Paradisio

Posted on July 17, 2011

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To enter into heaven, it is, perhaps, appropriate to first pass through hell. On departing from Rochechouart, Ton, a wise and creative man, describes Italians as “the guardians of heaven on earth”. Which may be true but first we must enter a circle of hell. The Frejus tunnel, linking France and Italy via the alps. It is not a particularly long tunnel, taking about 15 mins to drive through.

What it is ,though, is an inferno. The tunnel appears very narrow. As you edge along, the temperature keeps rising, slowly but perceptible. As it continues to get hotter and hotter the air becomes thicker with petrol fumes. A deep yellow fug hangs all around. And still the temperature rises.You endure the passage.

The intensity eats into you and the van drones on. And the temperature rises a little more. At this point, about ten or twelve minutes into the journey, you feel as though within a never ending tunnel. A pergortory of heat and fumes and darkness. Then miraculously you are released. Without warning, catapulted from the void into a new world, Italy.

The inhospitably of the tunnel is a reminder of the harshness of the alps. An icon that mountains are truly a place of nature.Rock and snow and rain are king. Man is forced into the bowels of the earth. As long as you stare at the mountains you can never quite work them out. They hold an inherent enormity.

The trial completed, we are welcomed into the warm reward of Italy. A land where first appearances count. The greatest pantomime on earth begins. In Italy all is theatre. Everyone walks as though on a stage. Subconsciously, Fellini is tracking their every move, and they are ready for the greatest performance of their lives. Everyday.

Of course such drama requires tragedy, as well as amore. I die a little inside every time Connie, our timeless companion, edges her way around one, of over a hundred, ridiculosy high hairpin bends.Miracoulsy we arrive to new vistas, the azure mediteratian glimmering at the foot of green cliffs and olive groves. Then we climb some more, die some more, fall some more.

In my mind is the ending of the Italian job. Visions of us perched half on land, half suspend, over the depths. Except, we have no gold bullion, or Michael Caine’s optimistic, ‘ i have an idea’. We edge our way down from Genoa and along the Ligurian coast. I offer to walk down the steeper roads. A request met with steely indignation.The self -preservation society indeed.

Rappallo is our first stop along the coast. Italy swarms around. Mopeds gather at each traffic light. Like a swarm of bees finding a particulary strong pollen. First one edges in front of you, then a second, third, fourth, fifth. Suddenly they are coming from all angles, left, right, in front of the van. Then, they are away. a hail of rup rup rup a tup tups.

Style is everything whilst riding your vespa. For men, suits are the clothing of choice. The women go for a more lighter look. Impossible large sunglasses, a bikini top, hot pants. Oh,and high heels.You have to look and laugh at how improbably Italian it all is. Clearly falling off the moped never enters the riders thoughts. A fact encapsulated by the obligatory crash helmut perched dismissively and unfastened .

All is in the hands of the gods. All is endlessly fun. A thought summed up in the picture of a singer leaning down from posters promoting the towns upcoming festival. Titti Bianchi. Never has a name fitted a picture, or a country, so well.And so heaven goes on. Heaven in the scenery, heaven in the people, and heaven , foremost of all, in the food.

Reading Elizabeth David had wetted the appetite for some glorious Italian food. However even her evocative prose holds little on the real thing. ‘A cassetta’, is a small cafe on the outskirts of town. It’s first appearance is plastic. Plastic flowers, plastic table clothes, small plastic orange flags. The locals though are eating in here, always a good sign. An assumption made good when the menu arrives. Hand written in pencil on a torn piece of card. A sure sign the food is the important thing, not the looking, but the eating.

The cafe has about six tables and three chefs, one pizza, one pasta, one fish. The pesto gnocchi, a local Lingurian dish, is divine. Beautiful to eat and to look at. The white of the soft and tender fresh gnocchi is covered by a splurge of translucent green home made pesto. Sitting on the table aside a glass of local red wine the colours make the Italian flag. Green, Red, and white.

Divenest of all, the holiest of all foods, is of course the ice cream. The gelatos are housed in palaces and worshiped as fondly as a patron saint. You gaze in awe at their beauty, row after row of colour. Their very names are poetry. Cioccolato Nero. Pocciola. Fiordilatte. Mandorla con Fichi. Stracciatella. Mounds astounding as they tower and lean and swirl, yet never tumble from the heap of beautiful, luscious ice cream.

And then you taste them. The flavours fill every sense. The creaminess is soft enough to drink. You sit down and enjoy. This is something to take your time over, to contemplate. All come to pay homage to this gastronomic delight. The young and old, the impossibly cool, and the families stroking endlessly along the promenade deep into the night.The bow legged Mamas, watching all from behind their own large sunglasses. All are equal before the ice cream.

Italy is a sensory delight. All is movement. Faces and scenes leap out at you. Coffee keeps the beat. All is simple, base, pleasures. Warmness and devil may care attitude. It is as though the Italians know that life is all a giant game. A divine comedy. A thing to be embraced and revealed in.

On Sunday morning we are awoke by singing. Camping on the seafront, at night, we had not noticed the church above us. Now we are awoken by a chorus of hallelujahs. I think Ton may be right. If they are indeed the keepers of heaven, then maybe the Italians have created a garden of earthly delights, here, in preparation. Or, just maybe, true heaven is a place on earth.

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