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100 thousand lights for Christmas

100 thousand lights and a Carpenter workshop

Massimo the carpenter

…owns a three grotto workshop on the street below our apartment. He is Renata’s nephew. At this time of year the whole family clean out the man-made caverns and decorate them for Christmas. His sons are good looking enough to feature as Christ in the Marino Easter Procession. They also hang lights on one of the overgrown Christmas trees on the opposite corner, but sadly this doesn’t appear to have happened in 2020. However, their PRESEPE (nativity) is a joy. All lit up with twinkle lights so passers-by like us can peer into a small arched window and delight in the miniature scene. Joseph, Mary and the whole bible of characters. Only the baby is missing. You don’t put the baby in the crib before full term.

Every home, Church, restaurant and shop window features a PRESEPE. Crafters in town (mostly male pensionists) make the figurines and sell them to you straight from the workbench in their garage. Shapely bits of bark and moss are added to make mini hillside backdrops, miniature stone houses surround the sacred wooden stable at the center of the scene. Simon and I marvelled at an exquisite “We three Kings of Orient” elephant statuette the other day.

In the Church a huge Presepe sits on a temporary stage. It needs a coin to light it up. The entire village of Bethlehem comes to life with moving arms and nodding heads. Blacksmiths hammer, waterwheels churn, bread makers kneed, donkeys nod… and so forth. One gapes for as long as the money lasts.

Rome Christmas vibe

We walked around the middle of Rome on Saturday, which is a crazy thing to do considering the virus aerosolling around. It was fabulous nevertheless! The Via Condotti down from the Spanish steps is a swish twinkle of lights and music. But the BIG attraction is in Piazza Venezia where the municipality have paid 140 thousand euros for the most splendid world famous SPELACCHIO 2020. A 23 meter high tree, ablaze with one hundred thousand lights…a record number the Mayor says, to cheer us up. And she is so right, you cannot deny the uplifting effect it has. She’s a left winger from the five star party by the way. The tree is undeniably a pinnacle of brightness and a lighthouse of hope in the dark.

We made it to Piazza Navona in time to see a different type of light show there. A blast of blues and golds 4D projected onto the magnificent Bernini fountains makes everyone stand still and be whisked away to wonderland (via their smartphone screen). Buskers billow the streets with classical music, and it seems everyone, including ourselves are recklessly living in this paradoxical moment. Happy.

Spelacchio 2020, the Christmas tree in Rome inaugurated on 8 December
„" Also this year our "Spelacchio" returns, the Christmas tree in Rome now famous all over the world. In this difficult moment for all citizens, we want these lights to keep the hope of a peaceful Christmas lit but above all to give the strength to all of us to resist and overcome together the challenge of the health emergency ", declares the first citizen, Virginia Raggi."

You may be interested in: https://www.romatoday.it/politica/spelacchio-2020-albero-natale-roma.html

Simon and Leanne in front of the Spelacchio Christmas tree in Piazza Venezia, Rome, Italy 2020.
Thanks to Robert Shone for the photo.

To end I should mention we are in quite a strict situation here, no restaurants or bars are open after 6pm and there’s a curfew from 10pm. Over the Christmas holidays we are not allowed to travel at all. There is some discussion about allowing families to move between municipalities. In Italy sixty five thousand people have died from covid-19 this year. Total population is just over 60 million —

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interiority

Interiority

Rome is mellowing out.

Quite soggy after days and days of rain. The last of the orange leaves have collapsed onto the streets. We will go into the old city tomorrow for a culture pop-up experience although all museums are shut. But that’s not off-putting because Rome has a street-charm like no other place in the world.

It’s the way the paint peels.

Which brings me to presenting a couple of designs. Every hour or two another one manifests. I’ve taken a moment to write this while the enthusiasm is still bubbling.

That’s another point, living in a bubble can be good for interior design. I was thinking about interiority, the rooms we live in and how we arrange them. A cushion here and vase of flowers there, a mat at the door…it’s a selfscape! Clearly demonstrating your values – (what’s in your bookshelf by the way?) your colours (emotions) – mixed up, matchy-patchy, or plain khaki flannel?

Imagine walking into Caesars Palace and find it coarsely rendered in a sludgy beige crimplene.

Pompeii red garland by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Consider the thoughtful parts of your home – how do you place things for maximum meaning? Is there only one way to display a stained glass window or many ways to arrange a cushion. Home is a 3D catalogue of your life. You can be rich or poor, it doesn’t matter at all. Have you seen what can be done with peeling paint?

Think about your interiorscape, including that special room in your heart. Is there a Voltaire’s garden in there? Or is it a train station?

Before I get carried away in a bubble of glee, here is a glimpse of my work today… you can see more designs on my HOME page.

2021 design natural by Leanne Talbot Nowell

“Living in Rome certainly offers artists an inspiring kick in the pants. One of my favourite things to do is walk around the ancient ‘vincoli’ in search of old walls to photograph.

Especially antique walls that have been painted with ochre clays. Cracks and scratches, patches of crumbling stone and bits of ancient marble create a deep, rich patina.

Combined with dramatic skies and perfect domes, the sight of old Rome is enchanting enough to rock your foundations.

The narrow streets are protected from extreme weather and so the walls have endured longer than those in exposed areas. Unfortunately the patina is fast disappearing under layers of fresh plaster and plastic acrylic paint. 

This collection of “Rome old walls” photographs is a precious source of images which I lovingly use as backgrounds for my hand painted designs. Something between street art and fresco merged with hand painted emblems, made to share as a digital print. 

Leanne’s MEDITERRANEAN… design series explores the decor styles of local empires over the millennia. 

So, with a touch of nostalgia I present  these honest, non-toxic, sustainable decor products. Printed designs on recycled fabrics and papers. Now you can surround yourself with guilt-free decor!”

Roman pine patina fresco by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Wishing you a fabulous Christmas holiday.

Leanne Talbot Nowell
stone chequered print
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Pandemonium

Le Forna on Ponza island

This island is a safe place to stand -motionless – wearing a straw hat tipped  toward the milky way.

Waving

The rusty old ferry tub called Carloforte leaves Terracina port at precisely 9 on a summer morning. That means an early start from our house in Marino. We are always happy to catch the slow boat to the little island called Ponza, just 33 kms from the motherland.

L’isola di Ponza is an emotionally ‘suggestivo’ place and we are grateful to have it so close to home. The locals proudly told us there have been no covid cases on the island. But this summer the ferry boats are bringing in hundreds of mainlanders, some of them lucky to have a government ‘holiday voucher’ worth 500 euros to spend on hotels. An attempt to boost the failing tourist economy at the risk of starting another wave.

The locals watch us floating into their pretty pristine port with flags flying, horns blasting, masks hanging from our elbows. Beaches are plastered with young Italian beauties in bikinis. Motorboaters flock over from the mainland like noisy gulls disembarking for lunch in the many restaurants. All tables booked in advance. It’s the schiki mikis who come here and we hope they keep good hygiene. 

Large ‘bubbles’ of half-naked young people mingle in the narrow white painted streets between the little chic shops and cafes as if nothing has changed. The occasional senior person hurries by with mask firmly in place. The youngsters will go back to school in September if everything is still under control. Nobody knows, but the future looks as patchy as a watercolour painting.

La Pandemia

Thinking about all the virus tsunami spots in the world and worrying in a weirdly helpless way. Comparing outcomes is difficult as the cultures are so different. The Italian nation was not divided by the necessary lockdown rules. Mostly everyone complied, which was quite a feat considering the individualistic attitude here. Now the ‘nation’ are able to go away for tentative holidays…. but we expect there will be a slight second wave.

The city centers are still grimly vacant. One can walk around the Colosseum all by yourself. My South African artist friend who lives in Rome just spent a few beautiful peaceful days in Venice. No noisy cruise liners vomiting their penny-pinching passengers into the delicate city. 

When we arrived back from the island it was late and we were hungry, but in Marino the restaurants with outdoor tables were all fully booked. Eventually we found a lucky corner with a view over the lights of Rome. The pizza was delicious. Simple things are the best these days.

note:

My cousin in New Jersey USA, is a professor who teaches immunology (married to a virologist who is studying the covid virus in the lab) told us yesterday that if you get sick you will most likely recover but the damage to your body is lasting. The heart, lungs and brain suffer some permanent damage. This is why it is important to keep your distance, and stay in your bubble!

We all need a safe island to stand on. Tip our straw hats to the universe and be still.

To see the Ponza artwork please go to my account on INSTAGRAM- leanne.nowell

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Day 1 – Marino to Formello – via Rome.

Leanne Talbot Nowell - Formello

Rome the Eternal city – “Aaah bella Roma” once you are caught in her seductive “La Dolce Vita” embrace, you will become an overly emotional lover who can never leave. At approximately 2800 years old everything from the damp decay of frescoed tombs to her high-flying arches and golden orbs on moonlit domes, from baroque pink skies to the polished marble of palace floors, Roma is glorious. And a bit shabby.

We have done about 35 kms since Marino this morning, to reach Ponte Milvio bridge. The search is on for lunch. A veranda table at a restaurant VOY is available. Soon we are digging into a tasty bowl of paccheri pasta with a rich melanzane (aubergine) sauce topped with fresh mint and sun-dried tomatoes. The restaurateur runs off to the supermarket to fetch us some fruit juice after we declined his wine. Groggy cycling in Rome could prove fatal.

The hot Lazio sun burns our backs all afternoon as we ride out of Rome on zigzag roads into the northern countryside. It is quite challenging to find a bridge over/under the highway. A truck comes speeding around a sharp corner behind us and screeches to a bumpy halt inches from my rear reflector. I feel the heat of the engine surge over my shoulder in a smelly cloud of burning rubber.

I try to pedal standing up on account of the bum pain.

Via Francigena

A well timed SPRITZ dulls the pain in Formello. Simon has booked us in at a nice B&B.

Nonna Loretta shows us to our room and sells us two “pilgrim passports” for five euro each. They’re called “credenziale”, very much like the one you get for the Camino di Santiago. A folded card for pilgrims on their way from Canterbury to Rome. We are going in the opposite direction but we can still collect stamps from holy places along our inverted route. The passport also allows you special access to sleep in certain Convents and Monasteries. There are discounts on pilgrim meals at restaurants too. Make sure you get that when you do the camino di Francigena.

We eat salad at Osteria degli Angeli, the only guests in the dimly lit piazza in Formello. A drag queen unexpectedly appears from the great door of the municipal palace dressed in black lace and a massive wig. She looks down on us from the top of a flight of stairs and proclaims her existence with a gutsy howl “HAAAEEEOOW!!!” The sound echoes around the stone walls and into the dark streets. Frightening off the ghosts of Veii and us.

Back in our room at Nonna Loretta’s the soft bed absorbs the day’s agony like a sponge. Every part of my body is hurting except my feet.

Day 1. Sixty kilometers.

Click this to see the route we took today

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Andiamo

Andiamo Appia Antica by Leanne Talbot Nowell

Andiamo

Departure day is here with an early start. The sky is a sharp blue. I put on my padded tights trying to “be like water” as Bruce Lee, the karate guru, once advised. He is known to have said “water can flow, but it can also crash”.

Crashing is my biggest concern. Nevertheless, I hoist up my panniers (saddle bags) onto the big black bike. They seem surprisingly heavy, after whittling down my list to the absolute bare minimum.

“Have you checked the tires?” Simon asks.

“Umm, no, I forgot to buy a pump!”

He checks them for me and suggests we go for a cappuccino at the coffee bar just fifty meters from our house. I feel quite annoyed at the thought of stopping for coffee so soon, but he insists. I’m flowing with adrenaline and stopping now would feel like crashing.

The bike is dreadfully heavy to push up our steep cobbled street. According to the guidebook specs it weighs 23 kilograms, and my panniers weigh at least 18 kilograms, possibly more. Added together that is almost as much as my total body weight.

It’s a glum struggle to the caffè. Simon zooms up the hill on his ‘normal’ bike, his panniers gleaming yellow like boosters.

“SURPRISE!” A bunch of friends have come to see us off! All gathered around a table at the far corner of the Wunderkaffe. So good to see their positive smiles. They give me sweet going-away gifts of energy bars and homemade Limoncello, which I squeeze into my panniers.

With a churning tummy full of cappuccino I do my best to set off properly. No crashing to the ground in front of the send-off crowd.

As soon as we get around the corner my body starts to shut down. Teetering terribly I disembark and stand holding up the heavy bicycle at a dangerous angle, feet frozen to the ground like a rabbit. Is this an adrenaline override, or a lack of courage?

Simon circles back to see what has happened and says with exasperation “Come on Sweetie, at least let us get to Rome!”

Sometimes my husband can be quite ruthless.

Appia Antica

We have ridden this route many times, downhill all the way to the Colosseum, along the dead straight Roman road. The ancient Appia Antica or Appian way in English. I should be feeling quite content that my dream is coming true.

This good old road is paved with enormous blue-black basalt flagstones. Many of them have been carried away to build other structures and some have been haphazardly re-implanted which makes the bike buck. “How will you ever reach Oslo on a bike? Silly girl” says an inner voice. The sky glitters on a sorry little tear of self pity.

We melt into a classical landscape, pedalling between the low crumbling stone walls and tombs. Pieces of sculptured marble lie on the verge. The beauty of the campagna around Rome is wholly poetic if you look past the litter and broken fences. Cicada’s trill in the high dark foliage of the Roman Pines. Cyprus trees stand stiffly bottle-green, bushy pink oleanders and swathes of poppies flop over in the heat. The raw smell of wet sheep wafts over us. A shepherd sits with his crook propped against a broken block of marble tomb.

I’m began to feel carried away with the romance of it all. It would be hard to find a more auspicious start to a bike ride. I’m thawing out and beginning to flow like water.

Spring turned to summer in a matter of hours as we ride through the lovely Appia Antica Regional Park. Flowers have gone berserk. Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, St. Peter and St. Paul are just a few of the famous characters who used this road. Which has not needed much maintenance since 312 BC.

Suddenly I’m flying through the air, something has catapulted me sideways. I dive, do my best shoulder roll, jump up onto my feet instantly and look nonchalantly around to see if anyone noticed. Nettles sting me through the lycra. There is a rock in the path, hidden under the stooping grass. My pedal obviously hit down on it and caused the crash. The panniers have fallen off, and it takes me a few minutes of fumbling with shaky hands to clip them back onto the carrier. I do a mad little hop to get back up on the bike and race after Simon. He didn’t notice.

We pass through the catacomb gardens, along a lovely avenue of old Cyprus trees, laurel hedges and the heavy fragrance of grape hyacinths. Gnarled olive trees shimmer a vibrant silvery green.

Roman gelato

Entering Rome via the gate of Saint Sebastian, we go cobbling smack into the overcrowded streets, negotiating right-of-way with bus drivers by giving them a meaningful glance of intention as we weave between them. This is how the city moves – by domination.

Passing a long queue of tourists outside the Bocca della Verità  – Mouth of Truth – which is said to bite off the hands of liars. The story is told in the film ‘A Roman Holiday’ with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.

Something we cannot avoid in the city center is a visit to the old Gelateria Giolitti, the world famous ice-cream parlour. Sour cherry ‘viscole’ is Simon’s absolute favourite, never to be deviated from, whereas I deviate between the nut flavours – two balls of Nocciola (hazelnut) or mandorla (almond) with a scoop of café.

There is an art to ordering gelato in Italy, one must pay your money first, then queue, all the while straining your neck over eager shoulders to glimpse the enormous array of choices. When the server claps his eyes on you, hand him your receipt and quickly shout your preferred cup or cone size and flavours. He’ll give you a generous scoop of each and ask if you desire ‘panna’ (cream) on top. Today the answer is yes.

No sitting down at the elegant round tables in the 50’s style salon. That incurs an extra fee, and anyway we can’t leave our fully loaded bikes standing outside. We shuffle out to join the crowd of fellow gelato lickers. We all stand together concentrating on the ambrosial experience.

Then, with a mad little hop, back into the torturous Brooks saddle.