A Handmaidens Tale at Mantua

Mantua, Piazza Erbe
How could I go past seeing Margaret Atwood at the Mantua Literary Festival? She was such a drawcard that I booked her event early and lucky I did as on the day there were no extra tickets available. It had been a few years since I had been back to the Festival although each year I was tempted as the list of writers from all over the world is exciting and Mantua is a such a picturesque Renaissance city, with fluted merlins on many of its historic Palaces. Besides it’s so lovely just to wander or bike as the locals do under the warm sunshine as Summer comes to an end.

As the Organisation  says: “The Festival plays host to world-famous writers and poets, some of the most interesting voices from emerging literatures, essayists, musicians, artists and scientists who foster a more complex and unusual notion of literature that includes unconventional literary domains and languages.” The choice of events was awesome – Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Joshua Cohen, Nadeem Aslam, Ali Smith, Valeria Luiselli  together with economists and political writers like – Domenico Quirico,  Felwine Starr from Senegal, Gilles Kepel,  Mariana Mazzucato, Amin Maalouf and Donald Sassoon. Only some of whom I managed to see.

I bounced between meetings on the European Union  Crisis,  Civil wars and Immigration, Economic Alternatives to the current Inequality and how to put value before profit, Words we use and abuse, Post Colonialism and the new developments in Africa, Antidotes to our current Dilemmas and more. It was easy to become totally engrossed in arguments, enlightened by some positive prospects, challenged by the global issues knowing we are all in the same boat….if only we all paddled in the same direction.

Margaret AtwoodMargaret Atwood rather than discuss her new book talked mostly of how relevant ‘The Handmaidens’ Tale’ relates to today, the regression we have seen in women’s rights, the challenge we face to restore what we have lost and move forward. To her delight the audience greeted her wearing handmaiden’s caps which the organisation had supplied and which we clumsily put together and clung on to on her entrance. Margaret Atwood haindmaiden audienceAnd at the end of the event a flash mob of ‘handmaidens’ appeared with placards regarding female homicides and women’s rights as ‘Everything is political when you’re a woman‘ and the queue for signing her book wound right around the courtyard.

In between events the piazzas overflowed with book stands, poetry readings, quiet courtyards to relax in and shady parks for time out. An open air ‘free’ event caught my attention as the audience was spellbound, like babes listening to a fairytale, as Antonello Vanoli recounted a sentimental voyage on the roads that made our history – the Nile, the Mediterranean, the Silk Road, the Orient Express to Route 66. An hour’s journey through the centuries with this fascinating storyteller. We were all on board and loving it!

This year I had a bike on loan which was especially handy since I stayed across the causeway and discovered the most beautiful bike path that cruised alongside the lake.

A delightful start to every day

The Historic centre is charming with its majestic buildings, beautiful parks and courtyards and an impressive Cathedral and of an evening the place glowed and flowed with wine and aperitif spritzs!

Mantua Liteary Festival


The Mantua Literary festival is truly a magic experience. The only drawback maybe – How do the locals manage to walk on the pavement stones every day…..even in heels??Mantua Pavement


20 Years of Mantua literature festival

Mantua Piazza SordelliIt was my 2nd year at the Mantua Literature Festival and the Festival’s 20th year Celebration. An onslaught of ideas and reflections on world issues and individual journeys in a fabulous Renaissance setting. Record Summer temperatures continued and the ancient buildings and garden locations provided welcome relief as brains ticked over at each presentation.

Carlo Petrini founder of Slow Food is convinced food is not just about calories but a Carlo Petrini, Pavan Sukhdevcultural activity that binds us together, involving billions of workers, creating climate change and affecting our biodiversity. He discussed this with economist Pavan Sukhdev who believes our Economic model needs to be broader to include human, natural and social capital not solely financial and to identify the links between immigration, climate change and terrorism.

howard jacobson, jeanete winterson

A panel of English writers – Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson with Hay Festival organiser Peter Florence debated the English ‘malaise’ of Brexit with that touch of English humour  that made the argument seem less tragic than it is.

Francesco de Gregori


And our Italian Bob Dylan – singer songwriter Francesco de Gregori reflected on life’s journey, the characters behind the lyrics and his storytelling that continues to touch our hearts today. It was a delight to shake his hand and exchange a few words as he wrote my book dedication.

And there was more: an eclectic mix from – The life of Bees, the dangers of Internet data, a black Milanese comedy, the importance of bloggers for political resistance and social change, to e-italian and the speed language changes with technology. Bouncing from one queue to another and juggling the frustrations of coinciding events was challenging although it was not all work and no play!mantua clowns


The city is delightful, as I had discovered last year, unique and captivating, glorious piazzas framed with fluted palaces and street porticoes shading elegant shops. A bikers paradise and a high heel nightmare of cobblestones!

mantua literature festival volunteers


Little kids splashed paint on wolf stencils after listening engrossed to the fable while the blue T shirted bigger kids were the team of  volunteers essential to the smooth organisation of the Festival.

Workshop areas were in tune with the ecological issues espoused – recycled cardboard benches and very cute egg cartons offered comfy seating in the book sharing area.


The local speciality of ‘sbrisolona’ cake was everywhere and hard to refuse when it was Mantua Hemingway cafeoffered in bite size takeaway cones – essential sugar for the brain as there was no time to doze off. A quick make-up refresh was on hand and the dog could get his fix just across the way. Book readings in the park, a special immigration info point with all the latest updates, and a mix of movies even one retracing Hemingway’s steps in Sardinia.

All inspiring and stimulating!

And as the sun set on each day, it was time to drift to a new location for a well deserved spritz before dinner exchanging workshop details with friends before parting ways again to the evening presentation. Newly dedicated books underarms, and another queue that offered new conversations with strangers who were keen to share their experiences.

Mantua nightlife A surprise  Tango lesson at our restaurant on the last night and we were ready to say goodbye to this magic city of Mantua…..until next year!Mantua doorknocker



Lisa Clifford, and the Art of Writing

It was a night out at the bookshop to learn some tricks of the trade from Lisa Clifford, so not a book presentation, but tips on how to improve your writing, for aspiring writers like myself.

The star of the show was Lisa a long term Florence resident, Aussie at heart, and more importantly author of  4 books. Lisa is a non fiction writer and I am drawn to storytellers, particularly fascinated by stories of times gone by, which explain so much about why Italy and Italians are like they are today.While Lisa’s book – The Promise tells of her years of indecision before moving to Florence to be with the love of her life, her next book Death in the Mountains, a murder mystery, evokes vivid descriptions and customs of a farming lifestyle now lost. So it was fun to hear her recount anecdotes of Tuscan life – where country women supplemented their income by wet nursing babes from the orphanage, or served up a rather gruesome meal to stop their kids from wetting the bed ( you’ll have to read the book to discover what that was!). Her more recent book Naples: A way of  love  has such an great cover that it teases you to be picked up.Lisa Clifford workshop

Last year I took the plunge to enrol in the Art of Writing Workshop which she had organised in the Tuscan hills near Florence, and was truly inspired by the tutors and the content. Creative writing workshops, in English, are not so easily found here in Italy and with a mix of locals and overseas visitors we had an intense and stimulating week. For a beginner like me it was a great experience , and while the book remains smouldering somewhere in the back of my brain, at least my conscience kicked in enough to have me start this blog. Jim Friel was my mentor, a hard task master, with a quick wit and cheeky grin that makes him endearing even when the pressure is on.

And it was not all work…..Lisa Clifford                       Porciano castle

Lisa with cheese maker Lorenzo




Exploring castles, old mills and savouring local cheese and salamis made a great break.Casentino castle

Old flour grinder







The Art of Writing workshops still have some free spaces, so in case anyone is interested more details can be found on the art of writing website

I still have a long way to go but will share one of my exercises of that week.

Strangers in the night.                               Night view CornigliaThe sea below glistened from the moonlight, spreading out slowly like a ripple as the clouds moved on to play hide and seek with the stars. The little villages stood out like islands, bathed in their colourful lights calling out to her to come and join the fun. She thought it was such a romantic time of day and sighed. Her thoughts wandered to the last time he had been with her here, and they had danced; swirling, twirling and entwined to the passionate beat of salsa. The stars had looked kindly on them then as they were madly in love and their gaiety had rung out across the water.

He sensed her despair and moved a little closer daring to think she may not push him away this time. He could feel the warmth of her body even from a distance and sense the yearning in her heart. He had had a hard day, in fact a hard few months where nothing had gone right. It was tough these days. Every day seemed a survival test and he was getting old and his body was slowly wearing out. After that fall the break had never healed properly so he even limped a little now. Still he glided slowly towards her, with hardly a whisper of a limp, so silently she didn’t even stir. He too wanted to be close to her. He dared again and took another step, and brushed her leg and their eyes met as she looked down to pat his head, and he no longer felt like a stray.