Friday, February 28, 2014


Given the truth, universally acknowledged, that Milan is a bit of a dump, it was always my plan to use it as a base of operations for forays into other, prettier towns. And so it was that I took the train to spend the day in Bologna.

Bologna is a glorious medieval city of colonnades and towers; the former created to shelter students moving between classes at one of Europe’s oldest universities, and the latter erected specifically to piss off the neighbours. Unfortunately, in the case of Garisenda, the leaning tower of Bologna, this backfired, resulting in an edifice leaning alarmingly to one side. To add insult to injury, it stands right next to the much taller and perfectly vertical Asinelli tower, making its ignominy all the more obvious. It’s like the dissolute second son leaning drunkenly against its proud and upright older brother.

This architectural Epic Fail notwithstanding, Bologna is basically the San Francisco of Italy – wealthy, youthful, smugly liberal, somewhat overachieving and dotted with homeless people.

The homeless aren’t a problem like they are in San Francisco; the ones begging aren’t obnoxious about it, and the ones not begging just go about their business like everybody else. But they all have dogs. Apparently one of the prerequisites of being homeless in Bologna is to have a dog. Not, it must be said, one of the tiny Chihuahua cross-breeds that the middle class citizens run around on designer leashes. They have to be big, with at least a smidgeon of pit bull in them, and kept in check with a length of old rope.

Like their owners, these dogs aren’t vicious or threatening. In fact by and large they simply slouch by their owners’ sides, watching the world go past with large, mournful eyes, as if sadly disappointed with the fate life has dealt them.

And every single homeless person has one. It’s as if some spectacularly charismatic bum got one years ago and it’s become a subcultural trend, like hipsters with watercolour tattoos or suburban housewives with cursive “Dream” plaques hanging over their beds.

But overall Bologna is about ancient wealth rather than current poverty. It’s impossible in photographs to appreciate the visual weight of Bologna’s medieval buildings. They’re like architectural Ulurus, so hulking and heavy that it’s difficult to believe that they were built with empty space inside. They are brutally over-scaled, such that people and vehicles seem to be scurrying when they go by in their shadow.

Fortunately the colonnades that once protected students from the rain now protect consumers from any element that might distract them from shopping.

Of course there are also the standard little restaurants, serving fabulous Italian food, tucked away into every nook and cranny not otherwise being used to sell impractical shoes or high end luggage.

Thinking it appropriate, I ordered the Tagliatelli alla Bolognese, but I was wrong. Apparently Bolognaise sauce is some sort of American travesty and the Shame of Bologna. No wonder the waitress had a little tone in her voice when she asked if I wanted grated cheese on it. It tasted good, though. Like every other Italian carbohydrate I’ve encountered.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


The consensus of opinion in world travel circles is that Milan is a bit of a dump. It lacks the historic charm of Florence or Venice, and if it weren't for Fashion Week, it would be about as appealing as... well... Perth. However it does have a few attractions.

First up, my travel buddy wanted to visit Milan’s noted Cimitero Monumentale, a place where, in death, Italians can indulge in the same florid histrionics as they did in life.

A lot of effort and creepy statuary went into the memorials, including this one, which I'm guessing is the Tomb of the Unknown Child Molester.

Meanwhile Admiral Ackbar offered comfort to the bereaved, or possibly the aesthetically distraught.

At its best, in the grand main chapel, the Cimitero Monumnetale has a beautiful and weighty dignity. At its worst, however, it’s an exercise in ridiculous excess in both materials and emotion. Like the mausoleum in which, behind locked gates, there were photographs of nonna and poppa and, on a lower shelf, a photo of their cat. Who is resting at the feet of a virtually life-sized stained glass Jesus Christ.

Afterwards we visited the Triennale Design Museum, partly to see the art, but mostly to have lunch. Italians take lunch seriously. Even in what was essentially an art gallery café, there were waiters in black aprons and ties gliding about with lofty professionalism, bringing complimentary panini and plates of pasta and risotto to the crowd of art students with hipster beards and design academics in beautifully tailored tweed jackets.

I had chickpea and bacon soup with rosemary oil, which, along with a selection of complimentary panini, a large bottle of aqua frizzante and a caffé latte, was only 10 euros. I should have had some wine, just like the nearby Italians had while they were spooning up their risotto with the utmost seriousness. But combined with the jetlag it probably would have caused me to curl up under a sculpture and go to sleep.

There was some very good avante garde art and sculpture in the museum, including this paint and epoxy sculpture of a man shooting himself in the head.

We weren't supposed to take photos in the gallery, but I decided to be a scofflaw and snap one anyway with my iPhone. So of course it was at that exact second that a guard came along.

I CAN SEE WHAT YOU’RE DOING THERE! she seemed to say. Except that it was in Italian, so of course I can't be sure. She may have been advising me that the risotto in the cafe was particularly good today.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


Behold the glorious, romantic beauty of Italy!

Well, that's the view out off my hotel balcony in Milan at any rate.

I've only been on holiday for a couple of days, but already I'm learning new things. For a start, Milanese hotels function on a different starring system to the rest of the world.

5 star – acceptable

4 star - wretched

3 star – a box under a freeway overpass

2 star – a box under a freeway overpass with a rabid badger in it.

1 star – being beaten to death by street youths

My hotel is a 4 star establishment. This means that it is dirty, poorly maintained and meanly furnished.

The interior design is what I’ve come to understand as the Italian way – in design, the only bad idea is an unexpressed idea. My room is mostly decorated in florid Victorian style, with fringed cushions, a regency-striped sofa, ornate brass lamps and framed neo-classical prints.

All except the ceiling, which looks like it came from Simon LeBon’s apartment in 1983. It’s a weird black laminate lattice with downlights, with green laminate soffits.

Both looks have their merit… just not at the same time, It’s like having the Eurythmics suddenly teleporting into one of Elizabeth Bennett’s garden parties.

I could forgive the idiosyncratic decorating if it had been well built and well maintained. But it wasn’t and it isn’t. There’s torn wallpaper, mildewed grout, a stained toilet, and a weird mould smell in one corner.

It’s also run along miserly lines There’s only one sad, flat pillow on my bed. There’s only one tiny bar of soap in the bathroom. There’s no toothpaste, or hand cream, or a one of those little complimentary sewing kits. There’s no minibar or room service, and the kitchenette is stocked with nothing other than two disposable plastic tumblers. There are free mints in a big bowl in the lobby, but they taste like despair.

Perhaps all of the beautiful people and celebrities stay with friends. Either that, or they’re so coked up they really don’t mind the badger.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


My flight to Europe was surprisingly cheap, especially given that I was flying on Qatar Airways, a company trying to pitch their brand as an equivalent of Singapore Airlines or Emirates. The staff were friendly and helpful, the food was good, the booze was plentiful and I managed to score an exit row, so I had more leg room than I could possibly need. All for less than $750 each way.

The downside to all of this was that I needed to have a nine and a half hour transfer in Doha.

There are some airports where spending nine and a half hours would be a breeze. Doha airport isn’t one of them. I had limited options for entertainment. I spent at least an hour doing each of the following:

Listening to music

Reading a book

Watching planes take off

Photographing the sunrise

Watching people sleeping on benches specifically designed to prevent people from sleeping on them.

I managed to kill nearly an hour having an extraordinarily mammoth coffee at one of the cafes. Admiral Ackbar regarded it with wonder and awe.

So I gave him some of it.

The only other thing to do was buy duty free alcohol. Duty free alcohol, especially in the Middle East, is a macho affair. Shelf upon shelf of more and more ludicrously ‘special reserve” whiskey, aged for ostentatious numbers of decades in ostentatiously obscure corners of Scotland. No bourbon – the friends of Arab sheiks, Japanese business men and Indian patriarchs don’t care about bourbon – just scotch whiskey.

For the younger poser, there was every possible limited edition flavour of vodka. Lemon, apple, melon, cranberry, whipped cream… they were all there. There were some that were apparently flavoured with nothing more than prestige, if the bottles of Absolut Elyx were anything to go by.

Nearby a new, shiny, bright yellow Porsche and a grey Aston Martin sat side by side, with no apparent purpose other than to look luxe. There was also a female attendant whose sole duty was to walk around with a soft cloth wiping everybody’s grubby fingerprints off the duco.

But from what I could tell, the only thing worse than spending nine and a half hours inside Doha airport would be spending nine and half hours outside Doha airport. Being an Australian, I am already au fait with sand and blistering heat and don’t need any more time to learn their mysteries.

I would have been tempted to kill myself, but I’d prepaid most of my Europe stuff and my aversion to wasting money is even greater than my aversion to Doha airport. So... eventually... it was onward and upward!

Friday, February 21, 2014


From tomorrow I’ll be giving up my normal working life and going off on a five week holiday in Europe.

Just like the last time I went to Europe, in 2011, my companion will be Admiral Ackbar, adventurer, gourmand, plastic Lego minifig and camera whore. Sure, he upstages me at every opportunity, but you try saying no to this face.

Together we’ll be spending a week in Milan, then going on a three week cruise around the Mediterranean, visiting Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Israel. Provided I don’t get murdered by Mossad agents and he doesn’t get eaten by a small dog, it will be a blast.