Friday, July 20, 2007

The End

We're in the air again and I've watched two movies but still don't feel tired enough to sleep. I wonder if I will sleep at all. There are less than 3 hours to go before we land in Sydney - at around 6am in the morning I think. Hopefully I'll nap on the bus ride to Canberra. I'm feeling pretty weird about being home again. A year really is a long time and the places we have been over the past few weeks so different from each other, Canada, the UK, then Italy, then Singapore and finally Australia. Well the first and the last are probably the most similar. We are all very quiet really - but maybe Richard and Darcy are just catching my mood.

Singapore was really relaxing. I had forgotten just how comfortable a place it is to be. Richard and Darcy were wondering why we didn't spend more time there and less in Italy but I hope on reflection they will be glad that we spent the time we did in Italy. They also noticed how friendly and helpful Singaporeans are. As I reminded them, Singapore is a relatively cheaper place to get to and to holiday in so they are likely to get a chance to spend more time there themselves when they are older. I didn't push them to do any sight-seeeing as I'm sure they'll be back one day and they'll be able to explore it for themselves - except to take them for a walk along the riverside last night, past parliament house etc. Other than that, they slept, shopped and swam in the pool and Richard finally got to eat Char Keow Teow again - his favourite dish back in Australia but hard to find in Canada, the UK and Italy. He has been craving it ever since he left Australia. The food is so great and cheap in Singapore. Italy was hard for them food wise because of the cost. I was able to cook when we stayed those few nights at the cottage near Assisi, but other than that we had to eat out all the time.

I hope Chris, Richard and Darcy had a good holiday. They can post their comments - come on guys !

I would just love someone to give me a magic voucher that would allow me to fly to wherever I wanted for holidays periodically. Maybe when Anthony is a Qantas pilot I'll get cheap fares if I'm not too old to travel then.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Leaving Italy

I'm still mid-air on the flight from Rome to Singapore though there is probably less than an hour to go as we have been flying for more than 10 hours now. It probably seems like an incredibly long flight to you Canadians but 11 hours is a short flight from those of us leaving at the arse end of the world. Usually I'd been spending just an hour at Singapore airport and reboarding for the second leg of 8 hours or so for Sydney but this time we are stopping over so the boys can visit Singapore, albeit only for 2 days and 1 night. Singapore airlines are a very good airline I think and I have had my oick of movies and TV to watch which has been great. I was getting used to that flying with Qantas and thought all long-haul flights had that capabiility until I discovered Air Canada.

I have just finished watching "in the Land of Women" and wiping the tears away - it's one of those tear-jerker chick-flick type of movies I enjoy. I also watched 'Music and Lyrics' - a Hugh Grant playing Hugh Grant movie and 'WIld Hogs' which I quite enjoyed and made me want to do some long-distance motor-bike riding. I'll have to buy myself a motor-bike capable of long trips. With sons living in Sydney and Newcastle next year there will be plenty of excuses. I bought a leather riding jacket in Florence yesterday - that was my 50th birthday present to myself.

We drove from Florence to Rome yesterday all the way on the Autostrada so it didn't take long. No problem driving straight to the guesthouse this time and we got our old room back. All the luggage we had left was still there. We didn't go anywhere last night. The boys caught up with their friends on the internet and watched movies on the laptop. I did much the same though I went for a walk along Via Tuscolana which is quite a shopping street out in the burbs. Spent quite a lot of time re-packing the suitcases to distribute the weight. I had them all weighting around 24 kilos and fortunately they were all checked in without comment including the snowboard bag which had two snowboards, boots and a pair of ice skates in it. I read in the SMH online that we're having a great ski season this year.

Chris was disappointed to find that his tickets for the concert in Spain had not arrived at the hotel. They were posted by registered mail from the UK and he was able to check online via the tracjing number that they had arrived in Italy but the tracking doesn't work further than that. He has a dilemma as he is booked to fly to Valencia tomorrow but without the ticket he can't attend the concert with his friends and it goes over a few days and includes his camping permit. I hope it arrives before he has to leave. It was great to have him along on the trip and Richard and Darcy enjoyed his company a lot. They call him Cristabel which is a name I fear will stick.

The boys were very good and were up and ready to leave at 8am this morning. It was a good thing I had allowed us a lot of time to drive to the airport as there was quite a traffic jam on the ring road. Everything went very smoothly though - returning the car and checking in etc - which is always a relief.

I am looking forward to visiting Singapore again. I have transitted at the airport many times but haven't stopped over since we stayed there on our way back home from Ghana in 1992.

I am getting excited and sort of nervous now about being home again.

Sunday, July 15, 2007


Our initial plan was to leave Turin early in the morning and drive straight to the coast near Genoa and take the scenic coastal route all the way to Pisa and then to Florence, stopping to see the sights of the Italian Riviera. Because of the nocturnal activities of the last night in Turin there was no way the boys could get up early and even then I knew they would be sleeping in the car all the way and wouldn't see anything. I also wanted to get Chris some closure for all his efforts the night before and so I wanted to take him to a police station to report the theft - a process I knew from experience would take a long time. I would be driving so wouldn't have much chance to enjoy the scenery so I made an executive decision to take the Autostrada straight to Firenze (aka Florence). I will luxuriate on the Riviera on my next visit to Italy, funds permitting.

The weather was very hot (almost 40 I think) and stopping for meals on the Autostrada was not pleasant. Huge queues, fast food and failing air conditioning. Our hostel was next to a church and formerly a convent now used as student accommodation during most of the year but tourist accommodation in the summer. There was no air-conditioning so we had to leave the window open. I provided some lotion for insect protection but as usual not everyone felt the necessity so there were bites the next morning. We walked to a nearby restaurant for dinner. I felt like going into town but saw the sense of going back to the hostel with the boys and having an early night.

I was able to get up early this morning and walk the 6km or so into the city getting some good photos in the early morning light. I caught a bus back to the hostel and waited for the boys to get ready and we all caught the bus into town. Chris went off to mass at the Duomo while Richard, Darcy and I cruised the streets looking at shops, stalls etc They then joined up with Chris to climb to the top of the bell tower to see the panoramic view of Florence and walk to the Ponte Vecchio, while I meandered around on my own just soaking up the sights as this was my fourth visit to Florence having spent a week here for work-related activities three years ago. I arranged to meet them in the Piazza della Signoria, one of my favourite spots, and from there we did some more shopping and went back to the hostel for another early night. I had bought myself a leather jacket for riding the motorbike and I arranged for the sleeves to be shortened (quite an operation with the cuffs etc) overnight and arranged to pick it up the next morning on our way to Rome after checking out of the hostel.

Friday, July 13, 2007


Yesterday morning was the day of the funeral in Tovo. I left the boys to sleep late and then pack up their stuff and walked around the village a bit and watched the the procession of people walking behind the hearse (which was pale blue) the very short distance fro the church to the cemetary. Olga attended the funeral as Giulio Omodei was a friend, though not a relative, then we had arranged to have lunch together at a restaurant at the next village up the road that served traditional local cuisine. It was very nice of her and she insisted on paying the bill. Afterwards we drove her back home, said our farewells and took to the highway again - this time our destination was Torino.

Again it was a very scenic drive all the way along the valley to Lago di Como, the largest lake in Italy and a favourite summer holiday destination for Italians. The road follows the shores of the lake for quite a distance then goes on to Milan. We didn't really see Milan as we were using the ring roads and making our way back onto the Autostrada towards Torino (aka Turin). We managed to find our hostel in Torino without a map and only stopping once for directions. It is on of the International Hostelling chain and was good for the price, with internet, laundry, a room for the 4 of us with ensuite, and not too far from town.

Being a hostel it was easy to find people to chat to sitting on the Verandah. Chris hung his Australian flag outside the window of our room which was visible from the verandah. I think they were all glad to have people to talk to instead of just each other and me.

They found out that is was the start of a free 4 day music fesival (the largest free festival in Europe) and that Daft Punk was on that night so they spruiked themselves up and went out. Free buses were supposed to be going to and from the venue so they said they would be able to go and get back by themselves. I was really tired as i had been up at dawn and it had been a long drive during which they slept as usual. I had bought Italy sim cards in Rome so that Chris and I could always be in touch so I said if they got stranded to give me a call.

So the mobile rang around 2am and they had not been able to find bus transport back to the city so armed with a map of Torino I set off. I had to stop many times to re-orient myself as it is impossible to see the names of streets until you've passed them or you stop and get out the car to try and find them. They all reported that the concert was awesome, and had the most unique and spectacular stage/lighting show they had ever seen.

Today we went into town and found an on/off tourist bus for 6€ and saw a bit of Torino. There was a old roman palace that had a new baroque facade put on the front that was pretty awesome. There is a lot of baroque architecture in Torino. I especially enjoyed climbing the hill of the Cappuccini to the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Monte (Church). From there you can get a panoramic view of the city.

Turin is a large industrial city with an impressive past. It was the capital of the Savoy Duchy and was also the home of the Risorgimento which was the movement towards the re-unification of Italy after the Napoleonic wars and which finally happened in 1861 with Turin the first capital of the United Italy. In 1864 the capital was moved to Florence and in 1871 to Rome. Turin is also the headquarters of the Fiat car company. We had wanted to tour the museum but ran out of time. I did see one of the new Cinquecentos on display in a piazza though - very cute!

After going back the the hostel after out tour the boys veged with their laptops and internet access. I went out again to have a good look at the permanent exhibition they have erected in the centre of town for the 2006 Winter Olympics - held in Turin and the nearby alps as you know. I was reminded that Canada did NOT win the hockey which must have been a terrible blow. I saw a picture of the victorious Swedish team with my hero, Daniel Alfredsson, who is the captain of the mighty Ottawa Senators.

The boys went out that night to Murphy's (Irish pub, obviously), and I was told later they actually had in irishman behind the bar. One of the regulars there was an Aussie from Brisbane, and he was glad to see some aussies so shouted them a few shots of a dangerous mix of Malibu, Jagermeister and Pineapple juice. Richard was very tired fortunately and came home early. Darcy and Chris lost each other and Darcy eventually staggered in to the hostel at about 2:30am. Chris didn't get back until 6am, fortunately for him he didn't wake me up. Apparently he had spent the previous five hours walking all over Turin looking for a Police Station to take his statement about having his wallet stolen when he entered a disco around 1am. Fortunately he had prepared himself for such an eventuality by emptying his wallet of everything but the cash he might need but he had 45euro in his wallet (a little more that he could just let slide).

So it was a Herculean task to get them up in time for breakfast and packed in time for check-out. We then went to a police station just nearby the hostel where I had a wonderful time explaining Chris' predicament to the lovely Caribinieri there in my very confused way but with lots of laughing and joking. By the time we left with the police report there were about six caribineri gathered around making jokes. Very enjoyable for me both visually and feeling that I was finally making some headway with communicating with the locals but Chris must have found it all a bit overwhelming as I wasn't able to to much translation. I am struggling so hard to find the right words to say next that I can't afford to distract myself by switching to English to try and explain what I think I understood - because I was never quite sure anyway.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The alps

What a magic day ! We took the opportunity of being so close to the border with Switzerland, to take a day trip by train from Tirano (only 6 km from Tovo along the valley) to St Moritz. The train is called the Bernina Express and according to the brochure has the steepest gradient of any rail line that doesn't use ratchets or pulleys. It winds its way around on viaducts and through tunnels steadily climbing to the highest station which is at 2250m and the highest peak next to the rail line was 4000m.

In his essential guidebook for Alpine train travelers, Switzerland by Rail, Anthony Lambert writes:

"This line is the highest rail crossing of the Alps, helping to make it one of Europe's outstanding train journeys. Where else can you travel from glaciers to palm trees in two hours? In summer open-air cars enable passengers to experience the views and glorious air without the interference of glass, making it perfect for photographers. The climb is made even more astonishing by the fact that it is achieved without rack assistance [cogwheels], compelling the builders to devise tortuous loops and spirals to gain or lose height. Sit on the right."

The scenery was amazing with long deep valleys, blue/green glacier-fed lakes, glaciers and soaring peaks. It was very cold considering that not that far away in the cities of northern Italy the temperature was climbing towards 40 celsius and at points it was snowing (lightly). I had warned the boys to wear their warmest clothes but I don't know that they took me seriously. They refused on a point of honour to leave the open-air carriage we were sitting in to get the best views for the relative warmth of the normal carriages.

We actually went a decent way into Switzerland, going to St Moritz, which although possibly a good place to shop if you wear Armani, Gucci, and Dolce & Cabbana gear, it wasn't really my cup of tea. We had less than two hours there and the boys found an out-door game of chess to play.

When we got back to Tovo we went to spent an hour or so with Olga & Tulia and compared family notes and trees. The boys wanted to go dancing and Franca said there was a good disco in Tirano with Latin-American music. I drove the boys the 6km to Tirano where we saw a sign on the way in saying 'Night Club', but as we pulled up and looked closer it was obvious that 'night club' refers to something more sinister in Italy than in Australia. I left the boys in town and went back to pick them up later in the evening. The found the disco only to discover the Wednesday night is the only night it doesn't operate !!
They found a small pub which had the soccer on and played darts there instead.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The ancestral home - Tovo di Sant'Agata in Valtellina

I really enjoyed the road trip today. The first part was a high-speed Autostrada affair from Padua to Brescia. We decided to take a break there and have a look around as I had never been there either and we thought we might find an internet cafe there as well. The only one we found turned out to be closed on Tuesdays - why Tuesday and not Sunday or Monday? We looked for another one, unsuccessfully, and found ourselves at the main train station. Brescia was obviously a more industrial and busy city than Padua and there seemed to be a larger percentage of immigrants (visible minorities using Canada-speak) from Asia, Africa & Middle East.

From Brescia we turned off the Autostrada and from here on the driving became much more interesting. We took quite a minor highway travelling north towards the mountains. We passed by Lago d'Iseo, a very picturesque lake not as well know as Lago di Como or Lago di Guarda, but just as beautiful and from there the climbing really started. At the top of the mountain range was the ski resort of Aprica. From there it is an extremely steep and winding goat track down into the valley on the other side where Tovo di Sant'Agata, our destination, is located. This valley lies between the range we had just crossed and the alpine range that forms the border with Switzerland. The valley stretches from Lake Como in the west to Bormio in the east and the region is called Valtellina and has its own dialect quite distinct from standard italian.

During the first half of the 20th century, many people from this area migrated to Australia, in particular to Western Australia and to North Queensland. Tovo is where my grandparents grew up and were married and had the first two of their four children before all migrating to Australia. My grandfather, Guiseppe Omodei, travelled to Australia first with one of his brothers to work and earn good money in the mines in west Australia in 1901. They both returned to Tovo, but my grandfather decided to take his wife Caterina Armanasco and two children Jane and Mary, to settle in Australia permanently, and my father Daniel and aunt Margaret were born in far north queensland where they settled.

My father visited his relatives in Tovo at least twice that I know of, the second time with my mother. My aunt Margaret also visited and maintained a correspondence with Olga Armanasco, a relative who I visited in 200 when I toured Italy with my daughter Daniella. Olga and her sisters Tullia and Iside remember my parents and Aunt Margaret quite well. The three sisters live in the same street, two of them next door to each other. I'd love to visit the three of them with my siblings all together one day. They are getting on though - in their seventies and eighties. Their grandfather, Giacomo, was a brother to my grandfather.

Legend has it that half the people in Tovo have the surname Armanasco and the other half Omodei. This is not strictly true but the proprietor of the hotel where we stayed is called Walter Armanasco and the big funeral that was held while we were in Tovo was for one Guilio Omodei. The population of Tovo is just over 500. It is one of many small villages set 2-3 km apart along the length of the valley, many of them perched precariously on the steep slopes of the mountain sides. You see them in the distance and wonder how anyone gets there as the roads are not visible through the trees. The main produce of the area is apples, grapes and dairy produce.

We arrived in Tovo in the early evening and unloaded our gear. I think the hotel proprietors were taking their annual leave before their main tourist season started so the hotel was empty but for us i think. I had booked quite a few months ago and they probably decided to close down their restaurant and take a bit of a break after accepting our booking. However, Franca, the proprietress, was there to welcome us that evening before setting off back to their holiday house near lake Como the next day. She was very chatty but spoke no English, so we struggled along getting confused but sorting things out. She rang Olga for us to let her know we were in town and showed us to her house which was only two blocks from the hotel. I had lost Olga's street address and the email address I had used previously to contact her trhough her son was no longer active so it was a surprise for her and Tullia and Iside. Tullia, the eldest, joined us for dinner at a restaurant in a nearby village before we dropped her home and called it a night.

The younger members of the family, Olga's children, grandchildren (and even a great-grandchild who was born recently) had gone for holidays to the lakeside and were coming back just after we were leaving unfortunately. They don't speak English either which is quite unusual and a bit of a surprise for me as her grandchildren are named Patrick and Denis - go figure !

My mother was not from an Italian background so unfortunately I did not learn to speak the language as a child. I studied it a bit as an adult in evening classes but I am still a beginner. I am not too bad at reading simple stuff and can manage filling out online forms alright and very basic conversation. I would love to be able to speak the language more fluently but I have decided to focus on improving my French for the next 12 months at least.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Motorcycles and Palladio

Today we drove around the the region of Veneto (of which Padova and Venice are a part) to Noale & Scorze for Richard to visit the Aprilia (motorcycles) factory. We found the Aprilia headquarters and we left Richard to frolic amongst the bikes, drooling. When then followed their directions to the factory, only to find that they don't allow visitors (a missed opportunity on their part I believe).

We then made our way west to Vincenza, home to the famous architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), widely considered the most influential person in the history of Western architecture. I became very familiar with the Palladian style when I was in Bath for a conference about three years ago. So I was keen to see his home town. It is much less Palladian then many other cities in Europe as his style became very fashionable at the time Bath and other cities were being massively expanded, but Vicenza was not expanding at the same rate. Still he seemed to have a hand in anything that was going on there during his lifetime and was responsible for the design of many amazing villas for the local elite in the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately Monday is the day the museums are closed in Vicenza. This was a bit of a theme running through our trip. We seemed to be able to pick with incanny accuracy the one activity that was closed for whatever city we were in that day of the week.

Had a meal in a Chinese restaurant for a change from pasta and pizza. Chris met us there after taking time out to find a laundromat and do his laundry. The restaurant had a glass floor revealing a large aquarium below. Below us were some huge gold fish (1-2 feet long) and a shark of comparable size, swimming amongst plants & waterfalls. After dinner the boys went to the Crocodile Pub, which they had walked past earlier in the day and noticed the Aussie theme. I joined them there later in the evening as I had a long drive the next day. It was fairly quiet (it was a monday night) and there were certainly no Aussies there. However the bartender was quite a character. Slightly eccentric, never been to Australia, just thought it was a novel theme. There are so many Irish pubs all over Italian cities - and everywhere else. Chris had his first Fosters (Australia's most famous beer, which not many australians seem to like or drink)