Portraits and landscapes

Mum and I say goodbye twice at the airport in Malta. After our first farewell she checks her baggage, and then circles back to Costa Coffee for another hug. Her flight is hours before mine, so soon necessity, security control and the Duty Free hall separate us again. I sit in the cafe long after I finish my mocha, air conditioning on blast and hits of the ’80s playing on a TV overhead.

I arrive in Madrid not long before midnight, and sleep easily in a cheap hotel room near the airport. The next day I transfer to a hostel in the city centre. My room (shared with half a dozen others) is one of seven or eight in the attic; there’s no sunlight up there, leading people to doze on the futons in the ground level foyer at all hours.

I’m used to having Mum around to chat and bicker with, so the silence of my own company is strange. Walking around Madrid I plug in my iPod, but this shuts me off from the sounds of the city. I find a park bench in Parque del Buen Retiro and listen to an accordionist cycle through the theme from Amelie and a few other songs for an hour or so, chucking him some low denomination coins when I leave.

Most restaurants in Madrid only serve paella to parties of two or more, and I don’t particularly fancy being crammed between tables of tapas-inhaling Spaniards on a busy Saturday night. Belying its location, my hostel is celebrating Oktoberfest with crisps, microwaved sausages and cheap beer. This combination helps me dust off my Meeting New People skills, and I spend the night talking and drinking with tourists from America, France and Northern Ireland. The Irish guys have accents so thick that, even with my years of exposure to (and love for) Nadine Coyle, I occasionally have to smile and nod along rather than ask for a third sentence repetition.

Sunday morning is a bit of a struggle, but after a large breakfast, a nap and a coffee, I’m back on my feet. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza isn’t far from my hostel. I wander through the gallery’s contemporary and medieval sections, leaving my favoured periods to last.  The paintings are all set against apricot walls.

When I reach the gallery’s Classical and Impressionist rooms, I find the depictions of daily, domestic scenes the most absorbing: men conversing, families eating dinner, a woman sitting in a garden. These works bring on thoughts of my own home, and the simple comforts and rituals I miss (tea in bed, cuddles with Milly).

As well as these portraits, though, there are beautiful landscapes: Paris, Marseille, an entire room dedicated to Haussman. I feel a small thrill at my ability to recognise these places from sight and memory. There are Spanish landscapes, too. These aren’t familiar to me yet, but I hope they might become so.

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One wedding and a funeral

Our first swim in Malta: confined by a row of orange buoys in the distance, we dip under lapping waves. There are a few other swimmers, but we’re easily outnumbered by tan-seekers, stretched out on towels across giant slabs of concrete.

Mum and my towels are set back from the water on a wooden bench. We exit the water and sit to dry off, watching the light twinkle on the late afternoon water. Opposite us the sun descends; soon it’ll disappear behind one of the tall apartment buildings that line Balluta Bay.

We climb a set of stairs to reach street level, but are blocked from going any further. People wearing damp swimming costumes and backpacks are crowded on the pavement, facing the large church across the road. The church’s forecourt is also packed with people, all in formal attire. A cream-coloured vintage convertible with a white ribbon strung across its windscreen in a V shape is parked in front of them.

While the two groups wait for the bride and groom to emerge through the church’s open doors, a band of men set about distributing white helium balloons to the wedding guests. Then, they cross the road to share the large surplus of balloons among us, the cossie-clad spectators.

In a corner of the church’s forecourt, a table is loaded with dozens of glasses of champagne. These are passed around to guests, some of whom let their balloons’ strings go prematurely while trying to juggle the champagne flutes with purses and cameras. We spectators don’t face the same challenge.

The doors of the church are open, but the bride and groom are yet to appear. The first of three photographers exits the building, and not long after the bell overhead begins to toll ‘Here Comes The Bride’. The newlyweds — both of them beautiful — exit, the horns of passing vehicles sound, and the helium balloons are released. A few get tangled in overhead power lines, but the remainder fly into the sky.

***

Two days later, Mum and I return to the bay for a morning swim. It’s barely past eight o’clock, but the church’s forecourt is again full of people. This time nearly everyone’s dressed in black.

We pick a spot further around the bay from our previous swims to catch the early sunlight. We warm ourselves for a while, and then slowly sidle into the cool water. At half past eight, the church’s bell rings a repeated pattern: octave, perfect fifth, lower octave.

A few cars pull up in front of the church. A wooden coffin is lifted from one; the white flowers on its lid wobble slightly as the pall bearers mount the steps and enter the church. The mourners follow the coffin inside.

When we’ve dried off, Mum and I stop at a nearby cafe to buy coffee and pastries. It’s nearing nine o’clock now, but latecomers are still power walking along the promenade towards the church. Outside the cafe, the drivers of the funeral fleet sit in the sun drinking espresso. Above us a couple of white helium balloons, not yet fully deflated, are still tangled in the power lines.

Love in Prague

Applause and whooping breaks out on the Charles Bridge. It’s crowded with people, so it takes a few seconds to locate the source of the excitement: a proposal. A couple in the middle of their middle age stand to one side (he’s just risen from bended knee). Passersby, temporarily distracted from the statues that line the bridge, train their eyes on the pair as they kiss.

A layer of sweat glistens on the proposer’s forehead — probably a combination of nerves, embarrassment and the early afternoon sun (he’s bald, without a hat). A pregnant woman behind us with an Australian accent teases her would-be fiancé. “Imagine if you’d been about to propose to me on the bridge!”

***

Early evening on a moored boat, waiting to set off on a river cruise of the city. White tablecloths, a buffet still concealed under cling wrap.

Adjacent to Mum and I there’s a long, unfilled table. Not long before the boat’s due to depart, half a dozen women with loud London voices bustle down the deck and take their seats. Complimentary aperitifs thrown back, the group chides one of its members into a speech. She feigns reluctance, but not for long.

“I’m loving all the prosecco we’ve been drinking!” she starts. “I loved my tofu gnocchi, and I loved the castle this morning! I love that you’re all here to celebrate with me!”

Before the speech has passed into its reflective second act, it’s cut short by louder voices. The boat has just left its mooring, but a late couple now arrive at the riverside, tickets in hand. The guests on board jeer, and the boat returns to pick up the late arrivers.

Later, after a second speech, the English women conspicuously withdraw from their table, leaving only the speechmaker. They walk to the other end of the boat, where a guitarist and vocalist have been busy covering Norah Jones’ first album in its entirety.

A few seconds later, the guitarist strikes up ‘Happy Birthday’. The boat’s guests all sing along, and the birthday girl joins her friends for photos and a complimentary round of champagne. Cockney cackles become louder.

***

The early morning is the best time to see the Charles Bridge. The lighting is great, the beggars and stallholders are yet to arrive, and the tourists are comparatively few. This means that it’s also the best time to stage a wedding photoshoot.

A couple ahead of us, kitted out in full wedding garb, stride slowly down the bridge. They stop periodically to consult their photographer and her assistant. From behind, the bride’s diamond hairclips glitter in the light.

It’s a slick operation. The photographer jumps onto the side of the bridge, leaning into a stone saint to find the perfect angle. As Mum and I pass the couple, the bride is spinning with simulated abandon (and, hopefully, actual joy) at her husband’s side while the photographer clicks away. The bottom of her dress tinged ever-so-slightly with grey, but apart from that everything is perfect.

Single beds and a baby grand

Despite the hours I’ve whiled away watching docos about the royals, I’ve never seen Princess Anne with her hair down before. If I ever have reason to imagine The Princess Royal (a rare occurrence), I picture her on horseback: posture straight, bouffant impenetrable, expression dour.

It’s a surprise, then, to come across a photograph of Liz’s only daughter with her hair loose, and her mouth curved into a relaxed smile. She looks much more like her nieces Beatrice and Eugenie than the matronly figure I’m used to seeing on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.

In the photograph, a young Princess Anne stands at ease on the edge of a row of royals. The group is lined up in the sunshine, on the teak Verandah deck of the Royal Britannia  — the oversized yacht the Windsors holidayed and worked on for much of the last century.

I find the framed image inside the Britannia, which was put to rest in 1997. (The yacht’s decommissioning service is one of very few occasions when the Queen has cried in public — sorry, Diana.) Lining the boat’s walls are many other pictures of royals on deck and off duty. Even the Queen is shown at leisure, laughing with abandon rather than her characteristic politeness.

Though still impressive, the yacht feels less grandiose than any other royal palace I’ve visited. Perhaps this is because of its size — both the Queen and Prince Philip’s respective bedrooms are fitted out with single beds, with the sole double installed by Prince Charles for his first honeymoon (sorry again, Diana). The furnishings, too, are modest by royal standards. The drawing room is like a larger version of my grandparents’ living space, with chintz sofas and glass-panelled cabinets but not an ancestral portrait in sight.

Imitation ephemera furthers the lived-in feel of the boat: an untouched slice of (presumably plastic) cheesecake, dog-eared copies of Country Life, an easel in the sitting room. But from time to time, the illusion of intimacy is broken by an elderly woman whose audioguide is turned up to 11, or a young boy squirming his way out of a sailor’s cap and jacket, much to his mother’s chagrin. Classical music is piped through to certain rooms, poorly simulating the presence of a naval band at a family dinner.

I’m surprised to learn that, when the boat was in use, a single laundry would cater to both royals and staff. For some reason I’d imagined that even aboard a small floating palace, royal collars would be starched separately to naval shirts. My assumption may not have been logical, but then the Britannia houses the usual oddities and excesses that one expects of a royal residence: a room devoted to jelly-making, a baby grand bolted to the drawing room floor.

The Britannia’s curious features also betray its dual usage, for politicking as well as pleasure. Along the bow stands a navel-high wooden partition, formerly used as a windbreak to prevent gusts from lifting royal skirts during official ceremonies. A telephone line connects Her Majesty’s office to that of the her husband, alleviating the couple of the need to cross a carpeted hallway to communicate.

Although I probably know more about the Windsors than about my neighbours, touring the Britannia reinforces how much I don’t and could never understand about the way the family live. The Royal Yacht gives the illusion of normalcy (“they play Scrabble? I play Scrabble!”). Its rooms contain images that, for a family like mine, would simply be called “photos” — but in the case of the Windsors must be prefaced by words like “intimate” and “private”. And it’s only in such images that one would ever expect to see a smiling Princess Anne, sans bouffant.

Le cambriolage (part 2)

The market near my place in Paris runs on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Each Thursday meat and produce vendors hold court, and things are orderly and respectful. Fridays are more boisterous, with the clientele after brand names — everything from cutlery to culottes — at low prices. (Nobody seems to question whether the mounds of Adidas t-shirts on display are real, or how they ended up in the seller’s hands.) Saturdays, though, are something else entirely.

I return to the marketplace the day after the robbery, still a little shaken but determined enjoy my only weekend in Paris. When I reach the square I’m confounded by what’s in front of me. Laid out on large cotton sheets and tarps is a sea of bric-a-brac. Each seller’s collection of objects is presented in no discernible order; half-empty bottles of shampoo are placed next to bright orange, empty Coach boxes, and no square metre is without at least one pair of second-hand shoes.

The market is like a giant trash and treasure meet. Shoppers stand before the sheets, searching for god-knows-what — something valuable or funny or pretty, I guess — amidst all the stuff. The vendors don’t hawk or holler, only approaching customers who’ve clearly found something of interest. Most of the time they sit behind their collections on low plastic stools. A few children sleep on stacked mattresses next to their seated parents, seemingly unaware of the hundreds of people in the vicinity.

I enter the fray. A day’s removal from the robbery has made me calmer, but I still move with caution. Striding over sheets’ corners to avoid crushing headphones and pairs of sunglasses, I swing my canvas bag over my left shoulder to cover my front so that I can be sure of my possessions’ security. My shoulders curve inwards, posture be damned.

There’s a wonderful, bizarre array of stuff being sold. Collectively, the marketplace could represent quite comprehensively the technological evolution of the last 20 years: there are brick phones, early Samsung models, CDs, VHS tapes, a tablet with a cracked screen. A boy in the corner has laid out dozens of Pokemon cards. I wonder whether their value has increased in recent months.

Wandering through the market, I’m stopped by a woman who recognises my bag. She thinks we’ve met before. I tell her she’s mistaken, and that I’m not Parisian, but we get chatting. Sarah’s* niece, it turns out, works for the company where I’ll start next year, and is about to visit their Australian office. This is an odd coincidence, but piques my interest enough for me to accept Sarah’s offer of a coffee around the corner.

Sarah does most of the talking once we sit down. She tells me about her niece’s romantic problems, her own teenage relocation from La Martinique to France, and her son’s burgeoning modelling career (he has a part-time job in a cafe, too). This career path, it seems, runs in the family; Sarah says she posed for Hustler when she was young. Loud and bubbly, she compliments our waitress on her bright blue eyes and fawns over a puppy named Maddy as we leave. I don’t tell her about the robbery.

Before we part ways, Sarah invites me to meet her in the afternoon at another, bigger market with more stuff and better deals. (She needs to run some errands for her mother in the interim, she says.) I wonder if I’m being naive, but I accept anyway.

I pass the following hours ticking off a few items from my ‘when in Paris’ list: a walk up to Montmartre, a quick shuffle through the Sacre Coeur, and a visit to Chateau de Vincennes, with its medieval fortress and towering, near-empty Gothic chapel.

Twenty minutes early for my afternoon rendezvous with Sarah, I duck into the markets she’s recommended to see how they differ from what I’ve seen previously. The most distinctive feature of this market is its size; where this morning I could take in the vista of bric-a-brac with a turn of my head, here the stalls seem to stretch on forever. Shade is provided by tarpaulin awnings, and each stall is dedicated to a single speciality: jeans, shoes, glassware.

I exit the market’s shaded walkway back into the August sunshine, and spot Sarah waiting at the petrol station kerb she appointed as our meeting place. Chatting with a friend, she’s dressed head to toe in black polyester, matched with pink trainers and a straw hat. I arrive and we exchange bisous. Sarah hands me a small bottle of rose concentrate she’s just bought from a stall and tells me to smell it. It’s quite strong.

Bidding her friend goodbye, Sarah steers us away from the main market towards a strip of people down the road, beyond the petrol station. I query our diversion, and Sarah tells me that we’re heading towards les Romains — Gypsies who, she assures me, have the best bargains.

Before we reach the first of les Romains, Sarah briefs me. If I spot anything I would like, she says, I should let her know and she’ll negotiate a good price my behalf — she knows the vendors well.

Sarah certainly acts the part, greeting each seller with familiarity before scrutinising their wares. Occasionally questions are passed around, either from prospective buyer to seller or between a cluster of observers. (“C’est quelle marque, ca? C’est quelle taille?”)

The goods — tangled necklaces, yet more shoes, a hodgepodge of unfolded garments — are collected on smaller versions of the cotton sheets I saw at my local market in morning. The setups are makeshift by necessity; periodically a couple of police sweep down the strip, prompting les Romains to gather the sheets’ corners together and rush further along the street. (These offshoots of the official market are technically illegal.) Each time this happens, customers are left holding whatever they’d been inspecting at the time. They watch the retreats with muted amusement, knowing (as the police do) that the sheets will be relaid in a few minutes.

Sarah and I slowly walk up and down the sidewalk, which is lined with the white caravans that les Romains live in. Sarah buys a purple and blue Hugo Boss tie, and at one point holds up a pair of lacy burgundy underwear several sizes too small and asks me if they suit her. I’m not sure whether she’s joking.

It’s clear that Sarah is a regular here. She’s stopped by fellow shoppers regularly to engage in small talk and discuss the day’s offerings. She introduces me variously as her son’s friend and her niece’s fiancé, telling me that it’s best if people think I’m connected to a regular market-goer.

Each time Sarah encounters a friend or acquaintance they compare purchases. One woman, who Sarah tells me has “l’ceil” (the eye), is particularly proud of her haul. She flicks through photos of recently-acquired jewellery on her iPhone, telling me gleefully that she never visits bricks and mortar stores. A man in his fifties shows us a pair of high quality (if slightly scuffed) brown leather shoes, purchased for an upcoming wedding. At 80€, he’s convinced they’re a bargain.

Standing on the sidewalk, Sarah spots a good friend of hers crossing the road. During her customary show and tell, said friend retrieves from her bag a pair of kitsch, imitation-limestone angels purchased earlier in the day. Sarah asks if she can have one of the small figurines, and her friend immediately hands it over.

When I’m ready to leave, Sarah offers to walk me towards the nearest Métro station. On the way I ask her where les Romains amass their goods from. She tells me that they dig some of the stuff they sell out of tips and rubbish bins, and steal the rest. The irony of this is not lost on me.

We reach the edge of a large roundabout, and Sarah points me towards the station. When we say goodbye she passes me the angel figurine, wishing me good luck and protection on my travels. A talisman like this probably would have been useful a couple of days earlier, I think, but it’s touching nonetheless.

*As in the first part of this piece, all names have been changed (except the dog’s).

Le cambriolage (part 1)

Paris: I’m woken by the sound of my own name and insistent knocking on my bedroom door. In my groggy, semiconscious state, my first thought is that my Airbnb host Cecile* has decided, with good intentions but poor timing, to bring me a cup of tea to start my Friday morning. But no. My mind clicks into gear — I respond to Cecile’s knocking and digest her rapid, agitated French. The house has been robbed.

My insides hollow out. Somehow, I feel simultaneously dazed and shocked into alertness. I descend the house’s wooden staircase to the ground floor, where Cecile and her son Gerard are taking inventory in the living room. Panic renews each time an item’s loss is realised: a camera, a bank card, two microphones.

I stand on the perimeter of the room, feeling like a perverse spectator. There’s a television missing, but otherwise I see no change. A large Mac is still in its place and the paraphernalia that gives any home its character remains in situ: Cecile’s red-gold wigs, quilts in primary and pastel colours, crockery without a cupboard to call home.

Soon, attention turns to me. Gerard leads the questioning, trying to piece together the events leading to the break-in: where was I last night? Did I drink? What, and how much? What time did I get home? Where are my keys?

Of course, I’ve already considered my potential role in the robbery. I’d returned at one o’clock that morning, and struggled to enter the house. This difficulty was nothing new; as Cecile had explained to me upon my arrival in Paris, the front gate’s lock was old and temperamental, often requiring multiple attempts and a gentle, patient hand to be successfully opened. I’d failed to position the key correctly on previous evenings, resorting to jumping the gate rather than waking my host. Cecile had condoned this tactic, allaying me of any concern when jumping again on this particular night.

Having surmounted the first barrier to entry, I’d reached the front door and endured several minutes of key-turning and the sound of a clicking lock without gaining entry. Annoyed, I’d opted for a glass side door, gingerly shifting a trundle bag and a crate full of beer bottles to step over the threshold and shut the door behind me. Success, and sleep.

Now, recounting my protracted entry to Gerard and Cecile, I recognise my naivety. To prioritise my host’s uninterrupted sleep above the security of her house was a mistake; I shouldn’t have jumped the gate. This becomes particularly clear when Gerard’s questions change tack: did anyone follow me home from the station? Was the street empty when I climbed over the gate?

The area, he tells me, is known for crime and robberies. This news brings back that hollow feeling. Amidst the clicking of the front door’s lock, did I inadvertently leave the door unsecured? Was my mistake witnessed, and my jump mimicked? It seems a likely explanation, if not a certain one.

My interrogation is conducted entirely in French. As the conversation unravels at an increasing pace I revert to rough, basic verbs, unable to properly explain myself. I feel (and, I’m sure, sound) stupid.

Recount over, Gerard and Cecile return to their evaluation of the robbery. Gerard throws around swear words (often adjacent to my name) and slams things. At some point I’m dismissed, and I return to my room.

***

It’s nine o’clock when I wake again (unprompted by knocking this time). I sit in bed for a few minutes to collect my thoughts and steel myself for what is unlikely to be a pleasant morning. The hollow feeling persists.

When I go downstairs, the mood in the living room is one of begrudging calm. Cecile and Gerard are sat on the floorboards, documents fanned out around them. They’re collating things for a visit to the local police station: a list of losses, relevant receipts, and a typed sequence of events. They decline my offer to accompany them, but ask me to remain at the house in case my testimony is required. I notice that the television has returned to its cabinet. Some of the stolen goods, it turns out, were abandoned by the robbers on the sidewalk.

I’d felt uncomfortable lingering around Cecile and Gerard and their paper moat in the living room, but following their departure I feel more uncomfortable still in the house by myself. Every creak gives me pause, and silence makes me nervous too. The family’s cat jumps onto the front gate, and I nearly jump out of my chair.

Stoic and terse, Cecile and Gerard return from the police station after an hour or so and gives me a copy of the police report, which is really just a typed version of Cecile’s oral account. There’s talk of insurance claims and excess fees — it’s taken as given that I’ll be forthcoming with a contribution to help cover the losses — and I bluff my way through in French. I give more ground than I should, but I’m outnumbered and far from eloquent.

By midday I’m in need of a change of scenery. On my way out, Gerard walks me to the front of the property to demonstrate how to open the gate correctly. Despite his years of experience, it takes him a couple of attempts to hit the lock’s sweet spot. I’m thoroughly reassured.

I leave Gerard at the gate and make my way to the nearest Métro station. The house is just beyond the periphique that separates Paris’ city centre from the surrounding banlieues, or suburbs. I’d thought nothing of this previously — if anything, I’d been happy to be among everyday Parisians, rather than the tourists that flood the Marais and the Latin Quarter each summer. Now, though, I wish I’d chosen a more conventional, closely surveilled quartier of Paris.

On my walk to the Métro I pass through a local marketplace. A far cry from the artisanal food emporium I visited daily in Florence, or the boutique stalls that sell jewellery and overpriced knickknacks in Kreuzberg, this market is decidedly grey. Cans of deodorant and piles of cheap, knock-off clothing are displayed under a large pergola, with their prices printed on laminated pink and yellow paper. Hollers of “un euro, un euro!” emanate from all sides.

Usually I’m fine in crowds, but today the concentration of people sets me on edge (or, rather, holds me at the edge I’ve been set on for the last several hours). I can’t help but wonder if one of the sellers, buyers or passers-by might be connected to the robbery. Descending to the Métro brings relief.

When evening comes I make my way back to the house, soothed by Monet’s Waterlilies and a few barefoot hours in the Jardin des Tuileries. The market’s stalls are being dismantled for the day, with folds of cardboard and other waste collecting on asphalt corners.

Even after Gerard’s tutelage, it takes me three minutes of twisting and turning to open the front gate. As I struggle with the lock I can make out some figures about 100 metres to my right, at the street’s end. They look like bored, harmless teenagers, but their presence makes me nervous all the same. Once inside, I draw the curtains and avoid silence until I go to sleep.

*I’ve changed all the names in this piece — despite what my actions may suggest, I’m not a complete idiot.

The world’s longest portico

When it comes to sunburn, Bologna is a low-risk city. Elsewhere in Italy it’s easy to get burnt queuing outdoors or walking around cities, as I have learned (and then forgotten, and then re-learned) on several occasions. In Bologna, though, the burn never comes. The city’s streets are lined with intersecting, vaulted porticos, meaning that inadvertent sun exposure is low and sunscreen unnecessary.

Bologna’s most famous stretch of portico — and the longest in the world — is the San Luca walk, which reaches out beyond the city and up, up, up to an enormous red church called the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. Once each year, a shrine to the Madonna is carried from the Sanctuary down into Bologna and paraded around, before being returned to its seat. The San Luca portico was built to protect the Madonna from the elements during this procession, but serves a secondary purpose of (hopefully) reducing instances of melanomas suffered by visiting tourists.

I take to the San Luca walk on my last day in Bologna, keen to sweat out the mist of a hangover. Upon arrival at the base of the incline, I encounter a man who has completed his descent and is using a railing to do push-ups. He’s drenched in sweat; my goal seems thoroughly achievable.

This man, it turns out, is one of many locals who use the portico as an outdoor gym. Most jog past me and out of sight in ones and twos. Some stop periodically to jump, squat and curl using stairs, railings and benches. Only the metal bars that hang below each vault go unused; they’re a little high for chin-ups.

I ascend the portico slowly. It’s about midday, and my perception of the heat is heightened by the physical activity going on around me, the dusty red colour of the portico itself, and the chirping of a thousand cicadas. I’ve come equipped with an oversized water bottle, which I drink from at regular intervals.

Although the portico is effectively the same arch repeated hundreds of times, the structure offers plenty of visual stimulation. Geometric shadows cast by each arch and column run into the distance with beautiful uniformity. Each metre or so of wall hosts a marble plaque in memorial of a local; these span more than two centuries. In addition to formal dedications, there are typical, adoring scrawls: Robby + Robby = Amore, Marti ti Amo!. There’s stencilled red graffiti, too; BO12, which I assume is the name of some harmless gang of local youths, is stamped up and down the portico. In some sections the brick beneath the portico’s russet surface is exposed, and in others there are faded coats of arms.

Alcoves housing shrines are dotted throughout the walk, decorated with frescoes depicting various saints’ greatest hits. Grilles separate these shrines from passers-by, but flowers that look far too perky given the heat and humidity stand erect to indicate some form of ongoing dedication (or, at least, a church budget for polyester petals).

As I reach the final climb to the Sanctuary, the incline becomes stepped. It curves in places; I keep thinking I’m nearly at the summit, only to round a corner and be met with hundreds more metres of portico. By now sweat is dripping from my temples and my backpack is clinging to me. The arches are numbered in ascending order, and I measure my progress accordingly. By the time I finish the walk my attention has waned, and I forget to check how many arches there are in total. When I investigate online afterwards, I learn that there are 666.

It’s just gone 12.30 when I pass the final arch. I haven’t timed my arrival well — as with many tourist attractions, shops and other amenities of use and interest in northern Italy, the Sanctuary closes for a couple of hours in the middle of the day. This is something of an anticlimax; now, rather than being able to take in a view from the church back towards Bologna’s porticoed old town, I can only enjoy the suburban sprawl to my right.

Still, at least I’m in good company here. The local joggers pause only briefly at the summit before descending, leaving a more sedentary crowd to hang about. A trio of nuns dressed entirely in white sit in the shade cast by the portico, fielding enquiries from tourists about their inability to access the Sanctuary. Some of said tourists carry full-sized, intrepid traveller backpacks — a feat I can barely comprehend in this heat.

Even with the Sanctuary closed, I feel gratified to have reached the top. My hangover mist has well and truly dissipated, there’s a free-flowing bubbler that I happily make use of, and, of course, I’m not sunburnt. I’ll take my blessings where I can.