Category Archives: Italy

The First Eurovision Song Contest

Four years earlier the Great Smog of 1952 darkened the streets of London and killed approximately four thousand people in the short time of four days and a further eight thousand died from its effects in the following weeks and months.  In 1956 the Clean Air Act introduced smokeless zones in the capital.

Consequently, reduced sulphur dioxide levels made the intense and persistent London smog a thing of the past. It was after this the great clean-up of London began and buildings recovered their original stone façades which, during two centuries, had gradually blackened.

By all accounts the summer of 1956 was truly abysmal: rain, hail, lightning, floods, gales and miserable cold. It was the wettest July in London since records began, and August was one of the coldest and wettest on record across Britain, as barrages of depressions swept the country.  But there was a silver lining to this cloud and September was such an improvement it was warmer than August, a very rare occurrence, and the rest of autumn turned into a glorious Indian summer.

In the 1950s, as Europe recovered after the Second-World-War, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) based in Switzerland set up a committee to examine ways of bringing together the countries of the EBU around a ‘light entertainment programme’.

European Union Flags

What was needed was something to cheer everyone up.  At a committee meeting held in Monaco in January 1955, director general of Swiss television and committee chairman Marcel Bezençon conceived the idea of an international song contest where countries would participate in one television programme to be transmitted simultaneously to all countries of the union. The competition was based upon the existing Sanremo Music Festival held in Italy, and was also seen as a technological experiment in live television as in those days it was a very ambitious project to join many countries together in a wide-area international network.

The concept, then known as “Eurovision Grand Prix”, was approved by the EBU General Assembly in at a meeting held in Rome on 19th October 1955 and it was decided that the first contest would take place in spring 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland.

It was held on 24th May 1956. Seven countries participated, each submitting two songs, for a total of fourteen. This was the only Contest in which more than one song per country was performed as since 1957 all Contests have allowed one entry per country. The 1956 Contest was won by the host nation with a song called ‘Refrain’ sung by Lys Assia.

The United Kingdom first participated at the Eurovision Song Contest in the following year. The BBC had wanted to take part in the first contest but, rather like trying to get into the Common Market, had submitted their entry to the after the deadline had passed. It hasn’t made the same mistake again and the UK has entered every year since apart from 1958, and has won the Contest a total of five times. Its first victory came in 1967 with “Puppet on a String” by Sandie Shaw.

Eurovision Greece and Spain

There have been sixty-two contests, with one winner each year except the tied 1969 contest, which had four.  Twenty-five different countries have won the contest.    The country with the highest number of wins is Ireland, with seven.  Portugal is the country with the longest history in the Contest without a win – it made its forty-fourth appearance at the 2010 Contest.  The only person to have won more than once as performer is Ireland’s Johnny Logan, who performed “What’s Another Year” in 1980 and “Hold Me Now” in 1987.

Norway is the country which holds the unfortunate distinction of having scored the most ‘nul points’ in Eurovision Song Contest history – four times in all, and that is what I call humiliating. They have also been placed last ten times, which is also a record!

For many years the annual Eurovision Song Contest was a big event in out house usually with a party where everyone would pick their favourite and would dress appropriately to support their chosen nation.  In later years no one ever picked the United Kingdom because the only thing that is certain about the competition is that being the unpopular man of Europe we are unlikely to ever win again and every year there is a ritual humiliation with a predictable low scoring result.

Spaghetti Trees

The last two weeks of March are an anxious time for the spaghetti farmer. There is always the chance of a late frost which, while not entirely ruining the crop, generally impairs the flavour and makes it difficult for him to obtain top prices in world markets. But now these dangers are over and the spaghetti harvest goes forward.

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Scrap Book Project – Bank Notes


Foreign travel and different bank notes remind me of my dad’s insistence on always returning home from foreign holidays with currency for his personal memory box.  The note above is from the former state of Yugoslavia which dad visited several times in the 198os.

Even if it was 90˚ in the shade and everyone was desperate for a last drink at the airport dad was determined to bring a souvenir note or coin home and would hang on with a steadfast determination that would deny last minute refreshment to everyone so long as he could get his monetary mementos back home safely.  How glad I am of that because now they belong to me and now my own left over bank notes from my travel adventures have been added to the collection.

The euro is useful because it has simplified travel to Europe but I miss the old pre-euro currencies. To have a wallet full of romantic and exciting sounding notes made you feel like a true international traveller. I liked the French franc and the Spanish peseta and the Greek drachma of course but my absolute favourite was the Italian lira simply because you just got so many.

When going on holiday to Italy you were, for just a short time anyway, a real millionaire. The first time I went to Italy, to Sorrento in 1976, the notes were so worthless that it was normal practice for shops to give change in the form of a postcard of a handful of sweets.

My most favourite bank notes are probably from Switzerland.  Everyone knows that the Swiss are fond of money and they leave no one in any doubt of this with the quality of their notes.  Not only are they brilliantly colourful but they are printed on high quality paper as well and one is thing for certain – these notes are not going to fall apart easily.  Another interesting thing about the Swiss Franc is that there is something about it which prevents it being scanned and half way through the process the scanner stops and produces a message on screen that it cannot copy a bank note.



Cyprus £1 front

Rome, The Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica

“From the dome of St. Peter’s one can see every notable object in Rome… He can see a panorama that is varied, extensive, beautiful to the eye, and more illustrious in history than any other in Europe.”                                                          Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad

By mid afternoon when we crossed the River Tiber over the Ponte Sant’ Angelo like time travellers we had completed the ancient, the medieval, and the modern and now it was time for the religious.  Rome is the most important holy city in Christendom and St Peter’s Basilica at the heart of the Vatican City is the headquarters of the Catholic Church and is a place where some of the most important decisions in the history of Europe and the World have been made over the centuries.  (A Basilica by the way is a sort of double Cathedral because it has two naves).

The route took us past the Castel Sant’ Angelo, which was the Pope’s ‘safe house’ in times of danger and into the busy square outside the Basilica where a long queue of people seemed to snake forever around the perimeter waiting for their turn to go inside.  We joined the back of it and were pleased to find that it shuffled quite quickly towards the main doors and soon we were inside the biggest and the tallest church in the world that has room for sixty-thousand worshippers at one sitting and even Micky overcame his usual reluctance to visit the inside of a religious building and joined us.  It was busy inside but not uncomfortable and we soaked up the atmosphere as we passed by chapels with precious holy relics, the tombs of dead Popes and rooms with glass cases full of religious artefacts.


Outside we saw the Swiss Guards in their striking medieval uniforms of blue, red and yellow and the Vatican post office doing a brisk trade in post marking letters and postcards.

The Vatican is the third smallest state in Europe after Monaco and San Marino and its status is guaranteed by the Lateran Treaty of 1929 when Church and State, who had been squabbling since Italian unification, finally thrashed out a compromise deal that was marked by the building of a new road the Via della Conciliazione which, I have to say, to me seems rather sterile and lacking any real character.  It is expensive however and from a street side stall we bought the dearest water I have ever had at €4 for a small bottle.  We weren’t going to fall for that again so later on Kim refilled it from a public fountain by the side of the road.

The Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II took us back over the River Tiber and not unsurprisingly onto the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II which leads inevitably to the Vittorio Emanuele monument at the other end.  As it stretched out in front of us there was about a kilometre and a half to walk and all of a sudden my itinerary looked for the first time to be overly ambitious.  We had seen everything that we had planned to see but now there was a long walk back to the train station and everyone was hot and tired.


This long road is flanked with Palaces and Churches and Piazzas but our feet and legs were leached by the effort and aching and it was desperately hot so all we wanted was a bar and a cold drink even if it did cost another eye-watering €25 for five drinks.  We found a place about half way along the road and stopped for half an hour to rest and recover in the comfort of an air-conditioned bar and yes, sure enough it cost us €25.

World Heritage Sites


In 1954, the government of Egypt announced that it was to build the Aswan Dam, a project that proposed to flood a valley containing priceless treasures of ancient civilizations.  Despite opposition from Eygpt and Sudan, UNESCO launched a worldwide safeguarding campaign, over fifty countries contributed and the Abu Simbel and Philae temples were taken apart, moved to a higher location, and put back together piece by piece.  At last the World was collectively protecting its treasures and hopefully never again will something magnificent like the Colosseum of Rome or the Parthenon of Athens be torn down and destroyed by following generations of rebuilders.

Building on this international success the United States then came up with the idea of combining cultural conservation with nature conservation and a White House conference in 1965 called for a World Heritage Trust to preserve ‘the world’s superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry.’ The International Union for Conservation of Nature developed similar proposals in 1968 and they were presented in 1972 to the United Nations conference on Human Environment in Stockholm.  A single text was agreed and the ‘Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage’ was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO on 16th November 1972.

Today there are eight hundred and seventy-eight listed sites and it isn’t easy to get on the list and to do so a nomination must satisfy impressively difficult criteria which in summary consist of cultral criteria:

to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius; to exhibit an important interchange of human values; to bear a unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition; to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or landscape; to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement; to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance,

and natural criteria:

to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance; to be outstanding examples representing major stages of Earth’s history, to be outstanding examples representing significant ecological and biological processes; to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-site conservation of biological diversity.

It is hardly surprising that with forty-seven listed sites Italy has the most but for those who think of Spain as nothing more than a country of over developed costas with concrete condominiums, marinas and golf courses it might be a shock to learn that Spain has forty-three sites and is second highest in the exclusive list.


On every visit to Spain I seem to be visiting a World Heritage Site so when I counted them up I was interested to discover that I have been to twenty and that is nearly half of them.  In 2005 I visited Barcelona in Catalonia and saw the works of Antoni Gaudi and Palau de la Música Catalana and the Hospital de Sant Pau. Then in 2008 I saw the Historic Centre of Córdoba,  the  Caves of Altamira in Cantabria, the Old Town of Santiago de Compostela and the Cathedral, Alcázar and Archivo de Indias in Seville.  In 2009 in the motoring holiday around Castilian cities I visited the Old Town of Segovia and its Aqueduct,  the Historic Walled Town of Cuenca, the Historic City of Toledo and the Old Town of Ávila.

Even before I knew anything about World Heritage Sites it turns out that I have visited two more in the days of my beach type holidays, although when I went to these places neither of them were yet on the list.  In 1988 I holidayed on the island of Ibiza which was accepted onto the list in 1999 in recognition of its biodiversity and culture.  The following year I went to Tenerife and took a cable car ride to the top of Mount Tiede, a national park that was accepted to the list in 2007.  I have also visited Benidorm but for some reason that doesn’t yet seem to have made the list.

Even though they weren’t World Heritage Sites at the time I visited them I am still going to count them but the final two might be a bit dubious but anyway here goes.  In 1984 while driving back through Spain from Portugal I drove with friends through the city of Burgos which was accepted in that year because of its Cathedral and in Galicia in 2008 while visiting Santiago de Compostella I managed to drive over parts of the Pilgrim Route, which exists on the list separately from the old city itself.

Next time I go to Spain I am going to pay more attention and see how many more I can visit.

Turning for a moment to Greece it will surprise no one that the Acropolis and the island of Delos are both on the list but due to mistakes made in submitting the application form by the Greek Ministry of Culture in 2005 then for the time being Knossos is not there.    Everyone is accusing everyone else for this mistake and the Prefect of Iraklion blamed both the Ministry and UNESCO for leaving Knossos off the updated list of World Heritage Sites in 2006.  I am surprised that a site that important even has to bother with an application.

Gaudi chimneys

The End of the £1 Note

On 12th November 1984 the United Kingdom £1 note ceased to become legal tender and the switch to coin was complete.  Generally people don’t like change (no pun intended) and the move was met with some resistance led at first by the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  Ironically, £1 notes were greeted with public outrage when they were first put into widespread use as an emergency measure to replace gold sovereigns during World War I thus demonstrating that what goes around always comes around.

It has always surprised me therefore how most of Europe so easily gave up its Francs, Lira, Marks and Drachma when on January 1st 2002 the universal European currency the Euro (€) was introduced.

The euro is useful because it has simplified travel to Europe but I miss the old pre-euro currencies. To have a wallet full of romantic and exciting sounding notes made you feel like a true international traveller. I liked the Portuguese Escudo and the Spanish peseta but my absolute favourite was the Italian lira simply because you just got so many.

When going on holiday to Italy you were, for just a short time anyway, a real millionaire. The first time I went to Italy, to Sorrento in 1976, the notes were so worthless that it was normal practice for shops to give change in the form of a postcard of a handful of sweets. That was really charming but it doesn’t happen anymore of course although looking in at the current economic crisis in Greece there has to be a possibility that next year we will be using Drachma again!

My most favourite bank notes are probably from Switzerland.  Everyone knows that the Swiss are fond of money and they leave no one in any doubt of this with the quality of their notes.  Not only are they brilliantly colourful but they are printed on high quality paper as well.  It is certain that these notes won’t fall to pieces quite as quickly as our own flimsy five-pound notes printed as they are on tissue paper which must surely be the next UK note to be replaced with a coin?

Foreign travel and different bank notes remind me of my dad’s insistence on always returning home from foreign holidays with currency for his personal treasure chest.  Even if it was 90˚ in the shade and everyone was desperate for a last drink at the airport dad was determined to bring a souvenir note or coin home and would hang on with a steadfast determination that would deny last minute refreshment to everyone so long as he could get his monetary mementos back home safely.  How glad I am of that because now they belong to me and now my own left over bank notes from my travel adventures have been added to the worthless collection.

Florence and the Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio that crosses the river Arno in Florence is the oldest bridge in Tuscany and by happy chance the only one in the city that, allegedly due to a direct order from Adolph Hitler himself, wasn’t blown up by the retreating Germans as they cleared out from Florence in their withdrawal from Italy during the Second-World-War.  Knowing how the Germans were fond of blowing things up that must have been a one-in-a-million fluke!

The first bridge on this site was built a long time ago by the Romans and was constructed of wood on piers of stone.  It was ruined in 1117, reconstructed soon after but destroyed again in 1333 by flooding and then rebuilt once more in 1345, but this time more sensibly in stone.  Due to the high volume of traffic using the bridge, a number of shopkeepers set up shop to catch the passing trade.

The first merchants here consisted primarily of blacksmiths, butchers, and tanners catering mostly to travelling soldiers who were passing through but when the Medici family moved into Florence bringing with them vast wealth and an appreciation for the finer things in life they promptly cleared the bridge of all the dirty trades, that were probably a bit of an eyesore anyway, and certainly responsible for polluting the river below.

They replaced them with goldsmiths and more similar upmarket shops and today it remains lined with medieval workshops on both sides with some of them precariously overhanging the river below supported only by slender timber brackets.  A number of these shops had to be replaced in 1966 when there was a major flood on November 3rd that consumed the city and damaged some of them but this time was unable to destroy the bridge itself.  The flood story is an interesting one and a good account can be found at

Running along the top of the bridge is a corridor that the Medici had built so that they could cross the river without having to mix with the riff-raff below and is now an art gallery.  When we visited the bridge it was busy with street traders and shoppers and the ever-present scrounging beggars of course.  Along the bridge there were many padlocks locked to the railings and especially in the middle around the statue of the Florentine sculptor, Cellini.

This, I found out later, is a lover’s tradition where by locking the padlock and throwing the key into the river they become eternally bonded.  This is an action where I would recommend extreme caution because it sounds dangerously impulsive to me; I think I would further recommend taking the precaution of keeping a spare somewhere in case I needed it later.  Apparently all of these love tokens do lots of damage to the bridge and thousands of padlocks need to be removed every year.  To deter people there is a €50 penalty for those caught doing it and that is a much higher price than I would be prepared to pay for eternal bondage!

Actually, it may be that there is some truth in this tale because according to ‘Eurostat’ even though the divorce rate has doubled in the last five years Italy has one of the lowest rates in the European Union.  Sweden has the highest and although I don’t know this for a fact I’m willing to bet that across all of Europe the Vatican State probably has the absolute lowest!

A day trip to Florence

Venice three visits three hotels

Italian Unification and a History Degree

The plan was to spend two days in Rome and today we would visit the northern classical part of the city and the areas that are predominantly Renaissance and Baroque and it was approaching midday as we started at the Piazza della Republica where I spotted the Hotel Massimo d’Azeglio. Massimo d’Azeglio (b. 24th October 1798) was an Italian politician who made an early contribution to the unification of Italy, the 150th anniversary of which was being celebrated in Rome this year (2011).  It stood out to me because Massimo d’Azeglio helped me pass my history degree exams because I wrote my thesis about him and his part in the Risorgimento.


We could see the huge Victor Emmanuel monument now but before we reached it we took a turning left that took us past the Quirinale Palace built by the Popes on one of the original of Rome’s seven hills, previously the home of the Italian Monarchy and now the official residence of the President of Italy and to our first site-seeing destination, the famous Trevi Fountain.

There was no need for a map to find it, we just followed all of the people, because this has to be one of the busiest places in Rome with the huge fountain almost completely filling the tiny Piazza with people crammed in and shuffling through as they squeeze slowly past the crowds.  Thirty-five years ago, on my first visit, people were still allowed to sit on the monument and cool their feet off in the water but that has been stopped now.  There is a tradition of throwing three coins in the fountain guarantees that you will return one day to Rome.  These days’ tourists with a desire to return to the Eternal City deposit an average of €3,000 a day in the fountain and this is collected up every night and is used to fund social projects for the poor of the city.  That’s probably why people aren’t allowed to paddle in it anymore!

Next we made our way now to the most famous and most crowded of all Rome squares, the Piazza di Spagna, shaped like a bow tie and surrounded by tall, elegant shuttered houses painted in pastel shades of ochre, cream and russet red and in the centre a fountain shaped as a leaking, sunken boat at the foot of the famous Spanish Steps that were swarming with people making their way to the top and back under the shade of cheap parasols sold on the streets by the illegal traders.

To the right we saw the house, now a museum, where the English poet John Keats lived and died and to the left the Babington Tea Rooms which was opened in 1896 by two Englishwomen who spotted a market for homesick British tourists with a yearning for a traditional afternoon tea and a pot of Earl Grey.  We turned our back on this and walked along Via Condotti, which is Rome’s most exclusive and most expensive shopping streets where the major designers have their shops and where prices were way beyond our budget!

At the Via del Corso we turned left and walked back towards the Victor Emmanuel Monument at it southern end but turned off half way down and in a matter of minutes passed through hundreds of years of history, first through Piazza Colona and the column of Marcus Aurelius, then skirting past the Italian Parliament building, the Palazzo di Montecitorio, and after that the Temple of Hadrian with its huge columns which is now the façade of the Italian stock exchange.

We visited the Pantheon, which is one of the best preserved ancient Roman buildings, originally built as a pagan temple but later converted into a Christian Church and is the burial place of the ex kings of Italy and other important Italians like the artist Raphael.  Next it was the Baroque Piazza Navona in the blistering heat of the afternoon as the temperature reached well into the thirties and it was all becoming a bit tiring and overwhelming so we found somewhere to rest before tackling the walk to St Peter’s and the Vatican.

Rain in Alghero

It really was very miserable, the sky was grey and the temperature had plummeted too.  The walk into town was much less pleasant as we had to negotiate puddles and streaks of sandy mud running across the pavements.  And town wasn’t much better either; everywhere seemed gloomy and uninviting now that the sun had deserted us.

In the October drizzle everywhere looked dejected today including the walk along the battlements overlooking a much rougher sea, now minus its sparkle, the old abandoned hospital that looked bleak under salt-and-pepper skies and the pavements that today seemed littered with dog excrement, which was bad, but not as bad as most of the pavements in France.  One sight did amuse us both though; there on the sea front was the tiniest Piaggio three-wheeled street cleaning vehicle I have ever seen with two of the fattest street cleaners that I have ever seen squeezed together in the undersized cab sheltering from the rain and I imagine doing irreparable damage to the suspension.  I stopped to take their photograph and they laughed at me laughing at them.

As things started to improve we thought we would have a drink in the bar we liked yesterday but when we got there it was shut so we cursed the cooperative roster system and were obliged to find an alternative.  We found one we liked the look of and as we sat and had a drink and felt sorry for ourselves we watched the tourist trains with the cruise ship visitors and the superior horse drawn carriages for those who had a bit more money to waste and surprisingly as we did so the weather started to get better and the sun, trying to find a way through, started to peek out from behind the clouds.  Soon it was quite warm so we walked back to the hotel and looked for a restaurant for lunch.

Having established lunch opening times we found that the weather had improved so much that we had time and could go to the beach so we changed into appropriate clothing and went for a stretch on the sand.  For the third day in a row we went for a swim in the sea but today we decided against tackling the ambitious swim to the rocks.  It was cold when first getting in but for someone bought up on holidays to Norfolk and the forbidding North Sea, believe me this wasn’t a problem at all and I enjoyed a swim in the Mediterranean water.

A Street Market in Alghero

Alghero Sardinia

We woke and I checked the weather.  It was glorious once again and the sky was a never-ending blue.   The informative taxi driver had told us about a street market that was in town every Wednesday so after breakfast we went to find it.

There were lots of clothes stalls and some selling domestic items that didn’t interest us especially but we did like the food stalls, especially the vegetables and the cheese.  Once again the choice of top quality produce was truly amazing and I always compare this with the paucity of offerings back home.  Shoppers were buying olives by the kilo, presumably to take home and press, and the range and quality of the produce was staggering.  If only crops like these were available in the United Kingdom, I am certain that we would all be healthier.

We enjoyed some free samples from the two dairy stalls where competition seemed about to boil over into violence between two cheesed-off vendors who were struggling for customers and this I find a rather curious aspect of European markets because traders selling the same produce will set up a stall in a directly adjacent pitch.   I used to have a job which involved organising a street market and one thing was certain – if there were two greengrocers on the same market they would want to be as far away from each other as possible.

We walked along the beach with the intention of reaching the nearby village of Fertilia, which looking out over the bay from Alghero appeared to be picturesque and inviting.  To get there we passed through a pine wood and onto the beautiful sandy beaches and although the weather was becoming cloudier we enjoyed a pleasant walk along the beach to the village.  On the way we passed a naturist who was burning his private parts in the sun and we passed by trying to appear disinterested.

What a disappointment the next village was.  It was dull and uninviting and it didn’t help that most of it was closed.  There were no restaurants open and we could only find one dreary old fashioned bar where we stopped for a quick drink with the October flies before setting off back to Alghero.  The only thing of note was a thirteen arch roman bridge at an ancient site just outside the village and that was in ruins.

Retracing our steps back along the beach the day got cooler as the clouds raced over and we worried that maybe this was the end of the good weather.

We needn’t have been pessimistic because after a short while the sun came out again so we changed appropriately and went to the beach.  About two hundred metres out to sea was a reef of rocks that was home to a flock of Cormorants and Kim challenged me to swim there.  Later she became convinced that it was more than two hundred metres but truthfully it wasn’t.  Two hundred metres doesn’t sound very far I agree, but swimming there was more of a challenge than I had imagined.  As we got further from the shore the sea swell became more difficult to negotiate but what was most perturbing was that the closer we got the birds seemed to get much bigger until they looked positively huge.  After swimming Cormorants stand and dry off and extend their metre wide wingspan to the full and they began to look very intimidating.

I was prepared to go on of course but with about thirty meters to go Kim panicked, renamed the reef Pterodactyl Island, on account of the size of the birds and persuaded me to return to shore.  The short swim back was more difficult than getting out there and I had to agree that we had made the right decision.  Those birds were large.

In the evening it was back into Alghero for dinner.  Last night’s restaurant was closed but others were now open and we worked it out that because it was out of season they were operating a cooperative roster system and we thought that was clever.  After a while we found an inviting restaurant with outside tables that overlooked the sea from the battlements and we had a very good meal that included a fish medley and a bottle of inexpensive wine.

Alghero Street Market