Archive for the Italy Category

The Passion, Jeanette Winterson

Posted in Books, Italy with tags , , , , , , on July 19, 2014 by mysearchformagic

It’s been a while since I read a magical book, so this week I picked up an old favourite, and re-read my dog-eared copy of Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion. An epic tale which straddles early nineteenth-century Europe, The Passion is set amongst the frozen wastes of Russia and the exotic, crumbling decadence of Venice. This is the story of Henri, a young Frenchman sent to fight in the Napoleonic wars, and of Villanelle, a cross-dressing Venetian woman, born with webbed feet.


Although the action takes place during the Napoleonic era, and the book conveys a wonderful sense of the period, the author rejects the idea that The Passion is a historical novel. Instead, Winterson suggests that the novel uses history as “invented space”, a setting for magical characters and weird and wonderful events. “The Passion is set in a world where the miraculous and the everyday collide,” she writes on her website. “Villanelle can walk on water. The woman she loves steals her heart and hides it in a jar. This is the city of mazes. You may meet an old woman in a doorway. She will tell your fortune depending on your face. The Passion is about war, and the private acts that stand against war. It’s about survival and broken-heartedness, and cruelty and madness.”

Jeanette Winterson

Jeanette Winterson

I particularly love The Passion‘s magical descriptions of Venice, a city that morphs and changes overnight, rising and sinking, a place that is confusing and disorientating for even the inhabitants. Apparently a film version was once on the cards, but it never came to be. I am rather glad to be honest, as I’d prefer to hold on to my own visions of the harsh Russian winter, of that enchanted water-logged city, of the amazing adventures of Henri and Villanelle and the bizarre cast of characters that they encounter on their long, mysterious journey.


More Magical Doorways, Naples

Posted in Church, History, Italy, Ruins with tags , , , , , on April 18, 2014 by mysearchformagic

I was looking through some old photographs this week, and came across these images from a past trip to my favourite magical city, Naples.

These pictures brought back memories of my wanderings through the maze of narrow streets and alleyways that make up the city’s ancient Centro Storico. It’s a place full of intriguing surprises, with a beautiful baroque palace or crumbling church around ever corner.

An intriguing doorway in Naples

An intriguing doorway in Naples

I discovered a wonderful pink church on one of these strolls. I don’t know what the church was called, and to be honest I am not even sure I could find it again if I tried. The once-impressive building was in a bit of a sorry state, empty and boarded up, but I was particularly drawn to its magical old doors. All three were adorned with rather macabre carved skulls, a symbol of the Neapolitans’ strange fascination with death and mortality.

The wonderfully Baroque main door to an empty church in Naples

The wonderfully Baroque main door to an empty church in Naples

I love to imagine what lay inside, and while I feel sad to see historic buildings in such poor condition, there is definitely something magical about this city’s faded grandeur. I hope it won’t be too long before I go back to Naples, and do some more exploring of its back-streets in search of magic…and in the meantime, if anyone recognises this church and can identify it for me I would be eternally grateful!

A magical doorway in Naples

A magical doorway in Naples


Posted in Italy with tags , , on July 11, 2012 by mysearchformagic

What better place to start the search for magic than my favourite city? Naples is absolutely unique, terrifyingly beautiful and beautifully terrifying, a city of wonder that never fails to shock, amaze and delight me.

The attraction wasn’t instant. On my first visit as an 19 year old on my way to Pompeii I was overwhelmed by the noise and the chaos, but then the streets around about the station are not a nice place to be. The true heart of Naples is the centro storico, an area with over two thousand years of history. Layer has been built over layer, each civilisation obscuring the one below it, creating a city which stretches from the black depths of ancient caves to the pinnacles of lofty church towers hundreds of metres above.

Via Tribunali (image taken from

The centro storico seems to have largely rejected the creeping globalisation of the last century; you won’t find any Starbucks here, and there are no McDonalds. The Neapolitan fast food of choice is doughy pizza, which drips with soft cheese and sloppy tomato sauce. The coffee comes in the thimble-sized cups and is drunk standing at the counter of a tiny, windowless bar.

Naples is not a city for the faint hearted. A walk down the narrow, shadowy alleys of the historic centre involve taking your life in your hands as you jump to avoid the buzzing mopeds or beaten up cars which speed through the crowds. These guys slow down for no-one, and they’ll make very sure you know they’re there with persistent use of their high-pitched horns. It’s not unusual to see a whole family perched on a scooter, Mum and Dad either end and babies stuck precariously in the middle, all helmetless of course, rattling down a pedestrian-filled street at bullet speed. There’s no such thing as ‘health and safety’ in Naples.

The words ‘faded grandeur’ hardly begin to describe what you will find in Naples. Look up from the busy cobbled street and you will see the immense facades of baroque palaces, now divided into pokey flats, their gutters sprouting bushes, their walls cracked, pitted and covered with graffiti. There are hundreds of grandiose churches, but many of them are now boarded up, their dark, crumbling interiors hidden behind firmly locked doors.

An alley in the Centro Storico
(image taken from

The people are as friendly as they want to be, and you are warned not to carry or wear anything expensive or easily grabbed. This is a shockingly poor town, where people exist on the very edges of survival. The men are dark and brooding. They look like they want to either fuck you, or kill you, or both. The women are loud, brazen and unapologetic. Neapolitans make good friends but terrifying enemies. In this town, death is never far away; most of the churches are lined with the relics of long-departed, now obscure saints, ranging in size from tiny slivers of bone up to complete corpses in gilded cases. The life-sized bronze skulls which decorate the entrance to the Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Anime del Purgatorio ad Arco are a stark reminder of our own mortality.

One of the bronze skulls in Via Tribunali (image taken from

Naples is somewhere that I will be returning to again on this search, and in this blog I will no doubt be returning to it in more detail. There’s mystery everywhere here, every winding alleyway promising something unexpected. It’s dilapidated, falling down in places; who knows what will be left of it in fifty year time? There’s certainly no money to spend on restoration or conservation. For the Neapolitans, these disintegrating edifices are not buildings of historical importance or architectural gems, they are just places to live as best they can. It’s one of the few Italian cities that doesn’t feel like a theme park, with most of the tourists here just passing through on the way to the coast or one of the nearby islands which dot the bay.

If you want to visit somewhere filled with a sense of potential magic, Naples is the real thing. If you think you’ve got the nerve, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Spaccanapoli (image taken from