Composer at Large 2

Excerpt from ‘Composer At Large 2 (European Travels Vol. 2)’ a travelogue:

UKRAINE: Lviv

Friday 23rd August 2013

Iuliu came to collect me shortly before nine. Fortyish, tall and slender, Hungarian-speaking, with an open, honest face, he spoke little English. We headed for the Romanian border town of Halmeu in his Volkswagen sedan, but hadn’t got far before we were held up by major road works. After overcoming a serious wrong turn we reached the Romanian border post where we waited for half an hour for someone to attend to us. Iuliu’s comment was cutting, ‘May-dee in Row-ma-ni-er’. When the gate was eventually lifted we drove slowly towards the Ukrainian checkpoint. The immigration officials there stamped our passports, but left us waiting for over an hour while they attended to a ‘problem’ up front, their colleagues strutting around with their enormous blue peaked-caps perched on the backs of their heads. A skinny female officer, scarcely able to walk, stumbled about with no apparent function. ‘Communism!’ exclaimed Iuliu nervously, ‘Communism!’ Eventually Iuliu got out of the car and (from sheer frustration) handed our passports in at the window of the immigration office along with his driver’s licence, and was rewarded with a blue slip of paper which permitted us to proceed to the exit gate where a hideous youth took the slip and waved us on. Hardly had we entered the Ukraine than Iuliu stopped the car and asked me for the five hundred lei (about £100-00) so he could buy petrol and a road map. I handed the crisp notes over and watched him count them.

The following hours proved terrifying because the road we were on, which traversed a sequence of small villages, was full of gigantic potholes, the local drivers showing scant regard for the most basic road safety rules as they raced wildly about in either direction, crossing into the other half of the road whenever they needed to avoid a pothole. Iuliu did likewise and a collision with a giant truck seemed a likely outcome.

At twelve thirty we reached the Hungarian-speaking town of Berehove, by which time the Carpathians had started to cast their spell. They appeared from nowhere and quickly turned the landscape into one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Huge deciduous forests, succeeded minutes later by coniferous ones, swallowed up the motorway -which we were at last on- in a sea of green, the distant hills palpitating beneath a blanket of scintillating orange and yellow blooms. This together with the blue sky and white clouds above convinced me I must be in paradise. Every few minutes an Orthodox Church with golden onion domes would appear on a distant hill, or beside the highway, leaving me with the impression that the world I was traversing came straight from a dream.

By early afternoon Iuliu had managed to buy a map, but although he spoke some Russian he appeared unable to read Cyrillic script, which meant I had to do most of the map reading and be on the lookout for any important traffic directions. After four hours we appeared to be little more than a third of the way to Lviv. The Ukrainian drivers confirmed my initial impression that they were speed fiends and compulsive overtakers, with heavy lorries appearing every so often from nowhere to slow up our progress. From time to time an unexpected pothole in the otherwise smooth motorway would cause Iuliu’s sedan to shudder violently.

Surrounded by natural beauty, and amazed at Iuliu’s skills as a driver and unerring good temper, I managed to remain unusually sanguine. Mukacevo came and went, then Dolynivka, Kozlova, Dubyne and Rozvadiv, along with many a beautiful stream and a fine bridge to go with it. Rural transport seemed non-existent and from time to time a lonely figure could be seen waiting for a long-hoped for bus that would probably never come, I thankful that I had chosen to be chauffeured to Lviv.

By five o’clock we were approaching the outskirts of the city -a group of passing teenagers waving us a spontaneous greeting of welcome. Unfortunately our troubles were not over as weekend traffic approached from all sides. After a great deal of misdirection from passers-by we were piloted through narrow streets filled with trams, buses and pedestrians by a teenage boy carrying a posy for his sweetheart. He’d climbed into the sedan at Iuliu’s behest to make sure we’d at last find my hotel.

When Iuliu dropped me at the George at 17.50 I grew anxious, since I knew he would have to make his way back to Satu Mare along the treacherous route we had taken, with its numerous potholes and no light to guide, and would have to pass once more through the uncaring border posts we’d passed through earlier. As a gesture of appreciation I sent him on his way with a generous tip, which he seemed reluctant to accept.

Later the happy thought occurred to me that he probably spent the night in Lviv and made his way home the next day fully refreshed.

Excerpts from ‘Composer At Large 2 (European Travels Vol. 1)’ a travelogue:

ITALY: Genoa

Tuesday 28th August 2012

My train speeds northwards to Milan. Still no one working at the passing factories. Yard after yard abandoned, and in the midst of an economic crisis too. I thought I’d at last see some action, but no. Via Reggio’s reached, then Carrara with its majestic marble mountains. Tuscan villages embrace their hills with filial affection, while the granite and marble factories beside the line remain stubbornly silent. The Tyrrhenian Sea makes its dramatic appearance at La Spezia, before a sequence of tunnels blots it out. Magnificent Monteroso gives way to Sestri Levante, then come Chiavoni and Rapallo, whose stations appear when there’s a break in the tunnels. The workers (needless to say) are cavorting (yes, cavorting!) on the black sand beaches, which I glimpse every few minutes. I sense I’m heading towards the Côte d’Azur long before I reach Genoa -today’s destination.

I yearn for my past and clamber out at Genoa Principe.

Forty-five years ago I’d jumped out of a car I’d hitched a ride in to Genoa. I was young then, and in search of a beach. I never found one that day because the beaches were all privately owned. How clearly I recall that Saturday afternoon as I walk once more through Genoa’s streets. ‘Do you remember me?’ I call out gently.

Wednesday 29th August 2012

Am informed by a notice on a wall of the spacious room I’m occupying at Delfino Blue B & B, via Bruno Buozzi, Genoa, that

‘The rooms have to be left within the hours 11:00
Wanting the baggages can be left prepared and pick
them up later. In such case ask the bunch for
keys substitutive.’

Well, I won’t be needing the keys substitutive when I leave early tomorrow, because I’m going directly to Genoa Principe to take a train to Ventimiglia on the French border.

However, I’ll be sorry to leave behind my green-shuttered room with its miniature palms, tall bookcases and brown patterned stone floor.

I’ll also be sorry to leave Tiziana, my landlady, behind.

I hear a snicker when I mention her name. Well, it wasn’t her fault; rather her parents’ (her name I mean!); and at any rate she’s charming, forty-fiveish, slim, exceedingly hardworking and homely, and, above all things, kind. We get on well; I in my broken Italian mixed with Spanish; she in her broken English mixed with Italian. She never stops washing, ironing, making beds and preparing breakfast. And it’s always work done for other people’s happiness. And that voice of hers: joyous, filled with ringing exclamation. She doesn’t own the place, Fulgia does, but this doesn’t mean she didn’t put the Italian copies of Tropic of Capricorn, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Peyton Place, Madame Bovary and Les Fleurs du Mal on the bookcase behind my bed -knowing (full well!) that people like me come round to stay from time to time.

Tiziana’s been sitting on a bench beneath my first floor window for a while now; me peeping down every so often between window and shutters to make sure she’s still there.

But the rain’s come and she’s no longer chatting to the cheerful black woman who was sitting beside her moments ago -after a long day’s hard work.

‘Arrivederci, Genoa. Arrivederci, Tiziana!’ I shall call out tomorrow morning with a HEAVY heart.

Visited Genoa’s Fisherman’s Wharf today. Like all Waterfronts I found it a monumental bore.....

FRANCE: Marseille

Thursday 30th August 2012

Travelled to France today. Had hoped to reach Béziers, east of the Côte d’Azur, but only made it to Marseille, where I’m spending the night. The train journey from Genoa to Ventimiglia took in Savona, Alassio, and San Remo, along with other resorts. Once I’d crossed the French border, memories of Monte Carlo, Nice, Antibes and Cannes came flooding in. Each one seems the perfect place in which to end one’s days -provided one has the money. The numerous state-of-the-art motor yachts moored along the coast, however, tell me in no uncertain terms, ‘This is no place for the likes of you. It’s for those who prize material things and are successful at getting them. It’s for those who have inherited well. It’s for those who crave the limelight’. Even if I could afford to live here I believe I’d feel lost amid all the beauty and plenitude.

A stopover in sunny Nice, and a beer at a pavement café, make for a pleasant late afternoon.

Marseille’s an ugly sprawl of a city. It’s France’s second largest, and a North African one at that; a place where the natives must surely feel themselves strangers. The lack of consideration shown by a galaxy of hooting drivers, as I try to cross the road, tells me ‘this is not the place for you’.

Tomorrow, when I leave, I shan’t miss the buxom young Fatima downstairs -or her parents’ overpriced hotel. However, I shall miss Genoa and Tiziana -and Ventimiglia, where I slept on park benches in 1967 -which appalled my mother.

FRANCE: Béziers

Friday 31st August 2012

I leave my spiritless North African hotel at 7am and make my way through heavy traffic to the Gare Marseille St Charles and sit in the Salle d’Attente dedicated to the poet Arthur Rimbaud (1854-91). It was here Rimbaud would come before setting sail for the Horn of Africa -after he’d given up writing poetry. It was from here he’d take the northbound train back to his mother’s home in Charleville each time he returned to France.

My TER stops at Arles, the flat country of late van Gogh, who found the town ‘exotic and filthy’, then at Nîmes with its perfectly preserved Roman temple the Square House (La Maison Carrée), followed by Montpellier, Sête and, finally, Béziers.

The spectacular moment is early on when I glimpse the Frioul Archipelago and the Château d’If in the Bay of Marseille -massive stark rocks; now white, now black; rocks from another planet glittering in the pale sunlight, weathered by time; the Château a cruel prison to thousands, grimly savoured by Alexandre Dumas Père in ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’.

The young man sitting beside me announces he’s from Toulon and is travelling to Bayonne to support his team in a match there tomorrow. He affectionately steadies a large club flag tacked to a long piece of wood set in the narrow space before him -a number of baguettes on his lap. He’s clearly well-prepared and fanatical about his team winning.

The Hôtel Angleterre in Béziers, where I’ll be spending the next few days, turns out to be another North African establishment. It has nothing to do with England, or with any past era which its name might seem to imply. Regrettably there’s not a single picture on any of its walls.

Today Béziers is filled with France’s motor biking elite. The bikers suddenly appear, as if from nowhere, like a swarm of giant locusts, and soon settle down on the rectangular main square to enjoy the civic reception given in their honour. Harley Davidson’s sparkle at every available parking space -thousands of them (plus the occasional Honda) -each one polished to mirror-like perfection as if it were a priceless gem- love, love and love speaks out, cries out EVERYWHERE! Apart from a few Sieg Heils in the town’s main street, the bikers are dignified and well-behaved. The idling, revving, roaring engines are silent now while lunch is served. The most surprising thing is the number of ageing female pillion passengers -kitted out in leather and crowned with crash helmets. They’re clearly aficionadas of motor biking!

I wish everyone a wonderful day -especially the Swiss driver dressed in his enormous kilt! Just hope it won’t blow over his head and cause an accident.

Saturday 1st September 2012

Took a walk around Béziers at around eight last night -long after the bikers had roared off. A duller place on a Friday evening would be hard to imagine. Everything was closed and there was hardly anyone about. Conclusion: everyone goes to bed exceedingly early in boring old Béziers!

The mistral arrived this morning, giving the day an autumnal feel. My hotel room looks onto the roundabout Place de Jean Jaurès. The plane trees encircling the main square have been stirring all day, their leaves showing unmistakable signs of autumn.

SPAIN: Girona

Sunday 2nd September 2012

Left Béziers this morning with the initial intention of visiting Perpignan -an hour away by train. But the thought of spending further time in another (potentially) dreary French provincial town, after two deadly dull days in Béziers, led me to travel on to Portbou in northeast Spain. From Portbou I took two further trains, arriving first in Figueres, Dalí’s hometown, then in Girona, where I’m spending two nights.

The journey through Languedoc-Roussillon is very special on account of its scenery: lakes, rivers, deserted beaches, lush vineyards and fecund orchards. The mistral, though, is cruel and biting, with immense grey clouds banking up beneath the bluest of skies adding an anguished dimension to morning’s richly variegated palette.

At every station passengers alight from or climb onto the train -stragglers homeward-bound from the summer holidays- dressed in windcheaters, anoraks or coats, and dragging the inevitable overloaded black suitcase.

After Perpignan distant mountains suddenly loom up and before you know it the Pyrenees have taken command to the north while an indignant cobalt Mediterranean glints menacingly to the south.

The towns come and go: Argeles-Sur-Mer; then Collioure with its massive castle (Le Château Royal); then the (seemingly) Spanish Banyuls-Sur-Mer, with its railside necropolis; and finally windswept Cerbère.

It seems as if France will never end....

By now the train is almost empty. It enters a long tunnel and when it emerges the few that remain on board find themselves in Spain with the mighty Pyrenees frowning at them from on high.

The railway station at Portbou is deserted. It’s a huge, brown, break-of-gauge station built in 1929. Far below, the town snoozes on in the intense afternoon heat. It’s siesta time; the mistral now a thing of the past; the fiendish tramuntana at rest.

I travel on to Figueres, missing the many treats Dalí’s hometown has to offer, since I’m unable to find a hotel there. Then continue on to Girona, where my hotel room, booked at an internet café near Figueres station, turns out to be an excellent find.

I’m delighted to be back in Spain and Spanish gushes from me at the friendly reception desk of the Hotel Europa.