29 June 2020


When I was opening the back door shutters the other morning, I felt something wriggle then slither out from under my foot. It was a lizard, one of those dazzling emerald green ones which in Italian is called a ramarro (Lacerta viridis, European green lizard). When my heart stopped thumping, two thoughts occurred to me.

Firstly, when you live in a country where some snakes are poisonous and your middle vision is kind of fuzzy, the no glasses/bare feet combo is not advisable (and potentially lethal).

Secondly, it didn’t bite me, so… was Caravaggio spreading old wives tales?

The lizard (actually, it’s a ramarro) dangling from the finger of the Boy Bitten by a Lizard has clearly sunk its teeth in well. I’ve been told countless times, as I stroll around plant nurseries “watch out, there are ramarri in here. They bite.” I don’t recall ever being told “there are ramarri in here. I’ve been bitten by one and I can tell you, it hurts.”

(This fine fellow fell into an empty flowerpot and died before I had noticed him there. I know it’s a male because males’ heads – particularly beneath the jaw – turn blue in mating season.)

So I’ve been trying to work out if the fear is justified. The answer seems to be – they might bite but they’re much more likely to zip off at lightning speed. Biting is really a last-ditch expedient. What they do bite, on the other hand, is vipers. They’ll wrap their jaws around a viper and keep them there till the bitter end. Moreover, they appear to be immune to viper toxin.

Now, I’ve read this in various kind-of-scientific places but frankly, I have a nagging suspicion that it too could have a touch of legend about. Accounts of this aggressive/fearless behaviour are often presented alongside some colourful Italian country lore according to which Lacerta viridis is man’s best friend if there are poisonous snakes about, letting off a shrill whistle to warn of vipers in the vicinity.

Il ramarro tienilo alla tua destra perché ti fischia nell’orecchio” (keep a ramarro close at hand so it whistles in your ear) goes one saying with a charming ring of inauthenticity to it. Much more common and possibly more apt is the expression “tenace come un ramarro” (stubborn as a ramarro).

In fact I suspect that the particular fear of saber-toothed ramarri is just one more facet of Italians’ troubled relationship with lizards as a whole. They’re not seen as scuttling sun-worshippers whose greatest fault is making you jump out of your skin when they shoot off noisily at unexpected moments.

During my interminable building work on the house in town, the ladies on either side (neither of whose gardens, I have to say, are much to boast about) never complained about loud banging or brick dust coating their freshly hung out washing. But they did hound me to pull the weeds from between piles of builders’ clobber stacked in the garden because if I didn’t we’d be overrun by lucertole (lizards) – “lucertole” spat out as if they were saying “rats”. Caravaggio clearly didn’t hold them in much esteem either.


We emerged from our green world for a few days last week, and headed for Positano. It felt good to exchange green for brilliant blue. Being on the Amalfi Coast, in mid-June, and being some of the few very non-locals there was disorientating and completely wonderful.

What’s wonderful for us is of course calamitous for positanesi, more or less all of whom make a living – directly or indirectly – from the visitors who in any ordinary June throng the narrow lanes, doing the Positano shuffle between importuning vendors of flowing robes and flowery sandals.

High up on a footpath above Praiano, an elderly man tending his undulating rows of beans came across to chat with us as we puffed by. “You’re the first walkers I’ve seen today,” he said. “Usually there’d be hundreds.” He was spending every day up there on the empty hillside, he said. There wasn’t a weed to be seen in his orto. “It’s terrible down there in town. You come out of your house in the morning, and everyone looks like their football team lost badly last night.”

Perhaps because their long-established and highly regarded hotel puts them in a less parlous position than most, the owners of Le Sirenuse (we were in Positano because L was doing research for a guide to local walking trails for the hotel’s guests) had no trouble admitting that their lovely town was a delight in its empty state, and that to return it to anything near sustainable ‘liveableness’, visitor numbers would need to be slashed dramatically.

It’s the same dilemma facing so many special places – Positano, Venice, gorgeous little historic towns all over Italy. The people who are suffering most from the lack of travellers are also those most aware of the unbearable pressure that their industry exerts on extraordinary locations. They’re hoping for a paradigm shift, baffled as to what form this would take and at the same time dubious that they’re even going to survive.

In the mean time I find I’m more and more frequently switching off BBC radio, infuriated by reports on the ‘opening up’ of Europe for UK tourists as of July 6, with ‘air bridges’ channelling the white-fleshed masses towards the Mediterranean sun. Like so many Europe-looking British obsessions, this is simply not a story here.

What ‘air bridges’ are, I cannot fathom: they sound rather like ‘flights’ to me. But what is really riling me is that the UK government is sorting EU countries into ‘safe’ ‘medium’ and ‘dangerous’ categories, with corresponding isolation requirements for returning Brits.

Ahem. Excuse me. Does no one there realise that the sick man of Europe is Britain? That were it not for the fact that people in the EU tourism sector were utterly desperate we would be building a wall in the English Channel to keep Brits out? Given the UK’s abysmal record on virus-containment, it’s a bit rich handing down high-and-mighty judgments like that. But then, self-awareness isn’t a British trait.

20 September 2019


We’ve been on the Amalfi Coast, and it was wonderful. I was long overdue for a change of register from green to blue.

The crowds took me aback. I’m rarely in that neck of the woods other than way out of season. I thought the second half of September might have been at the very least a quieter shoulder time. The hoteliers I talked to were as amazed as I was at the throng. The season used to wind right down as September began. Now places are booked out through the whole of October.

The weather (thankyou global warming?) helps: our two days were hot and glorious with just the occasional cloud to take the edge off the glare. And the Costiera amalfitana, like all Italian destinations, gets the run-off effect from the dwindling number of ‘safe’ getaways around the globe. But the fact that glamorous Positano (where we were partying) was so much more packed than more homely Praiano (where we were staying) shows that this is just part of the booming tourism model: it’s famous because you saw that Kylie Jenner visited, so you have to go, Instagram it and move on. For the been-there-done-that tourist as well as the sophisticated globetrotter, Positano is very much On The Map.

I spent some time in Positano observing the Selfie Smile, and wondering, how do people do that? There’s a particular thing that the young female preeners do as they sit on walls with azure Med backdrops. Having flicked their hair – a vital preliminary – they then arrange their face in such a way that all their teeth are showing, and they make it look like a smile. When I try to do it, it looks like rigor mortis – or at the very least like a sickly grin. I know (since really quite recently) that selfies have spawned a whole new concept in make-up containing some kind of shiny reflective something to make you look perfectly plastic and unblemished. But is it also changing the way facial muscles work, creating toothy grimace-free smiles? You do have to wonder.

There were crowds, too, up on the Sentiero degli dei – the walking track along the high crest of the costiera. This was a different kind of visitor, however, tending towards the bag-full-of-heavy-lenses style of photography and considerably older. They’re the people who would be in the Cinque Terre had they not read that it was completely overrun. The Sentiero degli dei is less compact than that more northerly path and so accommodates more hikers. But they’re flooding in in ever-greater numbers. I do hope that very special place isn’t ruined.

Our hike took us up the endless steps above Praiano to the convent of San Domenico  where I would have been happy to stop. Nothing doing. Upwards and onwards to Colle Serra where two French horn players were tootling by the side of the track, to an audience half of which (like us) had clambered all that way for that very reason, and the other half of which was utterly bewildered at happening across this spectacle in such an isolated spot. It was wonderful, and almost compensated for the quaking leg muscles.

And why were we there at all? Two new works, by artist Rita Ackermann, were being hung in Le Sirenuse, my favourite hotel on the whole costiera. The paintings were strong and suited their room perfectly. The festivities for their arrival were – as always – superb.


Lake Trasimeno

Back in CdP, things are quiet but not too quiet, and the sun continues to shine. It’s rather odd that Italy’s green heart is more burnt-looking than the salt-wind-swept and much more sultry Amalfi coast, but that’s how it is. Days (like today) of tramontana northerly wind dry things out even more.

The wind does, however, have the advantage of flushing out the mosquitos which have (along with a long list of other insects) been the bane of my life this summer. Why have they suddenly developed a taste for me?


Things you find in your lily pond

Maybe I’m suddenly full of lactic acid which, according to this fascinating article, is one attractant. Then again, in the body lactic acid is produced by extreme muscle exertion and quite frankly… that doesn’t sound like me. Or maybe for some reason I’m cleaner, with fewer mozzie-repellent bacteria lurking on my skin: perhaps I should rectify that. I don’t wear perfume and I don’t use smelly soaps and I don’t (often) drink beer. So why oh why do they suddenly have it in for me?

As I perused that article (which doesn’t oddly, contain my new favourite word anautogenous, ie ‘needing a blood meal before being able to reproduce’, though in the case of mosquitos it could have done) spotting all the reasons why they shouldn’t like me and feeling hard done by, one fact gave me some grim satisfaction. Unlike wasps, which I’d dearly love to hate for their uselessness as well as for their meanness, mozzies really don’t seem to have any purpose – unless you consider keeping human numbers down by injecting fatal diseases into them to be a purpose. So I can hate them whole-heartedly without a modicum of guilt.