We sailed into Livorno under a blazing Mediterranean sun. Sailing these waters is like sailing into the past – long stretches of barren coastline, little villages marked with their groves of olives and grapes, the sails of small boats dotting the water. Livorno is apparently the second largest shipping port in Tuscany – but a port where no work seems to get done.
The area here has been occupied since Neolithic times, with pieces of copper, ceramics and carved bones found in nearby caves. The Romans named the cove here Liburna, in reference to a ship used by their Navy. The town has been owned by Pisa, Milan, Genoa and Florence. Under the Medici the port expanded, and two Medici fortresses still dominate the port: the Fortezza Nuovo and the Fortezza Vecchia (Cosmio I had a palace built within the Fortress Vecchia). By the end of the 17th C had become a major trading port. (On a side note, the Italian Communist Party was founded here in 1921.)
It was still dark as we made our way through the jungle. Tree roots spread thick fingers across our way, and the noises of the night scuttled round us. Most tourists reach Angkor Wat via the front entrance, where a grand causeway stretches over a wide moat. Instead,we entered from the east, (unusually for Khmer temples, Angkor Wat faces the setting sun, traditionally the symbol of death.) Despite the aid of pocket torches we stumbled over fallen logs and mossy stones before suddenly the temple rose before us: the grandeur of a world long gone.
Byron dubbed Dubrovnik the Pearl of the Adriatic, and the town has drowned under superlatives ever since. We sailed in on clear water, the vibrant new town hugging the foreshore. The bus from the port wound along the waterfront before eventually chugging up the hill – and there lay the old town, just as she appears in every photo.
The bus spluttered to a stop in a cobbled square by the city gates. Cafes decked with umbrellas, and stores offering cold water and ice cream, overlooked a crystal sea. Already the heat had settled in for the day, bouncing off the stones and onto anyone standing still. By midday the town would be wall to wall of sunburnt tourists.
For the moment, however, Dubrovnik was (almost) empty. The moat is now filled with orange trees, and their scent hung in the air as we approached the Pile Gate. Large metal balls on a chain acted as a counterbalance to the drawbridge, which was once raised every night. St. Blaine, Dubrovnik’s patron saint, looks down on all visitors from above the portal. (Don’t miss the small medieval door nearby.)
I’m not really sure what an intellectual life truly is. I’ve no intention of sitting in an ivory tower, pondering the movement of the stars while life carries on below. With all that is going in the world at the moment, however, there is many I time I simply want to shut the front gate and banish the influence of all that happens beyond it from my own little world.
Gardening is a start. For many philosophers, manual labour was seen as a way to clear the mind. (I first learnt this reading Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, through Larry Darrell who rejects a conventional life in search of existential meaning.) For me, literature has introduced me not only to great stories and characters, but also led me into the expansive world of ideas – whether it be philosophy, travel, the art of gardening, literary style, history; it is all there, a smorgasbord so vast I feel I have only taken a few bites.
In autumn, Le Grand Canyon du Verdon in Upper Provence becomes a place of colour and empty back roads, scented lavenders and spectacular scenery. A short drive from many a popular destination, it is often forgotten by the tourists buzzing along the more crowded coastline.
Trigance, a short drive from Castallane, makes an excellent base. The Knights Templar did just that, for Trigance lies on one of the old trade and pilgrim routes. Here the Knights built a fortified monastery, which then became Le Chateau de Trigance (now a hotel with a restaurant reputed to serve the best cuisine in the region.) From a distance, as the towering fortress rises out of the plain, a medieval hamlet at its feet, it seems little has changed since the Crusades. We parked our tiny Citroen 2CV – too large for all but the main street – and watched as our luggage was winched up to the castle by an intricate set of pulleys; we were left to negotiate the endless stairs.
The wind swept over the square outside the Upper Basilica, filling the sky with grey clouds. St Francis sat astride his horse with bowed head. This statue captures the moment when, in 1204, the saint heard the voice of God telling him to leave the war and return home. The grass shivered and swayed; the rain was not far away.
I hastened into the cathedral. Earlier that day I’d watched as would-be pilgrims arrived by the busload, the Franciscan friars who give tours around the Basilica struggling to keep their herds together. It seems, however, few visitors choose to stay overnight, especially as the days of autumn lengthen. By this late hour barely a handful of tourists wandered the aisles.