United Kingdom

Somerset – here I come!

When everyone is still asleep

I wake up at 4.30 am. I don’t mind this type of departures, although my image in the mirror is not charming at this time of the day (or should I say “night”? Oh well, never mind). First things, first: espresso. Let’s make it double, today. Then, it’s time to leave my flat.

I always get excited to cross Turin when everyone is asleep: my city is only mine at this time. One of the best sights at present is Renzo Piano’s skyscraper. Nobody seems to like it, but I do. I feel sorry for the chap. Then, I cross Porta Palazzo and I watch those that wake up at this time every single morning and they move in the market carts. Once, we were certain that they were all foreigners, now things are very different. Most Italians had to stop being picky. Then, the shuttle bus moves to Corso Giulio. Every time I pass here, I laugh quite a lot: the shops’ names are unbelievable and they do make sense neither in English nor in Italian.

When I leave for short journeys like this one, I figure out that the movement from a place A (Torino, in this case) to a place B (Somerset) can be an end in itself, not necessarily a means. The places I cross to get to my destination allow and favour the movement.

Things I have never understood and never will.

I’ve never understood why, each time I sit on a plane, I fall asleep in an almost violent way. I am not narcoleptic. I simply sit down and close my eyes. An almost bearable darkness descends upon me. Probably a trickle of drool runs out of my mouth for the great horror of my neighbours, and woom! Here I am in Bristol. This journey to Somerset is not different in this sense.

I pick up my rental car: being an English car, it has everything usefully placed to drive on the “other” side of the road. My years in Ireland taught me to survive what people regard as an ordeal. At the first roundabout, I find myself thinking of when, many years ago, I used to pick up friends and family from Shannon airport: I remember how they would scream with horror, or they would stick their nails in their tights, or they would simply sweat in an abnormal way, at the first cross road. This must be one of the most hilarious memories I have of my Irish years.

I set the GPS towards Bath, my first destination. He, actually she, the voice inside the GPS, immediately and dutifully begins to talk providing directions and distances. And this is another thing I have understood, and will probably never figure out. How long is a yard? How far is a mile? The best concept my GPS gave me during my days in Somerset is ¾ mile. How can I calculate three quarters of something I have never completely figured out? I can’t, simple as that. And I am not too frustrated about it either. Socrates used to say: “I know I don’t know”. Who am I to contradict Socrates? Furthermore, I think the best journeys begin when you get lost, or you take the wrong turn. Sometimes you can find yourself only by getting lost.

The road between the airport of Bristol and Bath runs through the English countryside. After an hour in this calming landscape, I get to the city of Sulis Minerva. My room at the B&B on the edge of the city is a gem, clean and picture perfect. I look out of my window and I admire the gardens filled up with joyful daffodils. These happy flowers will become my “mascot” during my days in Somerset. However, I don’t spend too much time at the B&B: when I travel, I often say that there is no time. We can rest later, at night, both the passing one and the eternal.

Let’s say it like it is.

On the sides of Bath Cathedral, angels are climbing up towards the sky. I stop there for half hour thinking: where are they going? Maybe they are moving towards God. Maybe they are climbing up to get a spectacular view of the Roman Baths. A different perspective, so to say.

The Roman Baths are great. Of course they are. To me, though, it’s like watching Rome away from Rome. Displacing, a bit. They were built by Vespasian, one of those 3500 emperors that you study at school and then you proceed to forget about. Well – at least, that’s the case for me (why are you frowning, dear readers? Can you honestly say which came first between Vespasian and Julius Cesar? No. You cannot check it on Wikipedia).

In this mythical place, over millennia, hot waters have been springing. You can still see them when you step down in the basement. Bath’s Baths were well known throughout the Roman Empire and people from all social classes use them. There is also a temple dedicated to the ancient Celtic goddess of water and the Roman goddess Minerva. An iron head can still be seen there. To be honest, Minerva wasn’t that nice-looking after all. You can also admire a Gorgon which, here, has strangely masculine features.

My next stop is the Circus which, against all odds, doesn’t include clowns and animals. It’s a well-proportioned set of flats in Bath. Each segment is divided into several dwellings, exactly symmetrical and each with its own entrance. If you look at it from the above, they say that it forms the Masonic icon of Sun-Moon with the nearby Royal Crescent. They say that together symbolize the dialectic of opposites, the alternation and balance of day and night, light and darkness, white and black.

When I get to the Royal Crescent, the sun is romantically setting. . I would like to sit in front of this building, made up of 30 terraced housing units, but I don’t dare doing it: everything is so neat and clean on the front lawn that I almost fear of ruining the grass. I decide to walk back to the B&B. A pink-dyed sky is above me.

Let’s say like it is. Bath is unforgettable.

Reality is: nobody really knows.

My next stop on the following day is Stonehenge. Some extraordinary facts about this well-known site are as follows:

  • Most non-English speaking people cannot write or say the name of the site properly. Actually, I would like to rephrase that: the first part of the term is usually simple – stone is easy, even for people like me who are not native English speakers. Many, however, call it Stone (so far so good) Edge as U2’s guitar player. Others would write it Stone (so far so good) Egg, and no – eggs are nowhere to be seen when you visit Stonehenge.
  • Wikipedia and other web sites argue that Stonehenge is 33 meters wide, but it’s crap to put it down gracefully. Stonehenge is huge; I think a few square kilometres. If you could see it from the sky, you would realise that the site includes not only the legendary stone circle, but also a kind of decumanus, and a forest named Larkhill (like Ishiguro’s setting for “Never Let Me Go”, one of the most terrible and yet fascinating books in the history of British literature). Saying that Stonehenge is 33 meters wide is a bit like saying that Petra is “only” the Treasure“. In reality, it takes days to see Petra. And very strong legs.
  • In my opinion, far too many people have tried to give some sort of explanation on how and when Stonehenge was built. Some believe that it was created by Martians, others by God, others by my uncle, others by Ernest Hemingway. Far too many have tried to explain how stones weighing tons could be move without the help of modern and foolproof mechanical technology. The truth is that nobody really knows the answers to this mystery. If you ever go to Stonehenge, dear readers, forget about the answers: just sit down in a corner and enjoy your (my) very deep ignorance. In front of this amazing site, I figure out once and again that humanity has not necessarily improved throughout the centuries. Many centuries ago, we could move immense stones, as heavy as mountains. How? Who knows? Nowadays, we sometimes find it challenging to move an appointment in our Outlook calendar.
  • Some people use radiocarbon dating systems to date Stonehenge. Its construction should have happened between 3100 BC (or was it 2500 BC – dear radiocarbon experts, could you please agree on it? Radiocarbon does not seem to be as variable as a horoscope) and 1600 BC. I tend to believe in this theory, rather than the one that portrays very bored Martians coming to Earth to throw two or three stones here and there. If I have to, I prefer to imagine them play chess with the galaxies.
  • The Stone Circle is well-known around the world. What I also liked, though, was the Heel Stone, which is also known as the Friar’s Heel. Legend has it that the Devil bought the stones from a woman in Ireland, wrapped them and took them on Salisbury Plain. One of the stones fell into the river Avon, the others were brought to the plain. The devil then cried out, “No one ever find out how these stones came from here.” A friar replied, “That’s what you think!”, Then the devil threw one of the stones at the monk and hit him on the heel. The stone got stuck in the ground, and it is still there. Way better than all that stuff about radiocarbon dating.
  • According to some rather bizarre sites, in the United States there is a copy of Stonehenge. I wonder who came up with something so stupid.
  • I would be forced to devote an entire blog to the legends revolving around Stonehenge. They would include, in no particular order, guys like King Arthur, Donald Duck, the Smurfs, Goofy, Pluto, Wicca, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Merlin, the Druids, Constantine III, and a lot of solstices and equinoxes.

Nevertheless, I would like to end this section by saying that in places like Stonehenge you feel something. You feel that humanity found a deep connection with the Earth here. While I was there, I looked up at the sky and at the sun. I wished it was the summer solstice. I wished I could stand inside the Stonehenge monument so I could see the sun rise above the Heel Stone.

To be continued

 The Neasden Temple   Somerset – here I come! Part 2 

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