You Lucky People
It all had seemed harmless enough to start with. We two old geezers, Angelo and I, had known each other well for more than half a century by now. We’d both been in the travel business for all of that time. I’d blagged a trip for us to Emilia Romagna on the basis that we’d write an article on the destination’s green credentials.
As it happened, we were eminently well qualified for the task. We both knew the travel industry like the backs of our hands; I’d been writing about tourism sustainability for more than 20 years and Angelo was still a travel industry politician.
Although he was a bit biased towards the Veneto (he was a Venetian, after all!) we both loved and knew Italy from top to bottom and side to side, having worked there and travelled around together and apart for nearly half a century.
And Emilia Romagna wasn’t just picked out from a hat. With its well-earned reputation for incredible local food and drink, its community-based offbeat left-wing politics and its reverence for regional culture and history – I felt it was set to be a real star in the green tourism world.
Anyway, Angelo had been banging on at me about the delights of green bike-city Ferrara, and I had been desperate to see the extraordinary mosaics in Ravenna for at least forty years. We’d both been to Bologna – the region’s capital – many times and we knew just what an impossibility finding a bad meal was in this red city. So, if the rest of the region was up to the same mark, we would be in for a real feast.
Angelo was detailed to negotiate details with his friends at the Italian tourist board and before you could say Parmesan, Parma Ham or Balsamic Vinegar we were off to the home of all these and much more.
In Bologna we stayed in a ‘Right-on’ B&B – actually a big apart- ment in an enormous palace, with 4 letting rooms run by a youthful crowd of home-knitted organic-eating students.
As soon as we pressed the apartment’s bell and entered the massive doors into the old stone courtyard, we got the picture. We checked into a quirky green apartment in a Bologna palace – now a student co-operative and got ready to eat Bolognese lentils.
Here, student kitsch met massive medieval walls and a sustainable ethos – what the guiding co-operative called “respect for nature, values of organic, energy conservation and sustainability”. We got the picture.
Not an ancient stone had been left unturned to demonstrate the organic, low-impact products in this funky establishment right in the heart of Bologna’s medieval student quarter.
For the rest of the evening Angelo and I wandered what seemed like all the atmospheric medieval city’s 38km of porticos and dozens of squares pursuing our Bolognese hobby - searching for a bad meal – no luck, happily.
We walked and ate with the benefit of Angelo’s Michelin Italy and a little deft questioning of locals. The highlight of the visit for Angelo was eating Culatello di Zibello – possibly the rarest ham in Italy. “What’s the difference with normal Culatello” says Angelo “Five kilometres” replied the waiter. For me, it was the Mostarda – pickled sweet fruit – hot and sweet and delicious all at the same time.
Next on the itinerary was Ferrara. Here we stayed in a chintzy B&B in the old Ghetto, we cycled around to eat and we went to Venetian- style Commachio to see the eel-fishing industry and eel-canning factory. The poster of Sophia Loren, hands above her head exposing her little tufts of underarm hair attested to the date (circa 1954), of the film it promoted – La Donna del Fiume – and reminded me of the passion of my youth. Canned eel, though? Not to my, or Angelo’s taste.
But something quite strange happened to our perceptions in Ferrara. Lucrezia Borgia.
Our local guide took us to where she was resting still looked after by nuns. And revered. They were all talking about her as though she were still alive “Poor maligned, misunder- stood Lady Lucia”, they said. She’d certainly had a tough life – married off many times, little opportunity for her real love and a life of kindness and charity – quite different from the ‘Femme Fatale’ she has been depicted as – but still alive? Maybe it’s the Italian penchant for the present tense, I thought.
Anyway things got a lot better when we arrived in Ravenna. A pretty ocal tour guide, Cinzia, met us at the station and walked us to our B&B. Well, palace in the city wall, to be more precise. Both of us had massive suites, mine included a dressing room, a library an enormous bathroom plus a vast, enormous four-poster bed of which more later.
So with Angelo and I happily settled in our palace lodging suites, Cinzia proceeded to show us around.
Ravenna is a very strange place both very dead and nearly alive at the same time. Thinking about it now gives me the shivers. But you’ve got to see it. In the world of undiscovered amazing places it’s a must.
So we tottered out of the palace with Cinzia and down the road to the mausoleum by way of a very dark, very old basilica.
Let me explain; Ravenna’s times of glory and global power were twofold – the first at the height of the Roman Empire’s power and the second just as Rome was losing its grip. So, for about 500 years, Ravenna was THE place to be.
A pivotal eastern backdoor to the warring western world where East met West met North met South. Or in other words Byzantium came face to face with Rome confronting the Goths fighting the Vandals. And in the 5th century AD Ravenna became really, really hot.
Cinzia took us by our hands and led us there... right into Ravenna 465 AD. In the Basilica of San Vitale we met Theodora the dancing girl mascot of the charioteers who became empress in a love match with Emperor Justinian. Inside what seemed like an enormous Byzan- tine domed dark blue jewel box we met the empress Galla Placidia in this, her mausoleum. Here this shockingly powerful woman created her own final resting place festooned with deeply coloured mosaics glistening to us now as though they were made and polished yesterday or, indeed today.
The sheer opulence of it all made us blink. And then, as Cinzia carefully brought us out to the present day we blinked again. Time travel is hungry work. “Lunch” said Angelo “Will you join us, Cinzia?”
So we all had a nice lunch together after our time-travelling and Cinzia told us that it was her birthday tomorrow “Great,” says Angelo “You can put on a miniskirt to show off your beautiful legs – I know they’re beautiful – and you can join us for dinner too.” God knows what he was doing but at the moment he seemed to be on a roll.
Cinzia was nice enough, tall and slim and very attractive in a Russian ikon or Modigliani kind of way with a touch of the Mona Lisas but she seemed to be rather sweet, and a little tame to tell the truth. Anyway, now we’d got behind the task of getting Cinzia out for dinner there was no going back. The die was cast and the first step of my challenging future made.
Our afternoon was spent innocently enough tasting sublime olive oil up in a Venetian conquered village on the brow of a hill with soaring castles and a microclimate, you’ve guessed it, absolutely perfect for growing the top variety of olives. And wine, as it happens, and honey, and lots of other good things.
Why? Because the hill is actually made of gypsum. Anywhere else they may have knocked it down and sold it as aggregate – but not in Romagna. If you can grow good stuff on it, grow it.
So Brisighella was fabulous and so was the olive oil – plus we’d learnt a new skill. Olive oil tasting was obviously an art in itself – and, according to Cinzia we were naturals.
We were in good spirits on the way back to Ravenna, undaunted by Cinzia’s decision to join us only for dessert and a coffee that evening.
But she did turn up in a mini-skirt, at least, and posed for photo- graphs with us at the hotel door. And wrote her email address on a restaurant napkin for me – another step as it was to turn out.
The next day we were to leave for Angelo’s beloved Venice and the magic of Ravenna could have stopped there, except for the fact that I’d already asked Cinzia to join us. “No problem” he said “Could be a bit of fun” obviously relishing the thought of having double the audience.
And that was it except for one thing, maybe it was the time-travelling, maybe it was the Ravenna air, but somehow my life had opened up to exciting but dangerous possibilities and I could see uncharted territory. I was, of course, blythely unaware of this, happily having an enjoyable trip but deep inside me my internal imp was doing pressups.
To be continued... TWICE A WEEK
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Valere Tjolle is the travel and tourism insider. An entrepreneur, consultant, developer and journalist, he has been in at the beginning of almost every tourism development for the last sixty years. There is no one better placed to expose the seedy side of tourism nor its enormous opportunities to unite people across the globe.