November 29th – Hitch-hiking from Ferrara to Pisa

I read on the website “hitch-wiki” that Italy is a tough country to hitch-hike in. Admittedly we hadn’t had too many problems on our first day (despite nearly getting arrested outside Venice); but this day we were going to discover how things would go on a much longer journey, crossing the north of the country from east to west …Would Italy live down to its online reputation and give us the cold (hard) shoulder, or would it match all the other countries we had hitched in so far for warm kindness to strangers on the roadside…?

Our friend Gigi had some business on the edge of Ferrara town, so he offered to drop us off on the road pointing in the direction of our destination (Pisa), and that is where, with minds buzzing with caffeine and hearts full of optimism, we started hitching. And that is where we stayed, as minutes turned into an hour, started to turn towards two…eventually, however, a car pulled over and we sprinted to it delighted … but it turned out to be Gigi on the way back from his business and amazed to find us still in the same spot.

On the course of our journey we have met, through couchsurfing, a couple of other people who have hitch-hiked around Europe. When comparing notes they tell us about countries which are hard to hitch in (e.g. England) and say something like….”yeah it’s terrible, sometimes you need to wait thirty minutes…” “Holy shit”, I always think, “that sounds fantastic”. Sometimes lifts come thick and fast, but often our waits by the roadside approach an hour and beyond. And what is the problem we have when hitching? The answer is simple, it’s me.

Because these fellow hitch-hikers we have chatted with are all girls. So obviously if Catherine was hitching alone then she’d be getting lifts within minutes. But then people see me standing behind her, my arm out and grinning, in an attempt to convey friendliness which maybe makes me look slightly demented. And presumably people who would otherwise stop spot me and suddenly think “there’s no way I’m picking him up…” and then their hands go up to indicate that they can’t help, and then their feet go down to accelerate themselves away…

The other problem hitch-hiking in Europe is the number of potential destinations people can possibly be going to in the tightly packed continent. So even when people do stop they often aren’t going the right way. It’s not like that in Australia, when we were hitching between Melbourne and Perth and, still over 2,000 kilometres from our destination, a driver pulled over and called “are you going to Perth, mate?” To put this in context it’s like hitching outside Rome and a driver pulling over correctly guessing that you want to go to Kiev. Of course this Australian driver could know where we were going, even though it was 3 days drive away, because there was only one road and only one destination…

Still, despite occasional long waits, things have never got as bad for us as for one Australian, male, friend who once waited for a lift, in the deserted north of the country, for three days…Generally for us when hitching in Europe we look at Google maps before we start a journey and if it gives a journey time of four hours then we reckon that should take about one day for us hitch-hiking. In Turkey, where the drivers are much more likely to stop, you can cover more than double that distance per day. For example, heading from the Mediterranean coast to Istanbul, which Google calls a 17 hour journey, can easily be done in two days hitching – even with me on board… 

But despite delays hitching in Italy is a pleasure in the sense that the climate is nowhere near as cold as the places we have come from, such as the Czech Republic and Austria. So we don’t mind anywhere near as much the big waits, and in the relative warmth it is much easier to keep that grin genuinely on your face, rather than just having it stuck there because your features have frozen. And, of course, lifts eventually do come. Today’s first lift was a woman going to Bologna, and she gladly fitted us into her car despite having two other passengers. I’ve mentioned before that no women drivers ever picked us up in Turkey, but further west women make up an increasingly higher ratio of the people who stop.

When we reached suburban Bologna the driver, who didn’t speak any English, insisted in taking us to the train station. We tried to explain that we were travelling by “autostop” but she insisted that nobody would pick us up in Italy. This happens quite often when hitching. The drivers try to get you to public transport and tell you that hitch-hiking will never work in their country. I always feel like saying, “but how do you think we ended up in this car, I mean, you picked us up yourself?” I have also tried telling drivers that we have come via this method all the way from Iraq, but that just seems to confirm for them that I have taken leave of my senses and need to be helped to the nearest public transport as quickly as possible…

Anyway hitching from suburban Bologna towards Florence took a long, long time. We waited on the edge of a roundabout while cars swung past and the hands of the clock spun round and round. Still we had all day to get to Pisa, for reasons I will explain later, so spirits remained high. Eventually one man stopped, he wasn’t going our way but he was so keen to help that he drove us out of his way to the nearest service station on the motorway, a much better place to hitch. En route he told me, “I stopped for you to show you that not all Italians are like Berlusconi.” But of course we already knew that.

Finally we were on the right motorway so our next lift came quickly. A father and son en route to Rome took us to the edge of Florence. But there, at another service station, we had a long wait during which time this part of the earth turned away from the sun to face the darkness of space. Five or six cars stopped but nobody was going to Pisa. Eventually, starting to worry and getting cold, we accepted a lift from a young Sicilian woman heading further down the road to suburban Florence. She sped through the narrow streets up a hill which presented us with a panorama of the cradle of the Renaissance by night. And she threw colourful curses at any drivers who got in her way in a pleasingly stereotypical Italian style.

She dropped us at the train station, but this time, in the dark, we weren’t complaining. There were no staff at this suburban station, and the ticket machine was broken, so we boarded the train for the forty-five minute journey to Pisa without a ticket. Unemployment in Italy is high and it appears that the railways aren’t bothering to employ tickets sellers or conductors, therefore we never had the chance to but a ticket. So I guess in a way we hitch-hiked the train too, and thus the mission to get to Pisa, from Iraq, for free was achieved.

Why were we trying to get to Pisa? Because at this point in the mission we were about to make a radical change and fit in a few weeks holiday in Morocco…we had booked a flight a long time ago to go to Marrakesh to meet our friend Paula Morris. So we would be taking a diversion off the hitch-hiking route for a couple of weeks and then flying back to Europe to pick up where we had left off and complete the hitching home. The idea of the Moroccan trip was to see Paula, and to delay the finish of our journey so that our return would coincide with Christmas. Also, after so long in the cold of Europe it would be a welcome opportunity to thaw out in North Africa, a new continent for us on this trip.

So with a flight out of Pisa airport at 7am our plan was to take the last train out of the city centre to the airport. This meant we had just enough time there to walk across the old town and to see the leaning tower, which was a delight. I reacted to it as people often do when they see a celebrity in real life, “wow, I thought it would be bigger.” The leaning tower is one of those images so familiar from pictures that you almost can’t believe you are actually seeing it in front of you (I had a similar sense at the Taj Mahal last year). I felt as if what I was looking at was a parody of itself.

The tower is part of the cathedral complex, but, atypically of a Christian tower, it stands aside from the main building, in the style of a Muslim minaret. The other buildings in the same complex are actually spectacular in their own right, and I can only imagine how much they must resent the superstar standing at a jaunty angle next to them for distracting all of the world’s attention from their own beauty. I suspect they whisper amongst themselves about how delighted they will be when the arrogant tower finally realises it is not leaning on anything and it collapses, like Del Boy falling through the bar.       

Post-tower we just had enough time to fit in a pizza at a place so full that the customers were spilling out into the winter evening street. The perfect end to our Italian adventure, or so we thought, because, actually the airport experience was a disaster. Our flight was leaving at 7am and we planned to sleep in the airport. The airport wasn’t set up for sleeping with fixed arm rests across the seats, but eventually, curling ourselves around the bars, we managed to drop off. Ten minutes later we were being woken up by a repeated announcement in Italian and English saying “customer permanence is not allowed.” It took my sleeping brain a long time to understand what was being said until eventually it dawned on me – they were shutting the airport. Security came round to evict us and the dozen or so other people who had planned to sleep in the airport.

A waking nightmare … we were kicked out for four hours to sleep on the street outside on a winter’s night. This was almost certainly the worst night of our whole trip, lying out there was like trying to fall asleep on a block of ice with an un-switch-off-able fan blowing on you…if there is one thing I’ve learnt on this hitch-hiking it is that being cold is one of the most horrible of things. Until central heating and double glazing came to tame it, winter was once a hellish time across Europe. This night was a reminder of the bitter power it once possessed. Think of anyone this winter anywhere in the world who cannot find a warm place to sleep.

In the end Italian hitch-hiking wasn’t so hard at all, generous people can be found everywhere. But despite the warmth of the people the official rules meant that we still ended up getting the cold shoulder.

 

Facts and figures from the hitch:-

Total distance covered – 229 km

Number of lifts – 4 (and a free train ride)

Nationality of the drivers – all Italian

Occupations of the drivers – Telecommunications, Teacher, Beautician

Hospitality offered – none

26th – 28th November – Falling for Ferrara

Take a walk along a narrow street as it twists between tall buildings into the heart of Ferrara’s ancient Jewish ghetto and find the place which once served as the oldest synagogue in town. Push through the stubborn wooden doors into a proud old building which has survived quite a battering over the years. Notice the cracks where the 2012 earthquake shook almost all of the people living in the upstairs flats out as the structure was deemed to be at risk of collapse. Climb the old tiled staircase up a level to one of the only two flats still occupied, and inside the beautiful old bedsit you will find a party in full swing.

Musicians, managers, staff, family, friends and assorted hangers on from the Jazz Club Ferrara sitting around or busy arriving, each new entrant banging down bottles of wine on the big wooden table in the middle of the room, and everyone helping themselves filling little water glasses with red wine. A big pot of “pasta alla chitarra” boiling away on the stove, pizza in the oven, cool music on the stereo, plates, knives and forks circulating, a genial hubbub of conversation, “ciaos”, “belissimas” and ” “grazies.” Looking at the funky crowd all around, and then the food that’s appearing in the middle of the table, the applause and cheers that greets it, the pizza being pulled apart, the pasta dished up and distributed, Catherine turns to me and laughs “it’s like being in a Dolmio advert” … it’s true, although there aren’t many such adverts where you’d find joints being passed around with the dishes… 

Seeing what I’m thinking Tommy turns to me with a grin, “It doesn’t get any more Italian, huh?” Totti on the other side agrees “…yes, but this is special even for us … Ferrara is a special place for north Italy ” Totti is up from his home in Sicily on tour with the American jazz trio he manages, “The Bad Plus”, and is taking a break from his schedule to enjoy the party with the hosts of his group’s most recent concert. I think it’s high praise indeed for a Sicilian to pick out a north Italian place as somewhere special, but Ferrara it seems to me is that sort of a place.

I enjoyed a long chat with Tommy. He lived in New York for ten years and used to work there as a jazz drummer, earning big bucks playing every night on the top floor of the Rockefeller Centre, until 9/11 changed everything and the band were dismissed. He’s the first person I’ve ever spoken to who managed to convince me that there might be something in the conspiracy theories about US government involvement in 9/11, but then maybe it was just something in the air that night which influenced my mind. Certainly the analogy we managed to come up with between us about Al Qaeda being like an artist who sells multi-millions worldwide and storms the Grammys before going immediately to playing concerts in the back rooms of pubs made a lot more sense at the time than when I read back my notes about it the next morning….

I also told Tommy about our hitch-hiking project, from Iraq to Liverpool, and while I was doing so I felt for the first time a realisation of a fact that should have been staring me in the face for a long time – what we are doing is nuts. Sometimes it takes a change of perspective and of company to see the blindingly obvious. And what did it for me was noticing the look on Tommy’s face while I was telling him in a very matter of fact way about what we’d been up to and were planning. It was the same humouring look that you would give to a stranger at the bus stop if they told you, quite calmly and matter of factly, that they had just come from lunch with a Martian and were waiting for a unicorn to come along for them to ride home on. “Hitch-hiking from Iraq…” said Tommy, measuring each word carefully, “that is … so … interesting…”

And if at that time I had decided to just quit this hitch-hiking journey all together then I couldn’t have thought of a better place to abandon it than Ferrara. We originally came here just to see our friend Gigi and visit the Jazz Club. We planned to stay one night, tops two. In the end we stayed for four, and if it hadn’t have been for necessity driving us on elsewhere we would have lived there happily ever after.

The main reason we stayed so long was because of Gigi’s generous hospitality. He basically gave up his flat to us the whole time we were there, and it was a wonderful four day home. It was my kind of place, walls painted red, a little kitchen with a black teapot constantly boiling on the stove, bits and bobs from south-east Asian trips everywhere and loads of pieces of little works of art from friends covering the walls and shelves. The most interesting art story was about two Jackson Pollock-esque scrawls which came from the artist who used to live across the hallway in the old synagogue. The painter had given them to Gigi in return for two bowls of pasta, and now the pieces were valued at 800 euros each.

There were quite a few interesting tales to tell about that artist as it transpired. Gigi showed us the man’s old flat, and through the broken down door I could see an unbelievable clutter, as if the place was a ransacked crime scene, but apparently that was how the artist used to live there; the chaotic flat an outward expression of a chaotic mind. “A very psychopathic man, believe me” Gigi told me. How come the door was broken down I asked. “I broke his door…because he was breaking my balls every night for three months … so … but it’s ok…” replied Gigi with a shrug.

Now that the artist has gone the only remaining tenants in the condemned synagogue are Gigi and his Jazz Club Ferrara colleague Valentina, who rents the flat opposite which hosted the party I described at the start of this blog. Directly across the street from Gigi’s place lives Francesco, the club’s artistic director, and every morning he and Gigi open their windows and discuss the jazz club’s business across the street so narrow that they could almost pass each other cups of coffee.

Heading down to that street and then out and about we discovered that Ferrara is a very beautiful town in its own right, probably under-rated because of its proximity to such show-stopping stunners as Venice. Yes there are no canals there but the old town streets are otherwise the equal of anywhere else for atmosphere and the authentic preservation of the world of renaissance northern Italy. Wandering through them on a late afternoon listening to the sound of a string quartet, and dodging the occasional cyclist shooting down the lanes, I felt as if I’d strayed onto a movie set.

And tucked away in the backstreets are several fantastic spots. My favourite was “the oldest wine bar in the world”, dating from 1435, where Titian used to drink and Copernicus used to study in the upstairs room. Perhaps it was the head-spinning effect of all the wine here that gave him those crazy ideas about the earth rotating around the sun? On the way home from the ancient bar we picked up drinks at a modern shop, where top-draw local wines can be poured straight from the barrel into your bottle for two euros per litre

We took several litres back for the party that night. And every night seems to be some sort of party in Ferrara, whether high or low key. Always there are people gathering around Gigi and Valentina’s flats to share good wine, food, company, and music of course. Records I heard here for the first time included ones by Keith Jarrett, the Penguin Café Orchestra and Hank Mobley. My favourite was the incredible “Blues and Roots” album by Charles Mingus, and particular the track “Moanin’”, the main riff of which is still lodged in my head two weeks after I first heard it. “It’s like a mantra”, said Gigi, who learnt his English from a free book on Buddhism he picked up in south-east Asia.

Stefano, the bass player, had a different take on the track, “it’s like fuck you rock ‘n’ roll.” And, during a discussion about how jazz was the sound of an angry African-American community I did start to wonder whether that anger might explain some of the appeal to these young Italians. I’m not suggesting they’ve suffered anything like African-Americans, but having endured financial disaster and too many years of Berlusconi’s tragic clowning they do have lots to be angry about.

The music ringing around Ferrara is not all just on record of course. At the end of the party I described in the first couple of paragraphs I went back to the main room to say good night and found everybody silently engrossed in producing a symphony with their wineglasses. The noise being produced by the saxophonist Piero, with a combination of rubbing and blowing on the glass, sounded as if it was being transmitted from outer space.   

As I said in yesterday’s blog, I have to emphasise that this scene here, cool as it is, is also a warm one. All the people we met around the Ferrara are unpretentious and friendly. Sometimes in Britain, and elsewhere, people are so keen to be cool that they end up cold. It’s not the case here, as this next little story shows.

On our last night in Ferrara we went to the local bar near the synagogue and I interviewed Francesco for an article about the jazz club. He gave me a history of the music, how it had developed, spread to Europe post-war and the role it had played in “breaking down the walls between cultures.” When we all went to settle our bill after a few glasses of wine we discovered it had already been paid by a friend of Gigi’s we’d briefly chatted to earlier.

Ferrara is that sort of place, and over the course of four nights I fell for it. I love Italy, I love Ferrara, I love the jazz club, and one day I’ll come back to live here too…

25th November – Jazz Club Ferrara

I first heard of the Jazz Club Ferrara while on a snorkeling trip off the east coast of Borneo earlier this year. “It’s the best jazz club in Italy, maybe in Europe – believe me.” And even though the man telling me, Gigi Peluso, had invested his life in making the club work I had no reason to not believe him. So Catherine and I made plans to swing our hitch-hiking journey home from Iraq via Ferrara, even though it wasn’t naturally on the route. Having now visited the jazz club I can tell you that I shouldn’t have been so quick to believe all of Gigi’s words, because as it turns out he was understating things…based on my experience the Jazz Club Ferrara is one of the best musical trips you can have anywhere on the planet. Here’s my account of one of the highlights of our whole five years travel…

“Un batterista, per favore…”

If on a winter’s Monday night you push aside the heavy black curtain that separates the inside of the Tower of St John the Baptist from the cold streets of Ferrara outside you enter another world, a magnificent mixture of Renaissance and modern Italy with an atmosphere of 1950s New York. This round tower was built at the end of the 15th century as part of a defensive wall designed to keep people outside the city of Ferrara. Now it is home to the number one reason to bring the outside world in, and tonight, at nearly midnight, the ground floor is packed to capacity with an expectant crowd.

Above the noise of the conversation, laughter and the clink of wine glasses Francesco repeats his call from the already busy little stage – “abiamo bisogno di un batterista, un batterista per favore” (we need a drummer, a drummer please).

After a short search through the crowd someone is found, and the newly born band is ready to go, a drum kit, a double bass, a piano, two saxes, a trumpet and a guitar. Some of these musicians have played together here for years, others have just met over a shared joint a few minutes before, all are about to launch into the latest instalment of the Jazz Club Ferrara’s legendary jam session.

The drummer lays down the foundation with a beat, the bass player starts picking his way over the top of it, and then the piano dances in, chased by the horns, which take the tune by the hand, spin it round and whisk it away, up and round the ceiling, before dropping it back off with the rest of the band. Suddenly inside the old tower, and inside the heads of all the crowd around, all heaven has broken loose.

Before coming here I had a stereotypical image of jazz clubs, and it wasn’t pretty. I imagined that they would be filled either with pretentious musos stroking their chins to an unlistenable “arty” soundtrack, or with a sedate crowd watching mentally antiquated musicians offering photocopies of old tunes. The Jazz Club Ferrara couldn’t be further from these images. The atmosphere is warm and friendly, the style unpretentious and the music takes something old but brings it back to life with a brand new spin. Francesco’s policy as creative director is to give musicians the freedom to bring their own projects, whilst also being rooted in respect for jazz tradition. And the Monday night jam session is the best expression of that philosophy. As Gigi put it to me “the jam session starts from the standards, but then it moves free, but the musicians must respect the rules, respect the time melody, harmony and the other musicians.’

You could say that what the musicians are doing in the jam session is like what the jazz club has done with the tower; within the framework of something old, substantial and solid they are making something wonderful and new. Every time you come the band is different, and every time they take old standards and reinvent them in a unique way.

While Gigi and I are discussing this one of the saxophone players is soloing, taking the tune for a walk whilst himself wandering off the stage and into the heart of the appreciative crowd. ‘Carlo…’, Gigi explains, ‘he started age six with the flute and classical music…but then, when he met the saxophone…he go out…believe me…” He waves his hand away from his head to indicate a mind that is flying away someplace else. Gigi has a nice habit of talking about instruments as if they’re people. He also, as you have probably noticed, very often ends his sentences by asking you to believe him. And after one night at the jazz club I was a believer.

I was not the only one. All the artists and audience members I spoke to agreed there is something special in the energy here and that comes across best in the jam session which unites talent from all around Ferrara, Italy and beyond. It is an energy which comes from each of the musicians individually, from the band collectively, and from the enthusiastic crowd that surrounds them on the flat stage in the round tower. Each component part feeds off the energy of the others and returns it in a way which elevates the music and everybody present.

And, according to Gigi, the energy also comes from the tower itself, a 15th century building with UNESCO world heritage status. “This is a place where if you’re not interested in jazz you become curious…everyone comes for the energy and the power because the tower is full of atmosphere. Maybe even if you have a chess club in the tower you’d be full every night…” The quote has often been repeated, that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Well this is music worth writing about in architecture worth dancing about it.

But despite what Gigi says the real root cause of what makes the place so special is not its setting; it is Gigi himself, and his friends Francesco and Valentina who have dedicated their lives to what he calls “the utopia of the jazz club.” One of the regular musicians here, Piero, tells me that what is at heart of the jazz club’s magic is the fact that, ‘it’s not a business, but a passion.’ And the passion is that of the three person management team, all of whom are around the same age as the club (which was founded in 1977). Because it is since they took over that the place has gone from being staid and traditional to something really swinging.

Gigi first met Francesco over a joint at a Marxist commune, shortly after he had first moved to Ferrara from south Italy to study law. Francesco, Gigi remembers, was carrying a guitar case full of CDs. And it is love of music, not money, which has been at the heart of what has driven everything that they have done with the club ever since. Francesco first became involved as a volunteer in February 1998, followed by Valentina six months later. When Gigi started working there in 1999 his initial salary was three glasses of wine a night.

Believe me, he doesn’t earn much more now. Despite being a qualified lawyer Gigi has dedicated himself to the club and earns less than a minimum wage salary for all his work. Both he and Valentina live in bedsit flats inside an otherwise abandoned, and earthquake damaged, old synagogue at the quiet heart of what was once Ferrara’s Jewish Ghetto. Everyone else left when the earthquake ripped through the ancient building a few years back and the place was deemed unfit for human habitation. Despite running one of the world’s best music venues neither Gigi nor Valentina are in a financial position to be able to move anywhere else.

The reason they don’t make money had got nothing to do with any problems drawing crowds. The club is full to capacity for nearly all of the twice weekly concerts it hosts from autumn to spring. The issue is that they and Francesco refuse outright to run it as a business. Over a glass of wine back at his earthquake cracked flat, Gigi explained the philosophy of the jazz club to me, “it’s like a family, not just with the musicians but also with the guests…if you’re young it’s good, if you’re old it’s better, if you’re rich it’s good, if you’re poor it’s better…”

And the people running the club are monetarily poor themselves because they don’t want business to get in the way of what they’re doing with the music. The Monday night gigs, which feature a mixture of up and coming Italian and international artists, as well as the jam session, are totally free to attend. And if the music being served up wasn’t enough Gigi also cooks a fantastic free food, in Italian and Asian styles, for everyone attending. The only thing people pay for is their drinks. As Gigi put it “we get money from beer and wine and use it to make music.” Apparently following his baptism Jesus’ first miracle was to turn water into wine. Here now in Ferrara, in the tower of St John the Baptist, the jazz club is turning wine into miraculous music.

Still, concerned that the people behind the miracle are having to live prophet-like lives of poverty, I suggested to Gigi applying a modest cover charge so they could increase their own salaries. He wasn’t interested. For him the jazz club is sometimes like a school, and always like a family, but never anything like a business. ‘The young musicians are like sons to us, and here they develop very fast … the club is like a school for them, because in jazz it’s important to be able to play with others, with great musicians and that’s hard to find, and here they have an opportunity to have a relationship with very famous and very great musicians.’ For the audience too the jazz club is ‘an education … Francesco wants to teach people the new jazz, teach people to go inside the music. In Italy it’s the perfect combination if you give for free food and music then people are coming.”

So our night in the club began with dinner and glasses of wine. The jazz club only serves organic Italian wines, and again the people running it resist any suggestion to change policy to make more money as a matter of principle. Because the tower is divided into two levels it means that the main event of the night, the concert, can be held upstairs, away from the people who just want to eat and drink. This helps make the atmosphere at the concert fantastic, with everyone there focused solely on the music. The man sitting next to us bore an uncanny resemblance to John Peel, and he was getting into the music with an enthusiasm similar to that of the late DJ. And on this particular night we all had a real treat to get into, with two of Italy’s finest young musicians, the Zanisi-Cigalini Duo, playing for free.

The saxophone player was outrageously talented, but it was the gentle playing of the pianist, who bore a striking resemblance to “Lord of the Rings” actor Elijah Wood, which I found most evocative. Both musicians were classically trained and their songs had that quality which I associate with classical music, the ability to take over your imagination and fill it with a stream of images and dreams in a way that popular music generally can’t achieve. I must also confess that, after a lot of hard days hitch-hiking and too much Romanian wine in Venice the night before, I was drifting in and out of sleep during the set. But it had nothing to do with boredom, in fact falling in and out of sleep to the sound of this mesmerising music was a delicious and engrossing pleasure.

In some ways there is no finer experience available to our normally closed and singular minds than being opened by music when you are in those curious moments on the edge of sleep; when your brain is dissolving into everything else around it, and you can almost realise how you are just one tiny part of the unity of everything and the music mixes with your unconscious and leads your thoughts, and then you snap up awake again and the revelation seems as unreal as a dream, but the music goes on.

Sometimes I think we are spoiled by sound in the modern world. Nowadays music is constantly accessible with a flick of a switch or the click of a mouse. Imagine how special it was when you could only hear music like this live, when a visiting musical genius was in town, then it must have seemed a real magic.  

An element of this old magic comes in the spontaneous and random nature of the jam session, which follows the main event, and which is the essence of what makes the jazz club so special. The jam goes on till 3am though, and by the end I must have appeared a ridiculous comic character, swinging as I was between foot-tapping, head-shaking enthusiasm one second to snoozing the next; but smiling all the time.

Each time I woke up I’d find the crowd a little thinner as people occasionally drifted away into the early hours of Tuesday morning, and the number of musicians on stage slowly decreased too. Each time I woke a few more had vanished, finally there was just a pianist and a guitarist left. Such is the organic nature of the jam session that the furious funky energy of earlier had gone, replaced by what sounded like lullabies as the last few people left the club and the pair of visiting hitch-hikers snoozed on the couches at the back.  

The Jazz Club Ferrara is a winning combination. It is super cool, but at the same time the people running it couldn’t be warmer, nor could they be truer to what they are doing. And what they are doing is taking a renaissance tower and turning it into a world class venue for the rebirth of some of the world’s best music. Stefano, one of the young musicians involved told me the next night that he felt there was an energy in Ferrara around the jazz scene that could be compared to the sort of energy that manifested in other small places that suddenly, briefly became the centres of the musical universe,

‘It feels like Seattle must have done in its time … or Liverpool in the ‘60s… I don’t want to sound pretentious or anything, I mean in the history maybe it’s not really important, but it is important for some people, I came here just to finish my conservatoire, but I stayed because there is more energy here and I didn’t find that anywhere else.’

Neither have I, even after five years of travel the Ferrara Jazz Club is truly one of the most special places I have ever been lucky enough to visit. I highly recommend you come here too because everyone, whether jazz lover or not, should experience this scene for themselves, and the time to do so is now. The financial constraints which the club works within are such that “every year when we stop in April [for the Summer break] who knows if we will start again in November…” Already the Friday night concerts that used to take place up until this year have had to be cut in response to funding problems related to the Italian, and European, financial crisis. Now only the Saturday and Monday concerts remain.

With flights to Ferrara so cheap from the UK, and with Ferrara, itself a UNESCO world heritage city, only one hour from Venice, this is the perfect long weekend destination. A flight out on Saturday and back on Tuesday allows you to enjoy the paid concert on the Saturday night, featuring some of the finest artists from the world of jazz, followed by the free Monday night with up and coming stars and the incredible jam session. As Francesco puts it

“We have great concerts, all the cool cats from the magic periods of the ‘50s and ‘60s, they are old but still strong. They are the best for me because they represent history. But we have to recognise in 2013 that history is what is working now … some  of the names that now come to the jazz club, in 30 years they will be the masters.’

Come and visit the Ferrara Jazz Club, and see the old masters and the new, the classical and the renaissance. You won’t regret it, and, sadly, if you don’t come now you might never get the chance to experience something this special again … believe me.

November 24th-25th – the death of Venice

Venice is the world’s most beautiful city, dying a long, drawn-out death right before our eyes. And my visit, and almost all visits there, are part of what is killing it. Here’s my account of one night and day in the city of masks and mazes, a city whose most famous feature is eating the rest of it, a golden egg which is killing the goose…

As described in the previous blog, we arrived in Venice under cover of darkness at the central train station. With no gondolas available for hitch-hiking we headed off on foot into the maze of tiny, ancient backstreets, which nearly perfectly preserve the atmosphere of centuries gone by in a way unequalled anywhere else in the world. As soon as you enter the historic heart of the city, especially at night when the tourists have largely disappeared, you feel as if you are transported to the same grand stage walked by Shylock, Iago and Othello. But this is a heart which, by night at least, scarcely beats anymore.

The incredible labyrinth of backstreets, it seemed to me that evening, can be seen as a metaphor for the human mind, in which it’s easy to wander in dreams, and in which it’s equally easy to get hopelessly lost. But if you haven’t got anywhere particular to go there can be few free pleasures like being lost in Venice.

The city, for me, is at its best late at night. Now here are the empty streets seemingly untouched for centuries; alleyways that threaten to lead nowhere but which then suddenly open out into mini piazzas watched over by decaying saints and stern stone lions; then larger streets that seem to promise to lead you out of the maze, but which are suddenly cut into dead ends by empty canals. In these late hours there is scarcely a soul to be seen, just silhouettes and shadows hurrying past in the weak lights at the end of dark passageways.

The maze is full of history but nearly empty of people. Here is another vision of what the future world will be like when the human race has screwed itself into near extinction. Because while almost every other place on the planet is getting more and more crowded with every passing minute, the numbers living in Venice are dropping off in a style that is suitably dramatic for such a grand stage. Soon only the stone saints, the ghosts and the tourists will be left…

Asking the very occasional flesh and blood Venetian that you encounter for directions is always interesting. They all seem to somehow have the map of the whole labyrinth imprinted inside their minds. A simple request for a particular landmark church will be met with. “take the third right, then the fifth left, follow that as it passes over one bridge, then a second bridge, turn immediately left , then fourth right, second left and fifth right, cross the bridge and head diagonally across the piazza and then the sixth left and you are there…” Next time I go I’ll take a thread like Theseus, a better way to get out again when you get lost inside.

The Rialto Bridge is roughly signposted throughout the city though, so we found our way there, empty after midnight. It was from that landmark that I got my first sight of Venice’s second biggest problem. The news on the Rialto that night was that the waters, which normally slap and slurp against the sides of the canals, were once again slipping over the banks and flowing into the silent streets. With each passing year the waters are increasingly rising against Venice, threatening to finally utterly flood the ancient city and make of it a modern day Atlantis.

In a nearly empty St Mark’s Square puddles had risen up into piazza. The puddles reflected the basilica and the Doge’s Palace and the other superstars of the square in a way which was beautiful for photography, but which also showed the buildings themselves the watery grave into which they, and eventually the whole subsiding city, may soon sink…

Rising waters may one day be overcome, but Venice’s biggest problem could be unsolvable. I would have caught a glimpse of it if I’d have looked into those puddles in the square myself. Tourism, called by Tiziano Terzani “the most baleful of industries”, is filling a few Venetians pockets with money but driving the rest from their traditional homes and hence leaving the city a real ghost town. The problem is that tourists pay so much to rent historic places in the centre of Venice that regular Venetians cannot possibly compete and are being driven away en masse to cheaper living in cities elsewhere. Venice might seem like a dream place to live, but in reality the population of the world’s most beautiful city has declined dramatically, from 145,000 immediately after World War II to just 58,000 last year.

Tourism is flooding Venice with money but killing it at the same time, turning a once living city into a dead museum piece. Everyone has heard of killing the goose that laid the golden egg, but in this case it is the golden egg itself which is killing the goose…      

I first came here as a tourist in 1995 aged 16. My brothers and I came down to St Mark’s Square and all our money was only enough to afford one bottle of Guinness, which my older brother drank at the famous Florian café where a mini orchestra played. My younger brother and I could only share a bottle of water. Since then I’ve dreamed of returning to St Mark’s Square for a drink. Tonight I finally achieved it. I sat at the, deserted, Florian café in the early hours of the morning swigging one euro a litre Romanian wine out of a plastic bottle. No orchestras were playing, and the only sound was a group of drunken English students sitting on the other side of the otherwise empty square. Above the square the moon lay sliced perfectly in two.

Catherine, not being so keen on the cold or the Romanian wine, decided to head off to bed in the little hostel we’d booked. But I decided to wander back out to lose myself in the maze again (actually I was led by my stomach, hunting for cheap food). And it was there, whilst walking alone in the streets of Venice, swigging super cheap wine from a plastic bottle which I had wrapped in a floral bag of Catherine’s, that I randomly ran into our couchsurf host, and good friend, from Malaysia, Azim Azman.

Azim seemed shocked, both to see me in Venice and to see the depths to which I had sunk (last time I’d seen him we’d been running up an £800 bill over brunch at the Mandarin Oriental in Kuala Lumpur, but that’s another story…) Still it was a pleasant surprise to see him here, although as with so much about Venice there was a strange dreamlike quality to the meeting which makes me wonder now whether it really happened. So Azim if you’re reading this and you could confirm whether you were actually there I’d be very grateful…He did show me the only place in Venice selling food at that time, so I was able to get dinner – a blob of ice cream in between two wafers.

The next morning Catherine and I had a little time to join the crowds exploring Venice by daylight before we joined the exodus out of the city. We tried to have our own little picnic in the middle of St Mark’s Square but we were chased away by the combined attention of the pigeons and the police (eating your own food in the public square is prohibited). Italians may have a reputation for being carefree, but day to day activity seems tightly regulated when you’re used to being in anything goes Asia.

Just before leaving we visited the basilica on St Mark’s Square. A stunning building which could be Venice’s answer to Istanbul’s Aya Sofia. If Aya Sofia’s question was “who nicked all of my gold and what did they do with?” Part of Venice’s rise to domination of the Mediterranean, and one of the root causes of all its beautiful grandeur, was its decision to ransack the beleaguered capital of the Byzantine Empire (at that time known as Constantinople) in 1204. The Venetians were meant to be leading the 4th Crusade to retake Jerusalem and to help save the Byzantines from Islam, but instead they took advantage of their co-religionists’ weakness by plundering the antique city for themselves.

In Aya Sofia little of the gold that once covered the walls remains. The interior of the Basilica at St Mark’s is still full of it, and while the scale is less impressive than the Byzantine church the impact is still astounding. Near the door I spotted a fantastic mosaic showing an appropriately young looking God creating the world. Now Venice itself is old and soon the world’s most beautiful city will be as empty as Eden, except for tourists snapping pictures and then disappearing too…

We left in the late afternoon sunshine to finally visit the Jazz Club at Ferrara, which Catherine had been dreaming of ever since we met one of the guys running the club in Borneo earlier this year. What we experienced there so far exceeded our expectations that it deserves a blog all of its own – so that’s to come tomorrow…

 

November 24th – Hitch-hiking across the Alps

In today’s blog we have our hardest day hitch-hiking yet, nearly freeze to death crossing the Alps, discover whether Italy’s reputation for being tough to hitch in is true, and give “one thousand thanks” to a man who may or may not be arresting us…

Hundreds of times over history invaders have poured out of north and central Europe into the Italian peninsula, and the Alps, Europe’s highest mountain range, have always proved the toughest natural barrier to be overcome en route. As much of a struggle as the snowy high Alps may have been at least these ancient invaders had their horses, chariots and elephants to rely upon to carry them forward constantly through the cold. We, on the contrary, were relying on just our thumbs, and on the generosity of the Austrian people, to carry us, two travelling fools dressed woefully inadequately for the winter cold, across the Alpine barrier and into the promised land of northern Italy. We were ready for a long day.

We’d spent the night couchsurfing with Dilena Fereira in the super luxury apartment of her brother Hermes, the home of the most comfortable bed in Christendom. In the morning Dilena invited us to stay another night or three. Considering the contrast between the bright, warm and welcoming flat and the heavy grey day outside it was easy to be tempted to stay. But we had a date in Venice that night, meeting a friend flying over from home, and a concert to go to at the Ferrara Jazz club the next so…we all know that needs must when the devil drives, we just had to hope that he picks up hitchers when he’s out for a spin too…

We took a bus to the edge of Salzburg and walked through the drizzle towards the autobahn. The first sign that this was going to be our toughest day hitching came when we saw a car driving down towards us carrying several inches of snow on its roof; snow that was thick enough to bring all the traffic in Britain to a standstill. We were about to go where that car had just come from.

We hadn’t expected hitching in Austria to be easy, because generally it gets harder the richer a country is, but our first lift came with the very first van we saw. The driver, who appeared very shocked that we had hitch-hiked from Iraq to Salzburg, dropped us at a big service station on the autobahn, and so our initial optimism was high. The setting was stunning, snow covered pines on steep slopes all around, the peaks of the mountains disappearing into a mix of clouds and mist. Unfortunately, we had rather more time to admire this beauty than we would have hoped for. No one was stopping, and as the minutes turned into one hour, turned into two our initial optimism plummeted along with our body temperatures. Then the snow began to fall. Catherine, fearing frostbite, was pacing up and down and running around to try and keep some circulation in her toes. Whilst I was standing there wearing a ridiculous hopeful grin as the cars accelerated past, and starting to feel like we had about as much chance of getting picked up and moved as a snowman.

A few times lately I’ve felt as if this hitch-hiking mission, from Iraq to Liverpool, would have to be cancelled. Yesterday struggling to make it from Prague to Salzburg I nearly gave up and thought I’d have to accept that the journey would instead be hitch-hiking from Iraq to, erm, Benesov (or whatever obscure Czech village we were trapped in at the time). Today it looked like the mission was going to end here, in an anonymous Alpine service station.

But actually it couldn’t, not because I’m so determined and can’t quit, but because we had no other option. Having got ourselves out onto the autobahn there was, of course, no public transport stopping here, so the only way out was the way we came in, finding a stranger who was happy to take us.

As always, eventually one arrived, or rather two, a young couple named Martin and Angelika offered us a lift to the next service station down. Ok it was only about 40km away but we gratefully accepted. As much as anything just to get some sensation back into our feet before they fell off. We both spent most of the drive manically rubbing our toes just to get some heat back into them. The Alpine scenery, seen from the warmth of a car, was fantastic. The news that came next was even better, Martin and Angelika were only stopping at the service station for half an hour for food, and after that they’d be driving to their home on the Austrian-Italian border.

Still we decided not to join them in the warmth but instead to hitch outside just in case we could find anyone in that half hour going all the way through to Italy. Even though we were freezing again and re-covered in snow we could smile and laugh knowing that even if we didn’t find anyone Martin and Angelika would pick us up again. Half an hour became forty-five minutes…edged towards an hour, and our grins froze as we started to wonder if there was some back route onto the autobahn and whether we’d made a mistake by letting Martin and Angelika out of our sight. But then through the mist we saw the headlights of their car approaching, hallelujah!

You meet some interesting people hitch-hiking and Martin turned out to be a former Olympic standard kayaker, previously ranked in the top 15 in the world. Now he didn’t compete internationally, but still took part in some crazy running, paragliding, kayaking, cycling mountain race called the “Red Bull Dolomitenmann”, billed as the world’s toughest extreme relay. If they add a hitch-hiking leg to it next year I might join for that.

Martin and Angelika dropped us at their home town of Villach 20km from the border with Italy. How jealous we are at the moment of people who have warm homes to go to, especially when they are surrounded by stunning scenery like the green and white valleys of southern Austria,  and who don’t have to spend their time by the roadside with their thumbs out hoping for lifts. It was getting dark fast on the slip-road leading to the main route to Italy, and most of the cars were passing by just as quick.

Still the next lift wasn’t long in coming; Stefan and his son were heading to the nearest town on the Italian side of the border. Stefan was one of those super-generous types who would do anything for you, if it hadn’t have been for having to get his son to a basketball game he would have driven us right down to Udine. When Catherine told him how cold her feet were he started looking for a pair of boots to give her, and he insisted on giving us a blanket when we left us in Italy.

I say Italy but looking around it appeared that he had dropped us in the kingdom of Narnia. The green of southern Austria had disappeared to be replaced by white everywhere. Even the trees appeared to have been carved from frost and thick leaves of snow were growing on all the icy branches. I was expecting to be offered some Turkish delight any second.

We had heard that Italians were also cold towards hitch-hikers but the first lift came pretty quick, an architect and his wife, a publisher, driving down to Udine. Down was the right word, although it was only 90km away Udine was out of the Alpine Narnia and down on the plain. When we were dropped off by a toll booth on the edge of the motorway heading looking at signs pointing towards Venice we could have jumped for joy. Who cared whether other lifts would be hard to come by in Italy? At least it was warm, and had we not have had a date in Venice we wouldn’t have minded if we’d have had to stand there all night.

My love affair with Italy goes back twenty odd years to my first visit there which coincided with the start of the Italian football on channel 4. And funnily enough a game had just finished in Udine as we were starting to hitch there. We saw the fans and team coaches of Fiorentina leaving the city to head home to Tuscany. Unsurprisingly they didn’t stop to pick us up.

We seemed to be getting a lot more stares hitch-hiking in Italy, but the country belied its reputation for being tough for hitching when a lift came through, a lady with her daughter who had just finished studying at UCL in England. Again they were astounded that we’d come from Iraq and we enjoyed a nice chat with them about our journey. It looked like they were going to drop us on the very edge of Venice, and so we relaxed thinking the day’s mission was complete. In my mind I could already taste the cheap Romanian wine which we’d carried across five countries to drink in Venice…

But then a sort of disaster struck. The driver realised she’d missed her turn off, got a bit panicked and parked up in the middle of the “autostrada” (motorway) with cars flying all around and told us we’d have to get out and Venice was only three kilometres away. We knew it was illegal to walk on the motorway but it was also illegal for cars to stop so what choice did we have, we started walking towards Venice. Soon we came to another toll booth and the man working there informed us that Venice was actually 30km away and called some security to tell them, if my Italian was good enough to understand, that there was a pair of lunatics who had seemingly dropped out of the sky onto the middle of the motorway and who were now trying to hitch to Venice. Sure enough within ten minutes of the call the car of the “Highway Patrol” had arrived…

The driver didn’t speak English and we don’t really speak Italian so communication was pretty tricky, although a lot of finger wagging on his part wasn’t a good sign. He kept saying something about reporting and telling us to get into his car, I wasn’t sure whether we were being helped or arrested, but hoping it was the former I kept saying to him “grazie, grazie mille” (thank you, one thousand thanks). If it was the latter, however, he must have found it very odd to find someone so grateful to be arrested.

As it turns out he was helping, he dropped us at a train station on the suburban Venice network and, for a few euros we were able to make it into the centre of the world’s most magical labyrinth. Of course I should now write about our one night in Venice and tell the story of how I randomly ran into a Malaysian friend in the middle of the maze, who was somewhat shocked to see me wandering around alone swigging Romanian wine from a plastic bottle…But the grand old city deserves a blog post all of its own, so Venice will have to wait till later. For now, let’s just give thanks for warmth and for having completed that leg of the journey, Iraq to Venice hitch-hiked.

“Grazie mille” to everyone who helped us out along the way.      

Facts and figures from the hitch:-

Total distance covered – 443km

Number of lifts – 6

Nationality of the drivers – Austrian (x3), Italian (x3)

Occupations of the drivers – Telecommunications, University lecturer, Architect, Highway patrolman

Hospitality offered – a blanket

November 23rd – Hitch-hiking from Prague to Salzburg and an early Christmas miracle

A rare photo - me and Catherine enjoying stiegl weisse and dinner in Salzburg courtesy of our couhsurf host Dilena

A rare photo – me and Catherine enjoying stiegl weisse and dinner in Salzburg courtesy of our couhsurf host Dilena

I wrote a couple of days ago about how a friend in Indonesia’s Kei Islands performed ceremony for us there invoking the spirits of her ancestors to watch over us all the way back to Liverpool. Well if they are with us then today they were all working overtime. We’ve had enough experiences of generosity from strangers on this trip to last us several lifetimes, but today’s example features by far the longest drive out of a driver’s way to help us out in our whole hitch-hiking career…

The day began pleasantly in the home of our couchsurf host Jackie, a gentle soul with the build of an action hero. He was telling us a funny story about how he was out-wrestled by a diminutive Mongolian on a recent trip there, and we were so enjoying the conversation, the endless tea and the breakfast straight from his parents’ garden, that we became very tempted to abandon the day’s hitch-hiking mission before we’d even started.

An added incentive to stay was the early afternoon kick off of the Merseyside derby, seeing my team, our city’s oldest and most prestigious club, Everton, playing against the other lot who Catherine inexplicably follows. Of course derby day is a big matter for everyone from Liverpool and here we had the chance to watch it in the warmth with a fridge full of Czech pilsner at hand. But as usual folly got the better of good sense and, reluctantly, we went out into the winter outside, not so much to hit the road as to be punched in the face by the wind.

Jackie gave us an enormously good start by driving us off the main motorway heading east and onto a smaller road turning south towards Austria. As I mentioned on previous posts we were taking a swing off the main route home to Liverpool to visit the jazz club in Ferrara run by an Italian friend we made in Borneo. We were also looking forward to getting back to southern European temperatures, but first there was Austria to be negotiated.

The first lift came easy, a friendly older Czech man, with an unusual resemblance to Paul McCartney, who I could chat to a bit in German. He was on the way to tend the garden in his “summer house” and I discovered that more Czechs grow their own vegetables than any other country in Europe. Add that to the fact that they drink more beer than anyone else on the continent and I think I might have found my home. I will definitely be back.

The next lift however was hard to come by. Left by the roadside in a little village, we spent a few hours watching cars and trucks burning past whilst an enormous furry dog in wolf’s clothing watched over us. As the minutes became hours the temperature dropped like an icy waterfall and we took to pacing back and forward like caged animals to try to keep warm. The impression that that created of two maniacs looking for their lost minds did very little for our chances of getting picked up.

I should mention that the situation with this European cold is made much worse by the fact that we don’t really have appropriate clothes for this weather. With a serious lack of funds and bag space we haven’t bought proper winter gear and are relying on a few slightly warmer bits and pieces picked up or handed down en route. Catherine particularly suffers because, despite carrying as many items of footwear as a backpacking Imelda Marcos, she doesn’t have anything suitably warm to wear on her feet and sometimes ends up freezing in flip-flops bought for our summer stay in Turkey.     

Eventually the lift came, Pavel a punk rocking travel agent living in Prague but on his way down for a rehearsal with his band, Overloaded, in the town of Budweiser – the home of the eponymous drink which the Americans nicked from the Czechs and turned into piss. As always being back in a warm car was a blissful relief, but Pavel set some alarm bells ringing when he pointed out to us that tomorrow we would be hitch-hiking across the Alps, an enormous mountain range sized fact that we hadn’t previously considered…

That was one to worry about for the future. After Pavel dropped us off the lifts started to come thick and fast. A friendly soldier drove us through the woods and fields of the southern Czech Republic. Then a very hospitable garage owner, Martin, picked us up and took us right to the border, even inviting us in for a very welcome coffee and biscuits. Again we didn’t want to leave the warmth to face the winter and the night that was catching up with us faster than a car chasing a truck on the highway, but with 200 kilometres still to go to reach our couchsurf in Salzburg we had to steel ourselves and head back out.

Crossing into Austria was easy. Martin had left us within walking distance and, this being Europe, border crossings are as easy as going to your local corner shop. We’d now crossed three countries since Hungary without so much as a passport check. So we started hitch-hiking in Austria as the grey sky darkened on an early arriving late afternoon.

As always entering new countries I wondered how the hitching would go with the new nationality. But actually our first, and as it transpired final, lift was from a Czech lady on her way to do some work in the nearby town of Linz, which I had only previously heard of as the birthplace of Hitler. A feature of hitch-hiking in western countries is that women drivers sometimes stop to pick you up, something which, for whatever reason, never happened once in Turkey or on earlier hitches in India.

Ivana spoke fluent German, a language I can get by in, so we were able to communicate in that, but as my standard is somewhat sub-GCSE I couldn’t quite get everything she was telling us. The story about why she’d picked us up had something to do with a man she called “mein Engel” (my angel), who had been called away to Prague on business but who had told her to do a good deed for a stranger that day…

Our angel was Ivana herself. Because when she heard where we were going, 132 km kilometres further south to Salzburg, she told us that as soon as she had finished her five minutes worth of work in Linz she would drive us all the way down there herself, an incredible round trip out of her way of 264 km kilometres just to help us out. We tried to protest but she insisted, and really you cannot believe how fantastic it made us feel to not have to face hitching on an Austrian winter’s night.

All the way down we swapped stories with Ivana, or rather I did because Catherine doesn’t speak German. Eager to be involved in the conversation Catherine would ask me to pass on some incredibly complicated and heartfelt descriptions of her views and her feelings about Ivana’s extreme generosity, which generally came out in my translations just as “vielen dank” and “dass ist gut”.

Ivana had been through some hard times, having recently spilt up with her Albanian husband who was the father of her twenty year old twin daughters, born when Ivana herself was a teenager. Her ex seemed to have some sort of gangster connections, and a bad track record with women. When he married his previous wife in Albania he had brought his Austrian girlfriend down for the ceremony. Now Ivana’s life was looking up, having left her husband she was now with a new man, “her angel” turned out to be her new boyfriend.

If there are such things as angels, spirits and karma than Ivana is due a big pay back from the kindness she showed us. Maybe if that payment was to come in monetary terms it might put her in the same league wealth-wise as her cousin and namesake, Ivana Trump (Donald’s ex-wife), who fled the old communist Czechoslovakia before Ivana even met her.          

Ivana dropped us off at the front door of our couchsurf host in Salzburg, and when she left us both Catherine and I had tears in our eyes, astounded yet again by the miraculous generosity of strangers. Ivana had delivered us into a fantastic couchsurf as well. Because although our host, a Brazilian businessman named Hermes, was not around, his sister Dilena welcomed us into their super-luxurious flat, the nicest place we’ve stayed since the last time my mum and dad came out to visit us.

Dilena is over from Sao Paolo to help out her brother, and seemed to be loving the freezing season in Austria in a way that only a person with a centrally heated flat and a sensible winter coat can. She took us out for a trip around the old town, past the birthplace of Mozart, to the little Christmas market just starting in the shadow of the Cathedral. The steam rising from the mugs of mulled wine could not have been more inviting. Later back in the house we tasted the best beer we’ve ever had (Stiegl Weisse), and enjoyed a feast cooked by Dilena and fine company as we learned all about life a million miles away in Brazil and her days on a commune in Scotland.

And, incidentally, we found out that the Merseyside derby ended in a 3-3 draw. We had been trailing 2-1 till late in the game, then we took the lead with two goals in the last ten minutes and then they scored a last minute equaliser. Oh well, on a great day for both me and Catherine I suppose a draw was the only satisfactory way for the match to go. And while I was sorry to have missed what was apparently the best derby in decades, I wouldn’t have traded our day hitch-hiking even for a 5-0 Everton win. And that’s saying something.

Facts and figures from the hitch:-

Distance covered – 373 km

Number of lifts – 5

Nationality of the drivers – all Czech

Occupations of the drivers (were known) – punk rocker / travel agent, soldier, petrol station owner, recruitment company owner

Hospitality offered – a tour of the town of Budweiser, a cup of coffee

November 22nd – a day with Death in Prague

Every hour on the hour Death comes to life in Prague’s main square, turns the hourglass in his hand upside down and tolls a bell, to the obvious delight of the crowd gathered below. Everybody below stares up at the display given by Death and his three companions, vanity looking at himself in a mirror, a moneylending ex-Jew and a jaunty, lute-playing Turk symbolising pagan invasion, although looking like he’d sooner try to chat up your girlfriend on the beach than bother to take over your country…

These are the carved figures on Prague’s medieval astronomical clock, representing the old city’s greatest fears, and every hour when Death kicks off the show they are joined by a procession of the 12 apostles that look down on the assembled masses from on high. When the whole 10 second spectacle is over the crowd of tourists, mostly from the Far East, breaks into applause. Seems a bit odd to me to be applauding Death and the reminder that each hour brings his dread hand ever nearer to all of us, but there you go; Prague is a strange and wonderful place where all manner of odd things happen…and also a place where reminders of recent tragic deaths and murders are never far away.

We began our one day of exploration in Wenceslas Square, home of the famous horse-back statue of the eponymous “good king” (actually only a duke). Anyone looking out over the square over recent years would have seen all the most significant events of recent Czech history, from the announcement of the rise of the “perfect system” of Communism in 1948, to the declaration of its fall in the “Velvet Revolution” 41 years later. In between those dates the square also witnessed a horrific act of suicide when a young student, Jan Palach, set himself on fire in 1969 in protest against the regime. It took four days of unimaginable agony before he died from his injuries. A poignant little memorial near the foot of the statue is still tended with fresh flowers. Pausing there for a minute I thought both of the tragedies of recent European past, and of the fact that such self-immolations still take place with horrendous regularity in Communist occupied Tibet.

Our planned route home from Iraq would see us swinging through northern Italy (where we intended to visit the jazz club of a friend we met in Borneo earlier this year) so Prague was not a natural stopping off point. But both of us had long been keen to visit, in my case because of its reputation for having the best preserved medieval city centre of any major European city. In truth the range and diversity of its architecture was such that words fail me in my efforts to describe it. So I’ll leave it to Catherine, who compared it variously to Dickens’s Christmas Carol, a fairy tale, the set from a Shakespeare play, a Disney film, Edinburgh, Budapest and, erm, Reading. I agreed with them all apart from the last one.  

Quirky and surreal sights abound in Prague. Zura, our Tbilisi couchsurf host, had told me about the Museum of Blindness and the appropriately unsettling Franz Kafka Museum, which he warned me not to visit when stoned. We didn’t see either of those places but we did stumble upon “the Gingerbread Museum” on the climb up to the castle. The Museum featured an entire gingerbread pantheon complete with angels and saints and even a wide-range of gingerbread devils. Nearby we found the John Lennon wall, which young rebels used to cover in Beatles’ lyrics and pictures in protest against Communism, and recover every time the regime had it wiped clean. The wall remains but the political messages and Beatles’ references are mostly gone, replaced by the usual dull graffiti of self-glorification.     

Inside the castle complex the wonderfully named St Vitus’s Cathedral was one of the finest gothic churches I’ve seen, reminiscent of Cologne cathedral. We arrived just before mass started on a chilly late autumn evening. Inside the bells began ringing, quietly at first and then louder and louder as if trying to wake up God and bring his eyes and attention to the great devotion of the tiny faithful wrapped up against the cold under the huge vaulting arches. The breaths in between their muttered prayers rose as mini-steam clouds into the cathedral’s freezing air.

Soon a regal procession of bishops burst onto the scene swinging incense at the on-looking tourists and the country’s top Catholic choir broke into a song that doesn’t seem to make sense anymore. Outside a mosaic of the last judgement showed angels pulling the righteous out of their coffins as if waking up over-sleepers, whilst at Jesus’ other hand soldiers drove the sinful into the cauldron of a fiery hell. Something in the cathedral’s atmosphere got me wondering again how any of this universe could ever exist.

Descending from the church I was happy to drown my existential doubts with a bottle of pilsner (one of the Czechs’ finest inventions) on the ancient Charles Bridge. Above and around us everywhere little clusters of un-illuminated stone saints loitered in the dark. With no lights on them I couldn’t quite see what they were up to, but no doubt they were casting disapproving glances at the couples kissing below and tut-tutting while they wondered why God had made something so sinful such fun.

The final stop of our day in Prague was a walk through the old Jewish ghetto, now gentrified and, of course, for around seventy years almost entirely non-Jewish. Now there are only a few thousands Jews left in what was once the biggest Jewish community in the world. This was the birth place of the legend of the golem, an artificial man of supernatural strength, created and animated by a wise rabbi to defend his community against the outside world. Of course there was never any golem, or any other sufficient protection, when the ghetto’s greatest hour of need came in the mid-1940s. I mentioned earlier that the figure of the moneylender on the astrological clock was an ex-Jew. After the war he was given a face lift to erase any signs of his original ethnicity. Of course this was part of a well-intentioned attempt to rid the city of the stain of anti-Semitism, but in a horribly ironic way perhaps it could also be seen to symbolise the attempt to wipe all trace of the actual Jews from the city.

Our day in Prague ended warmly enough, back in the cosy flat of our couchsurf host Jackie. He told us about his childhood under the communists, how his parents warned him never to mention the western radio stations they listened to, for fear that informers would overhear him and have them arrested. In his movie collection was 1984, in his opinion the best representation of the reality of eastern and central European society in the communist era. He also told us about the recent immigration of Vietnamese and Mongolian communities into the Czech Republic, and the general acceptance of these hard-working people whose presence was enriching the national life. The Czech Republic has a strange, sometimes glorious and sometimes dark past. I hope its future brings better things.