Me and my camels

A while ago I had written about the "possibility" I've had to relocate to a camel farm in Turkey. At that time, I rejected the proposal, and now I understand the only reason I had done it was because I had never seen a camel. Live, at least.

During my latest trip to Middle East, I went on a Safari in Abu Dhabi desert, and one of the stops was at a camel farm. And there the epiphany: I love camels. They are discreet, sweet and shy. So shy that when I got close to the first one, he run away.
I took another chance, and it was mutual friendship. I started feeding them, that's why maybe they gave me the benefit of the doubt. I was thrilled, I forgot my camera somewhere in the farm, I wasn't even thinking about taking photos of the camels. In a nutshell, I forgot anything "modern", I thought perfectly normal of moving there and living in a tent. I was mesmerised.

"Ships of the desert", camels are part of the charm that desert lands evoke. Their being the undisputed stars of such timeless beauty, their role as constant travel companions to fascinating nomad tribes, Bedouins and Tuaregs, and their being a symbol of wealth and so loyal to their owners, inevitably play a strong role in tickling such a foreign curiosity.
It was a real wrench to tear myself from these sights, and from the very moment of our departure I've started picturing my next "camel-oriented" excursion. Mongolia?

In Gordes, on the edge of a cliff

Italian sculptor and painter Michelangelo, whose name is behind the worldwide famous Pietà and the Sistine Chapel, used to say, with a burst of modesty, that his sculptures were not really his merit, but that they were already inside the blocks of marbles and his duty was merely to bring them out.

When I saw Gordes arriving from the little country lane studded with tourists armed with the best cameras on the market, Michelangelo's quote was the first thing that crossed my mind. This charming town in the heart of Provence seems carved out of a hill and dangerously perched on its edge.

Like the other villages of this area, also in Gordes is a thriving activity of local markets and cultural events, but if visitors don't feel like shopping or attending whatever event, the town is worth a visit even only for the landscape from both inside and outside its walls.

Here a few shots

Craft and tradition in Sardinia, the wooden angels of Ignazio Mura

Not far from my hometown lies the sunny city of Oristano, in central Sardinia. The town and its neighbouring villages (like pretty much the whole island) abound with artisans and little known crafts.

Yesterday I was ambling about Oristano, enjoying the first springtime sun, and ended up in a tiny, messy, quirky workshop. I couldn't restrain myself from entering, and this is how I met Ignazio, the owner and undisputed king of that wooden realm.

With the company of two black cats, Ignazio spends his days carving lithesome figures out of tree trunks. "This is an angel taking out a soul from purgatory," he told me while carrying on with his latest work. All I can see around me is wooden sculptures recalling the typical Sardinian stone art, wistful faces similar to the Mamuthones masks I had seen in Mamoiada.

"Do you do exhibitions?" I ask him, to realise only later how naive my question is.
"I'd love to," he replies with a bittersweet smile. It seems like it's the question he's waiting for. "I used to participate in collective exhibitions," he starts telling. "In the Aragonese Tower of Torregrande, in Oristano's beach."

I know the place, tourist-packed in summer time, beautiful surrounding, the best spot for an art exhibition. I feel I've been away from home for too long and somehow lost touch with the news that concern my once small world. So I keep provoking him: "And what happened? Why do you not do it anymore?"

"Well," he keeps on, "the Tower has been privatised, and all public exhibitions ended. It's such a shame, people loved them, and my sculptures were at the very end of the stairs, the best display corner. I've even asked the council if they had some place I could use, and you can see how it ended: I don't even have electricity here."

Ignazio works only until the sun shines, during the summer he's quite lucky, but winter time it's tough: he underwent eye surgery so now he must be careful and avoid working if lighting is not good. He has overcome a three-month coma ten years ago, and since then he's been working as a wood artisan.

Throughout our little conversation he hasn't stopped working and studying the shape peeping out of the wood, and while I watch him, I keep thinking that my hopes that the waves of privatisation hadn't reach Sardinian inland villages are slowly slipping away.

Always more things are being marketed, always less activities for human edification are being carried out for the pure sake of doing it.

It's getting late, I have to leave, I congratulate him once again for the great job he's doing. "I don't know," he smiles. "They say it's art."

"It is art," I reply, with the promise to come back before I leave Sardinia in July.

Getting lost in a dolls' house in l'Isle sur la Sorgue

When I saw the sign leading to the entrance of the doll house, downtown picturesque l'Isle sur la Sorgue, in Provence, it didn't quite occur to me that I was going to visit it. I'm just not that "into dolls", I tried to explain to my aunt who, on the other hand, seemed very excited about it. "Come on, we're grown-ups!" I argued, trying in vain to talk her out of what it looked like a waste of our time.

I should have known better that when my aunt has something in mind, there's nothing anybody can do to stop her. She's my mother's sister, after all.

As soon as we crossed the threshold between modern world and that yesteryear playground, I became aware it wasn't going to be a children leisure activity and I wasn't going to be faced with Barbie & Co.. The lady welcoming the museum's visitors seemed to have spent all her life among her dolls, I'm sure she intimately knew them. She gave us our tickets and introduced us to her fancy world: "You can start from here," she said, pointing the entrance of the main hall. "If the glass is a problem for your pictures, I can open the display cabinets."

We motioned forward and we glanced at each other. We didn't say anything, but we both thought: "Are we sure these were aimed at little girls?"

The dolls I was photographing looked unnervingly like real children, everything about them looked real: their eyes, their teeth (yes, we could see their teeth), their hair. We felt like they were looking at us, that if it was quiet enough we could hear them whisper.

In the first hall, the doll that most impressed me was lying on her bed, I think she belonged to a rich family, but she looked pretty much like a little dead body to me. Although the old-fashioned playground was already rather creepy, only as we moved forward things started being seriously scary.

There was a narrow area crammed with dolls of every size, colour, feature, facial expression. Some looked bored, others annoyed by the too many strangers, others just giving us a blank glance. "Oh, ça serait la nursery!" it was pointed out to us. We weren't actually allowed in the nursery (not that we wanted to), we could only look from the adjacent room, the one housing the "fashion-dolls".

The lady apparently liked us (or saw us quite lost) and decided to abandon her usual position at the entrance to follow our wandering through toyland. "These are very pretty," she explained pointing at the fashion-dolls, "and also their dresses are quite precious because they served as models for tailors and fashion designers of their time." Nonetheless.

We thought we had seen everything, until we entered the last room. At the very back, near the radiator and behind a small sofa, almost hidden away from her peers, the creepiest doll was standing seemingly ready to escape. She seemed she had just stopped bleeding, her white dress looked old and worn-out. "Gosh," I thought. "Has she fought the French Revolution?" My thoughts were diverted by my aunt's chuckle: "Doesn't she look like the doll killer of that famous horror movie??" Oh my, Child's Play.

With the hope not to have nightmares when sleeping, we proceeded towards the end of our journey. After having thanked the lady for being at our disposal, my aunt told her with a hint of mystery: "I could never stay here overnight..." "Really??" she retorted innocently, "many people have told me that, I don't understand why!"

We left the lady with her dolls and we got back to the modern world, wondering if the picturesque town was holding more surprises.

In Provence, wandering the streets of a ghost town

On my way down the Luberon mount, a stone's throw away from stunning Gordes, my attention was captured by a modest sign pointing towards a tiny entrance: I was accessing the mysteries of Village des Bories.

It all looked quite familiar, actually, since I'm used to Sardinia, which is dotted with stone towers dating back to nuragic times. In Sardinia they are called "nuraghi", and the stones are not glued one another, but simply leant against each other, and have managed to hold this way for some 3,000 years. The bories, compared to the nuraghi, are made with smaller and sharper stones. Their aspect is as austere as Sardinian bronze-age towers, and while I strolled about what seemed like a ghost village I had the impression to be stepping back in a remote time.

The different stone huts have different purposes: they can be houses, caves, sheep-pens, or just different working areas. Journeying through the village is a little like journeying across Provence history and the evolution of its working tools and dwelling habits.

A stroll around this otherworldly place is very fascinating as the village is kept in its original settings, making it easier for us to imagine the daily life of these huts dwellers who, judging from the way they built their village and the fact that their houses are still there despite passing centuries and different weather conditions, were definitely quite clever.
The tour is completed with a geographical and historical journey with the help of dozens of photos of similar stone buildings taken all over the world, from Sardinia, to Turkey, to California, almost to suggest that at the end of the day we all come from the same place.

In Provence, tracking the Marquis De Sade

As Provence seems a so peaceful and innocent corner of paradise, who could imagine that it houses what was the adored residence of the infamous Marquis De Sade? This piece of information has inevitably made my passion for history sparkle, and a visit to Lacoste became inevitable.

During my short stay in Provence I'm based in Cavaillon, lovely little town nestled between the Luberon Mount and the hill of Saint Jacques. Apart from Cavaillon, I'm also visiting all the neighbouring villages, some of which are as picturesque as inaccessible. One of these is Lacoste, where the castle of the De Sade family sits, perched on the very edge of a steep cliff.

On my way to Lacoste, throughout the maze of country lanes and small towns, I kept wondering what aspect the castle would have had, what colours, and if it had managed to retain some sign of its wild parties. As soon as I arrived in the village, I struggled to spot the noble residence, although it was standing right on top of the hill in front of me, in all its majesty. I asked one of the seldom residents where I could find the castle and he replied wittily "Mais c'est juste là-haut, madame!"

I looked up and stared at the castle with a mix of wonder and disappointment. "Quoi??" I thought, acquiring a little French attitude. "The oh-so-infamous Marquis De Sade lived here??"

Admittedly, what now might look like a wreck, in the eighteenth century certainly was a great piece of architecture, especially given the fixation the French had for luxury and etiquette, and the fact that it belonged to a noble family. De Sade's gentle origins didn't stop him, though, from writing quite explicit sexual content and being jailed for that. Thanks to his writing skills, was he alive now, he could have boasted the fact that we still use a term derived from his own name: sadism. I wonder how outrageous he would have been considered nowadays.

While I was strolling about the tangle of picturesque alleys that forme Lacoste village, I kept thinking that the Marquis De Sade couldn't have lived anywhere more appropriate than in this quirky corner of France. The narrow cobbled lanes that lead to the sinister castle, make it captivating as much as inaccessible, increasing his myth of dangerous man. Of course this impression is enhanced by the fact that most cities now have paved and large roads, that the castle is a wreck, and that when I went grey clouds were threatening heavy rain.

Although it was bought and partially renovated by the fashion designer Pierre Cardin, the castle can't be visited inside. A stroll around the village is however an experience, to be enjoyed slowly, to absorb the atmosphere of the town and stare at the great view down the valley.

Off to France, by boat!

When I got back to my parents' house in Sardinia from the UAE, I found my next trip already arranged. I could hardly imagine a more welcome surprise: I was about to head to France by boat. Well, from Porto Torres (Sardinia's northernmost port) to Genoa by boat (almost 12 hours, nonetheless, despite the ship was called "Big Fast Ship"), then from Liguria's coast, driving all the way up to Provence, southern France. The landscape was breathtaking, and it certainly made our long journey easier.

This trip brought me back in time. I was 19 years old when I first left home to go to study in Rome. Despite the distance, I used to go back to Sardinia even three times a years, for Christmas, Easter and the summer holidays. Back then (it seems ages ago!) flying was too pricey so I usually travelled by boat, or you can find cheap ferries to France too. Now, I've switched: flying is much cheaper.

Approaching the port in Sardinia, strongly reminded me of my early '20s. The parts of the trip I most hated were getting off the train and making my way to the port. Most of the times I travelled with friends or other students from Sardinia who went to college "in the Continent", as in Sardinia the Italian mainland is still called. The ships didn't have the escalator yet, so we had to drag our suitcases up the teetering stairs. Cabins were tiny, common halls were not very clean and certainly little comfortable. I was pleased to see how much things have changed since then.

I've often travelled "on the deck", which meant a cheap ticket and at night wandering about the room with the sofas in the lookout for a place to sleep. After the ship, we were to take the train from Civitavecchia port to the city, and then to Rome. Sometimes we walked from the port to Civitavecchia city, always dragging our heavy suitcases, full of delicatessen from home.

The whole trip was definitely exhausting, only thinking about it now makes me want to sleep. And last week, I've done it again: twelve hours cruising then five hours drive to Provence. At arrival we were wrecked.

Provence is as lovely as I left it last time I was here a couple of years ago: nicely warm, green, flowery, lavender-scented, relaxed. I like its cosmopolitan atmosphere and from my first outings I was pleased to be reminded that the cliché of the grumpy French doesn't fit in this part of the country: literally everywhere everybody greets me with a smiley "Bonjour Madame!", be it in the streets, in the shops, or even climbing the hill of Saint Jacques, my latest act of insanity.

Now I'm thoroughly enjoying the laid-back vibe of this cosy corner of France. Oh, and my journey back to Italy will be strictly by plane.
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