Bella Italia!

Well, we’re now back in sunny Edinburgh after three glorious weeks in Italy – notwithstanding that at one point the temperature was 12 degrees while it was almost 30 degrees in parts of Scotland!  There were the occasional continental thunderstorms which are wonderful to watch, but mostly the weather was warm and sunny.

The area where we were, on the shores of Lake Bolsena about an hour north of Rome, is steeped in the history of the pre-Roman Etruscans and their relatively mysterious culture.  The Etruscans were largely swallowed up by their ambitious neighbours to the south, as the Romans gradually gained control of all modern Italy at the end of the second century BC; but their mark is there in the tombs, pottery and surviving artwork from their heartlands in the border of Tuscany and Lazio – and even the words Tuscany and Etruria (the wider region) are ultimately derived from their name, so great was their mark on that part of the country – here’s a map which in particular shows the Etruscan city of Velzna which became the Roman Volsinii, and then ultimately over the intervening centuries became the modern town of Bolsena on the northern shore of the lake which shares its name: such is the way that names and pronunciation change imperceptibly over time.

Bolsena is a beautiful and tranquil corner, and the almost perfectly spherical volcanic lake which it looks across is reputed to hold the purest water in Europe, as well as shoals of the local delicacy coregone, a delicate kind of white fish, a little like sea bass, and delicious roasted whole in the restaurants which dot the shores.  The town is the home of the ancient festival of Corpus Christi (or Corpus Domini as it is known in Italy), celebrated this year on 10 June with a wonderful parade through the streets known as the infioriata, for the flower petals used to line the route of the procession.  It looks like this:

The miracle of Corpus Christi in 1263 (next year is the 750th anniversary celebration) led the then Pope Urban IV to dedicate a cathedral in the nearby Umbrian city of Orvieto, which is truly one of the pearls of Europe.  It looks like this:

(out of shot to the left of the cathedral is one of the best ice cream shops in all Italy!)

Apart from relaxing and enjoying the beauty of the surroundings, it was also interesting to follow the twists and turns of Italian public life in their newspapers, mainly La Repubblica (left wing) and La Stampa (right wing).  The main theme was of course the daily unfolding of the Euro crisis, but there was significant coverage of allegations of large scale corruption in Italian football (shocking I know – who would have believed it!), refuse collectors on strike in Rome, a big story about the Pope’s butler having been arrested for leaking Vatican documents to the media and last but not least, two terrible earthquakes which shook the Emilia region just north of my old university city of Bologna, on 20 & 29 May.  The quakes killed 24 people, including one parish priest who had gone back into his church shortly before the second quake to recover a statue from the rubble of the first one.  Many fine buildings were badly damaged or destroyed as you can see.

What was particularly interesting was the national response as Italy’s 66th annual festival of the founding of the Italian Republic on 2 June drew closer.  The Italian President called for a day of reflection and calm in light of the earthquake crisis, and true enough despite being a public holiday there was little of the usual pomp and ceremony, with significant resources being diverted to assist those affected in Emilia.  It was impressive and touching to see that act of solidarity on the part of the Italian people in the face of adversity; and while their country seems at times chaotic and frustrating, it’s still a wonderful and fascinating place to be – not to mention their fabulous ice cream and coffee!

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