Early last Friday morning I took a taxi to the train station to catch the train to Bologne.

What an adventure that was! Imagine trying to figure out a train billboard with platforms and schedules in another language.

I found the number of my train and then there was this perplexing phrase after it 1CL testa. It wasn’t a platform number! And I saw it then as a phrase of some other trains too. I kept asking passerbys hoping someone spoke English. Finally someone told me it must be an abbreviation. I asked what testa meant and they said ‘in front’ and finally it dawned on me ‘first class in front’. I was in first class, so I’d have to go to the front of the train. Duh!

Unlike most people my first association with Bologne is not the luncheon meat but rather the international children’s book festival that happens every year in that fair city.

I’d always wanted to see it!

They call it the city of rose and red, because most of the buildings are rose and red.

The train ride was incredibly smooth. I was expecting the shrieking and jolting of a subway. And it traveled through what I later found out was the famous Tuscany region. I’d always thought Tuscany was in the south of Italy. And looking at the map there’s such a feeling of, I don’t know, homesickness, because you see names that are so familiar, that you’ve grown up with all your life, from Shakespeare like Verona and Mantua and Padua.

At every angle you encounter, you could take a picture of Bologne. It’s just so picturesque.

With its covered walkways, and flowerpots in the windows.

My session was in the Library for Women Studies in what used to be an old convent. I think it was from the fourteenth century. But ‘old’ is a relative term. Some Italians told me that anything less than a thousand years old is ‘new’.

There was an inner courtyard, just like I’d seen in so many postcards, that seemed serene and quiet. The rush of traffic outside did not enter here. There was a low wall surrounding the courtyard that was whitewashed and formed a good bench that you could sit on and relax.

And the sun lit a square. They led me into the room that would be my venue. It was incongruous to say the least. The ceiling was high arched with accents of pink, if I’m remembering right. They took me into an adjoining room and I sat at a table, an old wooden table and stared at the wall where Roman columns seemed to flank an invisible doorway, there was even a lintel across the top and I wondered if it had been bricked up and plastered over. Parts of one of the column was missing.

And then I took a closer look at the door I’d passed through. It too had an ancient lintel.

I’m a real sucker for old stuff. When I went to Quebec city many years ago, just seeing the old stone walls and the cobblestones, sent my heart a-fluttering. Imagine how I felt not only seeing such ancient buildings but sitting within them, and yet, like I said it was incongruous because all along the walls were computers and desks. They didn’t belong.

This should be a place of silent reverie not of humming hard drives.

My host, a lovely petite brunette named Silvia Radicioni took me to a bookstore/restaurant named Eataly! I had some tortellini with ricotta and some bluefish that was fantastic!

And of course we walked. Italy requires a LOT of walking! And my poor foot was sore. But during the walking Silvia took me to see a special group of churches that actually has seven churches in one.

The oldest of which is from the first century! It used to be a pagan temple but it was converted to a church long ago. It was so dim inside and my digital camera is the older kind that can’t handle much darkness. The pictures of the inside did not come out very well at all. But funnily enough it actually reminded me of the tomb of the Moghul Emperor Jehangir’s wife, Noor Jehan. I saw it in Lahore and it had much the same shape, with the raw bricks forming a kind of octagon with a big open central area in the middle. There was a big cross and a pulpit in the middle. Then we went out into the courtyard and the stones paving the middle had filled with enough dirt to allow a sort of lawn poking up through the rounded rocks.

It was really quite beautiful.

We got back to that incongruous room, and I did the powerpoint presentation of Wanting Mor grateful for the computer and LCD projector they had set up for me to a lively audience of about forty, mostly women.

Some of them even wore shalwar kameez like me. Bologne is actually quite diverse and there are a number of Muslims living there.

Then I was rushed to the train station to go to Rimini.

I’ve heard Rimini is older, the name comes from the root of ‘Rome’ and yet it feels hip and happening. It’s on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, south of Venice.

On Saturday night I got to have dinner with Todd Strausser, an American author who’d also been invited to the festival, and his two lovely grown children Leah and Jeff. We went to a restaurant named Farini’s and the food was fantastic, as usual.

The company was even better!

Todd loves Italy so much, has been there several times and his daughter Leah was fluent in Italian. At one point Todd turned to me and said, “Don’t you think Italy is just the most beautiful place in the world and the Sistine Chapel the most exquisite artwork?” (I’m paraphrasing.)

As soon as he said this images of the ceiling in Masjid an-Nabawi came to mind.

In the oldest part of the mosque, right below where the green dome that shows where the Prophet (peace be upon him) is buried, there are tiny pastel frescoes that are vastly different from the scenes in Sistine Chapel, peopled only by flowers and intricate designs, not people, and yet, they convey the same *feeling*. That sense of reverence.

And the Kaaba! The arched corridors that surround the little black cubic building that Abraham and his son Ishmael (peace be upon them) built, our direction of prayer, when you look up at the ceilings there, its alternating pastel panels of peach and olive with intricate detailed gold filigree work give the place a loftiness that more than rivals the Sistine Chapel.

You could tell that Michaelangelo, while he was painting the Biblical scenes on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, was painting his heart’s awe. It’s similar in the Kaaba and the domed area above the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) tomb. Whoever painted the flowers and intricate designs felt they were adorning the second holiest place in Islam. And you can tell that the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) mosque is older, at least that area of it. It’s been added onto since the beginning.

Which is better? Who’s to say??? No doubt I’m biased.

I could not honestly say that Italy is the most beautiful place in the world. 

I’ve been to so many places now: Arabia, Singapore, Pakistan, Guyana, Mexico, Jordan, Jerusalem, South Africa, Denmark, America, Canada and now Italy. Each has its splendour. Each has its own character.

I did my best to try to convey this sentiment but I was caught horribly off guard. But luckily Olga, the publicist from Rizzoli (my Italian publisher), seemed to understand and didn’t hold my hesitation against me.

Italy now holds its own place in my heart.

It is beautiful! Nuff said.