Set fair - Francesco da Mosto interview
IS IT the hair – an untamable mop of silvery grey – that accent, as "eetalian" as gondolas and Puccini? Or perhaps it's the incurable boyish enthusiasm for, well, everything. Francesco da Mosto – architect, historian, writer and quintessential Venetian – returns to our television screens tonight with a new 10-part series: Francesco's Mediterranean Voyage.
He has already punted us through the labyrinthine canal system of his beloved lagoon city in Francesco's Venice, and around the winding country roads between Umbria and Palermo on a grand tour undertaken in his cherished red Alfa Romeo Spider, in Francesco's Italy: Top to Toe. Now the irrepressible Francesco is taking to the seas, sailing from Venice to Istanbul aboard a magnificent 19th-century schooner, the Black Swan.
"From the moment you leave, and this is true for every boat, little or big," he says in his unmistakable, rasping voice, "from the moment you leave the land, you enter into another world. It's a world of discovery everywhere that you go."
So how did he cope, living on a boat for three months with a television crew as they made their way across the Mediterranean?
"When I was younger, I loved to sail," he says. "My goal in life was to have a boat and go around in Polynesia. When I had the chance to do this trip, following the route that some of my ancestors have made, it was quite a nice thing to think about."
Da Mosto's speech is filled with these idiosyncratic phrases that he seems to chew and taste before they sally forth. Add this to his unadulterated enthusiasm, wild gesticulations, inexhaustible thirst for espresso coffees and declarations of love for his mamma, and you have a presenting style that has endeared him to hundreds of thousands of viewers – and also irked more than a few TV critics.
Everything about him embodies the Italian, but for some it's almost too much, too perfect, like a Scot with the voice of Bill Paterson who carries off a kilt like Ewan McGregor while supping on a dram and scoffing haggis. The thing is, though, Francesco is the real deal.
The Da Mostos are an old and distinguished Venetian family. It is believed they arrived among the first group of settlers to colonise the Venice lagoon, on the run from Attila the Hun. The family thrived and became merchants, politicians, academics and adventurers. Looking at the family history, it's clear wanderlust has long played a part in the lives of the Da Mostos and it's something the presenter he says he can see in his own children.
Da Mosto still lives with his parents, along with his wife and three children, in the house in which he grew up, a glorious 16th-century palazzo in Venice. As a boy, Francesco learned to ride his bicycle in a great hall beneath frescoes and portraits of his ancestors. Among them is Alvise da Mosto, a man who began his life on the ocean at the tender age of 14 and who by the time he was 22 had sailed to Africa with the Portuguese.
"In a certain way, I always felt the faces of these people on my shoulders," Francesco says. "There is a map of the travels of Alvise and a stone bust of him (in the house]. Every time I passed in front of him, it was like hearing him say, 'Francesco, go out and have a look at what is beyond here.' It was like he was pushing me to go and explore, to discover what was out there. Now I've done it, and it's fantastic."
Alvise's influence was practical as well as emotional. Rather handily, he left a book that charted the waters of the Mediterranean – as Francesco describes it, "rocks 'ere and there, a book to show where not to sunk" – which the crew used on the journey. I wonder if that's what made the Black Swan's impossibly handsome Captain Giulio so grumpy?
In the first episode at least, he seems totally unimpressed with Francesco's inept knot-tying skills, as well as the loafers he wore on board (all crew members on 200-year-old schooners have bare feet, don't you know). So was it put on, or was Captain Giulio really that frightening?
"He's tough," da Mosto admits with a laugh. "Not only in the first episode, either. From having read the documents of my family, the letters and the diaries, I could understand very well why the captain has to be this way, though.
"He was really great; he has a marvellous knowledge. When you're sailing in winds that are very strong and waves that are big, you need a person who can take charge. At the same time, he had two crews to think about: the crew of the boat and the crew that is filming. It's a big responsibility.
"Also, that is not an easy boat to use: seven sails, every one has four ropes and all are white. It was a nightmare trying to remember to which was which.
"I had a bet with the soundman as to who would be first to be sick in the boat. But neither one of us ever was, because it was a matter of honour, neither one of us wanted to pay the other."
On dry land, at the various stops da Mosto and the crew made, he found himself moved by the places he visited. "I'd find it very hard to pick the place I loved most," he says. "Thinking back, a place that touched me very much was Mostar (in Bosnia-Herzegovina]. The presence of the war is still there, because it only finished ten years ago. You still see all the bullets in the walls.
"My mother is from Palermo, where still now there is a part of the old city that was destroyed by the bombs of the Second World War. But bombs are not something personal, they fall from a plane. Every single bullet, though, is aimed to kill a person. It's personal. In the room where I slept that night in Mostar, there were still bullets in the terrace. It makes you think."
And what about the family connection – did Francesco feel the presence of his forebears as he travelled?
"I found some family coats of arms in different places, in old Dalamatia and Greece. One funny thing happened when I arrived in Spinalonga. It's a little island, now uninhabited, on the eastern side of Crete.
"Once the Venetians left it became a leper colony. When we arrived, we were given a map with names of the main squares and houses and there was a Da Mosto Place. That was a surprise for me.
"I wanted to go there thinking that, in this place, there were some members of my family 300 years ago. I was the first person of that family to put my feet on the same ground that they walked on; that, I have to say, was something particular," he adds.
So what's next for Francesco da Mosto – more high adventures on the oceans? "If the people will love it, I would love to do another one," he assures me.
"I love travel, I love learning new things, meeting new people, understanding new cultures. To listen to the points of view of other people is very important."
• Francesco's Mediterranean Voyage is on BBC2 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 8:30pm. A book to accompany the series will be available from Thursday (BBC Books, 25).