Tuesday 30 September 2014

Four Hours in Milan

I have just come back from four days in Italy and now I have a new to-do list with just one thing on it: ITALIA.

Why oh why have I not spent more time in Italy?  It has all the things I like (food, art, style, scenery, history, great people watching) and it's not as though it were far away.  But apart from a memorable family holiday when I was five (we went to Venice, there was a gondola, I wore a hat, it was fabulous) and a brief trip to Rome a couple of years ago, my Italian adventures have been practically non-existent.      Well, that's going to have to change now, obviously.

In the spirit of making up for last time, I did try to cram a lot into the past few days, starting with four hours in Milan on Thursday with Lady Traveller's Little Sister.  (This post has been brought to you by the number 4 and the letters I and M.)  This photo of a delivery man's bike - and my sister looking admiring - sums up everything we loved about Milan.

Fortified by good cappuccinos on arrival, we headed into the city and our most important appointment: lunch.  We had arranged to go to the Trattoria Milanese on Via Santa Marta, not far from the Duomo.  There are, you might not be surprised to hear, several restaurants called 'Trattoria Milanese' but this came recommended.

We loved it, from the paintings of dead animals on the walls, to the charming waiter, through tortellini and veal Milanese and wine and cantucci and caffe.  We staggered out and walked over to the cathedral.  Wedding cake on the outside, altogether more beautiful on the inside.

We then paid our respects in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele - a 19th century shopping arcade - but luckily we didn't like anything we saw in the window of Versace (or Prada).

On the other side of the Galleria is the Piazza La Scala and though we didn't have time for an opera, we did have fun at the opera shop (mini opera glasses, yay!)  Funnily enough, although lots of other things in Milan are very bling, the opera house is relatively unadorned.

We enjoyed, very much, watching the glamorous Milanese go by, noting approvingly that the city bikes and trams were colour-coordinated.

We wound up the afternoon at the very grand Stazione Centrale which has plenty of cafes, purveyors of snacks and fripperies.  And then it was time to hop on board our train to Turin.

Friday 26 September 2014

Hints to Travel Writers from a Lady Traveller

A hint today from Isabella Bird, quintessential Lady Traveller and inspiration for this blog.

'I'm convinced that actual letters - merely corrected - are the most vivid and popular form of presenting one's impressions of a country.'

Miss Bird wrote this to her publisher, John Murray, and I heard it in an episode of BBC Radio 4's 'Great Lives' (which is great, check it out).  Isabella Bird's early travel books were based on letters to her sister at home, so they have that immediate, intimate style and are - for a Victorian writer - remarkably fresh and accessible.

But this line caught my attention again because it occurred to me that blogging is really a version of what she described.  I occasionally wish my descriptions were better informed or more profound, but I started writing for family and friends and my posts reflect the true, sometimes confused, sometimes inarticulate impressions I had at the time of writing.

When this posts I will be in ITALY and will return next week with tales of pasta and wine and dolci, oh my.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Poppies at the Tower

A few weeks ago I braved the misery of a wet London day to see the poppies at the Tower of London.  A lot has been written about this elsewhere (see here and here, for example) so I won't go into detail except to say that the installation, titled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Blood, represents every British soldier who died in the First World War.  The ceramic poppies are still being planted, but by 11th November, there will be 888,246 of them.

Even in the gloom the poppies were stunning - perhaps all the more stunning because of the gloom.

Seeing these poppies floating in the mud and the rain in the moat was a visceral reminder of the Flanders trenches.  In a simple, true, powerful way it gave me new insights into John McCrae's poem.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,       
That mark our place; and in the sky       
The larks, still bravely singing, fly    
Scarce heard amid the guns below.        

We are the Dead. Short days ago    
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie             
In Flanders fields.        

Take up our quarrel with the foe:    
To you from failing hands we throw       
The torch; be yours to hold it high.       
If ye break faith with us who die    
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow             
In Flanders fields.

Friday 19 September 2014

Five Years of Hints

Returning after a short hiatus (unannounced, sorry about that) to celebrate the fact that a) this blog turns FIVE today and b) I am STILL blogging five years in, though sometimes by the skin of my teeth and, it
has to be admitted - more sporadically than I would wish.

During the hiatus I did wonder, as I have done periodically, about whether now might be the time to pack HTLT in mothballs but, as I have also decided periodically, I would miss the blog too much.  So, I will keep blogging and I am resolved to do it at least twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays), which I am announcing here because I firmly believe the best way to keep a resolution is to tell your friends and family about it and then you'll be forced to stick to it to avoid the nagging.

There may also be a few more posts about museums since, reader, I spend many of my waking moments thinking about them and occasionally those thoughts may spill over onto the pages of HTLT. But, you know, all Lady Travellers have had their pet topics: Lillias Campbell Davidson, for example, wrote an awful lot about bicycles …

But enough about future plans.  I have decided to mark the blog's five-year anniversary with a quick look through the archives and some of my favourite posts.

The very first post, and how this blog got its name
The Cape Town Mean Face
Byron's Boot, Chopin's Piano ... Mandela's Wheelbarrow
Cramaziness - Christmas in Zimbabwe
Taking my eldest Adorable Nephew to a museum for the first time (warning: pictures are almost unbearably sweet)
Roots and Shoots
Hike4Hunger (or that time I spent a week hiking through the Australian bush)
Autumn in Fitzroy
Learning to speak Australian 
One of the funniest travel books of all time
My epic trip on the Ghan
On why I commemorate ANZAC Day
Enchanted Isle
On retracing one's steps
The Sublime Porte

In honour of the occasion, there should be a hint, don't you think?  Say it with me now:
surely none is more excellent in itself and its results, than the power which has become the right of every woman who has the means to achieve it - of becoming her own unescorted and independent person, a lady traveller. 

Thursday 21 August 2014

A Quiet Philadelphia Quaker

Today, in my occasional (very occasional, but I'm trying to improve) series on lady travellers, please meet Elizabeth Gray Vining - and Crown Prince (now Emperor) Akihito.

1946.  World War II had been over for less than a year and Japan was occupied by Allied troops, led by the Americans under General Douglas McArthur.  The Emperor decided (or had it decided for him) that his son, the Crown Prince, should learn English.

Picture the scene.

One morning late in May Samuel Marble, now President of Wilmington College, Ohio, who was then organising the [Friends'] Committee's relief project for Japan, came in to talk to me about an appeal we were preparing.  After we had finished the business in hand he turned to me and said without preamble, 'Would you consider having your name suggested as tutor to the Crown Prince of Japan?'  

Elizabeth Gray Vining was 'a quiet Philadelphia Quaker', a librarian and children's author, who was left  widowed when her husband was killed in a car crash.  The committee appointed to find a tutor for the Crown Prince had already determined that the right candidate would be a woman, a Christian, and someone with no prior knowledge of Japan, 'since she was to teach by the direct method entirely in English'.  They also determined that this non-Japanese speaking, Christian woman should be about 50.  Apart from the age requirement (she was only 44), Elizabeth Vining fit the bill.  Despite initial protestations, in October 1946, Mrs Vining arrived in Japan.

Her book, 'Windows for the Crown Prince', describes her first impressions of Japan, the extraordinary experience of getting to know the Imperial Family, lessons with the Crown Prince (and later on with some of his siblings and classmates).  It also describes the occupation and the rebuilding of Japan - including the war crimes tribunals.

My favourite aspect of the book are Mrs Vining's descriptions of Japan - both for the interest of learning about life there under the occupation and also for reading about the culture and landscape.  One passage particularly stayed with me, where she writes about her first night in Tokyo.

As I lay in bed waiting for sleep, I heard the sound of wooden clogs in the street outside, a clip-clop that made me realise more keenly than any other one thing that now I was actually in Japan.  Clip-clop, clip-clop, lightly yet with a little drag, the wooden gets passed along the lane and died away.  Later in the night I felt my first earthquake, a tiny tremor from the earth's centre like the flicker of a fish's tail - a catfish, the Japanese say, moving its whiskers.  In the morning the rain was gone and I woke to a dazzling blue and gold October day.  From the flat roof on top of the house I could see Mount Fuji, ethereal in the distance, white-shawled against the blue sky.

I, too, have lain awake on my first night in a new country, waiting for sleep.  I have noticed every noise that marked the new place as different, aware of things that would later become part of a familiar soundscape.  Not scared, but very aware; not yet ready to relax into my surroundings.  And then I have woken up to dazzling skies and views and felt my wings spreading … though I've never had to prepare to meet an Emperor.

Reading the book I did occasionally wonder if Mrs Vining were fatally naive or had just drunk the Kool Aid - her account of General McArthur is, well, imagine 'gushy' as rendered by a quiet Philadelphia Quaker.  But she was clearly aware of her role, as much goodwill ambassador as tutor, and she deserved her praise.  The Emperor is supposed to have said, 'If ever anything I did has been a success it was asking Mrs Vining to come here.'

On balance, I think Mrs Vining's own summary of her extraordinary task is the best.

I had been asked to open windows on to a wider world for the Crown Prince.  I had tried, but who can say to what extent I had succeeded?  But certainly many windows had been opened for me - and perhaps through me for others - both on Japan itself and on that ancient, ceremonious, hidden world within the Moat.  Through windows, whichever way they face, comes light, and light, I thought, is good.

Elizabeth Gray Vining's obituary is here.

If you'd like to read 'Windows for the Crown Prince', second hand copies can be found online. Edmund de Waal, in one of my favourite books, 'The Hare with the Amber Eyes', references its sequel, 'Return to Japan' - so if my recommendation isn't enough … 

Wednesday 20 August 2014


For all you fans of Borgen out there, here's me on the steps of Christiansborg Palce in Copenhagen, doing my best to channel Birgitte Nyborg (should I have gone for the crinkled-nose smile?)

Monday 18 August 2014


The trip to Arranmore marked a first for me: the first time I stayed overnight on one of the islands.  Now, in consequence, I have a new hint.  Do you likewise.  There is nothing quite like falling asleep to the sound of the sea on an island and waking up to the views and the quiet.  On Sunday morning I walked along the beach to the pier and the abandoned lifeboat station - it was the absolute epitome of serenity.