Tag Archives: Tuscany

Rome Revealed

I like Rome. The people are daggier than in Florence and an air of lusty decay hangs over the city. Paint peels, horns blow, and people grow green things on their balconies in defiance of acres of concrete, stone and asphalt. As I stepped off the bus in Piazza Vescovio, a green elliptical square in the north of town, I sensed that Rome is a city that is content with its place in life. After millennia of growth, expansion, flourishing and revolt, it’s happy to sit back and let the party come to it. And why not? It deserves it.

Angiola, our host, met me off the bus in Piazza Vescovio. Richie was arriving a few hours after me, fresh from a stay on a Tuscan farm with a fellow permaculture enthusiast, Elena. Angiola had a largess and charisma that matched her native city. Scriptwriter, filmmaker, art historian and heir to a crumbling farm estate in Molise, Angiola was magnificent.

After falling in love with Angiola I fell in love with the bedroom she was offering us: large, eccentrically furnished and abundantly serviced with chairs and desks – this was going to be an ideal place for Richie to finish his fourth diploma project and for me to catch up on my Florentine reading: Vesari’s The lives of the Artists and Mary McCarthy’s Stones of Floerence and Venice Observed.

Like all travellers who have spent long months living out of a suitcase, I luxuriated in the novelty of unpacking my ‘things’; finding spaces in the cupboards and drawers to lay my threadbare garments, whiffy hiking boots, journals, books, writing materials and precious MacBook.

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Stones of Florence

“In the smoke of the twilight, on a milk white steed,

Michelangelo indeed could have carved out your features.”

– ‘Jokerman’ (Bob Dylan)

It took me five days to befriend Florence. Not because it’s an unfriendly place, or difficult to like. It isn’t. It’s just that sometimes it takes a few days to warm to a city, and for a city to warm to you. You can break yourself on the history, artwork and culture of a place, and still the city demands more. It’s waiting for you to let your guard down, to catch you unawares. When all the dust has settled on the ‘sights’; when you’ve queued for hours; busted your guts to get an uninterupted view of ‘Primavera’; and still possess an open and curious mind, then and only then, will you be worthy to walk the stones of Florence…

Even in the rain Florence is lovely. Within two hours of arriving I found myself strolling beside the Arno, umbrella in hand, watching pewter clouds empty their contents over heads that didn’t seem to mind a bit. It’s a charmed life being a tourist in Florence.

My stroll along the Arno brought me to the courtyard of the Uffizi where I came, unsuspecting, on the sculptures in the Loggia de Lanzi: an open air museum. Wreathing in and out around the bases of the statues I wondered how the tourists and school children clustered grape-like around the feet of the Titans could carry on such casual chatter while rape, battle and subterfuge were going on above their heads.

On day two I hit the ground running. It was the national week of culture and entrance to state museums was free. Within the space of three days I’d checked the Galleria dell’Academia, Uffizi, Medici Chapel, Museo di St Marco, Bargello, Basilica di Santa Maria Novella and Santa Maria del Carmine off my extensive list of ‘things to do and see’.

Like God on the seventh day (except this was my fifth), I rested: I ate breakfast, read in bed, did an hour of meditation, caught up on my journal, washed my hair…

By afternoon I couldn’t take it any more: as long as Florence was ‘out there’ and I was ‘in here’, I couldn’t be happy.

I slung my camera, my city map, my notepad and my reading book into my bag, grabbed the umbrella with no handle that I’d pulled from a bin in Padua, and took to the streets, in search of life and colour. I wanted perspective. I wanted height.

I made for Piazzale Michelangelo, but not without stopping at my favourite gelateria on the south side of the Pont alla Carraia: pistachio and tiramisu mousse (in honour of you Kay, and Holly).

The bus to the lookout was approaching. I jumped on to save my legs, relishing my place by the window, watching as scenes of city life dropped away – the Via Romana and the gate to the city; the long green gauntlet of lime trees marking the route to the lookout; the vast ochre and dun villas lining the Viale Niccolo Machiavelli; and the cool green olive gardens on either side of Viale Galileo.

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Venice: between heaven and hell

If the devil is Venetian, wears storm-trooper boots, black sunglasses and operates via Couch Surfing, then Roberto (alias) is his name.

Roberto was our ‘fall back’ option for accommodation in Venice.
“Call me,” he said in response to our Couch Surf request, “in case of emergency, if you get stuck, or if you really can’t find a room.”

Within a day and a half (and a lot of rain) of arriving in Italy the conditions that Roberto had described had indeed come to fruition: we were stuck, it was an emergency, and we couldn’t find a room (that we could afford).

“Who should call him, me or you?” I asked Richie.
“You do it. You’re the one who wrote to him.”

Despite having a rather fearsome profile on Couch Surfing (think Sid Vicious crossed with Che Guevara) Roberto was gracious about letting us stay. He met us at Venice’s St Lucia stazione and took us back via a circuitous route to a squatted university building where a ‘happening’ was underway. He introduced us to his friends and gave us a running commentary on the history of the building; its apotheosis as a squat, and the reasons why Venice’s grand buildings were being systematically sold off as luxury hotels.
“There’s more tourists here than residents. We’re outnumbered 3 million to 60,000,” he told us flatly.

After the ‘happening’ at the university we were frogmarched to a bar on the other side of town where an anarchic bunch of rabble were loitering alongside the canal, drinking beer and listening to heavy metal music: more leather than the Fez tanneries and more dogs on leads than Miami beach.

It was not long before Jason wandered over and started talking to us… again. He’s joined us for drinks at the university, impressing us with his distinctive appearance (he wore what can only be described as a leather cape) and intriguing persona: part Ezra Pound, part Mick Dundee. His mother was Australian but he was born in Venice.

“Nice Irish accent,” Richie scoffed once Jason had excused himself to search out a cigarette.
“It’s no Irish, it’s Australian. Watch the pen. He’s got my pen. I bet you he’s going to pocket it. You can’t trust writers!”

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