Bergamo – a fairytale town

Bergamo in mist cr Judy DarleyBergamo is a town that feels made up – almost too dreamy to be true. Located in the Lombardy region of northern Italy between Milan and Venice, its ancient medieval cobblestone streets wind through lanes that could lead anywhere, to another land even…

We arrive on a late winter’s day when curling mist isolates the town in swathes of white.

“You have to imagine,” our guide keeps saying, “You have to imagine, from here you usually can see the mountains – such extraordinary views.”

Above Città Alta, the upper town, stands a ruined fortress surrounded by exquisite memorial gardens, the Parco Della Rocca, which, we imagine as instructed, will be filled with somnolent Italians in summertime, the scent of the eucalyptus trees hanging heavy in the air.

The ancient streets below host churches built in gratitude for the townspeople’s survival of the 16th-century plague epidemic that ravaged northern Italy, as immortalised in Alessandro Manzoni’s novel The Betrothed.

One of the finest of these buildings is the pink, white and black marble Santa Maria Maggiore basilica, guarded by two stone lions. The interior is an explosion of Baroque ornamentation, interspersed with statues and tapestries telling the story of Our Lady.

Santa Maria Magiore lion cr Judy Darley

“You have to imagine,” our guide tells us, “that most people could not read in the 13th century. So the stories of the bible were told through pictures, in embroideries, tapestries and frescos.”

A grand example of this is the tomb of composer Gaetano Donizetti, with carvings of seven crying children breaking instruments, representing the notes that would no longer wish to sing now that their master was dead.

Every surface of the basilica’s interior is crammed with symbolism, mythology and poetry, a visual testament to the many writers who’ve fallen in love with this small town over the centuries. Visitors have included 14th-century Italian poet Francesco Petrarch, 19th-century French writer Stendhal, Hermann Hesse, winner of the 1946 Nobel Prize in Literature, and, of course, Hemmingway, who seems to have spent time in anywhere worth visiting in Europe.

We eat lunch at Restaurant Giopì e la Margì, where the chef serves up traditional dishes such as minced meats wrapped in cabbage, polenta with anchovy or salami, thin slices of cured veal, oven-baked venison, and, most delicious of all, wild mushrooms layered with fresh cream and translucent leaves of the thinnest pasta.

We spend the night at the Mercure in the Città Basso, the lower town, and in the morning I draw back my curtains to see the pinnacles of towers emerging from the mist-like clouds, ochre-coloured sandstone house stacked against the hills.

Land of the angels

After breakfast we set off for Azienda Agricola Tenuta Degli Angeli, quite literally Land of the Angels. Set on a steep mountainside rising from the Calepio Valley, this vineyard is a family business producing wine, balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

Azienda Agricola Tenuta degli Angeli olive trees cr Judy Darley

The vineyard was started by Pierangelo Testa in 1984 and has since passed into the care of his daughters Roberta, Laura and Maria. Roberta leads us through the vineyard past the twisting trunks of olive trees and crab apple trees, where vast field mushrooms spring from the thick, green grass hinting at the fertility of the place.

It seems like an idyllic place to spend an afternoon, whether you’re helping to pick fruit or sitting on a bench admiring the views and capturing a few thoughts on paper.

Once we’ve admired the scenery, Roberto takes us into the wine cellar to see the stacks of wine bottles, then into the storage area for balsamic vinegar. A rich aroma like baked raisins fills the air, and here and there the syrup has oozed from the barrels down the stone walls leaving a sticky black residue.

“You can really feel the smell of the vinegar in summer,” Roberta says, showing us the barrels corked when she and each of her siblings were born.

“My father gave me the barrels for my year when I married.”

It may seem like an unromantic wedding gift, but when she lets us taste a teaspoonful of the first balsamic vinegar her father made, all of 36 years ago, it makes perfect sense. Layers of flavour spreads over my tongue, sweet and savoury at the same time, rich and thick like the finest honey with a hint of fruitcake, astonishing in its complexity and nothing like the vinegar we use as salad dressing in the UK.

At lunchtime we eat a simple yet divine meal of fresh bread, grana cheese, olives, nutty green olive oil, chestnut honey, and jams made from grapes and citronella. It’s clear with each mouthful that quality takes precedence over quantity here.

“We prefer to stay small,” Roberto says. “Our main income is from making cement manufacturing, so we can concentrate on excellence with the vinegar.”

It’s an interesting thought – this family have found a way to balance their lives by nurturing vines on one side and manufacturing cement on the other, just as so many of us exist sandwiched somewhere between creativity and pragmatism, as though one cannot survive without the other.

Azienda Agricola Tenuta degli Angeli dog

But this is too heavy a contemplation for such a delicious meal – beyond which church towers and donkeys, a giant bear-like dog and countless twisted olive trees loom out of the dispersing mist, and the sky is just beginning to turn a celestial blue.

Azienda Agricola Tenuta degli Angeli vineyard views cr Judy Darley

Remember Me The Bees – Stalagmite

Stalagmite cr Louise BoulterThe eighth story in my debut short story collection Remember Me To the Bees is Stalagmite. This atmospheric artwork by Louise Boulter is one of my favourites in the collection.

The initial prompt for this tale was reading some myths connected with the Scottish island of Jura, where it was once an honour for young girls to have their hair selected to be used as ropes for the fishing boats. Mixing that in with a hint of sacrifice, I thought about how a modern day family might be damaged if the father became so obsessed by the myths that he grew to believe them. Oh, and I added a dragon for good measure.

At the heart of my story, however, is the idea of reconcilliation – how might it feel to reconnect with your father after twenty years apart?

A short excerpt from Stalagmite

“What would you like to do first?” Dad asks as he takes me to a battered Morris Minor and swings my case into a trunk strewn with shells, rocks and battered tin cans. “Are you hungry? Tired?”

“Neither,” I say. “Can we dump my stuff at the house then go for a hike into the hills? The old trail?” I’m desperate to see the island – I have an uneasy feeling I’ve romanticised it beyond all recognition.

“The Wolf Walk,” he says softly, eyes flashing with surprise. “You remember that? All right, let’s do it. But first you should know that after you and your mother… I rather downsized.” Downsized turns out to mean a small rusting caravan that lists slightly to one side on a strip of balding, cow-trampled ground.

“It’s not much, but it’s home.” He leads me inside, swinging my bag onto a narrow kitchen table. A sleepy bumblebee fusses in the thin curtains – out from hibernation a touch too early. Dad unlatches a window, ushers it outside, watches it disappear into the sky.

“Is there a bedroom?” I wonder what I’ll do if he says no. Insist on staying at the island’s one hotel? Mum had wanted me to do that anyway, her doe-eyes dilated with concern as she watched me pack.

“Of course there is, silly!” Suddenly he resembles the dad I’d known, laughter rushing out of his mouth in a howl. I grin, simultaneously unnerved and reassured. “You can have it. I’ll sleep in here.”

“On the table?”

“It turns into a bed. Have you never stayed in a caravan before?”

I try to think back, but our family holidays are snarled up amongst his retellings of the island myths. Did we stay in a cave at some point? It seems unlikely, but not impossible. “If we take the long route into the hills we won’t be back by nightfall anyway,” he says. “How do you feel about camping out? I have a couple of sleeping bags.”

A couple? I look at him and he shrugs. “I always hoped, you know, that you…”

He opens a cupboard, drags out two neatly parcelled Four Season bags. I inhale their faint mustiness but stop myself commenting on it. He’s been waiting for this far longer than I’d realised.

Trees and fog cr Judy Darley

Book review – Scraps anthology

Scraps book coverThe Scraps anthology was brought out to celebrate National Flash Fiction Day 2013, so is aptly named. Each oh-so-brief tale draws inspiration from art, film, TV, or other creative world, yet presents the pieces without note of these initial prompts, as, according to the editors, “they are no longer the point.”

What remains is an incredibly diverse and intriguing body of work, including pieces from renowned writers such as Tania Hershman, Vanessa Gebbie and Sarah Hilary alongside fictions from emerging writers I hope to see more from in future.

For me, the best works of flash fiction contain the depths of a novel in a drop small enough to sit comfortably in the bowl of a teaspoon, and use skills shared by poets to evoke rather than say. It’s a writing discipline that demands the reader pay attention as much to the space between the lines as to the lines themselves. Each of the tales in this anthology achieve that, and some do it exceedingly well, including Feed A Fever by Freya Morris, which exhales a story of frailty and trust in such a way as to encapsulate large parts of the human experience. Continue reading