3 restaurants and a funeral (or really, really bad pizzeria)

Well, over the three weeks of holiday, there were, notably, 4 new restaurants. 3 excellent and 1 which served the most dire pizza that I’ve ever tasted – and that includes all those not in Italy!

But, first, lets cheer ourselves up with the good ones.

The first was in Carrara, called Il ReBacco just off the central square. A bit expensive but the food was very good. But, when it came to the sweet I chose, well, it was to die for. It was a chocolate mouse but so divine. Best Mate, who was with me, really liked it. If I had known how much, I would have given her mine and had her cheesecake. After all, she doesn’t come that often and I can always go back there!

And I would go back – if only for the chocolate mouse!

We had an antipasto, main course, wine and water and, of course, dessert – it came out around €50 per head. We ate outside as the weather was so good so I don’t actually know what it was like to eat inside but, from the entrance, it looked nice.

The second was in a place called Partaccia which is the next “village” to F’s “village”, so really close and easy to get to. We were taken there by T, the local vet who also has a place on the beach near us. Since her son is a chef who has moved to London, the talk between us, on the beach is often about food and restaurants. And so, she suggested going to a couple of places. Agilulfo Osteria was the first place she took us to. This is in the middle of a holiday area but this restaurant, just off the main road is anything but some kind of seaside food joint. It wouldn’t be amiss in the middle of some of the trendiest areas in Milan. With prices to match, of course.

The food and the presentation were divine. I should have had the Agnello di Zeri but I didn’t because I thought we were going to eat it later in the week. Actually, I can’t remember what I had, sorry. However, the place was pretty, the tables arranged into some sort of constructed court.

My only criticism would be the portion size. It was OK as I wasn’t hungry (for the whole time of my holiday) but, if I had been hungry, it might have left me needing more. But the quality made up for the quantity, for sure.

Thirdly, again with T, we went to Castagnetola and a real trattoria – Trattoria Da Emma. This couldn’t be further from Agilulfo Osteria if it tried. This is “home” cooking from Emma herself a lady who looks like someone’s grandma. This is NOT expensive but the food is wonderful. We had gnocchi fritti to start with – lightly fried squares of pastry which expand (like Yorkshire Puddings) so, when you cut into them, they create a kind of envelope. We filled this with some delicious prosciutto and eat it with your hands. I had the pasta with beans and everyone else had the ravioli (tordelli, here) which I also tried and it was all delicious. F had the Fritto Misto – deep fried fish (sardines, prawns, squid, etc.) whilst I had a pork chop. We also had chips which were, quite obviously, hand made – like everything else.

Such a lovely place and such nice food. We had the table just before the entrance, in a small corner, under grape vines. It made it all very special. Worth the trip. Apparently, apart from the gnocchi fritti and the tordelli, the other dish “not to be missed” are the deep fried sardines. If they have them, you can have a plate of those instead of what F had.

Unfortunately, the title of “worst pizza, probably in the world” goes to a restaurant/pizzeria that I don’t know the name of. I will try and hunt out the receipt to get the name of it. I didn’t pick up a card as it was really so dreadful. The base was soggy and they used so much oil that there was hardly any taste except that. This was a place in Sarzzana. It’s in the Piazza Matteoletti, right at the top end, where it narrows, on the right hand side. Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful. The waitress was lovely and we thought (Best Mate and I) that it would be good as there was a queue of people waiting – it was so full – but either we were unlucky with our choice or these people were just visitors who knew nothing!

And it is proof that you really can get crappy pizza in Italy. Avoid this place like the plague!

Express Train

There are just 2 weekends to go and then it’s almost our holiday. I say “our” meaning mine, since F won’t be with me the first week.

Instead, Best Mate will be.

I am just so ready for this holiday. The problem is that I know that the holiday will also pass like an express train so, although I can’t wait for it to come, I also don’t want it to come, if you see what I mean. For as soon as it starts, it will seem to end.

There is also the weather. As usual, it is incredibly hot. It is July and this is normal. The problem is that last year, the end of July also triggered a significant change in the weather, for the worse. I’m hoping this year is not the case.

People are, as usual, complaining that it’s too hot – although the temperatures are only in the mid-thirties °C (although the temperature felt is closer to the forties.) The rain which my forecast keeps promising is due in the next 10 days (for about the last three weeks) has failed to materialise – but today does seem as if it might rain.

Over the next couple of weekends, we’re going to try out a few restaurants nearby, so that I have places to take Best Mate who will be with me for just over a week. Obviously, we have some – Bati Bati (lardo and asparagus pizza), Venezia (fish), La Brace (meat) – but we need more. I have also thought that, maybe, one night we do a barbecue in the garden. We’ll see how it goes. I’m very easy-going about it all tbh.

So, only 17 days to go until I pick BM up from the airport and start my hols! Yeah!!

Update and Easter

Well, obviously, it’s not all cut and dried …. yet!

It seems that the building expenses weren’t quite right and, in fact, are higher. What I still fail to understand is why they weren’t right from day 1 as the people involved MUST have known the correct figure!

So, last night we went through the options and I suggested offering something with the option to go a little bit higher, if necessary.

F decided to make the offer as suggested and not go higher. And, he’s kind of right. So, we’ll see what happens.

I’m still hopeful though.

Apparently, the agency phoned him yesterday (they’d given us the correct figures just before Easter and were closed on Saturday and, of course, Monday) – so they’re obviously keen to let it to us.

If it doesn’t work out then it isn’t meant to be, so I am calm and relaxed about it. And, anyway, I’ve got the work visit to another country (where I dislike both the country and the people), so the flat, at the moment, is not at the forefront of my mind.

In the meantime, the weather at Easter was fairly crap – apart from Easter Sunday which was nice and when we went out for a meal with friends to a little place called Il Fontanone. It’s basically a small fishing lake with a wooden hut. The wooden hut is like a slightly bigger version of a garden shed and probably seats about 30 people and they serve a set menu. The lunch is served at 12.30 sharp! The food isn’t “wow” but it’s good and wholesome (one might say “rustic”). We had an antipasto, some pasta (and three of us had second helpings), some grilled and roasted meat (including lamb chops – there is a tradition of eating lamb here for Easter) and roasted potatoes, a colombo (a type of cake they have at Easter) with cream and coffee. We also had about 4 bottles of wine and coffees. The total cost was €20 per head! Which, given the amount of food and wine we had was a real bargain.

The day itself was quite warm and sunny. We sat outside for a bit, walked around the lake and, generally had a lovely time.

On the other hand, it was raining nearly all day on Saturday and the same on the Monday, when we were on holiday. Also, Monday was bloody cold.

Now, of course, when we’re back at work, it’s beautiful and warm outside. Typical!

Still, this week is a short week (Friday being a public holiday) and the following week we have the Thursday and Friday off. And, in between this work visit, the only bonus of which is the thought of the Tapas restaurant we went to last time we were there!

Things are OK now; A trip that I didn’t like; And relax.

Well, just to keep you updated, the problem that was, is “was” and is no more. Or, at least, not for a bit and, soon, possibly not forever again.

So, that’s good, isn’t it? Yes, it is.

Today has been a holiday but some work came in unexpectedly, yesterday, and today was doing that. In between, under the bloody rain, I did lots of things including picking up jeans that were having a new zip, taking stuff to the dry cleaners, food shopping and going to get F’s main present. I didn’t feel I could leave that until the last minute. Just far too risky.

So, now, apart from food shopping for Christmas and he last minute things and wrapping presents, I am done.

And relax!

But I just wanted to talk about Israel. Before I went, last weekend, for work, many people told me how lovely Israel is and how great Tel Aviv is, etc., etc.

Now I’ve been before. I wasn’t all that impressed last time. This time even less so. I just don’t get it. I obviously don’t see what everyone who’s been there sees.

Let me describe to you my feelings on Israel and, in particular, Tel Aviv.

it is a dirty, messy hole. I wouldn’t go and live there for all the money in the world.

And then there’s the people. Arrogant doesn’t even come close to describing them. A bit like the Italians (but much worse), everything is done much better in Israel, apparently. Except it isn’t. And they always want something for nothing. If it were up to me, I wouldn’t deal with them. They are, as we say in the UK, a nasty piece of work.

And let me just add something that is a bit controversial.

Let me first explain that what Hitler and Mussolini did in the war (and their people) to the Jews was horrific and inexcusable. It should never be forgotten and we should always be watchful that something like this doesn’t ever happen again.

If I were Jewish, and lived in Germany or Italy, it would have been possible that my grandparents would have been killed. So it’s not that far away from me, if you see what I mean.

However, whilst never forgetting about it, I do feel it’s time to put it behind one and move forward. I don’t want to hear about it every day.

You see, I wasn’t hungry. The first day we had a very large lunch and then a very large dinner, provided by our hosts. By day two, I really couldn’t eat much.

I had a little bit of the appetiser, declined the soup and the first course. The jerk just opposite, to the right said, “Oh you can’t be Jewish”. Stupidly, I ask why not. He replied that, if I had been Jewish I would have eaten because, due to the Holocaust, all Jews feel they have to eat everything!

Well, for one, I don’t believe that and for two, excuse me but FUCK RIGHT OFF! That’s not an excuse for you to be a fat bastard and, even if I were Jewish, I would also have some pride about my fucking appearance which, quite frankly, you obviously don’t. And stop relating everything to the Holocaust! I guess, of course, that they can’t leave it alone because, I imagine, their parents constantly reminded them of it – but leave it alone now. As I said, we should never forget, none of us, but it should not be mentioned every fucking five seconds!

And, can I say that the hotel was the very worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in. And I really do mean EVER – in all my time staying in hotels (which is a lot of time and a lot of hotels). The Diaghilev, LIVE ART Boutique Hotel will NEVER see me there again. I was a little worried when I saw all the reviews so positive – but quite recent reviews. I should have stayed with my gut feeling. Cold room, no hot water, no decent service, no breakfast the first morning. Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful. My review is on TripAdvisor but the reviews are, generally, full of people posting their first ever review who think it is the best hotel ever. So mine will be lost down the list, which is shame for the real travellers who will be so disappointed when they stay there. Next time, I shall be more careful with TripAdvisor (and I had thought I already was!)

There were two good things about the trip. The first was Turkish Airlines – on time, food good, service good (we flew Milan to Istanbul and then to Tel Aviv). The second was the meal we went for (just me and my colleagues) to < href="http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g293984-d4793435-Reviews-Tapas_1_Tel_Aviv-Tel_Aviv_Tel_Aviv_District.html" target="blank">Tapas 1 where the service was great and the food superb!

Anyway, enough of all that.

In the meantime, I am, almost, ready for Christmas and so I say … BRING IT ON!

I don’t really belong

I don’t think I’ll ever be something other than a foreigner in a foreign land.

I mean, I’ll never be totally relaxed. I came to this realisation whilst driving the dogs to the pineta on Sunday morning. I reached the traffic lights and, as I sat there, waiting for the lights to turn green, it struck me again that it’s not the place I am “from”. To the right is a place that looks a little like a timber yard – except that it sells marble. To the left is what look like a run-down workshop – except that it is a place where marble is carved into headstones and statues. The weather is warm and there is not a cloud in the sky and yet it’s towards the end of September and I am dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. This is not deepest Herefordshire.

It’s not such a bad thing – it’s just that it is, in a way, a little bit frightening. I don’t know that you will understand that and I’m not sure that I do either. Still, there it is.

The night before I had been with the family. This was the close family. This was F’s Mum’s birthday dinner. So F’s Mum and Dad, his sister (with husband and niece), twin brother (and girlfriend) and him (with me). There’s no strangeness from his family towards me at all. I am accepted completely and surrounded by his family and, in some way, feel part of it.

We went to Ristorante Venanzio in the small town of Colonnata, near Carrara which is situated deep in the mountains and surrounded by the marble quarries, famous for their white marble. It’s also famous for it’s Lardo di Colonnato, which I love.

Normally, when we go to Carrara for the weekend, we arrive sometime on Friday night and, usually, we drop the dogs at home and then go to Bati Bati for a pizza. I always have the pizza with Lardo, asparagus and aubergine (egg plant to Americans). It is one of the very best pizzas I’ve ever had. And, even now, writing about it, my mouth is salivating (really)!

However, at Venanzio, we had Lardo as antipasto (along with a load of other, very nice, things) which was “to die for”. So tasty. F’s brother told me that they have a special source for it and you won’t find it for sale anywhere else, even in the small village of Colonnata. We had a selection of pasta dishes (my favourite being Lasagnetta with sausage sauce) and then, I had lamb. Unfortunately, like most of Italy, the lamb was only so-so. Not a replacement for La Brace. However, I tasted F’s rabbit with lardo. It was slices of a rolled rabbit joint with lardo and herbs filling it. It was incredible.

Service was excellent (but we were the first there). Sweet was a cake (as it was F’s Mum’s birthday) which was very nice.

It wasn’t so expensive – about €40 each, including wine (4 bottles), a glass of sweet desert wine with the cake and a digestivo. Would definitely go again, the only downside being getting there (or, rather, getting back). The only way is via a narrow switchback road from Carrara – so you really MUST NOT drink and drive!

Anyway, you should go there for the Lardo!

Sunday was a day on the beach and it was one of the best days on the beach. Now, being the end of the season, half the umbrellas have been taken away so there’s much more room and, of course, a lot less people. Now, at this time in September, you can sit in the sun all day without becoming too hot – the breeze is cooling, the sun not so fierce. And so we do.

F talks about coming down next weekend, if the weather is good. It will be the last weekend – the beach closes at the end of September, the café is doing some sort of buffet spread on the Sunday. F suggests we might take a few hours off on Monday so we can stay down Sunday night. Let’s see how the weather is.

But, even here, on the beach, I have the same kind of feeling as I had in the car. It’s not really my place. Even if I feel relaxed and read (I finished “Bring Up The Bodies” – Hilary Mantel, which was great, btw), I almost don’t really belong.

Mantova – hotel and food; My “meat” place near Carrara will close :'(

Change. It’s what happens. Some people welcome change, some put up with it and some hate change but, in any event, it’s inevitable.

People change, places change and restaurants change.

I mention this because one of the highlights of my trips to Mantova for the Festivaletteratura is a visit to Grifone Bianco, right in the centre of Mantova. The service has always been perfect, the food “to die for” and they always remember me even if I only go once a year!

So, I’m in Mantova for the Festival and I go to see M, who is the manager of the festival, to ask the usual questions – i.e. what events should I go and see and the booking of restaurants.

I was there for almost 2 days this year, staying overnight in the Albergo Bianchi Stazione. A decent hotel with rather good, helpful staff. My room was clean and tidy and as it is right opposite the station, it was very convenient. A 10 minute or so walk to the centre of Mantova.

So, my plan was one dinner and one lunch. I thought that a Saturday night dinner would be nice and then Sunday lunch – as I wasn’t driving, drinking wasn’t a problem :-)

Obviously, I just had to go to my favourite restaurant and thought Sunday lunch, in the sun (hopefully) would be rather nice. As it turned out there wasn’t to be sun and, even a smattering of rain. But that didn’t really matter for M told me that it had changed hands. Massimo, the owner, still owned the building but, so the story goes, a guy walked in last year and offered to rent the whole thing, as it was, for what must have been a ridiculous sum of money. M told me that one person who had gone there during the festival had said he’s waited over 3 hours to be served the food after ordering! So we decided on two different restaurants. Sunday was booked no problem but the one we chose for Saturday night was already fully booked. So, we booked Grifone Bianco anyway with the promise that I would tell her how it was.

In the past, the waiting staff were rather good. They seemed to have all been there for years, they knew what they were doing and it was rather splendid. As was the food. This time, however, the waiting staff were all quite young and, it seemed, they had been taken on for the festival as they didn’t seem to really know what they were doing. Having said that, it wasn’t bad service – it just seemed a bit “hectic” whereas the old staff made it seem effortless.

As for the food, well, I had the same as usual – affettato misto (a mix of local salami and cold cuts with parmesan cheese), tortelli di zucca (like ravioli with a pumpkin filling – a speciality of Mantova) and stracotto d’asino (a stew made with donkey meat – another speciality of Mantova and really more of a winter dish – it comes with polenta).

But, I’m sorry to say that, although my choice of food was, more or less, the same as last year, the food was definitely NOT the same. The thing that I like about the affettato misto is that it come with mostarda a kind of pickled fruit with a slight mustard taste. Mostarda is another speciality of Mantova. Except now, at Grifone, there is no mostarda – plus the coppa looked a bit dry, to be honest.

Then the tortelli – beautifully rich yellow squares of deliciousness – but not in this case. The taste was OK but the look was not quite so nice. The stracotto was OK and, more or less, the same as always.

But it definitely wasn’t the same restaurant which is a shame. Will it still have a good enough reputation in three years time when it goes back to Massimo? We shall see.

And, on the change note, this may be the last time that La Brace, near Carrara will be open. This is my “meat” place for Carrara and something I always look forward to – a little like Grifone in Mantova. We went there in the summer, as usual, to learn that the couple who run it are thinking of retiring by Christmas and, rather than sell it as a going concern, they’re going to convert the place back to a house and then sell up! It was a bit of a shock and now I wonder if I can survive for a whole holiday without my “meat fix”. We shall have to find somewhere else, for sure.

Back in Mantova – I took Saturday lunch in the enormous “canteen” they run at the festival for volunteers, staff and guests. With my ticket, I was permitted to go into the guest room. The food is rather good. It’s quite full but there’s a table partly free near the door in that there are two people sitting there but 3 spare places. I ask if I can sit there and am told yes. I hear that they are speaking English (although one of them is Italian). The Italian lady (realising I’m English because of my English pronunciation of Italian) asks me, in English, if I would like some water, which I take. The English lady asks if I am an author. I say that I am not – just a friend of the festival. I ask her if she is an author and yes she is. She is, in fact, Margaret Drabble! I am embarrassed. I feel I should have recognised her but, you know, authors aren’t generally like other celebrities – their photos are not splashed all over the newspapers in the way that showbiz people photos are! Still, I feel embarrassed and, as usual when I’m that embarrassed, I come out with something so annoyingly asinine which, thank goodness, I only realised was so trite and terrible some hours later. However, we chat for a little while about Mantova and Milan and where she lives, etc. Bless her, she ignored my opening lines.

Sunday lunch, on the other hand was truly delightful. The place was L’Ochina Bianca (little white goose), M’s favourite restaurant at the moment. It’s cosy atmosphere fuelled by seeming to be sitting in someone’s front parlour, was made more so by the slight informality of the place. As if I had been invited over for a Sunday lunch with Italian friends. Of course, it was a restaurant and not someone’s house. But, still, it was lovely. I chose to have the Salame mantovano to start. Now this was more like it. A delightful selection of Mantovan salami, ciccioli (which would best be described as pork scratching – absolutely wonderful), mostarda (properly “home made”), grana (like parmesan cheese) and gras pistà (I’ve no idea what this was – it was like soft polenta with something similar to creamed gorgonzola). I skipped the pasta dish although, in hindsight, it would have been worth trying their tortelli. I chose the Guanciale di manzo stufato con verdure – beef cheek stew with vegetables and polenta. Incredible! Luckily, they also do fish so should F ever come with me (I’m still hoping), it’s perfect for both of us. I will be going back there, for certain.

So, although disappointed with the change at Grifone, I’m quite happy to have found the little white goose thanks to M.

I am, now, of course, very fat!

Baia dell’Est

Over the weekend, we stayed at the hotel at which the wedding reception was held, the hotel Baia dell’Est.

I had booked it because it would be easy and permit us to drink without having to worry about driving.

And, then, I read the Trip Advisor reviews – and I was worried! They weren’t very good.

To be honest, it has good and bad points. The view from most, if not all of the rooms is stupendous. The hotel sits on a rock high above the coast with views over about 200 degrees around. Most rooms seem to have a balcony or terrace for you to enjoy those views – looking over the bay, over the beaches and over the beautiful-looking sea.

We got there and walked from the car park to the reception. As you walk down the path, past some holiday cottages (part of the hotel), to approach the reception over a rather nice internal terrace-type area. We could see one of the other terraces over-looking the sea.

Patric, the owner, who has recently taken over the hotel, is a really nice guy with a good smattering of English (enough to get by). The reception area is modern and cool. He gave us our room key and took us down to the room.

We had a small apartment which included a bedroom, bathroom, lounge-cum-bedroom area with two single beds, a kitchen area with dining table and a rather large terrace. Had we brought the dogs, it would have been perfect as large areas of the terrace stayed in the shade from the large pine planted there. In the height of summer, this would have been the perfect place to be.

It was clean and tidy.

The only thing that we could fault with the room was that it was a bit tired. The furniture and fitted kitchen were of a 70s or 80s style and it seriously needed updating. But, we weren’t staying there for a week, so that was OK. And, anyway, we thought it was unlikely that we would be staying in the room for long periods given that we had a car.

But, the views were truly amazing.

One other small problem – although advertised as “with a restaurant”, in fact, until (I think) July, the restaurant is closed and then only opens for July and August. However, they were very accommodating and said they were able to get pizza delivered from a local pizzeria – which they did for some of the wedding guests who didn’t have cars.

As we had a car we went to a pizzeria they suggested that was about 10 minutes away. The pizza was good and the place was friendly and nice.

One of the problems that was mentioned was the noise. Unfortunately, the place is a bit echoey. We were far away from the place, just outside the reception, where people were drinking and, as it was English people, they did get a bit loud and drunk. I only heard them about 3 in the morning when they came to the bedrooms near us but someone did say that, with their room having the door overlooking that area, they suffered more.

For the wedding itself, I couldn’t fault it. They have three “dining areas” on three levels. Each has a terrace overlooking the sea. The area directly behind reception is the main dining area and it’s smart. The top dining area, for our wedding, was used for aperitivo and, after the meal, for desert and the cutting of the cake. The bottom dining area was used for breakfast.

The food served was really, really nice and they are very accommodating as we had mainly fish which two people on our table couldn’t eat – so they served meat options. The food was abundant (after all, it was an Italian wedding) and the service good.

That was the Friday evening. Saturday evening they had another two weddings, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. By about midnight, the noise from the wedding was in competition with the disco on the beach below us. Fireworks went off about 2 a.m. but I’m not sure if that was from the wedding or the disco. Either way, it seems your sleep will be, more than likely, interrupted.

However, as it wasn’t our main holiday and as we were there for one of the weddings, it was tolerable. I think if you came there for a relaxing holiday, you could be a bit annoyed. And Patric has the idea of continuing it as, primarily, a wedding venue.

So, if you want it as a wedding venue, you’d be hard pushed to choose better. A stunning venue with excellent food and enough rooms for almost as many guests as you like. And it must be good as they have bookings for hundreds of weddings for the rest of the year.

And, then, there was the price. We paid €50 per night for the two of us. It was a special deal as we were part of the wedding but, even so, it is dirt cheap.

I would like to see it in a few years when they’ve spent a bit of money on the rooms.

Last Thursday – Eating and Drinking – I’m in Italy, so what else would there be :-)

There’s this wine that we got last year. It’s delicious. I’m no wine expert but this is a smooth, deep-red, full-bodied, tasty wine. It’s called Roverone.

Last Thursday, we went to get more, with friends. The same friends who we were with last year. It’s a vineyard, set in the low hills south of Milan, between Pavia and Lodi. It’s still in Lombardy so it’s Lombardy wine they produce/sell. The vineyard is Nettare dei Santi. We got one bottle of white too, for F. The Roverone will be my wine for Christmas, for sure :-)

After we were there, we went to the same restaurant as last time, the Trattoria Righini, which I have posted about before.

You get served all at the same time, with many, many small courses. Having been there once already, i was much more careful this time – NOT to eat F’s left-overs and NOT to ask for seconds. I succeeded with the first but not always the second. In any event, we got there at 12.30 and left sometime after 4.30!

The food is fresh and they use in-season vegetables. You don’t get a choice of menus – you just decline (or in my case, accept) the dish they are serving you at the time.

In any event, we ate and drank far too much but it was fun and great food and drink and a rather wonderful day all together.

I did go and have a lie-down for an hour when I got home.

Also, I didn’t actually feel like eating anything at all until about yesterday!

p.s. I DID eat, of course, I just didn’t really WANT to eat :-)

Mantova Festivaletteratura

Note: I wrote part of this on the train, on my way to the Mantova Festivaletteratura. 6th September. The rest is from memory.

It’s 8.15. I’m on the train. I have butterflies in my stomach, partly because I am always like this when using public transport and partly because, since last night, I have been quite excited about going to the Festival.

It is far too early to be up on a holiday but I decided, this year, to take the train rather than drive. It means I don’t have to worry about drinking, the traffic, parking, etc. But also, I think, it is much cheaper, even if I am travelling 1st class against motorway tolls and petrol.

So I sit in leather seats, in comfort, with room to move around and can relax.

As I write, we have left, exactly on time. The rail service, here, is really very good. And 1st class is worth the 5€ extra.

The countryside is not really beautiful, to me. We are in the Lombardy plain, there are no hills. The flat fields to either side are full of ready-to-harvest rice – which plants look similar to sweet corn (maize to Americans, maiz to Italians), like dead stalks rather than food, or just-harvested fields with the few inches of dried stalks left.

Occasionally we pass buildings. Old, abandoned buildings – except they aren’t really abandoned. There are telltale signs – window shutters open, a car parked outside, washing hanging from the window.

Or small villages or towns, clustered houses which end abruptly to fields of sweet corn or rice or hay.

We pass through a station called Pizzaghettone (or something like that) and then, immediately over the river Po, I assume, the other side of which is a small village – which reminds me of Crespi d’Adda – a factory (still operating) with purpose-built houses and blocks of flats nearby. I must check it out sometime.

There are points on the line where the rail is single track. the train slows and passes through wooded areas. It looks so beautiful as the early morning sunlight shines through so it is not gloomy. We could be anywhere.

We arrive, on time.

This is, in fact, the first time I have come to Mantova by train and, if I am on my own, it is certainly something to consider next time.

I walk from the station through to the centre and the Festival office. I arrive at the square near to Piazza del Erbe. There is a café there that sells some special Mantovan pastry. I stop and sit at a table. In any case, I need coffee. It is hot and perfect.

The waitress comes and I try to get what I want but, either they have run out or they don’t sell it any more. I have coffee with a doughnut. It’s not brilliant but it’s OK.

I walk round to the office. It’s the first day of the festival but there are plenty of people around. I go into the office. They have changed things around a bit. I look for Marella but can’t see her. I see Sara and the guy from Sweden or Norway or somewhere of whom, to my disgust, I can never remember his name. He’s such a nice guy too. But I am crap with names. Sara explains that Marella is not feeling well. I am disappointed because I usually spend 10 minutes chatting to her and it’s always a nice start. However, Sara sorts me out, including which events to see. I have all day and only three events so plenty of time for sitting, relaxing, drinking and eating.

So, I leave the busy office, not wanting to be a burden, knowing, having worked at the Hay Festival, that you really don’t want people just hanging about. There is work to do, after all.

I make my way up to Piazza Sordello and one of the outside cafés. I sit and, even if it is about 11 a.m., I will have a beer :-)

Except the waiter ignores me. And I read about my first event. I check the time – it starts in less than 15 minutes. I abandon my idea of a beer and get up and walk towards the location. As I near the place, I pass another cafée and decide that I will have that beer after all.

I sit outside and order. I have 10 minutes. It’s enough time.

As I drink my beer, a ‘minder’ comes with two people. Americans. Since the couple have a minder, he or she must be an author or, at least, speaker. I look at him but don’t have any idea who he is. The minder is obviously bored with them or cannot find things to say. She checks her phone. I contemplate the idea of talking to him (for his partner has gone across the street to take photos) but don’t. After all, I don’t actually know who he is and just because I speak almost the same language, doesn’t mean I have to speak to him. Indeed, just because you’re gay doesn’t mean I will like you – in fact, I don’t really have many gay friends – I find I have little in common.

I suddenly realise I am going to be late and finish my beer, pay at the counter and go to the event. It is called Translation Slam. It may have been wonderful if it had been an English author but, unfortunately, the author was Spanish – so although I understood some of the Italian, the whole thing was quite difficult to follow.

After this, it was time for lunch. Lunch, of course, had to be Griffone Bianco (see link on right). I wandered up to Piazza Erbe. I could see some of the old buildings fenced off – the earthquake near Modena affected Mantova too – but none of them seemed to have fallen down – just a few bricks or slates having fallen to the ground.

As I walked up to the restaurant, I saw Peter, sitting on his own. I went to say hello and he invited me to join him, even if he was already on desert. I had a very pleasant lunch time and we chatted and ate and drank (although he only drank water) and it took about two and a half hours.

The next event was just after 3. Steven Greenblatt. It was OK and, obviously, all his bits were in English which helps a lot :-)

On my way back to the office, I passed a shop which sold belts (amongst other things) and called in and bought a belt which I had needed for ages. Then I went to the office to enquire about Marella. Apparently she was going to come in later. But then I was off to my next event. It was Peter interviewing Aiden chambers – so all in English (with translations for the Italian audience. Mr Chmabers did seem quite a crazy guy (in what he thought) but it was interesting none the less.

During the event, Marella texted me to ask how it was going, were there many people, etc. There were a lot of people – almost full and I thought it went very well – the audience seemed to appreciate it.

Then, as Marella was now in the office, I went down to see her. Whilst waiting for her, Peter arrived and she grabbed him to ask if he would go to dinner with some important people of the Festival. Then she asked if I could come too. Is said I could for about half an hour as I had to catch a train. She said that was fine.

We got a taxi and ended up at the ‘staff canteen’. Mantova has an enormous number of volunteers – mostly kids from schools and universities and the one thing that Mantova does well is look after them. They have a huge canteen serving food all day and evening. I found it amusing that we were going to dinner there – what with such important people in Mantova!

We followed Marella into the ‘authors & special people’ dining room – away from the hordes of kids (thank goodness). There were about 10 very large, round tables, with tableclothes on. We were introduced to these people (a couple – the woman of which I had seen at Peter’s gig). Then we got food from where they were serving and sat down.

Considering these people had really wanted Peter to come, they hardly spoke to him which both Peter and I found quite strange. In fact, the guy spoke more to me – about the dogs, as it happens.

And, finally, Marella and I got a few moments to talk when I promised to try and bring F (and, maybe, the dogs) there next year. Well, he’s met Lola now and likes both her and G, so I’m on a roll right now!

Of course, because the time was short, I completely forgot to ask about Marella’s daughter – which I felt terrible about afterwards.

I left quite soon and walked to the station. I arrived with a few minutes to spare and got on the train. It left on time but, unfortunately, there was a delay on the way back (another train in front had some problems) and so I didn’t get into Milan until 11.30.

But, I thought as I caught the tram back – here (as opposed to Hay), I can wear my sandals all day and night – and that makes everything so much more pleasant.

However, I had a super day and was so glad that Marella (even though slightly sickly) was able to come. I’m sure that, without her (sorry Sara), the festival wouldn’t actually be quite the same at all.

So, next year, I have to try and persuade F to take a day off and come – even if it is his busy time of year.

I am not 20

Personally, I think it was the last mojito that did it. After all, it wasn’t a mojito at all but, rather than rum, was something else entirely.

I was, as said by one of the characters in the Fast Show, Rowley Birkin QC, and shown below, very, very drunk.

Of course, I didn’t go out with the intention of ending up completely wasted. No, no. It was just a meal out with friends. We didn’t even start off by drinking much. OK so an aperitivo at the bar we all met up in. And, I suppose, I did drink most of E’s drink since she didn’t like it.

Then we ahd some wine with the meal. Well, three bottles of the good stuff and a carafe of the house wine but that was between six of us.

OK so one person hardly drunk any, another only slightly more, so I guess effectively 4 bottles between 4 which, I suppose, is a bottle each.

But it was the beach party that did it really.

One of the nice things about Italy is the cocktails. There’s no such thing as gills. Or is it gils? In any event – measuring. They don’t do it.

Since the barman was the son of E (who’s drink I had nearly drunk earlier), he did the mojitos for me and Alf. I’m not a fan but it was a disco (with the dreadful Italian summer music) and there was sand beneath my feet and it was warm and people were dancing and it seemed to go down quite well.

At some point, someone mentioned going for a swim in the sea but, even in my inebriated state, I knew that was dangerous and declined – saying it was dangerous. In the end, no one did go for a swim. Maybe I had frightened them. Or, at least, made them think.

I wasn’t going to have another but, you know, it seemed we weren’t likely to go home any time soon and so, I thought, why not?

Of course, in the light of day there were a million and one reasons why not. But it was not the light of day but about 1 a.m. These reasons did not even cross my mind. But, apparently, they had run out of rum and so our wonderful new friend, the barman, suggested something else which we agreed to try.

To be honest, by then, it could well have been antifreeze and I would have drunk it. Perhaps it was antifreeze? I drank it anyway. And then I remember very little until about 7 a.m. when I first woke up.

Not when I GOT up, mind you. Just woke up. The dogs were being a bit of a pain so I let them out in the garden.

F woke up about 10.15. I had woken up several times between 7 and then. We got up and took the dogs out.

In the end, we got to the beach about 12.30 – about 3 hours later than we usually do. As F said, we shouldn’t really do this very often and I totally agree. It’s not like we’re 20 any more.

Still it was a nice evening. From what I recall!