Bella Italia

We’d been touring the Iberian peninsula for approximately six weeks but now we needed to divert to Italy on family business. We waved goodbye to the faithful beast in a long stay carpark in Lisbon, left the surf and skateboards piled on the roof, bikes dangling from the back, and we floated away feeling noticeably lighter without the weight of all our possessions and paraphernalia.

Arriving in Italia doesn’t quite feel like a homecoming, but after twenty five years of annual visits it certainly feels like greeting an old friend. A loud and emotional old friend, who has aged well on the whole, but dresses slightly too flamboyantly for her years. We arrived in Rome airport, having gained some extra load which we intend to distribute to our hosts – fine Portuguese wine, chocolate, soaps – and a picnic for the train. It is busy as hell there. We haven’t seen such crowds in ages, since the distant pre-covid era in fact, and we feel disoriented; village folk in the big city.

“Careful with your bags” I tell the kids sternly. Then I promptly drop the bag that I am carrying and hear the unmistakeable crunch of glass breaking. It is a sealed-up clear plastic bag from Duty Free and it fills quickly with wine. I have a surreal moment in the middle of Arrivals Hall, unsure what to do, dumbly holding a bag full of red liquid with chocolates and soaps floating darkly inside, like I’ve won a prize at the carnival but the goldfish have been massacred. Then it starts leaking and I have to run a long distance to find bins.
“See!” I tell the kids bitterly. “Be careful with your bags.”

We arrive at Martin and Giordana’s house empty-handed, but they don’t seem to mind.  They look after us, give us drinks, pretend we don’t smell, take us out to promenade the waterfront, proud of their picturesque home. We watch the sunset together and eat a long indulgent dinner in the medieval old town.  A breeze lifts away the heat of the day and Lago di Bracciano shines darkly beneath us, the gold lights of the city dancing silently away to drown in the distance. 

Menna and whisper to each other next morning that this sure beats travelling, but then we feel guilty because travelling is the life that we have chosen, because that is who we are, which is to say we’re adventurers right? And yes, it’s nice sleeping on real beds and chatting with real adults who are also our friends, but we chose to leave this easy existence behind, dammit, and seek out a path less travelled. Ours is a wilder, simpler life, under canvas, alone in the coastal wilds. Then we swim in the lake, hire kayaks, have ice creams, drink Aperol Spritz on the terrace, eat a five course barbecue, talk until the early hours. And next morning we don’t want to leave.

But leave we do, and we arrive at the train station exactly four minutes before the train departs.  In the haste I buy the wrong tickets, so that when we get our connection from Rome to Pisa, we are the only ones on the train who don’t have reserved seats and the conductor has to frown and explains our error at length, loudly and theatrically.

“You see this!” holds our ticket up for the carriage to see, “This is just a regional ticket. For the slow trains” looks of pity and disgust. “We are the intercity! We are the fast train. You need a premium ticket!”. He smiles and charges us an extra €80 which makes the whole public transport option suddenly much less economic than the car rental which we have rejected.

So we arrive back into the bosom of the Nicholl family some hours later, sleep-deprived, poor and somewhat hungover (adults) and with a surfeit of pent-up energy (kids). Which is how you should arrive back at the family home, because if your parents can’t look after you when you’re a tired and emotional 43 year-old with a grizzled beard and exuberant ear-hair, then who can?

The family have been convened for Dad’s seventieth birthday celebration and this happens next day. Picture him now, presiding over fourteen excited family members, at a long outdoor table in a restaurant where wisteria and vines are tangle on the walls, the wine bottles are never empty and the only thing that can silence the babble, for a moment at least, is a vast tray of pasta with bechamel, thyme and dark sticky ragù that is the famous tordelli alla Lucchesi. There is incessant chatter, some crying, certainly laughing, shouting, swapping chairs, loud toasts and babies wailing. By the end of the meal we have shining foreheads and half eyes, lips glazed with red wine, coffee, tiramisù or limoncello. Che si mangia bene! We spill out and take the celebrations along the the dusty roads of Lucca, up the winding hillside path, through the terraces and back to the house, where energy and emotions ebb and flow through the evening. There is a video compilation of sentimental birthday messages that my sister has edited together; there are presents, Prosecco and cake. It is the first time the family has got together this year and it seems that pretty much everyone cries at some point during the day. Italia has joined the party I see, and white teeth flashing, she moves through us all, dancing, smiling, mascara running, invisible in her catsuit.

Then over the next week we fall into a familiar easy rhythm. We get up late and run, walk, explore, read, lie around, eat huge lunches, swim. I argue lazily with my siblings. It is hot. We get a bagno at the beach and eat antipasti di mare at our traditional restaurant together with the cold fizzy Verduzzo wine that we always drink. We close the shutters to keep the house cool. We have dinner late and play loud games even later. I am sure I see a kingfisher on a morning run! We have apperativi and pizza in town. We see old family friends. We head for the canyons and ravines of the Garfagnana to escape the heat and swim in cold mountain water. We rent bikes and go for the customary cycle ride around the walls of Lucca, playing, I think, the same reggae soundtrack on our portable speaker that we played on the same trip this time last year.

After ten days we start to hear the call of the road again. We are fatter, well-rested and ready for anything. It is good to balance things out and indulge ourselves once in a while. The best thing about coming home to roost, we say to each other, is that after a while you feel ready to spread your wings once again and take on the world.

Somewhere in Portugal the waves are waiting.

Barnacles

We celebrated the end of our time in Salinas with a dinner out. We’d tried hard to stay on budget during our week there, making picnics for the beach, eating fish from the market, revelling in having our own kitchen. Now it was time to live a little. Salinas hadn’t shown much promise in terms of restaurants but we weren’t fussy.

Menna chose us a place that had been recommended by nervous Maite, our AirBnB host. El Real Balneario de Salinas, at the end of the boardwalk, beautifully situated right on the sea front.

As soon as we walk in I realise we have misjudged this. Dim lighting, lush carpets, a expensive bronze statue of a lobster uplit on a mahogany coffee table. A small crowd of waiters coalesces around us and we are greeted in warm but hushed tones, Arthur’s skateboard is whisked away, we are ushered to our seats, two glasses of champagne materialise. I didn’t think that Salinas had this kind of restaurant.

Luckily we’re ‘dressed up’ which means that Arthur isn’t bare chested and I have a crumpled shirt on. We are in flip-flops though and our feet are sandy from the beach. Matilda wears her new skirt from the market which is several sizes too big and is gathered in with a belt, her hair is wild and her eyes flash danger. I myself haven’t had a haircut since lockdown started and I’ve given up trimming my beard too. More than this, I have been cultivating some spectacular ear hair which has already been attracting a lot of admiration around Salinas. I see the waiter clock it, his eyebrows raise a quarter inch before he can compose himself.

We are like a family of mariachi gypsies who have left their wooden caravan to sign a reality tv contract with Simon Cowell. Only he hasn’t shown up.

We haven’t been in a restaurant together since the day before lockdown was announced in the UK – some five months ago – and it appears that that all sense of dining etiquette has left our kids. They run between tables of murmuring businessmen and Spanish aristocracy, shouting random observations back at us. They find a tank of lobsters and crabs at the back of the room and immediately start trying to touch them, then fish them out. I go over to tell them off but somehow get sucked into the game.

Our waiter weaves a passionate story about the specials. We nod encouragingly and smile, understanding little of the shellfish terminology. He’s very keen to make his point though, so he repeats it in English.
“The chef recommends the percebes, they are very fine this year. Very special indeed.” Seeing our confusion, “I think in English, you call them barnacles.”
Barnacles? Surely not. Clams maybe. Whelks even. We check Google and they are indeed barnacles. I still have a delicate stomach and this doesn’t appeal.
“I think we’ll share some of the jamón and perhaps a plate of the croquetas to start thanks my man.”
“But the barnacles are truly very special and it is a typical plate of the region. Perhaps I might suggest just a half portion to share.”
We get a half portion of barnacles to share.

By the time the starters arrive the kids have wolfed down two baskets of fine bread rolls and aren’t really hungry any more. This is a shame, as we have now been served a large platter of very expensive acorn-fed smoked pig and a silver plate where 12 golden croquettes nestle invitingly upon a delicate floral arrangement.

Then the barnacles arrive.

I was expecting some little innocuous round shells, of the type that cling to rocks or boat keels, but that is not what we got. The Gooseneck Barnacle (Pollicipes pollicipes) is a dark, crusted tentacle topped with a white shell claw, and it looks much like a gnarled old witches’ finger. I pick one up and play with it for a while, totally at a loss what to do. A waiter appears at my elbow, smiling indulgently, and gives us a short lesson on how to cut, twist, break and suck out the interior worm of mollusc that is hidden within each hairy warted tube. We find out too late that they squirt out a salty emission when you breach them. I get a jet in my face, Menna’s dress is soon covered with a fine spray of barnacle juice, the table cloth is a mess. We make such a hash of it in fact, that a new waiter appears ten minutes later to give us another tutorial. I think they were all watching us from behind a two way mirror. The barnacles are nice in a salty kind of way, but we give up on them before the plate is finished.

The meal was long and varied, the service attentive, the cuisine fantastic. We had way over-ordered and as I suffer from a compulsion which means I cannot bear to leave food on the table (except eggs and barnacles), I eat an extraordinary amount that night. Monkfish parcels, hake meunière, melting tenderloin steaks, strange amuse-bouches, strawberry millefueille with almond ice cream fondant.

The bill when it came was roughly equivalent to our entire living budget for two weeks. I was pleased to note that the half portion of barnacles was the highlight, coming in at a sweet €100. I speculated to the waiter that the grease spots on Menna’s dress were probably worth a euro each.

We strolled home along the beach under a beautiful sunset. Menna and I argued all the way.

The postscript to this story is that gooseneck barnacles suddenly began to permeate our lives. A barnacle necklace would catch our eye in a boutique window as we strolled past, we would see graffiti on an ally wall, stumble across an Instagram hashtag, even, most gallingly, find whole clusters of them flourishing wild (and free!) on the rocks by the sea. I was tempted to gather a bunch and go sell them back to the restaurant.

Billions of bilious blue blistering barnacles!

Captain Haddock