go back. We plough on and come out at a junction beside the main dual carriageway. How did sat nav know that? I open the throttle and off we go! Me and Rosie have a wee problem. I don't think she'll mind me telling you that when she's half full it's too early to fill up. 5 litres is the minimum that self service will serve. When she's quarter full then we're already a bit low and not for the first time I find nyself on the road with the warning light on, no garage in sight, it's a Sunday and we're in trouble. After another ten scary miles we're nearly empty and I leave the main road and drive into the nearest town wishing it wasn't a Sunday in August. And we come upon a petrol station right away. It's self service, and the machine doesn't take credit cards. None of them do. A kind person changes my 50 Euro note, and the machine gives Rosie 10 Euros worth of fuel which should get us all the way to Pisa. When we rejoin the dual carriageway we pass a service station within half a mile. Ho hum.

The road from Perugia to Pisa is the same as the road from Pisa to Perugia. We did it a fortnight ago. We leave the dual carriageway and climb over the chianti hills. There are thousands of square miles of vineyards in these hills. And I must have missed the view on the way south. The road follows a high ridge and you can see for miles in every direction. Sometimes me and Rosie stop and let the landscape take our breath away. We drive for 30 miles and don't see another car. Me and Rosie practice leaning over into the curves like real professionals. Arriving into Pisa and sat nav takes me to within 50 yards of Hotel Galileo where I'm sleeping tonight. There it is at the end of this one way street where sat nav directs us. I'm reluctant to disobey the no entry sign so I explore another way. There is no other way. So I break the law. Rosie's locked up for the night. She refuses to have her photo taken in front of the leaning tower. She will have nothing to do with anything so vulgar. 'If your blog readers want to see the leaning tower then can get the tea towel,' she sulks. So I wander up to the tower and take this picture on my own.

Many years ago I came here and enjoyed a fabulous 'La Sonnambula' in the little opera house. Colin Steele never cracks a note. Chet sometimes did. The brass players of The Pisa opera always do. I love it. It's got a rustic quality that I'm very comfortable with. Of course there's nothing on tonight. It's August. But look at what they've got coming up. 'Tosca' in January and 'Candide' in March.

Decide to treat myself to 'Candide' for my birthday. The problem with 'Candide' is that the overture is just the best piece of music ever. So cheerful and so mischevous. You just want them to play it again. How on earth are these rustic brass ever going to get their lips round that? The restaurant I wanted to go to is closed on Sundays. I check it out anyway and discover that it is closed for August! So I find somewhere else and eat like a lonely prince, drank the whole bottle, and stumbled home to bed.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

AUG 29th

Aug 29. Feeling my age this morning. Barney's dad is 8 years younger than me so I let him check the oil. He looked at the book and found where the dipstick was, wiped it clean, put it back, and then drew it out like King Arthur and there was the oil level - perfect. No problem! One last photo of two people in love.

So off we go! Me and Rosie together burning up the kilometres from Bagni San Filippo to Perugia. And there's Silvana at this most Catholic of hotels. A lapsed convent with a bar. She presents me with my clean laundry, is it really two weeks since I was last here? - a large cool beer, a shower, a couple of hours with John Muir in Alaska, and me sitting here with a campari soda con gin high above Umbria in the early evening sun. I don't know how the hierachy shakes up and down here but it was the chap who's been working in the garden who opened the bar for me - and what a heavy hand he had with the gin! I was well gone before dinner. And what a dinner! Lasagne and then seconds. Roast beef with courgettes and aubergines and then seconds! I made a good stab at the litre of wine and I hope the doctors and nurses at Addenbrookes will be pleased with my failure. Semi-freddo with chocolater sauce and just sober enough to take this picture of the Umbrian moon in the sunset.

Buona notte, Tutti.