The End of the Week

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Today marks the end of Mental Health Awareness Week. Given how important mental health awareness is to me, if ever there was a time for me to write a post about it, then this was the week.

I started writing the post a week ago. The reason it was only finished today wasn’t because I was editing it to perfection, tinkering with sentence structure or waiting to find just the right photograph to accompany the post. It was, ironically, delayed by my mental health.

Earlier, a good friend sent me a message with a lovely Pooh and Piglet ‘conversation’, which starts with Pooh asking Piglet “Do you ever have days when everything feels… Not Very Okay At All? And sometimes you don’t even know why you feel Not Very Okay At All, you just know that you do.”

This past week was tough. There’s no need for me to tell you why. Apart from a couple of the reasons not being mine to tell, no matter how heartbreaking they might be, even telling you my own parts of the story wouldn’t serve any purpose really other than to fill space on this page. What I will tell you though is how I felt through the week, a week that I was very, very conscious of my mental health.

I felt Not Very Okay At All.

But here’s the thing …‘not very okay’ is okay. It’s not a crime and certainly not a life sentence. It might take a bit of time to ride it out, along with tears and a good therapist, but it’s okay. And ‘not very okay’ isn’t something I have a monopoly on. It’s also not something that I have to do on my own. It’s taken me a while to come to that realization, despite all my advocacy of mental health awareness, but I got there in the end (I never do things the easy way, me!).

I’ve also managed to surround myself with some wonderful people who have come to that realization too. This past week especially, despite dealing with their own challenges, they haven’t left me to be ‘not very okay’ on my own. A simple ‘how are you doing?’ text is a powerful thing when you’re starting to feel like you don’t know which end is up. I don’t expect them to have the answers – that’s why I pay a therapist – although a couple have been particularly good at righting the ship. But just knowing that someone knows you’re struggling and is on your side … that’s a gift.

That’s something that I hope to never lose, to never take for granted, and to return and pay forward as much as I can. To do that, I need to not just stay aware of my own mental health, but also be aware of that of others. So while it might be the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, it can’t be the end of mental health awareness. I can promise that I’ve no intention of letting it be for me, at least!

At the end of that little Pooh and Piglet thing that my friend sent me, Piglet tells Pooh that “all you need to do, on those days when you feel Not Very Okay At All, is come and find me, and tell me. Don’t ever feel like you have to hide the fact you’re feeling Not Very Okay At All. Always come and tell me. Because I will always be there.”

Consider me Piglet!

Owed to an Impulsive Decision (no, I don’t mean ‘ode’!)

I couldn’t let today pass without writing. It’s a bit of a day. At the start of a bit of a weekend. And I’m just a little bit excited!

If you’d told me a year ago today that I would be sitting in the sun in East London, downing a soya latte because it was better for my singing voice than regular milk … well, I’d have sent you to see the nearest doctor!

If you’d told me 30 years ago that I’d be singing the songs of my teens, arranged spectacularly by a couple of musical geniuses, with close to 400 other London-dwellers, some of whom had become really good friends … well, I’d have been so excited you’d have had to send ME to see the nearest doctor!

Yet both of these are happening today. And neither would be happening if it weren’t for a somewhat impulsive decision last July to base myself in London temporarily for a bit, prompted by the asking of one of the smartest women I know.

I say ‘somewhat’ impulsive … this is me, after all. The queen of the pros and cons lists. Although I was holding fast to my New Year’s resolution last year when it came to being less plan-driven! There was a pros and cons list. But it wasn’t really needed. Or complete, by far!

Nowhere on the pros list was the opportunity to be in a pub in Waterloo and ‘discover’ a choir. Nowhere on the pros list was becoming part of the most welcoming, non-judgemental, supportive and soundest (large) group of people you could hope to join. Nowhere on the pros list was being encouraged by a selection of that group to get over my crippling fear of being on stage on my own. Nowhere on the pros list was the opportunity to sing in what promises to be an absolutely EPIC concert. And for that matter, nowhere on the list was the opportunity to sing in support of runners at the London Marathon.

Of course there have been other pros I could never have imagined, not least being adopted as ‘auntie’ by three gorgeous kids (and their wonderful parents), but today it’s all about London City Voices!

I’m beyond thankful for my LCV family, and everything that Richard, Ben and Kate do! I’m deeply indebted to Gianna for prompting that impulsive decision to give London a chance in the first place. And I’m very appreciative of whatever it was in me that decided to take that chance.

It is a bit of a day. It is a REALLY GOOD bit of a day.

Tips for solo travelling … Go. Do. Don’t.

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Anyone who knows me can testify, I’m a fan of solo travelling. It’s pointless trying to count the number of times I’ve packed a bag and scarpered off on my own for anything between a day and a fortnight – I like my own company far too much. So much so that when I announced earlier this year that I was going on holiday with a group this coming summer, there were a few jaws that needed to be picked up off the floor. There’s still one or two who will only believe it when they see it. (It *is* happening, and I am very excited about it!)

Some time last year, a friend suggested that I write a post on tips for solo travelling (better late than never, right Rach!). I gave it some thought, but I didn’t really want to write another ‘keep your valuables in the hotel safe and only walk in well-lit areas’ piece. Not that there’s anything wrong with that advice! That should be my first tip, pay heed to that stuff. It’s common sense really. And it’s not advice that’s reserved for solo travelling.

But there are other tips I can offer, tips which I’ve already talked at least a couple of friends’ ears off about. They can be distilled down to three tiny words … Go. Do. Don’t.

GO

It seems obvious. When travelling solo … go. It seems obvious if you interpret that as ‘actually leave’. But that’s not what I mean.

When I say ‘go’, I mean actually consider going on a trip on your own and just do it. It doesn’t have to be an Eat Pray Love­-style trek of self-discovery – who’s got time for that! (If you have, by all means do it, and I’ll be very envious!). It can be a week, a long weekend, an overnight stay, or a day trip. It can be a city break, a week on a beach, a day or two in quiet rurality, or a quick train journey to spend a few hours somewhere you’ve never been before. Regular readers of my musings will know that I do tend to favour Venice, but I’ve also had some wonderful trips closer to home, just by taking off for the day with the backpack.

The key is just going. Taking time to go somewhere on your own. It can be somewhere that’s swarming with people, but go on your own.

Yes, it can be daunting if you’re used to planning trips with others, travelling with friends or your other half. But it’s so liberating when you have the freedom to do your own thing, something which you want to do, with no restrictions on how selfish you can be when choosing what to do with your time. Which brings me to the second of the three words …

DO

Well obviously you’re going to do something, right! But if you’re going to have the time and freedom to do something, make it something that you want to do. Not something a guide book tells you to do. Not something that your friend/neighbour/random person in the coffee queue has suggested that you do. You’ll know what you’re interested in … find that and do it. Do your ‘thing’. You’ll enjoy it because it’s your thing.

And while you’re enjoying it, don’t be surprised if inspiration comes and smacks you across the face! Especially if you’ve any artistic or creative leanings (although I have a theory that everyone has those leanings, but that’s for another day). It might not be straightaway, and you can’t go looking for it, but it will come. Take it from one who has compared the seen-it-all-before photos from the first couple of days of a trip to the ‘eye’ for a good photo opportunity that she suddenly developed by the third day when random curiosities and settings started to catch her eye.

And if inspiration doesn’t strike, well that’s not the end of the world, because you’re still doing something you want to do, and how bad is that!

DON’T

Nope, I’m not going to rattle off a list of things to avoid.

What I will strongly advise is don’t say no to random opportunities that present themselves. Don’t stick rigidly to a plan if you happen upon something that’s more appealing but messes with that plan. Don’t turn down an offer to share dinner with some interesting people you met earlier in the day. Don’t skip spending an hour on the roof of a cathedral, surrounded by the finest examples of gothic architecture, when you find out by accident that you can actually climb up to the roof. Don’t stick to a map when wandering off down another street looks like it could be interesting (and don’t be afraid to ask for directions if you get lost!).

You get the idea, right? Ultimately, don’t say no. You know that serendipity I go on about a bit … why do you think it favours me so!

 

So there you have it … go, do and don’t. Oh and there’s another word … enjoy!!!

 

It’s not all about what happens on-stage!

This post is dedicated to a really good friend who shares my interest in both theatre and theatres, and who’s inspired the return to writing. x

There’s tumbleweed aplenty around this blog, isn’t there. We’ll fix that, eventually. For now though, the first post in a while …

I actually started this particular post 8 months ago. No, I’m not the world’s slowest typist (I might be a strong challenger for the least accurate though!), but rather my mental health went a bit, well, less healthy. The writing stopped. For the first time in … who knows! But it wasn’t permanent, thankfully!

Initially this post was inspired by a visit to La Scala in Milan (or Teatro alla Scala, to give it its full name), something which had been on the infamous bucket list for a while. The reason it was on that bucket list was simple. What happens on stage is undoubtedly special, and I live for my many and frequent escapes to the theatre, but the buildings and rooms which host those escapes are very often a thing to behold and admire as well, many with long storied pasts to recount. I knew enough about it to know that La Scala was one of the most beautiful theatres and of course comes with a long and rich history!

The actual building itself, while architecturally not the dullest you’ve ever seen, wouldn’t exactly blow you away either. But on the inside … well, you know how the Tardis in Doctor Who is ‘bigger on the inside’? La Scala is a whole lot more special on the inside.

(Okay, I know, I compared La Scala to the Tardis, but anyway …)

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La Scala has a signature colour for drapery – a rich, deep red that’s dark enough to tone down the cream and gold fixtures and moldings that outline it, but bright enough to not render the theatre dark and foreboding. The opulence is added by that red presenting in the form of sumptuous velvet upholstery and intricate damask wall coverings. The perfect foil for Italy’s notables in their 1920s finery, as they attended any or all of the many classics for which there are original posters lining the walls.

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Of course because it’s La Scala, it requires a museum to convey just how rich the history of that building actually is. By museum standards, it’s small in area. But they’re not fans of minimalism, so there is an absolute plethora of objects to excite anyone with an interest in classical music. The star of the show though is undoubtedly Franz Liszt’s restored piano. If you play piano and don’t fantasize about getting your hands on that … well, we can’t be friends, I’m afraid!

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Another star, but by no means a supporting player, is an exquisite painting of Maria Callas that instantly struck me as a modern Mona Lisa and saw me spending ten minutes trying to decide if it was sadness, annoyance, confidence or determination that I saw in her expression. I settled on all of the above. It’s not me being indecisive – her expression really is hard to read.

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Interesting, another Callas portrait hangs in Teatro La Fenice in Venice. It’s no less stunning, but very different to its Milanese counterpart. In fact, the two portraits could serve as an illustration of how different the two theatres are. Actually … the two cities themselves! La Scala’s red, along with Callas’ classically elegant black dress and simple, minimalist setting, all make way for a more dramatic, more elaborately decorated appearance in Venice, with muted shades of pastels taking the place of the rich reds in the theatre itself.

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As if to compensate for the richness, La Fenice doesn’t hold back on the gilt. I’m sure during its construction, if you stood still for ten seconds, you’d likely end up covered in gold leaf and framing a painting or fresco or some small panel of decoration. It’s almost too much though, I found.

Where I will forgive it though is in the royal box, because of the effect it helps to create. A small area, holding no more than 24 seats, is made to look like a never-ending tunnel of opulence by the large gilt mirrors hung on opposing walls. It will literally melt your brain to try to count the number of reflections. Trust me, I tried.

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La Fenice fares better than La Scala (at least in my view) on the chandelier front. If you’re a regular theatre-goer, have you noticed just how popular chandeliers are in theatres. And for the most part they’d not be out of place in that chandelier scene in Phantom of the Opera!

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There’s a ringer in the group of chandeliers pictured above! The one that’s bottom right is actually in New York (The Broadway Theatre). Exquisite theatres aren’t exclusive to Italy! New York has its fair share, and London … well there’s so much to talk about, it warrants a coffee table book – London Theatres by Michael Coveney – which I’m almost giddy about getting my hands on soon! And even more giddy to continue checking out for myself! (I know I’m lucky, don’t worry!)

And not all theatres are classically decorated. The Royal Albert Hall in London edged towards futuristic for some of the BBC Proms (don’t tell anyone I took this photo – we weren’t supposed to, but come on, how could I not?!?).

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And if Art Deco is more your décor of choice, Radio City Music Hall in New York will do a number on you for sure!

So next time you’re at the theatre, don’t just look straight ahead. Look around you too – there are treasures off-stage as well as on! And they’re free with the price of the ticket!

A little drama does a coastline good 

Earlier this year, around about March, I made a New Year’s Resolution to get around Ireland a bit more. You read that right – it was March. It usually takes me a few months to decide on a resolution or ten. Don’t judge – I’ve accepted my tendency to want to ‘boil the ocean’, as a friend so perfectly described it once.

I could do much better with that resolution, but there’s time yet. And intent – there’s a roadtrip on the cards with the Thelma to my Louise. Or is she the Louise to my Thelma. I guess as long as she doesn’t drive is off a cliff, it doesn’t make much difference.

I have made some effort though. A few weeks ago I went ‘up north’. Specifically to the Co. Antrim coastline. More specifically, the Giant’s Causeway and Carrick-a-Rede, not to mention some incredible coastline in between!

The Weather

Everyone knows the Irish weather can be a bit temperamental. If there were ten seasons instead of four, it’d still manage to cram all of those seasons into one day.

The usual refrain is that we need the rain to keep things green. We do get sun too – find a farmer and you’ll find he has a decent farmer’s tan by the end of the summer. And sometimes we get exactly the weather we need to show off our incredible scenery in all it’s glory.

The weather we had in Antrim was blustery to say the least. Not gale force winds, but far from a gentle breeze. With that wind came choppy seas and a whole level of drama that made the coastline far more engaging than a calm sunny day ever could!


The Giant’s Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway is an area of interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. Or … Fionn MacCumhaill ripped chunks of the cliffs off to create a path to Scotland so he could go fight a rival Scottish giant.


Take your pick. Or judge by the perfect proportions of the Causeway’s hexagonal columns. Man with superhuman powers? Or nature’s power?


Whichever you believe to be its creator, it is impossible to be anything other than mesmerised by the sheer number of hexagonal columns laid out before you.

Then add some choppy seas.


Naturally I had to walk right out to the very edge. It’s not an easy walk. It’s not a perfectly paved ledge we’re talking about. There’s some climbing involved, there’s some walking at funny angles that are definitely anything big ladylike, and with some rain, there’s some slipping going to happen too! I was in my element. My mother (who was with me) hadn’t a nail left! Someone who’s a bit accident-prone, on something like the Causeway … but no bones broken, happily!

The cobwebs between the ears though, they didn’t fare so well. Completely blown way, those were!

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

There’s a bit of a daredevil in me. I grew up around lots of boys. I tended to spend more time with my head in a book, but I still managed to catch some of the daredevil from them.
So the idea of a narrow rope bridge, suspended over rocks and water and liable to move a bit with the wind … well, it appealed. What if I fell to my death? Well, if you’re going to go, wouldn’t it be some story. ‘Sorry, she won’t be coming back to work as she fell to her death from a rope bridge between two cliffs.’ I think my work crew would probably not be surprised! But I shouldn’t joke about it, should I!
Right, here’s the shocker. I was disappointed. It’s a very short bridge. Just 20 metres! Okay, for a good people, that’d be 19.999 metres too long. But I’d happily have done 200 metres on it.
After the initial disappointment though, it’s not too shabby at all. Better when you look down! Rocks! Lots of them. Not geometrically perfect like the Giant’s Causeway – these are the sharp angry kind of rocks! Don’t look down, a woman in front of me advised the teen she was with. I was dying to shout at them both to look down, for the love of all that is holy, and don’t be doing things by halves! I kept quiet though, don’t worry!

When you get to the other side of the bridge … well the camera simply HAS to come out. Remember if was a bit of a rough day, weather wise? This is what you get …


And what better note to finish on! And maybe play Jack Lukeman’s You Are the Sea, for effect!

Not your average bookshop!

Book. It’s a bit functional, as words go, isn’t it! Guttural. Dull. Definitely not suggestive of how the contents of those pages can transport us from an international space station to 1800s France, from modern day Wicklow to 1920s New York, and from a fantasy world where a wizard reigns supreme to 1904 Dublin (and that’s just a small selection of books in my eye-line right now!).

Similarly, bookshop. Hardly the most awe-inspiring word in the English language. And these days hardly the most awe-inspiring of places either, at least for me. Especially some of those larger chains with shelves whose contents are neatly ordered by popularity or in alphabetical order.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against them, they just don’t excite me. I’m sure that’s something to do with my taste in reading material, which could best be described as ‘all over the place’. Shelves organized neatly would be fantastically helpful if I had even the slightest idea what I was looking for. I rarely do – my selection of reading material can best be described as impulsive. I’ve even been known to buy something that literally falls off the shelf and into my hands! 

So when I discovered Libreria Acqua Alta in Venice, it was pretty much as if I’d died and gone to heaven. I think I may have fallen in love with a bookshop. My mother would probably argue that it’d be more in my line to find a man to fall in love with, but she can blame her brothers for creating a book lover!


Context for the name of the shop first …

Acqua Alta (high water, in Italian) is a phenomenon in Venice which is caused by a combination of a high tide, low atmospheric pressure and a scirocco wind blowing up the Adriatic Sea, all of which force the water levels in the lagoon to rise. Once those water levels rise, they flood Venice. Levels can get past the 1m level, but they’re often much less. Thankfully I’ve only experienced the latter, and it was more of a novelty than a nuisance, barely ankle level. Hence my version of the ‘holiday feet’ photograph!


Because Libreria Acqua Alta is right next to a canal, it’s in an area that floods. So the name is appropriate. And the ‘shop fittings’ are also appropriate. (I use inverted commas because they are no ordinary shop fittings!)

It’s not completely disorganised, don’t worry. The front section is very much geared towards the tourist, with an extensive selection of books about all things Venetian and Italian, all in a range of languages. Whether souvenir or gift, you’re guaranteed to find something of interest. There’s also a good selection of maps, with varying degrees of detail, and some less cheesy postcards and prints. The further back you go, the broader the collection gets. Mostly in Italian, but not completely. All at reasonable prices too, I should add.  

Going further back through the shop requires a modicum of patience though, if the shop is a little busy. There’s not a lot of room to move, not least because there’s a full-sized gondola in the middle of the shop. Yes, I said a full-sized gondola! It’s stacked with about as many books as you could fit in a gondola, with said vessel seemingly propped up by more stacks of books resting on a variety of crates and boxes. 


 On top of the stacks in the gondola is a seemingly random arrangement of decorative objects, all based around a watery theme but nevertheless a bit random. 


Progress through the shop and you happen upon another boat, smaller this time, but no less full. 

Further back, more peculiar and ‘original’ shop fittings. Old cabinets, lockers, shelves, bathtubs. No, that’s not a typo, I did mean bathtubs! You see, the idea is that the shop fittings keep the books safe from the flooding of acqua alta, and what better way to do that than a bathtub!

The shop fittings aren’t the only oddities in this Venetian gem! Out the back of the shop is a staircase crafted from old books and scraps of very worn carpeting. It could so easily be misinterpreted as a ‘waiting for bin day’ situation, until you read the words painted on the wall, urging you to climb the books and look over the wall. Your reward is a view of the canal that the bookshop sits next to, a small bridge crossing that canal, and more often than not a small boat with one of the locals going about his business. In other words, a classic Venetian scene.


There’s something else, which I nearly missed! There’s a door at the back, the fire escape. It’s an open door onto the canal! Well, it’d be a pretty good escape, right! 

Apparently if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to meet the owner’s cat, since it basically has free reign in the shop and minces around among the stacks of books as only a cat can. I didn’t have the ‘pleasure’ of making its acquaintance, which suited me just fine (I don’t like cats, they don’t like me, the world is big enough for us all!). 

Of course there are more than a few books amidst all of this setting, so I easily passed an hour there before I started to get hungry and wandered off to get something to nibble on. But had I gone there fed and watered, I’d have been there for hours. I’ll be going the fed and watered the next time. Because there will definitely be a next time! Probably more than one actually! Well, I did say I’d fallen in love with it!

Pastries and Politics – a perfect morning

Cannaregio is one of those Venetian neighbourhoods I’ve rambled through many times, off in my own little world, pondering the mysteries of the universe. Which means that I probably missed half of what was around me. Deciding to remedy that, I booked a spot on a 3-hour guided tour which promised to combine a healthy dose of walking and history with a somewhat less healthy dose of baked goods and sugar.

In my last post I mentioned how serendipity and I have a bit of a thing going on … well, it happened again! I got an even better morning than I had expected/paid for.

Meeting the guide (an Austrian girl who moved to Venice with her boyfriend) on the steps of Santa Lucia train station, she ran through the itinerary with me while we waited for the others. The first stop would be for a quick espresso to get us moving. My face must involuntarily light up or something at the mere mention of coffee – she and I were soon bonding over a shared appreciation of quality coffee. I freely admit I have a coffee obsession – I’ve chosen not to fight it! It’s very few vices I have really!

There were eight others booked on the tour, but only one turned up, a Chicago-based teacher of Italian. No idea where the other seven people were, perhaps they underestimated how long it takes to get anywhere on the vaporetto in Venice (you’d walk faster, even factoring in getting lost, although not being able to walk on water could be an issue!). 

I wasn’t about to complain though – I was essentially getting a personal tour for the price of a group one! And while waiting for the no-shows to materialise, the topic of conversation had switched from coffee to US and Venetian politics, another shared interest, so it had the potential to be an interesting morning.

Our first stop was indeed for that much discussed espresso. I’m fussy about my espresso. There’s a fine line when it comes to bitterness – if it needs sugar, it’s crossed the line. Pasticerria Dal Mas delivered perfectly. It was accompanied by what looked like your standard chocolate croissant from the outside but was had more of a cake-y consistency. (Disclaimer: a food blogger I will never be, so cake-y is as good as it gets.) I pretty much devoured it. I was hungry. Well I had skipped breakfast in preparation!

As we entered the Jewish ghetto, I learnt that he who shall not be named in the US has a counterpart in power in Venetian politics, driven more by his own business interests than any civic responsibility. As Beatrice recounted some of the mayor’s more recent shenanigans, my heart broke a little for my beloved Venice.

Since we were in the Jewish ghetto, kosher Hamantaschen (a classic Purim treat) were next on the menu, at Panificio Volpe Giovanni. Of course they were delicious too! And mood-lightening! Buoyed by the sugar, we became a little more philosophical about the future and the potential that these less-than-ideal leaders may actually cause people to unite more and foster a greater level of activism, or even just engagement, among the younger generations in particular. By the way, the irony wasn’t lost on me that we were having this conversation in the Jewish ghetto.

Our next stop was for something savoury to balance the sugar levels just a bit. A cornetto filled with prosciutto. Okay … the image of an ice cream in a gondola … get rid of that! A cornetto in Italy has nothing to do with ice cream. It’s actually like a croissant, but not a croissant (apparently). Now it makes more sense to have it filled with prosciutto, right! 

And of course it would only be polite to wash it down with the ever-popular Aperol Spritz. You know that saying ‘when in Rome …’ – well when it Italy … even if it’s only mid-morning. Blame the weather – it was warm but it had started to rain a little, so we needed cheering up.

Perked up, Beatrice continued to talk to us about the relationship between Italy and Austria, and in particular the divisions in Tirol, with a conversation about the schools providing a segue to a discussion of the merits of the homeschooling movement in the US, which of course the third member of the party, the teacher (Lisa), felt strongly about. All three of us agreed that, in the current climate, exposure to the wisest range of views possible would be a far better option.

As we strolled on, we found a bookshop. It’s probably my favourite bookshop EVER! It will be getting a blog post of its own soon. It warrants it!

With the sheer excitement that bookshop generated, it was evident (if not surprising) that all three of us were avid readers. It also wasn’t especially surprising that we were all kindle users by necessity but ‘proper’ book readers by preference. There are quite a few of us around, it seems.  

It was time for tiramisu. You know that too-strongly flavoured, rich dessert we’re accustomed to? Well that wasn’t on the menu. The tiramisu served up by Pasticceria Didovich was light as air, with the most delicate of flavours and made with sponge rather than the usual lady fingers. Heavenly.


The rain had stopped, so on we went. At this point we’d parked the heavier subjects of conversation and switched to the infinitely more cheery gelato. I suggested to Beatrice that maybe they should run a gelato-tasting tour – I’d definitely book myself on that one. Again and again. They might have to roll me around, but nevertheless …

The last stop … chocolate! Specifically Vizio Virtù, reputedly Venice’s finest chocolatier. Inspired by the movie Chocolat, the owner (Marieangela) founded Vizio Virtù driven by the same passion for chocolate that has earned her the reputation of a chocolate magician today. As you open the door to the shop, you smell the chocolate before you see it, so your taste buds are quick to awaken in anticipation. And weren’t they in for a treat!

Cuori Morbidi, or ‘soft hearts’. Melting-middle chocolate cake basically. But the lightest cake, filled with the finest chocolate. To use any combination of adjectives to describe it simply wouldn’t do it justice, it was that good. I stopped talking, it was THAT good!

Of course we struggled to leave that shop, and wouldn’t leave empty-handed. I resisted taking home some chocolate covered olives (although I am going to attempt to recreate them) in favour of a jar of pistachio spread. Think of a well-known brand of hazelnut chocolate spread, but with pistachios instead. Tastes similar but a bit more nutty and less chocolatey. 

Eventually we left the shop and it was time to say goodbye to the treasure that was our guide for the morning, but not before she pointed us in the direction of Venice’s only coffee roastery, Torrefazione Cannaregio, where the best espresso I’ve had in Venice provided the perfect bookend to what was a truly enjoyable morning of pastries and politics. 

A Serendipitous Saturday 

‘Serendipity’ has long been one of my favourite words in the English language, not least because it’s been very much a theme of my life for as long as I can remember. For all the planning skill I pride myself on, the universe has always been so much better at it, time and time again, and I’ve always been better off for her intervention.

This past Saturday was no exception.

As a solo traveller, you get quite used to dining alone, and actually come to treasure it, watching the dynamics of family groups and loved-up (and not so loved-up) couples around you. But the occasions when you have company, even that of strangers, are still welcome! The company of a friend you weren’t expecting to see though …that’s a special treat.

Sitting down to my usual breakfast of fruit and coffee (one cancels out the bad in the other, at least in my head anyway!), I looked up to see a familiar face headed my way. A Dutch work colleague who I happen to be very fond of. He was meant to be staying somewhere else but someone booked him into the hotel as well, totally by fluke. He was also the only person I hadn’t said goodbye to the previous day, which bugged me a little, since he organized the event in the first place! What followed was a lovely catch-up chat, during which we were also joined by someone else we knew, and a proper chance to say goodbye.

Feeling more enthusiastic about spending the day in Milan (it wouldn’t be my favourite city), although slightly subdued having watched the Lions lose, I made my way to Duomo du Milano (Milan Cathedral). Or rather to the ticket office for the Duomo. It was hot. There was a queue. My mood wasn’t improving.

‘With stairs or with lift’, the cashier asked when I finally got to the top of the queue. I opted for stairs, not having any idea what the stairs led to, how many steps we were talking about, where they even were. If you need a ticket to get the lift though, that really should be an indication that you should at least know what you’re getting yourself into! I know, would skimming a guide book have killed me?

Anyway … it’s impressive, certainly. The stained glass windows are so full of content that they require far more than a cursory glance to truly appreciate. The organ is reassuringly grand and certain to deliver even the dullest of notes with an added layer of gravity. And the statue of St Bartholomew Flayed is certainly intriguing, if slightly disturbing. 

The real treasure though is on the outside. It’s a very close run race, but for me architecture always trumps art. The Duomo is no different. The Neo-Gothic exterior is an exercise in exuberance and embellishment which is a true feast for the eye. I’d felt that way as we stood outside it on the Thursday evening; I felt the same way now.

So imagine how I felt when I realised that the ‘stairs’ in the ‘stairs or lift?’ question actually took you to the heart of that embellishment on the terraces and the roof, walking between the spires and using the flying buttresses as doorways to the next ‘room’ of gothic splendour!


Admittedly the stairs were tough going, not helped by being spiral and steep (some say 250 steps, others 195, whichever it is, there were a lot of steps!), but the reward was worth every single step! The reward I didn’t even know I was getting.

I would have stayed up there all day, were it not for the tour of La Scala that I had booked myself on, to continue the obsession with theatres (more on that later). So with my legs feeling decidedly gelatinous (those steps!), I toddled along to the somewhat inauspicious-looking building that houses one of the world’s most famous opera houses.


Not long inside the door, the guide announces (and apologises) that, because they are using the theatre for rehearsal at the time, we won’t get the usual experience and will just be able to watch a bit of the rehearsal, but we can come back later and take pictures. I’ll take the rehearsal, thanks very much!!! For the ballet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream! Only one of my favourite ballets! And an opportunity to see the La Scala stage in use, with a full orchestra in the pit! You really couldn’t plan that!
Well … you could. If you were the universe and you were so much better at planning than the rest of us. 

I’ll take those kinds of unexpected pleasure any day, and when three of them come together to create a surprisingly perfect day … well who am I to question those planning skills! 

A new departure

A few years ago I started blogging about the many ways I avoided boredom. Then I got too busy not being bored, so ironically that was the end of the blog.

But I miss writing. Some would argue that I do plenty of it still, but there’s no such thing as too much writing, right? My uncle Gerard taught me that!

So, with a shift in focus to tales of my travels, and prompted by the fact that the universe keeps throwing material my way, the blogging recommences!

Sometimes there’s a flight involved, sometimes a train is enough. Sometimes the ‘fits the kitchen sink’ suitcase is needed, sometimes the ‘pricey but indestructible’ backpack is enough. Regardless, there’s always a story to be told.