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SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 1927
ITALY AS I FIND HER
By Kennedy Allen
A journey I shall always remember with pleasure is that which, for me, ended a few days ago at Nice. After the winter-garment of Milan, of Pavia, and of Turin it had been a sheer delight to gaze upon the blue Mediterranean from the heights behind Genoa, from which the only snow visible was the unsullied white mantle of the Maritime Alps away to the west; and fortunately, when the train drew out of the station at noon, the city was resplendent with sunlight.
The single-track railway skirts the western shore of that historic gulf to which Genoa has given its name. To Italians this coast is know as the Western Riviera ; but, for the rest of the world, Observation, with a more extensive view, shows the term to be misleading. Conterminous France , too, has a riviera, which she calls the Azure Coast , the littoral of romantic Provence , celebrated in a lyric of Verdi's ever-green opera, “La Traviata”. What then, is the Riviera ? It is the narrow coastal fringe that extends from Marseilles , in the west, to Spezia, in the east, or, as others will have it, from Marseilles to Leghorn . English folk, in summary fashion, divide it into the French and the Italian riviera. In general, however, the geographical features are similar – that is to say hills, more or less sparsely timbered and intersected with ravines, sloping down to the sea and terminating here and there in a sterile promontory: strips of shingly beach, slightly inclined; and an occasional rocky islet, at no great distance from the shore. While Northern Europe lies in the inexorable grip of winter, this region enjoys a seasonal mildness comparable to that of Emu Park and Yeppoon in the middle of August. Consequently those fortunate people who need, or merely want, an enjoyable holiday at the seaside, and are able to command it, seek out one point or another there.
The panorama that unfolded itself as we sped on our way was full of interest and full of charm. On our left extended the sapphire plain of the Mediterranean , sparkling in the unclouded light of the afternoon sun, and forming, away to the limit of vision in the East, a sharply-defined edge that seemed to cut the sky. A few paces from the pebbled shore a Lilliputian wave swirled rhythmically, foaming impotently without ever advancing beyond its performances. Here and there a slow and silent stream that had meandered down from the hills traversed the strand and lent itself to the linen-washing of the women and girls of some Italian village or other. Here and there, again, a row of fishermen and their wives were hauling a net to the land; but except for a rowing boat at long intervals the classic waters were almost deserted.
Our way was studded with tunnels. The first set, unlike most tunnels, was odourless, for the reason that during the first 80 minutes the train, like nearly all the railway trains of Piedmont and many in Liguria , was driven electrically. At Savona , the largest town on this coast, with a population of about 70,000, we had recourse, as we soon discovered, to locomotive and tender.
There, as at all the principal railway stations of Italy, buffets on wheels ministered to the needs of hungry travellers, who preferred to eat a meal at their leisure in their own carriage instead of during the momentary halt in the dining room. For about 10 liras (about 1s 8d) I obtained a little hamper of good things in a neat paper container. Here is the inventory: A small bottle of palatable red wine, a paper cup, two rolls of bread, a large round of thinly-sliced sausage, a quarter of roast fowl, a portion of sweet cheese, a sweet and juicy orange – and two little toothpicks. Although, in my opinion, Italy could learn something from the Railway Department of Queensland in the way of facilities for public information, I think the Italian hamper better value for the money than anything we have yet accomplished – even without the toothpicks.
At Finalmarina, which we reached a few minutes after 2 o'clock, I was delighted to see embellishing the railway station a tree laden with bright golden oranges; for by this sign I knew that we had passed out of the reach of Winter's icy fang. Not less delightful was the sight of the eucalyptus trees, which from this point began to dot the wayside, but I was sorry to learn, as I did from an agreeable Italian fellow-passenger, that “those green-robed senators of might woods” are popularly known there as Chinese trees. What an insult to White Australia! A little more than an hour later, at Oneglia, another familiar member of the vegetable kingdom greet me. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Certainly not. It was a cluster of prickly pear, which is cultivated in various parts of the Riviera as a thing of beauty and a joy for ever. Let me add that Italians do not hate or despitefully use this aggressive plant, even in remote Calabria . In Rome and in Milan I saw its fruit, yellow-skinned and about as large as a duck's egg, sold in the streets; it is known as the Indian fig. I bought one in the Eternal City and found it agreeable. No enumeration of tropical plants growing in the Riviera would be complete without the palm and the aloe, which both flourish anywhere along the coast from Genoa to Nice, and most loved of all, the wattle, or, as it is called in France, mimosa.
The Riviera is, in fact, one of the gardens of Italy . On either side of the line, a few miles from Genoa all the way to the frontier, almost every utilisable patch of ground exhibited cultivation, at first of citrus fruits and vegetables and then , as we approached the frontier itself, of flowers. The vegetables included lettuce, cauliflowers, artichokes and asparagus; the flowers, roses and carnations. These carnations have an international reputation, both for size and beauty. Every day a train leaves Ventimiglia, the border town, for Constantinople, with eight or ten trucks full of flowers, for distribution in the Balkan Peninsula . AT San Remo – a town within half an hour of France , with a permanent population of about 25,000, and floating population of English and Germans of about the same number in the winter – the flower market, which opens at 7 o'clock each morning, is a horticulturists' paradise.
Towards 5 o'clock (Central European time – that of France is about an hour behind) the Italian section of the journey came to an end. After a scramble with porters, a set of customs officials, and two sets of passport-scrutineers, I found myself at length comfortably installed in a French train. When it began to move, sweet, France , while I had “loved long since and lost awhile”, proceeded to display the glories of the seascapes immortalised by the flawless prose of Guy de Maupassant in “Sur l'eau” (Afloat). Menton, embowered in palms; Monte Carlo, clustered at the base of a mountain; Monaco, perched on a beetling promontory – these, with dainty little towns intervening, we soon left behind; and the electric lights were twinkling from the rocks in the placid Mediterranean long before (about 5.30 pm, French time) I stepped down to the railway platform at Nice.
Perhaps some of my readers may wonder why I have included Nice under my usual heading. Well, until about 67 years ago, the town belonged to Italy, that is to say to the Kingdom of Sardinia, which presented it to Napoleon the Third in 1860 in part recompense for his aid in defeating the Austrian at Magenta and Solferino in 1859. To-day, although it has a permanent population of about 200,000, nearly everyone there speaks Italian; the majority speak French as well. The principal statue and the most characteristic square are those in honour of Garibaldi, one of the makes of modern Italy , who was born in Nice.
The floating population numbers about 50,000. Although I did not notice any Parthians or Medes or Elamites, the large dining room of my hotel contained a representative selection of foreigners. A Frenchman, whose seat was next to mine, was good enough to instruct me. In front of me were two Dutch ladies, on my left two Portuguese women (one of them remarkably ugly), on my right two English couples. Between the end windows on the extreme right sat a young Chinese doctoress of medicine, a lonely, but interesting wall-flower. “She eats like a bird”, remarked my companion; :she has tiny feet, and tiny wrists as thick as my fingers.” He had evidently studied her. Perhaps to vary Kipling a little, one might say:
“She's little, but she's wise;
She's a terror for her size.”
Besides these there were, I believe, some visitors from Czecho-Slovakia. The prettiest and most attractive girl in the room was a Spaniard in the first bloom of womanhood, one of a family group of about half-a-dozen. Even the Italian women, who rank among the most beautiful, believe that the Spaniards surpass them in loveliness.
Anyone who could not be happy in Nice must be afflicted with some incurable distemper. Oliver Goldsmith who knew the greater part of civilised Europe, as only a pedestrian could know it, was right when he spoke of France as the “Gay sprightly land of mirth and social ease.” What tongue could declare the delights of French cooking? For an inclusive charge of 50 francs a day (about 8s 3d)I fare more sumptuously than the rich man in the parable, and had more comfort than the squatters enjoy in the most expensive hotel in Brisbane. The French are at the apex of civilisation, and the rest of the world tries to imitate them.
One thing Nice lacks. Its beach, which is about as wide as East-street, Rockhampton, is composed of rough shingle; in fact, it looks like the dry bed of a Queensland watercourse in a pitiless drought. For a promenade it is impossibly rough. I mentioned the matter to my acquaintance. “Ah,” he said, “if we had a beach of sand the population of Nice would double itself immediately.” The only sandy beach, indeed, between Genoa and Nice is, I believe, at Alassio, an English winter-resort on the Italian coast. It has a length of about two miles and a maximum width of about 100 metres.
A FOOTNOTE TO HISTORY
“Tell me, were you ever at a
Duller place than Parramatta ?”
So wrote an Australian man of letters, Mr Abbott, of New South Wales , if I remember correctly. Well, in reply, I could say: “Yes, I have.” The name of that place is Monte Carlo . I spent a tiresome afternoon there. People who have not seen Italy admire the architecture of the Casino, the building consecrated to the cult of the God of Chance. Its marble halls are certainly spacious and imposing, but the dominant note of the decorative work is a gilded glitter rather than a classical repose. However, that concerns a very few of those who frequent it.
The games I saw in progress were roulette and trente-et-quarante, both games of pure chance; baccarat is played there, too, with certain formalities – among them evening dress – regulating admission to the tables. In the first of these the distribution of the prize money depends upon the spin of a wheel, that symbol of inconstant Fortune; and of the 36 numbers the bank pays on all except one. The second is not so simple; here success is determined by a varying number of playing cards turned up by the official in charge of the table. The minimum stake is 10 francs, equal to about 1s 7d at the present rate of exchange, which amount is also the price of a ticket of admission to the Casino, but the staking is effected by means of disk counters sold at the cash desk in each hall. Both roulette and trente-et-quarante are illegal in France and in Italy, otherwise Monte Carlo 's occupation would be gone.
The play was as interesting as the players. Many of these were English-women, well stricken in years and heavily bespectacled. Their perseverance in staking was more pronounced than their taste in headgear. Evidently their menfolk are devoid of that critical faculty with which Nature endows Australians, to say nothing of the clever milliners of Rockhampton, who would never allow even their richest customers to go abroad so attired.
As there seemed to be not even the remotest prospect of a suicide, I quitted the marble halls to inspect the trim little gardens that adorn the great square in front and to study the jewel-like seascape from the heights at the back. The green banks of the grass plots proved more refreshing than the green cloth tops of the gaming tables, and the exotic trees growing in the open air more interesting than the exotic human beings within doors. Perhaps the Prince of Monaco designed this botanical collection to make his revenue-producing visitors feel at home in his toy dominion. Among the trees I noticed a viburnum, representing North America; a palm, Mexico; a Mitrosideros, Australia ; and a casuarina, New Caledonia . Besides these were an aralia, a cactus, a canna (Indian shot), and a pepperina, representing the tropics in general; and, though last, not least, a variety of cycad, which, when Central Queensland becomes an autonomous State, will served to represent the district of Tangamull.
The other organised amusements besides gaming were chiefly these: A cinematograph entertainment, apparently, to judge from the poster, of foreign source, that is to say, American or English; a classical concert arranged and conducted by Sir Landon Ronald, of the Albert Hall, London; and a pigeon match, with a prize of 20,000 francs. If the least of these proved duller than the casino it must have been poor indeed. To visit Monte Carlo is to rob yourself of another of those illusions which collectively constitute life, “for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”. I have seen more excitement, as well as more good fellowship, at a church bazaar in Rockhampton.
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