Time to say goodbye, Paesi che non ho mai, veduto e vissuto con te, Adesso si, il vivro, con te partiro, su navi per mari che, io lo so, no, no, non esistono piu, it’s time to say goodbye. – Andrea Boccelli
Ciao Bergamo e grazie mille. Molamia, miei amici, stay strong my friends.
It’s time to say goodbye, although on my terms and not Signore Johnson’s.
I have made it my mission to come to Bergamo since the start of the outbreak to find out why the pandemic came here first.
What it was like for the Bergamoschi to live through.
And how they are living today and how they see tomorrow.
Peace to Bergamo
The overriding feeling I have found is one of peace (except for the raucous ragazzi e ragazze outside my window at midnight although this is how the young should be.)
I spend my last afternoon reading the stories on the picture boards in the piazza they are using as a testing centre.
And, of course, nothing tells a story quite like a picture, or a photograph.
I wish mia moglie, the long insufferable (sorry, suffering) Mrs M was here to put her award-winning photo skills to work.
A work of art
I have come too from the Academia Carrera where I have been enjoying Titian, Canaletto and trying out Lotto (no, not the lottery, but the artist.
I have just enough time to treat myself to my Italian guilt pleasure, una ciocolatta di calda densa, a hot chocolate that wants to be a dessert.
Rosh Hashanah, Happy Jewish New Year, and because we want to see off this bloody year, and pray to Yahweh for a better new year, here is when and where all our cultures see out the old and bring in the new.
The Chinese New Year: And sitting down for our annual Chinese New Year celebration with Wendy Wu Tours in Dublin in January at Chai Yo we gave sympathy and Chinese tea (and every food known to man that you can eat with chopsticks) for the plight of the poor people of Wuhan.
Little did we know, of course, that we would be suffering too within weeks. The Year of the Rat should have been a warning.
Next year when it will be celebrated in February will be the Year of the Ox and he is much more our reliable carrier of all our human burdens.
And rest assured I’ll be back in Chai Yo next year with Wendy’s friends, the Two Johns, before hopefully we follow The Son and Heir out to Wuhan’s neighbour Chongqing.
Iran the bells
Nowruz (Iranian New Year): And there is a diary date in my calendar which I can’t bring myself to delete – my trip to Iran which was deferred after the Americans fell out with them again and then this virus came along.
I do hope that when I do get out there it’s in a March when they celebrate Springtime when it coincides with the Northward Equinox.
They trumpet in the day, colour eggs and eat a hearty soup, Ash-e-Reshteh noodle soup.
Sri Lanka is my cup of tea
Sri Lankan New Year: And here we have two Sri Lankan cultures celebrating a date, April 14.
Aluth Avuradda, the Sinhalese New Year, marks the end of the harvest and is one of only two occasions when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka.
You’ll be eating small oil cakes called kavum and plantain dishes.
The Tamils of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka celebrate with new clothes, music, sweets and rice colour kolams (street art).
The Tamil Diaspora too celebrate April 4… so Malaysia, yes, and The Maldives too where one pasty-faced Scotsman once became an honorary member of the staff’s football and cricket teams. Yes, Mr Jim is coming back to Kuramathi.
While if you’re Irish (lucky you) you’ll know about the greatest Sri Lankan-Irishwoman, my old friend Tess De Kretser and her Olcote in Ceylon resort.
Ethiopia will take years off you
Enkutatash, Ethiopia: And this has become a fixture on my calendar in Dublin over recent years thanks to my friends at Ethiopian Airlines.
It, of course, takes years off you, not just the meaty food which you scoop up with your bread, and wine and Ethiopian coffee.
But also because it’s on the Julian Calendar which means that this will take seven years off you.
Scotland, the home of Hogmanay
Scottish Hogmanay: And in the words of the greatest dustman in television soap opera Norman ‘Curly’ Watts who decided the Scots owned New Year.
Well, they do own Hogmanay. And why Hogmanay which is what we call New Year’s Eve.
An early reference to the term is from The Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence as deriving from the Greek word agia mine or ‘holy month’.
More like a hooley though as many libations are taken to keep out the cold.
Which is probably where the tradition of bringing coal, shortbread and whisky with your when you go first-footing, being the first person to cross someone’s threshold (first-footing).
HAPPY NEW YEAR TO WHOEVER YOU ARE AND WHEREVER YOU ARE
They know all about masks in Prague with every Communist schoolchild back in the day put through a daily drill of fixing on a gas one.
And woe betide anyone who didn’t do it quickly enough.
Today’s masks in these COVID days are cloth and less restrictive.
And the revellers at the long table on the King Charles Bridge at its grand reopening in July are lowering them onto their chins.
To help them gulp down their Urquell Pilsner beer.
No country on Earth, not even Scotland, drinks as much proportionately as the Czech Republic (official).
And they even bathe in the stuff… close by in the Original Beer Spa.
Beer is everywhere in Czechland.
Plain-clothes monks produce it and clink glasses on a night out up the hill in Prague’s Castle area.
The superannuated refresh with Pilsner after taking the waters and the treatments in the spa town of Teplice.
And the burghers of Hoptown, Zatec, notch up how many they’ve drunk on their beer mats.
In the Hope Museum next to the Beer Astronomical Clock which is better than the more visited one in Prague.
Here a skeletal figure next to the dials, and Satan himself, mock the teetotal.
They hold a Hop Festival too here in Zatec, eery year where among the competitions is a biggest belly contest.
I’m here to work on mine.
Just as soon as I get out this nuclear bunker.
Have I got nukes for you?
Radoslav had warned us to stick together as we made our way through the myriad dark, dark passageways five stories down in the bowels of Parukarka Hill in Prague.
Where the only company is mannequins in protective suits and gas masks and the ghosts of Communist past.
Here is where 5,000 Czechs would have come to see out the end of days.
Let’s hope that they had plenty supply of Urquell then to wash down all that tinned meat.
The Czechs would, I believe, have prevailed. They are a durable lot, toughened by a lifetime of being fought over by the ‘Great Powers.’
But they’ve always had a Pilsner to pull them through.
I’m only here for the beer
Beer is at the heart of the Czech story, believed to be the oldest in the world, dating back to 993BC at Brevnov Monastery.
For 250 years in fact only monks were allowed to brew beer.
Which you can only imagine they gave up reluctantly.
They certainly haven’t lost the habit judging by the fun they’re having.
At the Strahov Monastery Brewery close to my opening night billet.
You’d be hard pushed though to recognise them as monks as there is barely a tonsure between them.
In the corner, two British girls on a hen night ply a local with shots and for advice on which bar to go to next and there is no shortage of options.
I am happy where I am though, with my waiter guiding me through the beer menu.
As I sup down my beer onion soup and beer goulash with dumplings.
Mild, followed by dark and finished with IPA, is the answer. But I’m not finished there as I’m given a tour of the brewery with samples at every stop.
Thankfully, it’s all downhill home to the Golden Key Hotel were I will sleep in a triple bed under a wooden ceiling with a sauna in the morning.
And wash it all down…
My hosts probably feel that they can’t trust me in Prague’s Beer Spa and that I’d drink all the suds.
So they take me next instead to the spa town of Lazne Teplice which is the last word in massage, saunas, bathing pools and medical practices.
But don’t just take my word for it.
Well do, but the luminaries of yore came here to take the waters.
Among them Beethoven who also sought a cure for his failing hearing…
And you can see the horns displayed in the glass cabinets in the Hotel Beethoven corridor.
While you can also ask to be taken to the room where he stayed, although we didn’t get in.
He may very well still be in there and just not have heard the knocking.
Beethoven, the 200th anniversary of who’s birth it is this year, was clearly well looked after in Teplice.
And he would certainly have feasted on the town’s speciality chocolate cake in the titular cafe.
All of which I’ve been told I must work off next, as the Czechs themselves do, in Bohemian Switzerland.
No, I’ve not taken a wrong turning although I’ve not been myself since that first night in Prague.
Bohemian Switzerland is the park named for the two Swiss climbers who came here in the 19th century and were reminded of their own homeland.
It truly is an enchanted land and got the official stamp of approval.
When the makers of The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe used an arch in the park and set Aslan there.
The Czech Republic is full of surprises and I spend my last night back in Prague which too has many still to reveal.
Two iron figures outside the Franz Kafka Museum, whose waists revolve and who shoot out water onto a map of the Czech Republic.
It is the work of experimental sculptor of David Cerrny and it is believed to represent what the European Union has don to their land.
The Czechs are wonderfully irreverent to their leaders.
Walk around Prague and you’ll see Cerny’s mark everywhere.
Babies in the tower
A man holding an umbrella hanging from a building a Communist Brabant car on leg and Babies Climbing a TV Tower.
You can get up close and personal to the babies in the tower cafe.
But be careful looking out the window because these weans have no nappies on.
Cerny’s statues blend seamlessly with the Medieval ions, King Charles IV, the nation’s patriarch chief among them.
Tourists though are urged toward the statue of St John of Nepomuk, who fell out with King Wenceslas, and, no, not the Good One.
This Wencesclas ordered Archbishop John to be thrown off the bridge when he refused to divulge Weneslas’s wife’s confession.
It’s good luck to touch his statue and make a wish and that wish will be lifted up to the heavens.
Me? I think St John of Nepomuk might just have drunk too many Urquells and fallen off the bridge that way.
Where to stay
Hotel Golden Key: The Castle area of Prague from €70. Reception will help you out with maps and directions for the sprawling and tiring Castle area Also that yourself to a spa and the relaxation room. See Asten Hotels.
Stay in Teplice Spa: Beethoven hotel: Price per person per night in off peak season is €87 – including room, treatment. daily entrance to Thermalium pool and enjoy the water features, sprays, cold baths and spas. Lots of Beethoven features dotted around the walls and you can even see the room where he stayed. And full board.
Enjoy your trip
Trip to Bohemian Switzerland and see the arch from the film of CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. – €120.
Where to eat
Strahov Monastery Brewery in the Prague Castle area. When in Prague do like the Czechs and eat goulash with dumplings, of course. Go for a starter too – onion soup with an infusion of beer. Heck. go the full three course and dig into the apple strudel.
With Ryanair – to Prague if purchased way in advance from €40-€120.