The receptionist at the hotel, with regal pomp befitting the shining, clean foyer, greeted us in a mixture of over-friendliness and Frankensteinian manner. He spoke to us in his own genetically modified Italian. I thought my Italian would be up to scratch but I found his accent more foreign than his moustache. I told my mates when we began making our way up to the rooms: “why doesn’t he pronounce his R’s?” One of them rightly observed that he speaks Italian with a French accent. I thought to myself: how would he pronounce the Frosties slogan? But that’s Italy, I was to learn, beautiful enough that you could afford to drop a letter or two from your vocabulary.
In a spa town in the foothills of the northern Apennines I awoke for the first time in the neighbouring cultural magnet of Italy. Us five Maltese teaming teenagers were to be there for 14 days as part of a student exchange our tourism college had organised. And when I awoke and went out on my balcony to see the chilly sun rise on peaceful, unassuming Salsomaggiore Terme, I thought 14 days would be tortuously short.
I learned, with a tiger’s bulky haste, on my first early morning walk through Salso, that one day would be more than enough to see all of this little town twice over. But it’s not about seeing it it’s about living it. The town was put on the map in the imperial Imperialistic days of Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma and second wife of Napoleon. In her day the sodium-rich waters of Salso made the town the Cannes or Nice of its day: attracting the heavily-clad aristocracy of 19th century Europe to its spas. And some things don’t ever change, because they shouldn’t.
The beating, steaming heart of the town is the Terme of Salsomaggiore. This building is the most grandiloquent you are likely to see in any little town. And it’s not a church, not a palace or castle: it’s a spa! How could I not be in love with this gently hedonistic town already? And the others were still having their breakfast. Travel is not for the stragglers, but for the curious.
The Terme Berzieri was built in the early 20th century in the Liberty style – a local off-shoot of Art Deco. A massive, Byzantine-style building with Roman ornateness dominating a clean open space in leafy Salso. All along the façade are Egyptian-like figures standing in Dalinean poses in random corners, and chimeras sheltering beneath the grandeur. Inside the grand entranceway worthy of any principality was dominated by a fairytale staircase, lit by stained-glass apertures and made irresistible by Klimt-style paintings as large as Guernicas. Upstairs reeked of the 19th century exclusivity that conceived it. Elaborate marble floors and ornate mouldings on the walls and ceilings. All over a tangible respectful silence the kind you tasted in a church. I did not even dare look at the prices for treatments. Just being there was pampering enough. Having said that, the spas are symptomatic exemplars of Salso’s commitment to the good life.
Walking around Salsomaggiore you discover a green clean mountain fortress with perpetual forests in the background and quiet avenues lined with autumnal giants and parks every other corner. With a population of 20,000 the streets feel sparse and one forgets one is living in an over-populated world. When we were taken to a local secondary as part of our programme we felt as though we were being taken to the heart of Western education – the fount of Rome. The Liceo – a kind of college where thirteen-year-olds can choose to specialise (there are Liceos for tourism, arts and science amongst other) – we were invited to attend a history of art lesson given to fourteen-year-olds.
I had never seen such sophisticated intelligence in adolescents. These teenagers were truly a million miles away from the drunken-knife-wielding stereotype suffered in other countries. The hippyish teacher merely put on slides of modernist (early 20th century) paintings and the students discussed them and debated their intentions and merit. One of the paintings that came up was Giorgio de Chirico’s Mystery and Melancholy. One fashionably bespectacled student argued that the long shadows in de Chirico’s masterpiece reflected the long hand of melancholy and that the little girl was a mere silhouette because death had already ear-marked her for death. What exuberant poignancy from a teenage girl! I not only had to re-evaluate what education is all about but I was further convinced in the salience of one of the three tenants of my personal Epicureanism: the life of thought. La vita de pensiero.
We were indulged in the other important tenant to a happy, frugal life, on another day: food. The host school, a Liceo centred around catering, invited us for a demonstration, where we saw (and tasted) a chef making fresh ravioli and polenta; after which we were cordially (the 19th century lives on here) invited to a three-course meal prepared by the students themselves. Treated like premature kings the highlight dish was a prawn risotto and shellfish served with fresh shrimp salad. How could the sea taste so good up here in the mountains! Those young chefs and waiters were dedicated legions in their own right. I did learn, however, that polenta really isn’t to my taste – despite my better, open-minded efforts. And it was freshly made by very capable hands, but, at the end of the day, it is just solidified porridge!
There is really no better place to live simply and well than Italy. Especially in the Emilia-Romagna region: the birthplace and shrine of so many of Italy’s finest products. To reinforce this Mediterranean faith we took a trip, around 40 minutes by bus, to a parmigiano factory outside the town in the agricultural outskirts of Salso. The factory was in the middle of verdant nowhere, with lush fields stretching widely widely with cows grazing indiscreetly and around the factory were chicken coups that reminded you, humbly: even Italy’s great sophistication has old-McDonald origins.
The workers gave us a tour and an explanation behind the whole process of making parmigiano-reggiano, but it takes Zen-level concentration to be able to focus whilst ignoring the pungent smell of stale stale cheese! We literally had to go outside halfway through a talk just to get some air. It smelt like they were using rotted corpses as the source of the cheese! When they took us into the cellars where they matured the blocks of cheese worth their weight in gold, the smell turned classically musty. Then, at last, one feels as if in the midst of a shrine, a temple dedicated to the monotheistic worship of top-quality parmigiano. In Italy, they do Catholicism well, but they worship food like no other god.
Blessed are the cheese-makers!
“For us to go to Italy and to penetrate into Italy is like a most fascinating act of self-discovery. ” – D.H. Lawrence.
All over Salsomaggiore there are many a site where you can worship and discover. Not churches. But restaurants. Most of them supplied with the freshest parmigiano and proscuito di Parma, produced in nearby Parma. Time here is centred around mealtimes. People snack throughout the day yes but lunch and dinner are occasions; gatherings of friends and family alike coming together to indulge and confess, drink and dissect. Being such a small town Salso has small restaurants with big hearts. Most of them are centred around the Viale Berenini Nord.
Gastronomically, Salso for me was a tale of two pizzas. The onus is on the Italians, the mammones of pizza, to be creative with the kitsch classic. They excelled themselves here. One is a Sicilian specialty, which I tried in a pizzeria on the Viale Berenini Nord: pizza with chips. A flagrant success that feels peculiarly English. Pardon my French. Les blasphemy. The other, perhaps more randomly endemic is the pizza volcano that sees a fried egg plopped randomly in the centre of a pizza surrounded by spicy pepperonis. Egg-yolk, red-hot pepperoni and golden cheese: an exclusively Italian threesome. And then some.
In one of the restaurants on the Viale, La Porchetta, a 40-year-old restaurant with timeless service, we had a magnanimously Italian experience. On the television, situated near the archway decorated with more Klimt-style female portraits, a television showed one of the latter episodes of that year’s Grande Fratello. The Italian Big Brother. Most of the people were engrossed in the faux-reality drama. For me watching it was like being tortured by Orwell’s Big Brother himself. But hey-ho.
Then the waiter came to take our orders. One of my mates asked for chicken. And this mustachioed waiter, the Fratello blaring behind him, tutted, shook his index finger and explained: “we don’t do chicken in restaurants, chicken is cheap meat, you eat it at home and basta.” He spoke like a Christian would speak if someone insulted the Virgin Mary. Afterwards he was excessively nice and hospitable and even offered us a placement in the restaurant should we want one. Me being me I had a seafood pasta plate with vongole and spaghetti cooked immaculately al dente. And to think, people waste their time philosophising about logic and metaphysics! I’ll take another bottle of wine and be done with it, please.
“They travelled for thirteen hours down-hill, whilst the streams broadened and the mountains shrank, and the vegetation changed, and the people ceased being ugly and drinking beer, and began instead to drink wine and to be beautiful.” So wrote E.M. Forster in his standout novel Where Angels Fear To Tread. You really do feel, in this microcosm of Italy, that wine and beauty are omnipresent Big Brothers you tranquilly submit to.
Wine leads me smoothly into the last of the Epicurean trinity: drink. Salso is a small town, yes. But it isn’t small enough that you can’t find somewhere to pay respect to the night. There are bars tucked into corners and pubs in the steep suburbs. Alcohol is probably the most widespread of alcohols on earth thanks to man’s colonisation. Wherever there is man there is his drunken shadow. Salso is also home to many Liceos and thus there is a burgeoning youthful population. We were taken to a large pub by our hosts, a host of sixteen and eighteen-year-olds and the undeserving stereotype of Italians being lightweights was duly put to bed. And you can learn a lot about a culture from its drinking habits.
With Italians, even during a blitzing take-no-prisoners night out there is still an omnipresent spectre of class. Classiness. It doesn’t cost much. Getting lashed on the better beers – that night it happened to be Guinness – and cocktails. Singing karaoke to Patti Smith and The Doors instead of kitsch-OD My Way. Even into the wee hours of the morning, conversation, slurred though it may be, still flittered elegantly from discussions on music, art and politics. And when the girls (I don’t recall any boys present, it was a night worthy of Beato Fra de Donne) were dancing over themselves, their clothes, youthful and respecting age, gave them an aura of decorum. Like watching a dancing bird-of-paradise after one too many tequila shots.
After sometime Salso does start to feel over-explored. Even for those inured to the art of clubbing: there is only one true nightclub in the area and you need to drive to get to it and drinks are piratically hucksterish. We filled up a lot of our days on day-trips to nearby towns and cities (more blogs to follow on that), taking advantage of Salso’s centrality. But on a particularly slow day, when we were at the loosest of ends, we were offered a hike by the hospitable hotel receptionist Giuseppe (we came to learn that most people in Salso don’t count the R as a legitimate member of the Latin alphabet). We gratefully accepted, lamenting the fact that we have nothing like the natural expanses they have here back home. We’re a bit cynical that way.
We packed some cheap meat (chicken) for lunch in tinfoil, put on our backpacks and set off into the tranquil countryside around Salso. We walked for miles on quiet roads in the midst of desolate fields, coming across the occasional farmhouse and its master-less owners. It’s surreal walking for so long and the only evidence you encounter of human habitation is their pets. It provided great time for thought and rustic labour. The sun shone proudly even as the air maintained a delicate bite. Our constant companion, apart from surprisingly-fit Giuseppe, were the Apennine in the distance. When we found our way in Salso’s little sibling, Salsominore, we felt like we had stumbled into an Italianate Wild West. Yet even here, the few people we saw hanging around petrol stations wore branded jackets and sunglasses and gesticulated like barristers.
“Just around the corner, and we’re there.” This became Giuseppe’s tortuous motto. The walk went on longer than we had anticipated, we were even worried where he was taking us, and what was around the corner was inevitably another corner. We should have enjoyed it more than we did at the end. It was a stunningly exhausting walk. But when we got back to the hotel we were grateful for the crepuscular peace and quiet. To enjoy nature one needs a broad back. Much like R-deprived Giuseppe.
At night, when silence falls, one begins to ponder. What would the locals be doing now? Whatever it is, it must revolve around food. The thought makes you hungry. You go get an ice-cream from a yoguteria just outside the hotel. Then you go with your friends to a corner café where men old and young are gathered to watch a game of calcio. You have some grappa then grapple with the rest of the night. Take-away. Pizza what else. Up to the room. Some wine too. Then you go back to bed. Not excited not excitable. But calmly satisfied. Like the mountains.
Tomorrow night you go out to the one and only nightclub. Three storeys. One beer, one arm and two legs. Go down into the House section. Lose your friends. Then find them again. Drunk, about to get a lift on a motorino with a group of men. Drag her away and walk back to the hotel, in the dark, fighting all the way, swearing with the names of saints you never knew were canonised. Go back to bed at four in the morning, hash it out, apologise, then go to bed. Next day you have an early start, six a.m. start to go to Firenze.
Say what you will about all the Salsomaggiore’s of the world: if you find them boring, it’s because they find you boring. You could live here. You just could. In comfortably-numb complacency. With the mountains, the astronomical gastronomy, the walks, the classy binges. Leave your R’s at home, you don’t need them to take a wild walk on the sedate side.
“Italy, and the spring and first love all together should suffice to make the gloomiest person happy.” The words of Bertrand Russell echoed in my ears as I stood on my balcony on the last day before going back home. I reflected on the now-gloomy fact that my trip to Salso had been one of my happiest. Also because I had a new, promising relationship waiting for me back home – the first love Russell speaks of. Now, six years later, I can still remember Italy and the spring, and reflect, first love now made into the last love, on the perfect, hedonistic happiness I felt in Salsomaggiore.
Stay tuned for my posts on our many day-trips in the heart of Italy and the poems I wrote whilst in Salso.