The History of Florence in 10 Buildings

One of the wonderful things about living in a city like Florence is the feeling that history is present everywhere – even in the buildings that you walk past, visit, or just see in the distance. This city is best known, of course, as the birthplace and glorious home of the Renaissance, but it has had a lot more history than that, written in the very stones of the buildings themselves. So, what do those stones say? Let’s see.

1. Fiesole

OK, this one isn’t actually a building, but a village. It occupies a saddle in the hills just above Florence, and it is the natural starting point for our history tour because it was here that it all began. Fiesole is the site of the original Etruscan and then Roman settlement of Faesulae. After Lucius Cornelius Sulla did the traditional Roman sacking thing in 80 BC, the town moved down to the plain by the River Arno, where it was renamed Florentia (‘flowering’). Today, Fiesole is a pleasant 15 minute bus trip from the centre of Florence and a charming day out to escape hot Florentine days and have a look at the fairly extensive remains of the Roman city.

The well preserved Roman Theatre at Fiesole

2. The Piazza della Repubblica

Next stop on our tour is the very formal and grandiloquent Piazza della Repubblica. Dominated by an enormous arch and colonnade one one side, and surrounded on the others by trendy (and expensive) cafes where young upmarket Florentines go to see and be seen, this was the original Forum of the Roman city. Like most Roman cities, Florence was laid out like a military camp, a broad oblong within which the streets were laid out in a grid pattern. At the intersection of the principal north-south and east-west streets was the Forum, home to the law courts, government offices, and markets.

The Piazza’s function as a market continued after the end of the Roman Empire, and the old forum became the Mercato Vecchio, or ‘old market’. In 1865 Florence became the capital of the new kingdom of Italy. That prompted the wholesale destruction of the old Mercato and its surrounding area in favour of the present square, which celebrates the Risorgimento. Many fine buildings were lost in the process, so it wasn’t entirely a popular move. Some things never change, it seems.

Piazza Della Repubblica
Piazza Della Repubblica

3. Ponte Vecchio

Together with the Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio is probably Florence’s most iconic sight. It is the oldest bridge in the city – hence the name, the ‘old bridge’ – and there has been a crossing here since Roman times. What is less well known is the fact that, throughout the middle ages and into the early modern period, crossing the Ponte Vecchio would have subjected you to something of an olfactory assault, for the bridge was lined on both sides by butchers’ shops. They weren’t all that hygienic in those days, and all the unused offal and carcasses were simple tossed into the river.

The old bridge itself has almost disappeared under the weight of the various accretions that have been added over the centuries. First came Giorgio Vasari’s famous Corridor, which was constructed in the 16th century at the behest of Grand Duke Cosimo 1st of Tuscany, so that he could go from the Pitti Palace into the city without having to mingle with the commoners, and  then in the 17th century the retrobotteghe, or back-shops, were added onto the side of the bridge, overhanging the river below.

The butchers, incidentally, were banished by the same Grand Duke Cosimo, and replaced by the goldsmiths who occupy the shops to this day.

An unusually deserted Ponte Vecchio

4. Palazzo Vecchio

By now you have probably caught on to the fact that vecchio in Italian just means ‘old’. You might therefore deduce that the Palazzo Vecchio is the old palace, which indeed it is, having been renamed when the Medici became Grand Dukes of Tuscany and decided that they needed to have a much grander palace across the river, and so this became the ‘old’ palace.

But before that it was, for centuries, the Palazzo della Signoria, the seat of government of the Florentine Republic, and the place where the governing council, the Signoria, met and deliberated.

In a world of kings and emperors, the republican form of government was something of an anomaly, and in Italy there were only two cities that managed to sustain a republican system for any length of time – Florence and Venice. By the 16th century, Venice had pretty much subsided into an institutionalised oligarchy; Florence, on the other hand, retained a fairly vigorous democratic spirit, and the Florentines were proud of their city’s self-governing independence.

Mind you, the actual mechanics of the republic were, to modern eyes, rather bizarre, involving various processes of selecting electors by means of a lottery, and then appointing officials for very short periods of time – usually only a few months – so as to limit the possibility that any of them might set themselves up as dictators.

And then the Medici came along.

Palazzo Vecchio
Palazzo Vecchio

5. Palazzo Medici-Ricciardi

This imposing palace was designed by Michelangelo Michelozzo, who was the business partner of the great sculptor Donatello. It was built for Cosimo de’ Medici, the patriarch who was one of the city’s greatest patrons of the arts and its wealthiest man.

Michelozzo’s design was simplicity itself – a square building around a central courtyard, a rusticated, fortress-like ground floor, with a further two graceful window-lined floors rising above, the whole overhung by a projecting roof to provide protection against sun and rain. It soon became the template for Florentine palazzi, and imitations can be seen all over the city (the most splendid example being the Palazzo Strozzi).

The Medici were originally wool traders and merchants who started a bit of a banking business; they hit paydirt when Cosimo’s father Giovanni, betting on the return of the papacy to Rome after a long period of schism, ended up becoming the papal bankers. This was a pretty good gig, because it allowed the bank to collect the tithes paid by all every church in Europe, on which they received a percentage in commission. Needless to say, they soon became very rich indeed.

Though Giovanni hadn’t been much interested in politics, he soon realised that in order to protect his wealth he needed to make sure he could control the Republic’s institutions, something he achieved (and his son perfected) by manipulating the various electoral processes so that his friends and supporters filled all the important offices. Thus the parade of the great Medici began – Cosimo, Piero ‘the Gouty’, Lorenzo ‘the Magnificent’, and finally a second Piero, known for reasons that will become obvious, as ‘the Unlucky’.

Palazzo Medici
Palazzo Medici-Ricciardi

6. Monasterio di San Marco

Just up the street from the Medici palace is a big open piazza that today echoes to the roar of buses coming and going. On the far side of the square is the church and monastery of San Marco, and it was here that Fra Girolamo Savonarola took up residence in 1490. This strange firebrand preacher was to unleash forces that would eventually cause the fall of the Medici (which happened on the watch of the second Piero – hence the nickname), and lead to the infamous ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’, when Florentines, in the grip of religious fervour, were encouraged to burn their fripperies, including many valuable art works. Inside the fascinating monastery museum, you can still see the cells where the monks, including Savonarola, lived and prayed.

Savonarola was pretty much an out-of-control maniac, defying everyone from the pope down, and giving out wild prophecies that had all sorts of political impacts. Eventually his luck ran out and he was executed in the Piazza della Signoria in May 1498. But though he didn’t leave behind him the kingdom of God that he had been aiming for, he and his supporters, having tossed Piero de’ Medici out, did set up a new Republic that was to endure for nearly 15 years, and in whose service another Florentine great, Niccolò Machiavelli, was to labour tirelessly until his luck too ran out, and the Medici returned once more.

Piazza San Marco
Piazza San Marco

7. Palazzo Pitti

If there is a single building that speaks to the grandiose self-regard of the later Medici dynasty, it is the Palazzo Pitti. Begun in 1458 by Luca Pitti, a friend and supporter of Cosimo de’ Medici, it was steadily expanded by the Pitti family, who held it until 1549.

By this time, the Medici had returned to Florence, and having entrenched themselves as the leading family of the city, took the next step by getting themselves made into Dukes. The second Duke of Florence was called, inevitably, Cosimo, and since he needed a grander palace than the old Medici palace in the city, he decided to buy the Palazzo Pitti and make it his principal residence.

After more extensions, the addition of a dark and forbidding rear courtyard, and the establishment of the extensive gardens rising up the hill behind, the palazzo emerged as the vast and rather pompous complex we see today. Inside, it houses a series of excellent and fascinating museums, state rooms, and of course the beautiful Boboli gardens. It isn’t difficult to imagine the formal court of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany (as Cosimo and his successors eventually became), swanning around in this magnificence.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the Medici finally ran out of puff in 1737, when Tuscany was absorbed into the territory of Duke Stephen of Lorraine. That nice little arrangement was interrupted by Napoleon in 1801, but in 1815 the Lorrainers (by now married into the Habsburgs) were restored and stayed put until they were finally deposed in 1859.

Pitti Palace from the Boboli Gardens

8. Piazza Massimo d’Azeglio

OK, again not a building but a piazza. It is a particularly elegant one, rather Parisian in feel, surrounded by elegant three and four story townhouses and palazzi. Like the Piazza della Repubblica, it is very much a product of the Risorgimento, the movement that led eventually to the unification of Italy.

In 1865, the capital of the new kingdom was moved from Turin to Florence, where it stayed until the pope finally surrendered control of Rome in 1871. The piazza d’Azeglio and the surrounding streets were developed to house the growing population of bourgeoisie who were required to run the national government, and the square itself became particularly popular with the foreign embassies who had to set up shop in Florence.

Piazza Azeglio
Lovely Piazza d’Azeglio

9. Stazione Santa Maria Novella

If you arrive in Florence by train, you arrive here. It is always incredibly busy with people hurrying off to jump on the commuter services that run out to the various towns of the Arno Valley, and tourists and business people jostling to get on and off the Freccia fast trains that connect Italy’s main centres.

In all this chaos, it’s hard to stop and take a look around the building itself. But it’s worth doing so, because this is a fabulous example of the kind of architecture characteristic of Italy’s Fascist period.

Mussolini, it is said (apocryphally), made the trains run on time. He also encouraged the development of a kind of brutalist architecture that was a real break from the fashionable neo-classical ‘liberty’ era buildings that dominated the first fifty or so years of the Italian Republic’s existence. Designed in 1932, following a competition to replace the city’s aged train terminus, it was controversial at the time, but was seen as a symbol of the new, modern Italy, and as such was a source of considerable pride.

Station Santa Maria Novella
Brutalist SMN Station

10. Santa Croce

Our last stop, the vast barn of a church that faces onto the equally vast open space of piazza Santa Croce, is also one of the oldest buildings in the city. St Francis himself is supposed to have founded the monastery that has stood on this site since the 13th century. The church was commenced in 1294, consecrated in 1442, and it is the burial place of many famous Florentines – a walk around the church is mostly an exercise in posthumous people-spotting. It is a serene place, and the adjoining cloisters and gardens are equally peaceful (most of the time – this is Florence, after all, and there are tourists…).

But it is a very modern event that makes this a fitting place to end our tour. In 1966, the River Arno indulged itself in a catastrophic flood. For various reasons, the extent of the flood was neither predicted nor planned for, and as a result a large part of the city was inundated, including Santa Croce. The flood killed over a hundred people, and destroyed millions of masterpieces of art and rare books. At its highest, the water reached an incredible 22 feet in this area.Nearly 600,000 tonnes of mud, rubble and sewage flowed through the city’s streets.

This was a terrible tragedy, but like so many events, it brought out the best of human nature, and the city still celebrates the angelo del fango, the ‘Mud Angels’ who came from all over Italy and the world to help with the critical tasks of cleaning up and rescuing damaged artworks.

Santa Croce Flood
Piazza Santa Croce – and this was after the floodwaters had receded!

So there it is, ten buildings that encapsulate the history of Florence. No doubt our friends who live here could come up with another ten, or more – for example, I haven’t included the Duomo, or the Bargello, or the Badia Fiorentina, all of which could easily have been substituted for one of my choices as representatives of their respective points in Florentine history. But there you go.

Hope you’ve enjoyed this little survey. There are a few more like this one the way.

Roman Curiosities

We arrived in Rome for our third visit in mid August, and it was hot. Bloody hot. The city really swelters in the summer, something we kind of knew but had not really thought about too much. In any event Rob was escaping the worst of it, heading back to Adelaide to spend some time with his mother, and I was going to be left alone in the apartment (air-conditioned, fortunately) to work on my novel and generally settle in to the place.

This particular apartment was located in a corner of Rome that we didn’t know at all well, called Sallustiano, tucked up in the corner between the Porta Pia and the Borghese Gardens. Though I had picked it because it was in reasonably easy walking distance of the railway station – important because we planned to do a few side trips from Rome over the couple of months we were based there – it turned out to be a charming neighbourhood, to which we became quite attached. It’s a fairly prosperous area, the locale of various embassies and consulates, and most of the buildings are from the so-called Liberty era, that period after the unification of Italy when much of Rome was either built or rebuilt, lending it a pleasant uniformity. Not far away, we had access to one of the fine little markets that seem to be indispensable to Italian life, and dotted around us were all the shops and services anyone could possibly need, not to mention a plethora of excellent local restaurants. Apart from being fifteen minutes’ walk to the railway station, we had a ten minute saunter to the nearest Metro station, in about twelve minutes we could be in the Borghese Gardens, and in roughly the same time be on the Via Veneto, sipping an expensive cappuccino with all the Americans.

Lunch on the Via Veneto

But probably the most striking feature of our newest Italian neighbourhood was the Aurelian Walls. These massive fortifications, which surrounded the ancient city of Rome from about 275 AD on are an extraordinary sight, 8 metres high (26 feet in old money), built of concrete faced with red bricks, and pierced with towers and gates – in the 4th century, there were 383 towers, 18 main gates, 5 postern gates, and no less than 116 latrines along their 19 kilometre length (thanks, Wikipedia!). Naturally most of the walls and gates have long gone, but there is a substantial section still standing that runs along most of the length of the Corso d’Italia, crumbling a little, and weed-infested, but still an awesome sight.

2000 year old walls!!

At the Borghese Gardens end, the Pincian Gate still stands, familiar to anyone who has walked up the Via Veneto; nearer us, though, is a gate that is more important in recent history. The Porta Pia was designed by Michelangelo at the behest of Pope Pius IV to replace another gate further south, which was to be closed. But it was on September 20th, 1870, that the last great drama of the Italian Risorgimento was played out, when the  artillery of the revolutionary armies pounded a breach in the walls, through which they entered the city and forced the Pope to surrender the city – thus completing the reunification of Italy. And here is another little Roman curiosity: it was at this gate that Gino Lucetti, and antifascist activist, threw a bomb at a car carrying Benito Mussolini on September 11, 1926. Naturally, to no effect.

Breach at the Porta Pia
An old photo of the Pincian Gate showing the breach made on 20th Sept 1870 (right)

Traces of the Italian Dictator’s presence in Rome have, for the most part, been erased. There are a few brutalist fascist-era buildings still standing, and very occasionally one will see the fascisti symbol of an axe in a bundle of rods (the symbol of authority for the Roman lictors, the guards who protected the Roman Consul in Republican times) in odd places. And of course there is EUR, the suburb of Rome that the fascists laid out, and which contains that oddity, the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, otherwise known as the ‘Modern Colosseum’. But not far from us there was another site associated with Mussolini, the Villa Torlonia, a grand villa and estate that was gifted to him and which served as his home for most of his reign as Dictator. We went there on a whim, but it turned out to be well worth our time. The main villa, where Mussolini actually lived, is a splendid affair in the neoclassical style, built around the end of the 19th century. It has permanent exhibitions as well as hosting temporary art shows. Elsewhere in the sadly rather unkempt gardens there is a fine theatre (closed for rehearsals when we were there, so we couldn’t look inside) and a more informal swiss-style chalet called the Casina delle Civette (House of the Little Owls), which is full of funny little nooks and crannies and beautiful stained glass.

One of the splendid rooms of the Villa Torlonia
The House of the Little Owls
The gardens, though extensive, are rather unkempt

Our other garden refuge was, naturally enough, the vast Borghese Gardens, which were literally on our doorstep. They soon became Rob’s preferred venue for his morning walk, and we frequently found ourselves drawn there for lunch at one of the little cafes that dot the park, or for a late afternoon stroll, once the heat of the day had subsided, usually ending up at the Terrazza del Pincio, with its fine view over the Piazza del Popolo. The park was also our route when we wanted to visit the National Gallery of Modern Art, another Roman curiosity – it’s a very fine institution with an excellent collection of modern Italian art, but it’s not that well known to tourists, though the locals love it.

The Casina del Lago (Little House on the Lake), fave lunch stop in the Borghese Gardens

Having ‘done’ most of the city’s main sights on our previous visits, we didn’t on this occasion spend so much time in the centre, which was just as well, since it was absolutely heaving with tourists at this time if year. But there was one museum that we had always wanted to visit, but had not managed to get to – the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, located right on the Via del Corso, just a few feet from the Piazza Veneto, and therefore about as in the middle of the city as you can get. Behind the street facade is a sprawling palace built around a big central courtyard that is the home to an enormous collection of art works, by the greatest painters of the Renaissance and beyond, from Raphael to Caravaggio to Velasquez and José da Ribera. The latest generation of the Doria-Pamphilj family still live in the Palazzo: evidently, according to one of the guards that Robert talked to, it is not unusual for them to drop by and mingle with the museum’s visitors.

Let me finish this little tour of Roman curiosities back in Sallustiano. The suburb takes its name from the Gardens of Sallust, which one almost stumbles over when wandering around the streets. Originally they were landscaped pleasure gardens that occupied a large area between the Pincian and Quirinal hills, and they were owned by none other than Julius Caesar. After his death, they were acquired by the Roman historian Sallust (Gaius Sullustius Crispus to give him his full name) and developed by him using the wealth he had acquired as governor of Numidia. The gardens passed into the possession of the imperial family, and the emperor Nerva died there of a fever in 98 AD. Eventually, after the fall of Rome, the gardens fell into ruin, and the whole area gradually disappeared as the valley between the two hills was filled in, so that today all that can be seen is a series of ruins that are mostly below today’s street level. Still, they seem to be an appropriate metaphor for Rome, whose layers are seemingly endless, and whose surprises can appear from anywhere.

The Gardens of Sallust (mostly underground!)

Next up: Roman Escapes!

Genoa the Proud

Genoa’s historic moniker, La Superba (‘The Proud’), seems tragically inappropriate given the horror of the collapse of the Morandi Bridge a few weeks ago, killing 43 people. In our experience travelling through Italy, the country has always seemed to have two modern glories – its railways, which are for the most part brilliant if a tad shabby around the edges, and the system of autostrade, the marvellously engineered highways that deal contemptuously with most rugged terrain with tunnels that make light of mountains, and bridges and viaducts that seem to soar above the towns and valleys below. Natural disasters like earthquakes are one thing, and the Italians deal with those with equanimity, but this man-made failure strikes at the pride and confidence not just of Genoa, but of Italy as a whole.

For the city that we left just a few days before, the tragedy was still in the future, and for our ten days there Genoa did indeed still seem to be La Superba. It wasn’t our first visit, for we had departed on our cruise home from Genoa back in December last year, and had spent several days before we left exploring the city. But it was evident then that Genoa deserved more than that cursory exploration, so we decided it was a natural fit to spend some time there after our month in the south of France. We had a couple of days in the charming Italian Riviera town of Sanremo en route, and arrived on a hot and humid Monday to be deposited as close as the taxi driver could get to our apartment, which was right in the centre of the old town.

Genoa, as we remembered from our last visit, is a city of contrasts that can be, at first, quite dizzying. For example, the old town is an absolute warren of narrow alleyways, called caruggi, often barely four feet wide, shadowed by apartment tenements that are six and seven stories high. The effect can be claustrophobic, but at any minute that sensation can be relieved as one walks into a charming piazza lined with restaurants or bookshops or smart retailers, as pleasant as any in Italy. Only a few hundred yards uphill is one of the most charming and grand concentrations of 17th century palaces anywhere in the world – but on our way there, we found ourselves walking up a narrow street where dozens of tricked up prostitutes stood sentinel at their allotted doorways. These were ladies not only of the night, but of the day too, waiting long hours for a customer to turn up and make their day worthwhile. Going in the other direction, down on the waterfront, a truly stunning arc of brilliantly painted mansions that stood on what was once the waterfront is divided from an equally brilliant modern redevelopment of the current waterfront by an enormous elevated freeway that spears from one side of the city to the other, careless of the historic vista that it utterly destroys. See what I mean? A city of dizzying contrasts.

Genoa’s Caruggi can be claustrophobic, but are charming nevertheless

But the Genovese are proud of their city, and so they should be. They are proud that it is a working city, a busy port as it has been for most of its existence, and they see the grittiness that inevitably goes with that as something to be celebrated. As for that motorway across the harbourfront, well that’s just part of modern life, isn’t it? And it’s practical, after all. Not for the Genovese the walling off of the pretty bits into a tourist precinct: they want to live in their city, not be exiled to the suburbs and have to compete with hordes of foreigners for a space at a cafe whenever they do come into town. Not that they are unwelcoming of tourists, they’re not, but you definitely get the sense in the old town of Genoa that people live here as they have since the city was at the heart of a powerful maritime empire.

Genoa seems to tumble down to its harbour from the Ligurian hills

At one time, in the 15th century, Genoa was a power to rival Venice. Presided over by her Doges – of whom the most famous is the redoubtable Andrea Doria, a name that appears all over the place in Genoa. Her galleys – like the fine reconstructed example in the excellent Maritime Museum – controlled the western Mediterranean as surely as those of La Serenissima commanded the eastern trade routes. By the second half of the 16th Century, Genoa had gone into something of a decline, but in the 17th Century, when the Medici family finally contrived to send their own bank broke, the shrewd Genovese bankers stepped in just as the Spanish were wondering what to do with the rivers of gold that were flowing through their coffers, looted from the New World. Suddenly Genoa became the richest city in the Mediterranean, and their bankers proceeded to build grand mansions and palaces all over the city. Today, an astonishing 43 of them comprise a single world heritage listed museum network, the Palazzi dei Rolli; the three along the street that is today called the Via Garibaldi are just the largest and grandest of them, and house a magnificent art collection.

The Palazzo Reale, one of the amazing Palazzi dei Rolli

This capacity for renewal, something Genoa seems to have done several times in its long history, finds another expression down on the waterfront. The city tumbles down from the Ligurian hills into a kind of natural amphitheatre that finds itself concentrated on the enclosed and impossibly tiny bay of the harbour, encircled by wharves from whence massive cruise ships and the ferries of the Moby, Tirrenia, and Grimaldi lines delicately manoeuvre their way through the narrow entrance. But like many such ports, its old warehouses and cranes had fallen into disuse when the main main commercial port, from which container ships and tankers come and go, was sensibly relocated further west. In 1992, the 500th anniversary of the voyage to America of Genoa’s most famous son, Christopher Columbus, was the spur to redevelop the waterfront under the direction of one of it’s most famous current residents, the architect Renzo Piano. The result is striking, in some ways controversial, but there is no doubt that the Genovese have taken it to their heart, making it their preferred setting for the evening passeggiata, followed by aperitivo and dinner at one of the restaurants fronting the redeveloped warehouses, where diners can gaze in awe at the enormous yachts that are moored there.

Renzo Piano’s Biga gracefully evokes the old harbour’s commercial maritime past
A colourfully painted Tirrenia lines ferry eases its way into the harbour

Fascinating as the city itself is, Genoa is also the gateway to the Italian Riviera. The bit to the west, the Riviera Ponente, is where ordinary Italians go for holidays, a string of pleasant beach towns, of which Sanremo is probably the queen. But to the east and south lies the Riviera Levante, the part of the Ligurian coast that so fascinated the Englishmen on their Grand Tour – particularly their effete poets, Byron and Shelley, for whom an entire gulf ended up being named. The pearls of the Riviera Levante are Portofino, Santa Margherita Ligure, and Ravello. We visited all three last year, but we thought it would be fun to go there again, this time by boat from Genoa. The trip involved calling at two other little ports, Camogli and San Fruttuoso, before sailing into Portofino. It was a hop-on hop-off affair, so we decided to stop for coffee in Camogli, have lunch at San Fruttuoso, an unbelievably cute little bay overlooked by a Benedictine abbey that dates back to the tenth century, have a drink in swanky Portofino before hiking for about an hour to get to Santa Margherita, from where we could get a train home. On yet another hot and sunny day, getting out on the water was a tonic, and our programme worked a treat – although the final leg on foot was pretty hard work in the late afternoon sun with a very expensive (€15 each!) Aperol Spritz sloshing around inside us. Still it was worth it, for this is one of the prettiest stretches of coast that you could hope to find anywhere.

The tiny bay of San Fruttuoso, accessible only from the sea, and its 10th C Benedictine Monastery
A couple of daredevil lads diving off a rock near Santa Margherita Ligure

Our other expedition out of town was a trip on the very cute narrow gauge Genova-Casella railway. This little train – ours had only one carriage – winds its way up through the hills from a station in the north-east of the city, providing stunning views of the coast and the city as it clings precariously to the hillside. When we boarded, Rob got a little excited, and, ignoring the clear “Do Not Enter” sign on the door (even Robert’s Italian should have grasped that) he jumped into the driver’s cabin and started talking to the driver and the conductor. Everyone who knows Rob will not be surprised to hear that, far from being summarily kicked out, they let him stay there for the whole trip up, giving him a unique perspective on the whole exercise – particularly when the train had to stop so the conductor could get out and shoo a wandering goat off the track, an event which we more conventionally seated passengers were entirely oblivious. The driver didn’t speak much English, and I reckon his ear was bleeding by the time we got to Casella, judging from the amount of Rob-talk that I could hear through the door, but they seemed to be firm friends by the time the trip ended.

The dinky little carriages of the Genoa-Casella railway

Speaking of my beloved partner, there is one other anecdote I have to share. Back in Genoa’s old town, we were making our way back down the hill from a visit to the palaces via the street of the prostitutes (there are actually several of them, and it took us a while to work out a route to and from the tourist sights that avoided them), when Rob, in his irrepressible way, decided he just had to ask a question of one of the girls that had obviously been burning away in his mind.

“Where”, he asked in his special loud English, “are the boy prostitutes?”

This elicited a puzzled look from the girl, who eventually told him that she didn’t think there were any working the streets of Genoa. Then she paused for a moment before smiling lasciviously.

“But you come up to my room, I have many big didoes …”

Needless to say Rob declined her kind offer as politely as he could, and high-tailed it down the hill to where I had been waiting while this exchange took place. Just goes to show, though, that working girls are pretty good at spotting an opportunity.

So, how to sum up Genoa? A city of paradox and surprise, certainly. Gritty in parts, stunningly elegant in others, a kind of cross between unruly Naples and charming Bologna. But really, Genoa is unique. It’s a pity that so many foreign tourists see it as no more than a transit stop, passing through to board their mega cruise ship, or hurrying south to the glamour of the Riviera Levante – but then, maybe that’s just how the Genoese like it! Like Bologna and Turin, though, you get the feeling that this is a city much loved by Italians. And now by us.


Two Gents in France – Part 2 : Arles

Ever since Vincent van Gogh spent over a year here, the town of Arles has been synonymous with the painter’s short and turbulent life. He arrived in February 1888, actually on his way to Marseilles to study painting there, but his train was stopped in Arles because of a snowstorm, and he had to find a night’s lodgings. Instantly falling in love with the town (which could hardly have been at its most enticing in the dead of winter) he decided to abandon his plans and stay, in the end for fourteen months, until May 1889, when he committed himself to the psychiatric clinic at St Rémy-de-Provence. During this time, in an extraordinary burst of creativity, he painted an astonishing 187 pictures, many of them among his most famous. He also presented a bit of his ear to a no-doubt astonished prostitute after a searing fight with his friend Paul Gauguin, who Vincent hero-worshipped, but who treated him abominably.

Van Gogh’s presence is everywhere in Arles today. Virtually every souvenir shop and tourist joint sells Van Gogh paraphernalia, from mugs to placemats to keyrings, and the cafe on the Place du Forum that he painted trades shamelessly on Vincent’s famous painting with bright yellow decor and signs indicating it is the ‘Cafe de la Nuit’; the food is very average and the prices exorbitant, in the usual cynical trade on the gullibility of tourists. It is unchanged in one respect, though, for it is likely that Van Gogh wouldn’t have been able to find the price of a drink there either, and probably never went in the place. There are tours that go in his footsteps of course (we took one of them) and virtually every spot where he painted an important picture is marked with a plaque and a reproduction of the relevant work. It’s fascinating and occasionally moving to stand where Vincent must have stood when he painted what have become some of his most iconic works.



 Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum’, and the same cafe today.



The Hospital at Arles, as Van Gogh painted it, and today



The Langlois Bridge – actually quite a hike out of town!

But though the painter’s name is ubiquitous in the town, curiously none of his pictures have a permanent home here today. Perhaps that reflects the slightly ambiguous relationship that the city had with Van Gogh in his lifetime, for the good burghers of Arles did their best to have him chucked out at one point, for being a public nuisance. There is the excellent Fondation Van Gogh, which hosts annual exhibitions featuring at least one of his works, usually as a jumping off point for other artists who were influenced by him. We were lucky this year, as there were no less than seven paintings on display as part of their annual exhibition.

One imagines that in Vincent’s time, Arles was a fairly quiet little Provencal town, albeit one with a long and proud history. It is a diminutive place – you can easily walk across the old town in twenty minutes – but almost in the centre of the town there is a very grand monument that immediately tells you that Arles was once a much more important place than it is today: a splendid Roman Arena, virtually complete, and still in use as a bullring.

Arles’ well-preserved Arena
The Arena is used for bull fights, both the traditional Spanish kind and the local version, which is much kinder on the bull.

Arles was in fact once the important Roman city of Arelate, boasting, in addition to the arena, a fine theatre, a triumphal arch, and a chariot-racing circus located just outside the city walls, where the rowdies who frequented such events could be shut out if necessary. This was no minor Roman town, and it owed its prominence to the fact that it had the lowest bridge crossing the River Rhône (a wooden pontoon affair which has of course long disappeared, though there is a modern bridge not far from the original site). Arelate was also a major port, the mouth of the Rhône being much closer than it is now, and by the fifth century it was home to between 75-100,000 people, a good many more than the present population of 50,000 or so. It was important enough to have served as an imperial capital for a time, and was much favoured by the Emperor Constantine, who built baths there, substantial parts of which still stand.

After the Roman Empire eventually collapsed, Arles went through the usual ups and downs that most cities suffered in the middle ages. The city was depopulated, the monuments used as a quarry, and at one stage the arena was turned into a kind of mini-town, the exterior walls serving as fortifications and the interior being filled with houses, complete with a little piazza in the centre.

An image of the Amphitheatre turned into a town in the Middle Ages.

In the modern era, Arles gradually recovered its prominence as a major port on the Rhône, but with the arrival of the railway in the 19th century, it became the backwater that Vincent found so enticing in 1888. Since his time, though, the town has become a cultural hot spot: it was designated European Capital of Culture in 2013, it hosts an enormous annual photography exhibition, which was in full swing when we were there, and it is home to the French national school of photography. More recently, Maja Hoffmann, heiress to a Swiss pharmaceutical fortune, set up LUMA Arles, dedicated to fostering the work of new artists, and commissioned Frank Gehry to design a new building to house the foundation and its associated gallery spaces. Due for completion in 2019, the centre has a typically distinctive Gehry profile, and will no doubt give Arles a further boost as a cultural centre in Provence.

The new LUMA centre in Arles

Click here for more on LUMA and Maja Hoffmann

But even with all this artistic activity, Arles still retains the air of a quiet backwater, and even at the height of summer it is easy to find streets that are as deserted as those of any small village – though tree-shaded squares like the Place Voltaire, just a few metres from our apartment, tend to be busy until quite late in the evening, with diners and drinkers chatting merrily away in the late twilight, occasionally entertained by guitar-accompanied gypsy singers, all against the background of the constant hum of cicadas, the ubiquitous chorus that accompanies life everywhere in the south of France. In short, Arles seemed to us to be almost the perfect Provencal town – large enough to be interesting, historically fascinating, yet still laid back and accessible.

Arles also provides a great base from which to mount expeditions to other parts of Provence. We didn’t quite have the time to go and see the Camargue, the world famous wetlands to the east and south of Arles, nor did we get to Nimes (because of excessively difficult railway timetables), but we did do great day trips to Marseille and Avignon – for which I will do a short separate post.

So that’s it for Arles, a place we loved and will definitely come back to one day. From here, we moved on to Genova after a brief stop in Sanremo, which will be the subject of my next major post.

Two Gents in France – Part 1: The Riviera

It must have been nearly fifteen years ago. I was in France attending a management course, and had squeezed in a few days holiday before coming home. I’d planned to spend that time in Paris, but out of the blue I got a call from our friend Josephine Ridge, who told me she was joining a cruise ship in Nice, and so I thought why not go down and catch up with her and at the same time have a few days on the Riviera. While I was waiting for Jo to arrive, I took a trip along the coast by train to Menton for lunch (as you do), and on the way back hopped off in the little village of Villefranche-Sur-Mer for a couple of hours. I remember thinking it was one of the prettiest harbours and loveliest towns I had ever seen, and that I must come back someday for a proper visit. Well, needless to say, I never did go back. Though we have visited so many places in Europe over the intervening years, for some reason a visit to the Riviera never made it onto the agenda – until now.

As everyone who has been following this blog will know, our first year in Italy came to an end in mid December last year, when we took a cruise ship from Genoa to Dubai, and from there flew home on Christmas Day. But we had already decided that this travelling lark was too much fun to give up, so we rented our house out for another year, planning to come back to Europe after spending some time back in Melbourne and our other favourite haunt, Bali. The question was – where? In the end after much debate we settled on a return to Italy. First, though, we thought it would be interesting to spend a bit of time in the south of France, and particularly Nice, which is probably the most Italian of all French cities. That was when the idea of returning to Villefranche came into my mind, and so in early July we arrived at our charmingly idiosyncratic little apartment perched above the harbour which would be our home for almost two weeks.

This is the view of Villefranche harbour that greeted us every day.

The glory of Villefranche is its harbour. It is a deep bay, overlooked by the dramatic mountains of the Riviera to the north, and enclosed by the peninsula of Cap Ferrat to the east and the rugged heights of Mount Boron to the west.  The harbour is capacious enough to have hosted the American Sixth Fleet in the 1950’s and 60’s, and the town still has an annual Fourth of July party to celebrate that fact. Today, during the summer cruising season, the port is visited by cruise ships almost every day, often two at a time, disgorging thousands of passengers who, for the most part, make a beeline for Nice or Monaco. And of course, this being the Riviera, there is always a fascinating collection of flashy yachts dotting the harbour, some large enough almost to qualify as cruise ships themselves.

The old town, seen from the citadel


The old town occupies the western shore of the bay, nestled beneath Mount Boron, which separates Villefranche from Nice proper, and overlooked by the fourteenth century Citadel, whose forbidding ramparts today are home to the town hall and a clutch of small and little-visited museums. It’s a charming place, a warren of narrow streets and steep lanes that climb up the hill from the restaurant-lined harbour front. There is just one laid-back little grocery store, a boulangerie that opens for half a day so you can buy your fresh bread, a tabac-presse supplying cigarettes, newspapers and the usual oddities that such establishments provide, a few beachwear shops, a clutch of moderately priced restaurants and bars clustered along the main street, and that’s about it. Naturally we sampled a few of the restaurants, and our favourite bar was Le Phare, a narrow little place with a dozen tables out front on the street, run by a tall, handsome and blonde young Belgian named Sebastian who manages his occasionally cantankerous customers with unflappable good humour.


The harbour forms a kind of natural amphitheatre, overlooked by serried ranks of apartment buildings that have been built wherever a flat space could be found in the surrounding hills, and it seemed that almost every night someone found an excuse to entertain the lucky residents of those apartments by lighting up the sky with firework displays. It seemed that every rich dude getting married or having a birthday just had to celebrate with pyrotechnics, and at the sound of the first bang all the kids (and many of their parents) would go hurtling down the lanes to the harbour so that they could watch with the simple and child-like joy that fireworks evoke in even the most cynical and hard-hearted of breasts. And then there were the official occasions like Bastille Day, when the harbour was lined with crowds for a half hour long extravaganza choreographed to the music that was broadcast throughout the town.

The Riviera is synonymous, of course, with the rich and famous, who have made it their playground for at least the last hundred years. The place is littered with villas small and large, most of which you can merely glimpse through the gates as you walk past. But you can certainly get a feel for the opulent lifestyles of the past by visiting those villas that have been preserved and turned into museums. Within easy walking distance of Villefranche there are two of these beauties – the Villa Kerylos and the Villa Ephrussi di Rothschild. The former was built in the early 1900’s by Theodore Reinach, a wealthy polymath. Wikipedia lists his occupation(s) as Archaeologist, Mathematician, Lawyer, Papyrologist, Philologist, Epigrapher, Historian, Numismatist, Historian, Musicologist and, finally, Politician – one wonders how he had time for lunch, let alone to supervise the building of a grand villa. Reinach was fascinated by ancient Greek architecture, and so he built the house, which occupies a spectacular promontory on the edge of the bay of Beaulieu-Sur-Mer, as a faithful replica of a wealthy Greek villa, complete with furnishings and decoration in the Greek style. Mind you, though none of the furniture looked all that comfortable, the house did incorporate some very modern conveniences, including an early type of multi-jet shower.

Villa Kerylos seen from Cap Ferrat
The villa’s exterior is meant to faithfully copy an original from Crete
The pretty peristyle garden in the centre of the villa

Atop the ridge of Cap Ferrat, the villa built by Baroness Beatrice de Rothschild is on an even grander scale. Constructed a few years after the Villa Kerylos in the belle-epoque style, it is an elegant pink pile with commanding views across the sea on either side. But, splendid though the house is, it is the gardens that are the real attraction. There are nine of them, each with a different theme, beautifully conceived and laid out, and one easily loses track of time wandering from one to the other. The tour path eventually leads you back to a long rectangular pool that connects the house to the gardens, complete with fountains that erupt into action to the sound of slightly cheesy classical music, broadcast through speakers hidden in the shrubbery. Mind you, that’s the least of the eccentricities of this place. Evidently the the garden was conceived in the form of a ship, meant to be viewed from the loggia of the house, which was like the bridge of a vessel. It was inspired by a voyage the baroness made on the liner Ile de France and so the thirty gardeners who maintained the garden just had to be dressed as sailors, complete with berets with red pop-poms! Sometimes the rich really are quite daffy.

A Belle-Epoque vision in pink!
The Spanish Garden
The house from the gardens, complete with musical fountains

Both those sights were easily reached on foot, but Villefranche’s railway station, conveniently located a short walk from our apartment, also gave us easy access to sights further afield. Nice is just a seven minute trip and two stops away, which made popping into town a breeze, for shopping and sightseeing. Away from the frenetic traffic of the seafront, where the elegance of the Promenade des Anglais is rather spoilt by the fact that it is separated from the town by a four lane highway, Nice is an elegant and refined city, its uniform and harmonious apartment buildings making it reminiscent of Paris, though with a distinctly Italian feel, perhaps because of the ubiquitous shutters on the windows. We had one lovely day just wandering through the old part of town, where narrow lanes open unexpectedly onto charming squares, before heading up to the pretty Parc du Chateau that occupies the headland separating the old town from the harbour, with its ranks of parked yachts and bustling ferries going back and forth to Corfu.

The old town seen from the Parc du Chateau (the wonders of telephoto lenses!)
Pretty little Place Rossetti, in the old town.

In the opposite direction, perhaps twenty minutes away by train, is Monte Carlo, the city that occupies virtually all of the micro-state that is the Principality of Monaco. There’s not a lot to occupy your time there, except walking around and gasping at the extraordinary displays of wealth represented by the yachts moored in the harbour, the expensive cars that roar around the city as if it were a permanent Grand Prix circuit, the ostentatious arrivals and departures at the casino, and the absurd prices demanded for a cappuccino and a croissant delivered by surly waiters at otherwise nondescript cafes. Still, the walk up into the old town was worth it for the views and a look at the outside of the Royal Palace, where the guard marches up and down with all the pomp usually associated with kingdoms much more grand than this 2 square kilometre pipsqueak.

Monte Carlo, from the old town
The famous casino
The Royal Palace
Robert pretending to be Juan Fangio

Apart from the very wealthy, the Riviera is also famous for having attracted over the years more than its fair share of artists, for whom the brilliance of the sunlight and the ruggedness of the landscape must have provided an extraordinary visual stimulus. Auguste Renoir owned a lovely house just out of Nice, at Cagnes-Sur-Mer, which is today a very nice museum dedicated to his life. Henri Matisse also had a house in the suburbs of Nice – when we visited, there was a fascinating exhibition on the parallel careers of Matisse and Picasso, who were friends and great admirers of each other’s work. And up in the hills above Nice there is the artistic colony that was established at St-Paul-de-Vence, which today is a bit of a tourist town in which every second doorway harbours a commercial art gallery or atelier. And a little further away, in the oft-neglected but charming town of Vence, there is the quite marvellous chapel that Matisse decorated in the Dominican convent there.

Renoir’s house at Cagnes-Sur-Mer

But our stay in Villefranche wasn’t entirely devoted to sightseeing. Right at the head of the bay, and just below us, there is the expanse of beach called the Plage des Marinieres, very popular with locals and visitors alike, not least because it is for the most part sandy rather than pebbly, and it is entirely free (also a rarity in France). Here we spent several pleasant mornings enjoying the cool water and early sun before it got too hot.

The trees provided welcome shade at our local beach.

So there you are. After two weeks, we were neither rich nor famous, but we had fun playing around in their sandpit.

Hope you’ve enjoyed the return of the Two Gents, and that you’ll stick with me for my next post, for which we will venture deeper into southern France, to the city of Arles and the lovely surrounds of Provence.

A Farmhouse in Tuscany

La Colombaia Vecchia , which has been our home for the month of November, seems to grow organically out of the hillside on which it stands, a fairly typical tall Tuscan farmhouse, three stories of brown stone pierced by small windows flanked with shutters, in one corner a small loggia framing a perfect view of the valley below. Inside, the house is deceptively large; there are six bedrooms, a cozy living room, a rather grand dining room with seating for twelve, and a big kitchen, equipped with every pot, pan and utensil known to man, plus, extravagance of extravagances, no less than two coffee machines. This is the real heart of the house, the focal point around which everything else is arranged. Outside, behind the main building, is a broad platform, home to a fishpond and no doubt the site of many a summer lunchtime gathering under the trees that provide shelter from sun and wind, though it’s a little unkempt in late autumn.


The view from the loggia is spectacular. Immediately in front of the house, a country road loops lazily down the hill through newly ploughed pastures that were a chalky light brown in colour when we arrived, but which are now covered in a fine coat of green, disappearing into a copse of trees at the bottom of the valley. Beyond, rising to a peak in the distance, is the Berignone state forest, a carpet of green shot through with the orange and russet shades of autumn. The forest is a popular haunt for the local hunters, and from sun up until mid morning, the pop of rifle shots can be heard as they hunt bird game and probably the occasional wild boar that also inhabit the forest. Further away to the southwest, plumes of steam are visible from the complex of geothermal power stations that tap the energy of underground hot springs.

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The many moods of the countryside

Apart from the ploughed fields and fences, the only other signs of habitation that we can see are a few farmhouses dotting the landscape, and, perched high on a hill above us, the tiny hamlet of Mazzolla. Like many such places all over Italy, this borgo was built high on the hill mostly for defence; the farmers worked the fields and olive groves during the day, returning to their houses, safe against marauders, at the end of the working day. The place consists of just a cluster of houses, a church, a restaurant, a couple of B&B’s, and a small palazzo that these days serves as a wedding venue. The restaurant, Trattoria Albana, owned and run by Giuseppe and his wife Mary, serves a fine menu of local Tuscan dishes, beautifully rendered, in an old fashioned atmosphere enlivened by the presence of an open fire, which is very welcoming at this season.





But our nearest serious urban centre is Volterra, some 7.5km by road. Volterra hugs the top of a long ridge, 530 metres above sea level, and has the distinction of being one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in Italy, there having been a settlement here as far back as the 8th century BC. It was an important Etruscan centre, and thereafter a Roman town; vestiges of both civilisations can be seen in the old Etruscan acropolis, and the ruins of the Roman Theatre and baths. Subsequently, it had the history common to towns in Tuscany – first a period of independence, then falling under the sway of Florence as a client state, and finally being absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. It has survived all that – and the ravages of the modern world – very much intact, an almost perfect medieval walled town whose cobbled streets and piazza have barely changed since the 16th century.

On our first foray into town, we discovered that, far from having buttoned itself up for winter as we had expected, the place was buzzing with activity. Emerging from the car park, the first sign that something was up was the presence of a number of huge trailers of the type used by film companies; sure enough, Volterra has become 16th century  Florence for the filming of the second season of the TV series The Medici: Masters of Florence. The main square, the Piazza Dei Priori, normally pristine, now had the untidy look that it would have had in the 15th century, complete with wooden market stalls (including fake sides of meat – made of wood! – hanging from their frames), a kind of stage on which simple theatrical performances of the commedia del arte type might have been staged, long wooden galleries along the front of the main buildings, lots of straw everywhere on the cobbles, very realistic-looking carts and carriages, and a dozen or so horses, who made their distinctive contribution to the atmosphere in the form of horse-piss and poo. In amongst all this, the actors and extras, dressed of course in Renaissance costume, wandered around smoking and talking on mobile phones while they waited for the next take. We stood around in the cold and joined the locals watching a couple of scenes being filmed, but filming is a long and tedious business, and before long we wandered off and left them to it, retreating to the comfort and warmth of the most popular cafe in town, L’Incontro, for a cappuccino and a cornetto (the Italian equivalent of the French croissant). This went on for pretty well the whole month, and eventually became vaguely annoying.

Despite the make-believe going on in the Piazza dei Priori, Volterra is in fact a real town where real people live, a fact that is more apparent when the tide of tourists has departed. Many restaurants have closed and won’t reopen until spring, but those that stay open are frequented by locals, who arrive en-masse from their various jobs around the town at between 1.00 pm and 1.30 pm, spend an hour or so enjoying lunch, and then disappear between 2:30 pm and 3:00 pm to go back to work. Though there are two good supermarkets just outside the walls, deep in the old town the alimentari (fruit and vegetable shop) and the macelleria (butcher) are still the shopping mainstay for residents of the city. And if you need a haircut (as we did) there is an excellent barber whose shop seems to be something of a drop-in centre for the older men of the city, who turn up, have a flick through the newspaper, chat with the barber, and then wander off, none of which disturbs his concentration in the least.

Robert also needed the services of a dentist, which we found down an alley off one of the main streets of the old town. Though none of the staff spoke any English at all, and the dentist himself only had a few words, as is almost always the case with Italians, everyone worked hard to overcome the linguistic challenges, and eventually the nature of Rob’s complaint was successfully diagnosed and treated, with lots of smiles and good humour all round.

Staying in a country house is a completely new experience for us; we are city boys at heart, and we found the deep silence of the country both beguiling and a little unnerving. Not being able to hear any traffic or the noise of passing people chatting in the street felt odd until we got used to it, and began to enjoy things like the quiet of the morning, broken only by distant twittering of a few birds and the occasional pop of a hunter’s rifle. At night, the darkness is almost complete, as there are no street lights on the road, and in the absence of moonlight the landscape just disappears into inky blackness, pierced here and there by the light from farmhouse windows. The upside of this is that one has only to take a few steps out away from the house to be confronted with the wonder of the heavens, more stars than I have ever seen.

Lunch on the Loggia

Throughout our trip, we have made a point of eating at least lunch or dinner at home, and our stay at Mazzolla was no different, with the exception that where we had the luxury in the city of trotting down to the local shops to buy ingredients for the meals we wanted to make, here we had to plan a little more ahead, since the nearest supermarket is a 10 or 15 minute drive away. But having purchased the ingredients, cooking in the fabulously well equipped country kitchen was a joy, and with the weather continuing to be benign, we had lots of fine meals out on the loggia. In between cooking and eating, we were happy reading, doing a little more work on my novel, and sitting around the open fire in the evenings.

Nice office view!

Beyond cooking, we didn’t have to lift a finger to do anything else. Every week, the two cleaners, Roberta and Piera, turned up to clean the whole house and change the linen, which was taken away by the other member of the team, an odd-job man named Luca, to be returned at the end of the week. Though all three were perfectly charming, none of them speak any English, so there were the usual comic moments as we tried to talk to them. Self interest, though, is a powerful motivator in these things. For example, it transpired that Roberta also runs an Agriturismo (a working farm with tourist accommodation) nearby, and she managed to make absolutely sure that we understood that, leaving us with a USB containing a video about it to entice us to stay next time we are in the area.

Luca, apart from doing odd jobs for the owners of La Colombaia Vecchia, and probably for other houses in the area for all I know, is also a hunter, and one morning as we were about to get into the car to drive off into town, he appeared at the top of the road, gun slung over his shoulder, and accompanied by a pair of excitable hunting dogs. Naturally, we stopped and had a bit of a chat, as best we could with our limited Italian, and we asked him whether he was off down the hill to go shooting. No, he said, not at all, he had already got his bag for the day; reaching into one pocket he produced, with an air of triumph, a small, very dead bird. Robert nearly jumped three feet backwards, and was even less impressed when Luca reached into another pocket and hauled out an equally dead wood pigeon of some kind. Presumably this was going to be his supper.

We didn’t spend all of our time at the house – though Volterra is itself a little off the beaten track, it is nonetheless very handy to the most famous towns of this part of Tuscany – San Gimignano and Siena, both of which we visited a couple of times. San Gimignano is famous, of course, for its towers, the remnants of an orgy of tower building in the medieval period that resulted in some 72 tower houses being built. These tower houses were not that uncommon in medieval times, as a defence against internecine conflict between powerful families, but where most cities tore them down as the civil environment settled, San Gimignano retained many, and there are today 14 of them, giving the place a mini-Manhattan sort of air. Siena is a larger town than San Gimignano, the home of a university, the site of the annual Palio horse race, and a generally prosperous looking hill town. Just having a wander through the central piazza, the campo, is a joy, as is the marvellous cathedral. We also managed visits to Livorno (an interesting if a bit gritty port town with a lively history), Colle val d’Elsa (a fairytale setting on the top of a ridge), and Cecina (a modern coastal centre with a big weekly market).

A few of San Gimignano’s towers

And so our month in the country passed, pleasant and for the most part uneventful. I don’t think either of us are about to abandon our urban lifestyle for the country, here or in Australia (though famous last words and all that …), but we really relished the opportunity to try it out for a month. For which we have to thank the house’s various owners, John and Judith Wregg, who originally bought the house and did a marvellous job of restoring was was then pretty much a shell, Peter Reeve and Jaycen Fletcher, our friends who are now part owners of the house and whom offered us the opportunity in the first place, and Eva Hucker, the other member of the consortium, who we have never met but who we also thank for allowing us the use of the house. Collectively, folks, you have a treasure here, and we very much appreciated sharing it for a bit.

And finally, I’d also like to thank the marvellous Siobhan and David, longtime residents of Tuscany, who act as a collective general factotum and contact point should we have needed any help. In the event we didn’t have too many crises requiring their intervention, but they were most helpful and became good friends over the month we were there; we hope we will see them again before too long.

From here, we move on to Genoa for a couple of days, and then we join a cruise ship, the MSC Splendida, for a 17 night/ 18 day cruise through the Mediterranean, down the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, ending up in Dubai, from where we fly home. This is therefore the last entry specifically related to the Two Gents adventure in Italy for 2017.

But stay tuned for further developments ….


Many Happy Returns

My last blog post was almost two months ago – seven weeks to be exact – but as we slip into winter, sunny Sicily seems like aeons ago. Since then, our journey has involved returns, first to Rome, which we last saw in the depths of winter when we first arrived in Italy, and then back to Florence. Perhaps because both places were not completely new experiences, I haven’t felt the same urgency about blogging our experiences. But though both cities are familiar, we were far from bored. So herewith, a catch-up blog post to fill in the gaps and reflect a little on the last seven weeks. I’m going to cover a bit of ground, so grab a cuppa and settle down for a long-ish read.

We left Catania, on Sicily’s east coast, late at night, travelling by ferry from that city to Naples, having had a scare on the way down from Taormina due to the chronic inefficiency of the Sicilian train services, which managed to make our train almost an hour late departing. After a rather breathless taxi ride to a darkened and almost deserted ferry terminal, we finally boarded with twenty minutes or so to spare, and settled into our cabin for the twelve hour overnight trip. At this point, I’m sure you are probably asking why on earth we didn’t catch a plane; not an unreasonable question (and one we asked ourselves a few times during this particular exercise). Certainly we would have got there much faster, and it would probably not have been much more expensive, but on the other hand using entirely terrestrial modes of transport does give you a wonderful sense of really travelling, which is lovely if you have the time. And of course there is none of that infuriating palaver that surrounds the otherwise quite magical experience of flying – getting to the airport, struggling with automated ticketing systems, endless queues through dehumanising security procedures, and waiting around in overcrowded terminals for the inevitably late flight. That’s my rationalisation, anyway!

This particular ferry duly arrived at about 11 am in Naples, after a smooth and peaceful journey up the Italian coast. Having slept soundly, had a hot shower, and enjoyed a nice breakfast (you can’t do any of that on a plane!), we disembarked; an hour later we were on our fast train up to Rome.

Our first arrival in Rome, back in January, had been in the dark half-light of a wintry dawn. This time, we were arriving in the bright sunshine of a late summer’s day, and as our taxi careered across the city, driven by a very chatty young woman who provided us with a running tourist commentary in barely-intelligible English, we both felt as if we were seeing the city anew. Where the trees had been leafless and the roads wet on that last arrival, now everything was green, the streets and monuments were bathed in the brightest of sunshine, and where there had been relatively few people about, the city was now swarming – the only word for it – with tourists. Our destination was different this time, too. Instead of a tiny one-bedroom apartment at the back of a building that fronted onto the Campo dei Fiori, right in the heart of the old city, this time we were in a two bedroom apartment (so as to accommodate Robert’s sister, Trish, who was joining us for this part of the trip), in an area of Rome called Prati, just across the river.

First stop – coffee in Piazza Navona

Prati, we soon realised, is a pretty comfortable, middle-to-upper class area.  The central open space of the district is the Piazza Cavour, just a few metres from our apartment, a big and lush green space bisected by pathways and shaded by palm trees. In the centre of the piazza is a massive statue of Camilo Benso, Conte di Cavour, Prime Minister of Piedmont and one of the giants of the risorgimento, who keeps an eye on the kids playing football in front of the main facade of Italy’s Supreme Court, a gorgeously over-the-top folly of white marble that is probably intended to evoke all the awful majesty of the law, but which actually just looks a bit bombastic. Still, I suppose it’s a nice place to go to work for all the lawyers and their assistants who cross the square every day, moving very purposefully (for Italians!).

Piazza Cavour and the wonderfully overdone Supreme Court  building

The Supreme Court’s neighbour is the equally iconic Castel Sant’Angelo. This fortress, which was constructed over the mausoleum originally erected for the Emperor Hadrian, provided a secure place of refuge for the various Renaissance popes who found themselves under siege whenever the warlords who controlled the city stopped fighting each other long enough to unite and rise against him. There is in fact a long fortified corridor that runs from the Vatican Palace to the Castel, enabling besieged popes to hurry to safety without setting foot at ground level. Right at the top of the fortress, there is a statue of the Archangel Michael, featured in virtually every production of Verdi’s opera Tosca, whose final and tragic act is set on the upper platform of the fortress.

Castel Sant’Angelo at night

So they’re the big boys of Prati. Behind them, the streets, arranged in a neat grid-pattern bisected by long avenues radiating away from the Tiber, are wide and tree-lined, bordered by miles of Liberty-era apartment buildings (the entire country, I swear, must have been rebuilt in the last thirty years of the 19th century), all very genteel, neat, and tidy. It’s very much a residential district, lots of nice restaurants and bars, none of which could be called “tourist”, though there are plenty of tourists about.

We did most of our blockbuster sightseeing back in January, so apart from revisiting a few highlights with Trisha (it was her first visit to Rome), we were planning to fill in a few gaps, and spend some time at a couple of places that are rather less well known. For example, we had a fascinating morning looking at our nearest Roman ruin, the Ara Pacis. This first century AD temple was built by the Emperor Augustus, and originally stood in the Campus Martius, the open area outside the Roman walls that was used for military exercises and for elections in the days of the Republic, when “the People” would gather in their tribes to elect magistrates and pass laws proposed by the Senate (ever wondered what SPQR stands for? Senatus Populusque Romanus – the Senate and People of Rome). The temple was relocated by Mussolini to its present position opposite the mausoleum of Augustus, and housed in a pavilion which was then replaced after the war with the present light and airy structure, designed by American architect Richard Meier.

The Ara Pacis, or Altar of Peace

Another fascinating museum, also just across the Tiber from us, is the Museo Napoleonico, dedicated to Napoleon and his family. Where the little Corsican is seen elsewhere in Europe as a rather blood-soaked conqueror, here in Italy he has always had a softer reputation, partly because, as a Corsican, he was really half-Italian (throughout his life he spoke his French with a noticeable Italian accent), and partly because his conquest of the peninsula provided an early inspiration for the idea of a unified Italy. The museum is fascinating, covering not only the Emperor and those of his family who had some relationship with Italy, but also having a room dedicated to Emperor Napoleon III, the conqueror’s nephew whose foreign policies had a major influence on the risorgimento. And as an added bonus on the day we went to visit, there was a concert performance in the main salon, by a brilliant young pianist named Damiano Paci, a mere 18 years old!

We had two other major expeditions – one to visit the Borghese Gallery, which of course also entailed spending an afternoon in the gorgeous Borghese Gardens, and the other to the Vatican Museums – an altogether less pleasant experience. But first, the Borghese. It must be twenty years since Robert and I first went there, and we had both forgotten what an amazing collection of sculptures and paintings the gallery holds. If you are a fan of Carravaggio, the Borghese is heaven, since they have half a dozen of the master’s works there. Then there are the amazing Bernini sculptures, Apollo and Daphne, in  which Bernini captures in the most delicate way the moment at which Daphne turns into a laurel tree, and The Rape of Persephone, cruelty, desperation and sensuality all rendered in pure white marble. And finally his David, a study in determined, dramatic action, quite unlike any other David statue I can think of.  And they’re just the blockbusters …

Daphne turns into a tree

Our visit to the Vatican Museums, on the other hand, though fascinating in its own way, was a far less pleasant experience. Though we had bought tickets in advance, thereby skipping the mile-long queue of people who hadn’t had the foresight to do so, once we were inside we found ourselves in a literal tide of humanity, shuffling our way through some of the most glorious rooms in the Christian world, hardly able to stop and look at anything for any length of time without being jostled by some tour group or another. Yes, we got to see some iconic works, such as the famed Laocoon, and the Apollo Belvedere, and yes the Sistine Chapel still elicits gasps as you crane your neck looking at the sublime images that seem to cover every inch of its walls. But not for the first time we began to have some sympathy with those in Italy and elsewhere who have begun calling for some control over the volume of tourists that descend on cities like Rome and Venice each summer. They are right: sooner or later this will kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

Doin’ the Vatican Shuffle

Apart from sightseeing, much of our time was spent doing the very ordinary things of wandering the streets and piazzas – always a joy in Rome, even at the height of the tourist season – visiting the markets to buy food, and eating in various restaurants, some excellent, some awful, most actually pretty decent for the price (more expensive than in the south, but still quite reasonable). Rob was very excited to meet one of his food heroes, a lady named Rachel Roddy, who writes a weekly column in the Guardian, having all-but stalked her in the Testaccio Markets, where she shops each week. And so a pleasant couple of weeks passed, by the end of which we felt that we had at last come to grips with a city whose essence had, despite three or four visits, always managed to elude us.

From Rome, the journey to Florence is just a hop by train, and arriving in Santa Maria Novella station felt like a coming home of sorts, for we had, in our earlier stint in Florence, started and ended many journeys here. But instead of crossing the river to our old haunt of Santo Spirito, this time we were to be holed up for a five weeks in a completely different district, an area just a little east of the Duomo, bordering Santa Croce. The apartment, a pleasant and well-appointed one-bedder, overlooked the internal courtyards of a building that was once the Palazzo Valori, one of the many palaces along this street originally built by the Albizzi family, the deadly rivals of the Medici, and their friends and dependants. Immediately opposite there is one of those big restaurants (mercifully hidden away in the inner courtyard of the palazzo opposite) that cater to large tour groups, so it was not unusual for us to push open the massive wooden front door of our building to be confronted by thirty or forty rain-coated Japanese tourists, snapping photos of everything, including us, before toddling off for their obligatory bowl of pasta and slice of pizza.

The Italians, like the French, have never quite given up on the idea of village life, even in the most urban of environments. So it was no surprise for us to discover that, barely a hundred metres away, there was a little piazza that, in addition to the obligatory three or four restaurants and bars, also hosts an excellent fruit and vegetable stall that was set up and taken down each day, a local macelleria (butcher), and an excellent rosticceria, or cooked-food shop, from where one can buy all sorts of excellent pre-prepared meals. In other words, a replica of the type of little piazza you can find in any small town in Italy, with the sort of small businesses that elsewhere in the world (certainly in Australia) have been crushed out of existence by the big supermarket chains. No doubt it is all highly inefficient, and probably expensive relative to supermarket prices, but those economic rationalisations seem irrelevant, I suspect, to most Italians.

A well-known church, glimpsed from a street nearby our apartment

Like Rome, we have well and truly seen all the sights there are to see in Florence, so it was very nice to be able to settle into a routine where we felt no pressure to rush off here and there to see things in a limited amount of time. Though it was technically autumn, the weather was uncharacteristically sunny and warm, so we were able to enjoy all the outdoor things we had loved from our first visit, particularly the long walks into the countryside (which is spectacularly beautiful and easily accessible), catching up for lunch and dinner with various friends, old and new, both in Florence and further afield, and generally enjoying life.

Walk for half an hour out of Florence, and you’re in the middle of … this!

Robert took up again with his art tutor, the incredibly knowledgeable Alan Pascuzzi, who took him off to various sights around the city – including a tour of the art works of Santa Croce church only a week or so before a piece of the ceiling fell down and killed a tourist! He also gave Rob some practical classes in the arts of fresco, tempura painting and gold leaf application. That kept him occupied while I tried to make some progress on my novel. So we were not entirely idle!

Rob the Artist
The Artist at Work!

Thus pleasantly occupied, five weeks passed in a flash. We finally said our last farewells to Florence on Monday, promising we will come back, and picked up our rental car to drive down to our next adventure – a month in the rural countryside near Volterra, living in a bucolic farmhouse with a marvellous view.

And that, friends, will be the subject of the next blog entry you will see from me.

Sicily Part One – Palermo

Travelling by ferry, we discovered, is not quite the same glamorous experience as joining a cruise ship. To begin with, there are no fancy terminals manned by obsequious staff to shepherd you through the boarding process. Instead, we arrived at Naples ferry terminal, where, having obtained our boarding tickets from a little biglietteria hidden away in one of half a dozen nondescript buildings that line the shore, we and about twenty other passengers were left standing in the hot sun for an hour or so, prevented by a friendly but uncommunicative security guard from entering the dock while a seemingly endless stream of cars and trucks drove out. The scheduled departure time of 11:00 am for our ferry, the GNV Cristal,  had come and gone before we were finally allowed to walk aboard through the cavernous vehicle bay and make our way to our cabin, a dinky little affair with a couple of bunks and a tiny bathroom. To our considerable surprise, we and the other passengers with whom we had been waiting were the ferry’s only passengers on this leg – and astonishingly, there were no cars or trucks at all being loaded, so we had barely got ourselves settled before we were under way and beginning the passage out of Naples Bay, past the towering rock of Capri, and into the open sea, bound for Palermo.

Capri on the distant horizon seen from a deserted ferry deck

It’s a ten hour journey from Naples to Palermo, enough time to watch the passing scenery from deserted decks as the coastline gradually receded into the distance, have a coffee and a sandwich lunch in the bar, and retire for a couple of hours to the cabin for a nap or, in my case, watch a video or two on my laptop. By the time we had emerged for dinner in the buffet restaurant (one of two options aboard, the other being a proper table-service restaurant which looked decidedly empty when we went past), the Cristal was well within sight of the Sicilian coast, and we were sliding gently into Palermo harbour as the sun surrendered its last grip on the day, outlining in a luminous corona the massif of Monte Gallo, an immense rock that dominates the northern end of the harbour. By this time, the other mountains that surround the city had dissolved into barely visible inky shadows, below which the lights of the city blinked and shimmered around the bay. Rounding the mole that protects the inner harbour, we caught glimpses of the city as the ship turned in a circle to ease into her berth, the walls of a ruined fortress here, a palazzo or two, church domes and spires, half seen behind the yellow glare of the dockyard lights. Finally we were alongside and being disembarked onto an empty dock, left to fend for ourselves.

Exiting the wharf in a vain search for a taxi, we were confronted with a mass of cars and trucks of every description queuing up to board the Tunis-bound ferry that was docked alongside us. Many of the cars were crammed full of personal effects – one was not only full inside, but piled another four or five feet high on the roof with stuff, leaving barely enough room for the driver. Clearly they weren’t just going for a quick holiday on the Tunisian beaches, so presumably they were immigrants who were returning home, and for the first time we had an inkling of the scale of the human tide that washes back and forth across these waters, finding its locus in Sicily.

Having worked our way clear of this tangle, we started the fifteen minute walk to our apartment, following the instructions of Mr Google through darkened back streets that were jammed with parked cars and lined with ugly concrete apartment buildings, with only the occasional kebab shop open to indicate that there was any sign of life, until eventually we found our apartment and were greeted by our very solicitous host, Mari. Though the apartment was probably one of the best we have rented – two bedrooms, two bathrooms, even two living rooms – our unglamorous arrival had left us wondering quite what kind of city we had actually arrived in, and we went to bed a little apprehensive.

That apprehension was perhaps amplified by the usual description in guide books and elsewhere of Palermo as a “gritty” city, with the inevitable references to the presence of the Mafia and their role in holding back progress. Well, it may be that all of that is true, and there are certainly plenty of areas in downtown Palermo for which the epithet “gritty” is applicable, particularly once you get away from the main tourist areas. Yet the city that we found and explored was also charming and evocative, though distinctly different from any other Italian city we have visited.

Let’s start with the part of the city where our apartment was located. Politeama is in the so-called “new town”, that part of Palermo north of the centre that was laid out in the 19th century in a fashionable grid pattern, lined with Liberty-era apartment buildings, most of which seem to have survived the carpet-bombing to which Palermo was subjected during the second world war (by the Americans, and apparently needlessly, since the Germans had already left). Pierced here and there with pleasant parks like the leafy Giardini Inglese, the main street, the Via della Liberta, is tree-lined and provides a perfect locale for up-market brands to display their wares. At the southern end of the suburb is a vast piazza, dominated by the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, a theatre in the grand tradition. Beyond the piazza, the main street has a series of name changes until it emerges as the pedestrianised Via Macqueda outside the city’s equally grand opera house, the Teatro Massimo, reputed to be Italy’s oldest.

Via Macqueda, just outside the Teatro Massimo

Here one enters the old town, itself divided into four quarters centred in the Quattro Cantii intersection, an octagonal square with four fountains, guarded by four statues that are illuminated at night. It is here that, if you wander off the main street into the tangle of narrow lanes, you will encounter the more earthy world of workaday Palermo, where the building facades are dilapidated and crumbling, the balconies rusted, and the washing flaps above your head in the slight breeze that does little to diminish the summer heat. But here you will also find some of the city’s finest architectural treasures, like the beautiful Church of San Cataldo, built in 1154 at the height of Normal rule of the island, a wonderful blend of Norman and Moorish styles.

San Cataldo
The Old Town

And just up the street are the other Norman treasures, the extraordinary cathedral and the Palazzo dei Normanni, from where the Normans governed the island and still the seat of Sicily’s quasi-autonomous legislature. All these buildings are a reminder that Palermo was once one of the most sophisticated and important capitals in the world. It is fair to say that without the protection that King Roger II afforded to the Islamic scholars who preserved the knowledge of the ancients in the fields of art, mathematics and science, the Renaissance and everything that came after it might never have happened. By way of contrast, just a block or two in the other direction is the Post Office, a fascist-era brutalist building that, ironically, survived the war and which, improbably, is regarded with some affection by modern Palermitans; for me it just underscores the sheer weight of history through which this city has lived.

The Cathedral (more impressive outside than in)

I think we would have found Palermo an enjoyable and welcoming place to visit under any circumstances, but it was made even more so by the presence of friends, both old and new. From Australia, our good friend Chris Ryan was visiting the city, accompanied by his friend Dorothy, a stranger to us but soon to become a delightful companion for meals and concerts, of which more below. And in Florence we had made the acquaintance of Glenn and Giovanni, the former an English art teacher and artist, the latter his partner and a native of Sicily; Glenn having just retired, they had moved permanently to Palermo from London just a week or so before our arrival. So for almost the first time in nearly nine months, Robert and I had more than each other for company! We had many lovely moments with all of them, but what follows are three little occasions that stand out.

Dancing in the Streets

For one reason or another, Rob and I have been starved of our usual diet of classical concerts over the summer months, and so when we saw that there was a concert by the Palermo Symphony Orchestra to be held in the courtyard of the Palermo Modern Art Gallery (an excellent institution, by the way, where we spent a very pleasant day escaping Palermo’s heat and contemplating the output of some of Sicily’s very fine 20th century artists), we just had to buy tickets. Dorothy was also interested, and so we all trotted along to join the crowd under the open sky to listen to a program that included a new work by a Sicilian composer, George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, and finally the centrepiece of the concert, his Piano Concerto. The performances were excellent, and the crowd loved it, but the evening was slightly disturbed for us because, sitting in the back row as we were, we became aware as the evening went on of quite a lot of crowd noise coming from the piazza outside. This seemed a little odd, since the square had been fairly placid when we arrived. However, all became clear as we left – it seemed that a small dance troupe had set itself up right outside the museum, performing dance routines to 50’s swing music. This had attracted quite a crowd, many of whom had decided to join in. Naturally we had to watch for a while, and Dorothy couldn’t help but join in the spirit of things with a bit of clapping and toe tapping. The next thing we knew, a young man who was clearly one of the members of the dance troupe presented himself to her, insisting that she join him in a dance. Dorothy feigned reluctance for a bit, but eventually bowed to the inevitable. I nearly fell over laughing at the look of surprise on the young man’s face as the redoubtable Dorothy, revealing a dancing technique that had hitherto been entirely unknown to us, gave him a thorough workout and earned herself a round of applause from the crowd at the end of the dance.

Dancin’ in the Streets, Palermo-style


An encounter with a literary giant

Over many years, Glenn and Giovanni have stayed, when they visited Palermo, at an apartment complex in the former Palazzo Butera, down on the waterfront. The Palazzo is owned by Gioacchino and Nicoletta Lanza Tomasi, or, to give them their proper titles, the Duke and Duchess of Palma. Today a wing is given over to apartments, which Nicoletta manages, while her husband pursues his scholarly activity as an expert on opera, among other things. When we first met Glenn, he had suggested that we might like to have a bit of a tour of the Palazzo when we got to Sicily, a suggestion on which he now made good, arranging for the Duchess to meet us and take us through the Palazzo. Now we have seen a few palazzi in our time in Italy, and this might have been just another were it not for a special connection, and that is the fact that Gioacchino is in fact the adoptive son of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the author of one of the great works of Italian literature, The Leopard (in Italian, Il Gattopardo, though the translation is not exact), most of which was written in this very Palazzo, to which Lampedusa had moved after his own Palazzo was destroyed courtesy of the US Air Force at the end of the war. So not only did the charming Nicoletta give us a great tour of the private rooms of the Palazzo (telling us along the way several highly amusing anecdotes about various family members), but we got to see the original handwritten draft and the first typescript copy of the novel. Very special indeed!

Lampedusa’s original handwritten draft of The Leopard


And we visit the mansion of a wine baron

Finally, since I have to stop writing at some point, I wanted to relate another visit to another grand house, this one in company with Chris, to the Villa Whitaker-Malfitano. This grand house, built in the Belle-Epoque style that would have been at home in Newport, Rhode Island, was the property of a Sicilian-born scion of an English and American family whose wealth came from banking and from extensive vineyards near Marsala, on Sicily’s western coast. We had actually set out that morning just to have a wander through the various parks and gardens that dot the northern part of the city; I had picked out this particular park just by looking at Google Maps, and I had no particular expectations other than that we would see a nice garden. But when we got there, having been told by the guy at the park gate that we had to press the doorbell to get into the mansion, we discovered a fascinating time capsule. It was almost as if Giuseppe Whitaker had literally just popped out and left the place empty. There were only a few other visitors, and unlike most such museums, none of the rooms were roped-off, so we could wander around to our heart’s content; Robert and Chris had a particularly lovely time not just imagining life as it was here, but imagining themselves as the new owners, deciding who would have what bedrooms, where they would hold soirees, and how many people they would have for dinner.

The Palazzo Malfitani Whitaker


These three occasions were all shared with our friends, old and new, who happened to converge on Palermo, and they made that visit all the more enjoyable, for which I thank them all. And since I know that all of you will at some stage read this blog, I hope you will find no objection to being mentioned!

We had ten days in Palermo, and could easily have stayed longer in a city that, for us at least, exceeded our expectations. I hope we will be able to return at some point in the future.

Next blog entry: the rest of Sicily!



Naples – It’s complicated …

Naples is a beautiful city inhabited by grubs. Well, that’s not exactly true, in fact I suspect it is a very unfair characterisation, but it was the phrase that came to my head many times over the month that we have just spent there. The city is undeniably charismatic, with its sparkling bay, the dramatic, glowering backdrop of Mount Vesuvius, stern castles speaking of a long feudal history, magnificent 18th century palaces, labyrinthine old town streets, and extraordinary vistas that can appear at the most unexpected moments. But at the same time, it is without doubt the dirtiest city I think we have visited in Italy. Naples has long had a problem with garbage collection and disposal, and though several people told us that things were improving and are much better than they were, it was still very disturbing to see a corner of the street outside our apartment turned into an impromptu rubbish tip, piled with bags of garbage mingled with all sorts of hard rubbish – beaten up old refrigerators, beds, sofas, all sorts of things. And I have never seen so many cigarette butts on the streets anywhere in Italy; smokers casually flick their butts on the ground without a thought, and certainly with no visible sign of guilt!

The Neapolitans themselves are for the most warm and friendly, though there is often an initial reserve that has to be penetrated first. They are welcoming of tourists and will happily give directions and provide assistance, working harder than most Italians to overcome the language barriers. Yet at the same time they can and will fleece you, without the smile ever leaving their face. This doesn’t seem malicious, it’s just the way their world works – if you can casually rip an extra €20 out of a customer’s pocket because they are easily confused by your rapid Italian, well, why wouldn’t you? And if you get caught out, if the customer pushes back against your chiselling, a rueful smile and a shrug will restore goodwill, no trouble at all.

Our apartment, on the fourth floor of a fairly typical 19th century apartment block, was a great base from which to explore the city, as well as providing shelter from the oppressive August heat once the day’s sightseeing was done. The building is located on the edge of the Centro Storico, whose layout is unchanged since the Greeks established their colony of Neapolis in the 6th century BC. The narrow cobbled streets form a grid overlooked by the washing-festooned balconies of four- and five-story apartment buildings that provide welcome shade during the hottest part of the day. Though this area is mostly pedestrianised, we quickly learned that you need to keep a constant eye out, since the locals, with typical Italian disdain for the rules, just barge through on their motor bikes, often at death-defying speeds.

Naples is stuffed full of churches and monasteries, monuments to the piety of its citizens, and there is a particular concentration of them in the old town. The most spectacular is the complex of Santa Chiara, a rather barn-like place to which is attached a beautiful and peaceful cloister decorated with frescoes and majolica tiles. The Church of Gesu Nuovo is equally large, but hides its riot of Baroque over-decoration behind an unassuming facade that was once the front of a palazzo, demolished when the church was built. And then there is the more austere church of San Lorenzo, outside which we were treated one evening to an ear-splitting fireworks display on the saint’s name-day – amusingly, the locals who we questioned about this event seemed as confused as we were, one of them insisting that the fireworks were actually for a wedding!

The austere facade (left) hiding the Baroque extravagance of Gesu Nuovo

The long, straight stretch of Via Toledo separates the old town from the Spanish Quarter, another warren of narrow lanes that runs up the hillside towards the crowning eminence of the city, Vomero hill. At one end of the street is the massive National Archaeological Museum, a former palace filled with all sorts of antiquities recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum. At the other is the equally massive Royal Palace, from whose glorious but stuffy rooms the Bourbons ruled the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies until Italian unification in 1861; the palace is the repository for a big collection of Neapolitan art, as is the equally grand Bourbon palace at Capodimonte, which sits on another hill that commands the eastern edge of the city. All these edifices are a powerful reminder of the extraordinary wealth of the Bourbon dynasty, most of which was commandeered by the new Kingdom of Italy and vanished into northern coffers – still a sore point with southerners today.

Capodimonte Palace

In high summer, the city gets stiflingly hot, and so we were always relieved when our wanderings took us either down to the water or up onto the heights of Vomero. No less than three funicular services whisk visitors up the slope, where you emerge into a delightful middle-class suburb, cooled by the breeze and altogether more genteel than the raucous old town down below. The main attractions are the massive fortifications of Castello St Elmo (for its views more than anything else), and the beautiful former monastic complex of San Martino. The latter is spectacular, but in typical Neapolitan fashion, badly kept. In the most famous of the several cloisters, the grass didn’t appear to have seen a lawnmower for months, and at least two thirds of the art gallery housed in the complex was closed to the public – apparently for lack of funding and staff.

One of many views from the ramparts of St Elmo

Our other great escape from the city’s heat was the seaside. Although much of Naples’ waterfront is taken up with a very busy port, further west the city government has pedestrianised a big section of the streets that run along the shore in front of the city’s grandest hotels. Now lined with open air bars and restaurants, this is a very popular place for Neapolitans to engage in their passeggiata, the evening stroll with family and friends before dinner. I always think this is the time of day that Italians are at their most appealing, as they walk and chatter in an atmosphere of happy conviviality, parents and grandparents exchanging gossip while their kids run about and have fun, the young adults engaging in all the strutting role-playing that is natural to their age, tourists like us interspersed in the crowd and everyone enjoying the views across the bay as the sun slowly settles, bathing the city and Mount Vesuvius in a soft pink light. Needless to say we spent several very pleasant evenings participating in this ritual before settling in to a nice dinner at a restaurant with a view of the lights of Chiaia and the Castel d’Uovo, another of those forbidding fortifications leftover from a more violent era that now serve as a romantic backdrop to more benign modern pastimes.

Vesuvius seen at paseggiata time

There were other escapes for us, too. The island of Capri is visible from all over Naples, beckoning us across to enjoy its fabled delights. A simple ferry trip and we were there, staying overnight in an excellent little hotel up in Anacapri, the very pretty “poor sister” of glitzy (and expensive) Capri Town. Another overnight escape was to the island of Ischia, much more relaxed than Capri, and very popular with Italian tourists. We stayed in the main town, Ischia Porto, where the harbour was created by breaking through an entrance to the sea from what had been a volcanic lake; the resulting port is almost circular in shape, with an entrance barely wide enough for the endless stream of big ferries that come and go from the mainland. The town is made for wandering, which we duly did one evening, walking down to the famous Castello Aragonese (one of the many backdrops from this area used in the film The Talented Mister Ripley), where we threw financial caution to the winds and paid for a fast motor boat to speed us back to the port, skimming along the hotel-lined coast for the princely sum of €25. That evening ended with a lovely dinner at a waterfront restaurant where, rather comically, we engaged in a hopelessly confused conversation with the couple at our neighbouring table, two Romans who spoke virtually no English at all.

Ever so smart Capri Town at sunset

Boats featured heavily in another excursion, this one to the fabled Amalfi Coast, accompanied by Robert’s nephew, Ross, and his two mates Michael and Luke, all of whom had come to stay with us for a couple of days. That day started with a train trip on the Circumvesuviana service, whose rather dilapidated carriages rattle down the coast from Naples to Sorrento, the sea on one side and the ominous bulk of Vesuvius on the other, in about an hour. A reviving coffee at the Cafe Fauno on Sorrento’s charming main square, and then we were off for a fast motor boat ride around the peninsula to Positano, which was absolutely crammed to the gills with tourists. The town famously ascends both sides of a deep crevice in the coast; once ashore, you pick your side and start climbing, until eventually you emerge from the endless steps and narrow alleyways at the top, with stunning views back down the town and along the coast. That exercise duly completed, and a pizza lunch consumed, we were off on the next leg, along the coast to the coast’s eponymous town, Amalfi. As we remembered from our first visit here many years ago, Amalfi is surprisingly small with a surprisingly grand cathedral; after a good look around the latter, a gelato and a drink in the pretty little main piazza, we boarded yet another ferry to head for our final destination, Salerno, and another train trip back home. All in all a long day to visit what is an undeniably beautiful coast – though we both made a mental note to ourselves to never, ever again visit at the height of the tourist season!

Positano from the sea

It is of course not possible to spend time in Naples without also visiting what must be the most extraordinary set of Roman ruins in the world, Pompeii. We made sure we got there at opening time, so that we could at least have a couple of hours wandering over the site before the hordes arrived in their coach-loads. With a very little imagination, this is a place where you can time-travel, walking along streets lined with shops and houses, seeing political graffiti scrawled on walls, pausing in front of cook-shops where the citizens must have paused to grab some fast food on their way to work, entering the houses of the city’s grandees where the patricians waited to meet their clients, and listening to the echoes of distant conversations across the busy open space of the forum. And looking up from time to time to glimpse between the buildings the conical form of Mount Vesuvius, giving it no more than a moment’s thought, entirely unaware of the doom that was in store for them beneath those benign slopes. That perhaps is the ultimate attraction of Pompeii – unlike other ancient cities, its extinction was dramatic, immediate, and permanent, not a slow and sad decline into dust. We modern visitors know what happened, but its inhabitants had no idea what was coming, and that makes their agonised end, symbolised in the famous body-casts that are still shocking to behold, even more poignant.

Close your eyes and you’ll be able to hear them

Vesuvius today is quiescent, and the last major eruption was in 1944. It is still regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world, not least because of its tendency to violent, explosive eruptions (the eruption of AD 79 which buried Pompeii released a hundred thousand times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb). Perhaps that uncertainty, the possibility, however faint, that Vesuvius might blow its top again, accounts for the slightly feverish atmosphere of modern Naples, a place that lives for today, and which as a result is, well, complicated …

We head for the Deep South

The driving time from Perugia to Vieste, on the Gargano Peninsula in Puglia, is about five hours, and it was as though we had been transported overnight into a completely different Italy. Indeed, many northern Italians refer to the southern part of the country, the mezzogiorno,  as “Africa”, so different is it from the north. Everything changes; where the landscape of the north is rounded and manicured, in the south it is rugged, wild, unkempt. We are in midsummer, and a sun that was merely hot in the north has become oppressive and malevolent, beating everything into submission during the hottest hours of the afternoon, The traditional siesta is an absolute necessity, not merely a quaint local custom, and the towns that we passed through during the afternoon – conglomerations of square, boxy apartment buildings, painted in white or bright pastels, their flat roofs covered in a profusion of TV aerials, buildings designed to defend against the harshness of the outside world, providing a refuge until it is comfortable to go out and meet friends for the evening passegiata – were shuttered at street level, as much a ghost town as any in the Old West.

For us, this landscape also had an odd sense of familiarity. Robert and I both grew up on Adelaide’s, northern plains, where the land is flat, dry, and hot as Hades in summer. As we passed through the flat lands of northern Puglia, we suddenly saw why so many Italian migrants arriving in Adelaide must have instantly seen a world that had echoes of the places they had left behind, and why they settled down to create market gardens, grow grapes and olives, and build houses in the style they were accustomed to here in Puglia, and which we, with the careless harshness of youth, used to deride as “wog houses”.

Leaving the plains behind, we were treated to spectacular coastal views as we ascended the mountainous plateau of the Gargano Peninsula, the “spur” that juts out into the Adriatic from the “heel” of the Italian boot, following its periphery around to our first southern destination, the port and resort town of Vieste. The town embraces a deep bay; on the northern and western sides of the bay is the “new” town – actually dating back to the 18th century – built on a grid pattern to channel the sea breezes between the narrow lanes. A dramatic peninsula juts out on the southern side, the location for the old town, the centro storico, three or four steep streets climbing up from the harbour to the dominating castle built by Frederick II, who studded the whole of Southern Italy with fortresses of this sort during his 50 year reign, first as King of Sicily, which at the time included Puglia and Calabria, and then as Holy Roman Emperor.  The old town is the tourist hub; shops selling souvenirs, food and drink specialties, like the local limoncello, spill out out into the narrow streets, which in the early evenings are are crowded with sightseers.

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The new town, on the other hand, is definitely not gussied up for tourists – the streets are just as narrow, but instead of tripping over a carefully prepared display of souvenirs, you are more likely to bump into someone’s washing, left to dry in the street. Young boys play soccer everywhere that there is an open space, watched with a tolerant eye by nonnas who have planted a couple of kitchen chairs on the street so that they can sit and enjoy a gossip in the cool of the sea-breeze that wafts up from the harbour in the early evening. Wandering through the new town, our presence as tourists was noted, though our cheery buona sera usually elicited a smile and a nod.

Vieste is also very much a beach destination, and having had a day of looking around the town we decided we had to have our first go at having a day at the beach, Italian style. For Australians, of course, such an event can range from a simple grab-a-towel-and-let’s-go exercise, to a full military expedition, armed with beach umbrellas, beach chairs, and eskies full of drinks and food. Going to the beach in Italy is much simpler. You turn up at your favoured beach club, pay your money for an umbrella and two sun beds, and if you are really extravagant a changing box. You are then conducted to your allocated spot in among the seemingly endless rows of umbrellas, and that’s it, you’re set for the day. If you’ve got kids, they go off to play volleyball or soccer in the areas provided and equipped for that purpose. And when you’re ready for lunch or just want a drink, there is a bar and restaurant right there, in the middle of the club area. Some clubs even have a separate swimming pool, for those who like to swim and get the sun but aren’t so keen on the sand getting between their toes. Of course, these beach clubs are private concessions, so they squeeze the maximum number of beds into the given space, and it’s a bit cheek-by-jowl, which bothers the communally-minded Italians not one bit. But all in all it is a fairly civilised way of having a day at the beach, which we proceeded to do.


Vieste was a beguiling place that beckoned us to stay for weeks, but our timetable was relentless, and so off we went to our next stop, Bari, with a stop for lunch at Barletta, a pleasant coastal city dominated by another of Frederick’s castles. We didn’t take to Bari at first, probably because we were not enchanted with our hotel, which was located in the new part of the city. But it did grow on us once we had a chance to explore the charming old town, have a walk along the seafront, and visit the city’s first class art gallery (pretty much deserted!).

Bari’s waterfront

Our itinerary took us inland to the town of Martina Franca, which lies pretty much in the middle of the region of Puglia known as the Salento, a high and fertile plateau dotted with unique, conical-roofed houses called trulli. The greatest concentration of these houses in the region is in the town of Alberobello, where there is a whole hillside covered with them; unfortunately, it is also a huge tourist-trap, and the place swarms with coachloads who come to wander through the narrow streets, take pictures and buy souvenirs. Much more charming is the laid-back town of Locorotondo, which, though there is barely a trulli in sight within the town, affords great views across a countryside dotted with them. Its whitewashed town centre is a delight to wander through, and unlike Alberobello it doesn’t feel like it has become a museum town. Martina Franca, our base for these few days, is similarly “lived in”, and from our hotel – another of those marvellous Italian hotels where lunch is served by white-jacketed waiters and where there seems to be a permanent population of older Italian ladies – we happily joined the evening ritual of an aperitivo or two in one of the town’s piazze, before heading off to join the passegiata through the streets, ending the evening with an excellent pizza from a cheap street-side pizzeria.

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Further south, our next destination was Lecce, often described as “the Florence of the South”. This is probably a bit unjust to both cities, since Lecce is actually quite unique. In the 1630’s a burst of  building left it with a remarkable legacy of baroque architecture, which makes it a fantastic place just to walk around. Which we did, quite a lot, after we had sorted out one of my occasional failures as a travel organiser; the room I had booked, though basic and in itself comfortable enough, lacked any airconditioning at all, not an acceptable situation in the middle of a Salentine summer. So we hightailed it out of there and booked ourselves into the Grand Hotel which was actually only a few dollars more expensive, and sported, in addition to the all-important airconditioning, an excellent swimming pool.

Lecce’s Duomo

After Lecce, our final destination for this road trip was the town of Otranto, right down on the south-eastern coast of Puglia. An important port since Roman times, Otranto’s old town sits on a peninsula and is almost entirely surrounded by impressive fortifications that connect it to the equally formidable castle, which these days is used for the much more pacific purpose of hosting art exhibitions; when we were there, it had an excellent exhibition featuring one of Carravaggio’s masterpieces as the focus for a collection of southern Italian followers of the great master. That wasn’t the only artistic endeavour going on in the town – as we wandered out for dinner one evening, we happened on a concert that was just getting under way in a small piazza just under the walls. That evening there was a little rain about, and halfway through the pianist’s performance, it started to come down – not heavily, just enough to cause a few umbrellas to be unfolded. We thought that perhaps the rest of the concert would be cancelled, but a little water wasn’t going to put these guys off; a big sheet of plastic appeared from somewhere to be draped over the piano, and the show went on!

Our hotel was just outside the old town, right opposite the beach, where we spent a pleasant couple of days swimming and relaxing. It was here also that we met the charming and handsome Lorenzo, a young Italian who lives in New York, but who was in Otranto having a holiday with his parents – and who was, we were all pretty sure, the only genuine gay in the village that week. I say “genuine” gay because, as Lorenzo pointed out, there are plenty of “straight” Italians who will cheerfully park their wife and cross to the other side of the sexual street should the urge take them. I think it is fair to say that the Italian attitude to sexuality is, to say the least, complicated. Even Lorenzo, who was very much an out gay man, couldn’t really explain it. In any event, he was fun to chat to (he talked even more than Robert, if anyone can believe that).

View of Otranto old town from our hotel
Beach volleyball

We didn’t spend all of our time being beach hedonists, though. There was plenty more to see down in Italy’s stiletto, and we made day trips down to Leuca, which is the most southerly point of Puglia, and across to Gallipoli. The latter follows the pattern of southern cities – a pleasant new town, laid out in a grid and lined with 18th and 19th century apartment buildings, and the original old town, which in this case is on an island joined to the mainland by a bridge and guarded by yet another fearsome-looking castle. On a whim, we decided to do a quick motor boat tour around the old town and out to another little island just offshore, where a multitude of boats were anchored, their owners enjoying a Sunday outing.

Our tour boat (and driver!) for the trip around Gallipoli
Gallipoli beach

Our stay in Otranto was idyllic, but of course it had to come to an end, in this case with a two hour drive across the peninsula to Taranto, where we were to catch our train to Naples. We barely had time here to do much more than stop and have a quick walk around, which was a pity because it seems to be an attractive town, worth investing more time in. Ah well, there’s always next time …

Next blog entry – fabulous but frustrating Naples!


An Umbrian Interlude in Perugia

As everyone who has been following us on Facebook will know, our visit to Perugia is now some weeks behind us (I am in fact writing this in Naples), but my tidy mind is nagging me to write something about our visit before it will allow me to cover more recent events. And fair enough – Perugia deserves some space of its own.

We arrived there by train from Spoleto, encumbered as usual by our baggage; though we are travelling fairly light for a full year’s trip, it’s still quite an effort to lug two big bags, plus a backpack each, plus sundry smaller shoulder bags, on and off trains and around cobbled streets. It was something of a relief, therefore, to discover the first of Perugia’s charms, an excellent system called, rather prosaically, the Minimetro. This consists of a simple double track along which small, driverless carriages, each reputed to hold up to 20 people, whizz past every few minutes, taking passengers from the railway station through a steeply-inclined tunnel to the centre of the city, some 480 metres above sea level. Having left behind the fairly prosaic surroundings of the station, planted as it is in the middle of the new town, the first thing you see when you emerge from the station is a marvellous vista across the Tiber valley, the city of Assisi clearly visible on the slopes opposite.

The town hall – one of the many graceful medieval buildings in the centre of Perugia


Perugia, on its long ridge separating two wide valleys, seems literally to float above the landscape. The geography of the old city itself is pretty simple – two long streets more or less, that widen into generous piazze at various points, from which a network of narrow lanes meander down the sides of the ridge. The buildings are tall and handsome, and for the most part you can wander among them and be completely unaware of the city’s splendid site – until you walk around a corner, or come to the end of the ridge, and suddenly a glorious panorama opens up, the breeze washes across you, and you can do nothing other than stand and drink in the spectacle. We have been in a number of hill towns on this journey, and in each case we have had something of the same sensation, but nowhere is the vista as splendid and as unexpected as it is in Perugia.

Perfect place to have a drink and enjoy the panoramic views

Speaking of the unexpected, one thing we did not plan for was the Umbrian Jazz Festival, which started the day after we arrived, and concluded the day that we left. Not being jazz people, we were sublimely ignorant of this event, which is actually massive. A big stage had been erected in the Piazza IV November, the city’s largest square, and there were three or four other performance spaces placed at various strategic points throughout the city. Between these formal spaces and the various impromptu performances that popped up in between, the whole city was well and truly taken over by the festival and the happy crowds of jazz-lovers. Now this is the one musical form that neither Robert or I have ever really taken to – hence our ignorance of the whole event – and so we were probably not in a position to really appreciate or participate in its finer moments. But it was fun to drop in to the occasional concert, and the presence of the crowds of enthusiasts certainly gave the city an extra buzz.

Our cute little two-room apartment was located at the southern end of Perugia’s ridge, just a few steps from the piazza that anchors that end of town, the Piazza Italia. Unlike the rest of the centro storico, which is medieval and renaissance in character, this piazza is a beautiful little square surrounded by Liberty-era buildings, that graceful late 19th century style that was popular after the unification of Italy in the 1870’s. Architecturally, it is an anomaly, the reason for which became apparent with a little research. The area surrounding the Piazza Italia is called the Rocca Paolina; rocca is a common Italian term for a fortress, and though there are enormous bastions still visible surrounding this end of the city, there was no sign of a castle as such.

Piazza Italia
Piazza Italia and the Rocca Paolina (not our photo – we couldn’t afford the price of a drone!)

A chance trip down a small escalator in a corner of the piazza unravelled the mystery. At the bottom, we emerged into a rather cavernous space that looked like an arched tunnel, perhaps 30 feet high, leading down into the rock below. On each side there was a network of further tunnels and larger open spaces that have been deployed as display areas on one sort or another, in one of which we came across a series of models and drawings that explained what had happened. Originally this site was indeed a powerful fortress, but shortly after the risorgimento, the decision was made to raze the building down to the level of the surrounding streets, and then create, in honour of Italian independence, the Piazza Italia. That explained the uniformity of the piazza’s architecture, but what was even more extraordinary was the realisation that the “tunnels” that we had been walking through were in fact the original medieval streets, which had simply been bricked over when the original fortress was built! The mind boggles at the sheer scale of both the building of the Rocca and its demolition. Today, these rather extraordinary spaces are used by the Peruginos to move between the upper and lower parts of the city, utilising a network of escalators that connect the two, with barely a glance at their surroundings.

The amazing network of streets under the Rocca.

We had intended to use Perugia as a base from which to explore all of the other hill towns of Umbria, and we did do a little of that, but the city itself was so beguiling that we found ourselves reluctant to leave, spending our days wandering in and out of museums and exhibitions, dropping in on the odd jazz concert, and on more than one occasion just hanging out having a drink and an aperitivo while admiring the view across the valley as dusk crept in and the lights of the other towns across the valley began to twinkle.

Fortunately we had our friends Jack and Anne to coax us out of our slothfulness. They have been having a parallel journey through Italy, though of shorter duration and going from south to north, and so we met up with them for a visit to Cortona, a pretty little hill town probably most famous (at least recently) as the setting for Frances Mayes’ book and film, Under the Tuscan Sun. Since this was the first time we have met up with anyone from Australia since Florence, it has to be said that our focus was probably more firmly fixed on finding a nice place for lunch than in exploring the sights of the city!

Our other excursion – again to meet Jack and Anne – was to Arezzo. The Lonely Planet guide says that the city “may not be a Tuscan centrefold”, though “those parts of the historic centre that survived merciless WWII bombings are as compelling as any destination in the region”. That somewhat tepid description had caused me to put Arezzo in a sort of second-order list of places to visit, which just goes to show that sometimes guide books are completely wrong, because Arezzo turned out to be completely charming. It is also home to one of the greatest works of Italian art, the Bacci Chapel in the Basilica di San Francesco, where Piero della Francesca painted a fresco cycle depicting the story of the cross on which Christ was crucified. The frescoes are luminous, incredibly bright and well preserved, and an outstanding example of the use of frescoes as a means of telling a religious story. Oh, and film buffs might be reminded of a scene from Anthony Minghella’s film The English Patient, in which Juliette Binoche views the frescoes by the light of a flare.

Just a detail from the Legend of the True Cross, by Piero della Francesca

After all that culture, of course we had to have another long lunch, this time at a very charming restaurant on the loggia overlooking the town’s central Piazza Grande.

Arezzo’s lovely, steeply sloping Piazza Grande, deserted in the heat of late afternoon

So that was our sojourn in Perugia and its surrounds. From there, we were heading southwards, into another world …

To Spoleto for a Festival

Spoleto was on our list of must-do destinations mostly because of the city’s historic association with the Melbourne arts scene. Many moons ago, way back in 1986 in fact, Melbourne joined Spoleto, and Charleston in the US, to stage what then became The Festival of Three Worlds. The arrangement didn’t last all that long – by 1990 the Melbourne leg of the trio had become the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts, and the other two cities reverted to their previous status as artistic twins in the Festival of Two Worlds (Due Monde in Italian). But this brief connection happened at a time when Rob was working at the Victorian State Opera; the opera company had of course participated in the festival, and so when we began planning this expedition, a stay at Spoleto during the festival was mandatory, although we did elect, perhaps unwisely, to only pick up the first week of what is in fact a three week event.

Arriving after a couple of days on the road taking in Rimini and Urbino, we dropped the car at the Hertz depot near the railway station and waited to be picked up by a driver that the owner of our apartment had organised. We were most impressed when a black Mercedes with the legend “Spoleto Festival” emblazoned on its doors swept to a halt in front of us, and our driver, a big burly bloke named Carlo climbed out to help us with our luggage. Though it turned out that he was just doing our landlady a favour, it felt like an omen. On the short drive up the hill to our apartment, we had the first of what were to be many conversations about Gian Carlo Menotti, the progenitor of the festival, and a man who has acquired semi-divine status in Spoleto (he died in 2007).

The business of finding and booking apartments in the various cities that we have visited so far has always had an element of uncertainty about it no matter how hard we work to research each place to make sure it meets our requirements; you can look at photos until you are blue in the face, and you can read and re-read the description until you can recite it in your sleep, but you are never quite sure until you arrive whether the accommodation will be a source of happiness or disappointment. In this case it was definitely the former – the apartment was much larger than the pictures had suggested, light and airy, with a full kitchen, study area, two bathrooms, plus a living room and a bedroom. Best of all, it overlooked the Piazza del Mercato, the buzzy central square of Spoleto. But wait, I hear you say, haven’t you broken your first rule of booking apartments again? Never overlook the piazza? True enough – and when I booked I thought I had that covered, since the address was clearly one street back from the piazza. Just hadn’t occurred to me that the front door might be at the back of the apartment, so to speak.

Our living room, complete with frescos on the ceiling

In any event, unlike Bologna, having a perch over the piazza turned out not to be a problem, since the windows were double glazed and shut out virtually all the noise at night. The square was also relatively quiet most of the time, at least until the festival got into full swing, which it definitely wasn’t when we first arrived. In fact the town was as quiet as a Mexican cantina at siesta-time, the air hot and drowsy despite our position on the top of a hill, and the streets virtually deserted. Was there really a major arts festival about to start in a couple of days’ time? A walk down the hill to the tourist office – closed, with a hand-written sign saying that the festival box office has been moved down near the Opera Theatre – further deepened our suspicion that an “arts festival” in Italy wasn’t quite the source of buzz and excitement that is usually generated in Australia.

Not that it mattered. Spoleto is a particularly pretty town, and with a population of just 38,000 (including the fairly substantial new town at the bottom of the hill) it is by far the smallest place we have stayed in so far. That made it immediately accessible; there are just a couple of piazzas, a long main street, a duomo, a new-ish theatre, and that’s about it. In between, the town is criss-crossed by narrow lanes and passageways that wend up and down the hill. There’s a big supermarket down in the new town, but unless you want to go down there every day, for most grocery needs there is a well-stocked alimentari on the Piazza del Mercato, supplemented by numerous small specialist shops selling meat and salami, while fresh fruit and vegetables can be had from several itinerant grocers who set up their stalls in the piazza each day. It probably took us about a day to explore the town, at the end of which it felt as comfortable as an old shoe.

The festival, when it arrived, didn’t so much burst into life as creep into it. There was an official launch event of sorts, but when we got there it turned out to be a panel of folk who were, presumably, the festival’s management, making a series of speeches from behind a long table to a room packed with journalists. At an event like this in Australia, the tedium of listening to self-important speeches from self-important people would at least be rewarded with something to drink and eat; not here – after the speeches were done, everyone just ambled off. And since the speeches were in Italian, we were none the wiser. But over the next few days, the presence of festival-goers and festival workers, the latter mostly youngsters identifiable by the badges dangling from lanyards around their necks, began to be more obvious.

By this stage we had been to a couple of events, and we were feeling like we were getting into the spirit of things a bit. One evening, having finished dinner, we were having an a drink in one of the cafes on the piazza, and Robert started chatting with a young artist, a native of Spoleto, whose improbable name, it later transpired, was Ob Queberry. Naturally, we nicknamed him Obi-Wan. He had been commissioned by the city council to do a number of paintings – copies of the main marketing images from previous festivals – on the surface of the piazza.

Obi-Wan’s handiwork from our window

We had been a little curious about the fact that the Piazza del Mercato, instead of being paved or cobbled, was just covered in a layer of very roughly poured cement. This seemed most un-Italian, and Ob explained why. It seems that the piazza had in fact been cobbled, but a decision had been taken to pull all the cobbles up and re-lay them. However, the work had dragged on, and suddenly the authorities realised that unless they did something the piazza would just be a sea of mud when the festival was in full swing! So they decided to cover it in concrete, which will be broken up after the festival is over so that the cobbles can be re-laid. No doubt someone in the city council realised that it would look pretty drab, and so young Ob was commissioned to brighten it up.

The trouble was that the commission came a bit late – and so he was still hard at work painting his last mural the day before the festival started. That wasn’t the end of it though; we ran into him the following evening and he was standing in what we came to know as his habitual posture – paintbrush in one hand and beer in the other, cigarette dangling from bearded mouth – looking perplexed. It seemed that the council had come up with another bright idea – paint the words “Spoleto 60 Festival” right down the middle of the piazza. That sounds easy enough, until you realise that the piazza is also a traffic thoroughfare (though admittedly relatively few cars come through), there are people everywhere crossing to and fro between bars and restaurants – and there was rain about! In Italy, every problem rapidly becomes a community project, and Ob had gathered about him a gang of people, including his quite lively and somewhat madcap girlfriend (she described herself to us as being his “sex-friend”!), all of whom were ready to wield brushes to get the job done. But given the less than propitious circumstances, the work wasn’t likely to start until midnight at least. In the meantime what else was there to do except drink, smoke, and talk?

As anyone knows, this kind of scenario is irresistible to Robert. In no time at all he had declared that he was going to help out, which also meant that we had to stay the course with the partying Italians until the work could start – which it did, around 1.00 am, when most of the crowd had dispersed, and most of the rain had stopped. It was close to four in the morning when this marvellous new addition to the temporary art scene in Spoleto was completed – including a very carefully inked “t” in the word Spoleto produced by one Robert Gibbs …

Top left, Robert in “supervisor” mode; top right, he eventually gets to work; bottom, the final masterpiece.

That might have been the end of the story, but there was more. A day or so later, we ran into Ob again, and he told us that the council had decided that they didn’t like the whole thing, and they had instead decided to turn it into a kind of “Red Carpet” down the middle of the street, a task he was about to commence. And so Robert’s masterpiece disappeared beneath a layer of thick red paint. Ah well, fame in the art world is fleeting.

The piazza adorned with its new “red carpet”, seen from our window.

Spoleto really is a small town, and it’s not long before you start to get to know some of the characters. We were there a week, and we met an American who had just retired there, complete with long grey ponytail, a rather morose theatre technician who told us how the festival is a shadow of its former great days when Maestro Menotti was in charge, a charming American woman who has lived there for a decade, and who had some odd conspiracy theories that she was sure would make a great book or – better yet – film, and a hyper-active young photographer, a native of Spoleto who thought his English was much better than it is, and as a consequence was harder to understand than most Italians with little English. Then there were the people who were there for the festival – an English couple who Rob literally hijacked for a drink and who turned out to be great fun, and an earnest young American singer and conductor who was spending a few days at the festival before going on to join in some musical endeavours in Arezzo.

So even without the festival, I suspect we would have loved Spoleto, because it is small, easily navigated, arrestingly beautiful, and full of strange characters. But after all we were there for the festival, and our arts friends would expect us to report on what we saw – so here it is:

  • Don Giovanni. The festival’s only operatic offering was a very fine production of Mozart’s last and probably most dramatic opera. We left our booking run a bit late, and so the only seats we could get were in a box about three levels up with rather cramped sightlines, and though we had expected that there would be surtitles in English, in the event they were only in Italian, which made following the finer details of the plot a tad challenging. But it was undeniably a strong, if fairly traditional production, well sung and acted.
  • Homage to Callas. This was a dance production performed in the old Roman Theatre by a company assembled by Eleanor Abbagnato, apparently a well-known and much loved Italian ballerina. The first part of the production was a pastiche of dances set to well known Italian operatic arias and scenes, sung by La Divina. This didn’t work as well as the second half, which was modern music broadly following the plot of Medea, one of Callas’ greatest roles. The choreography for this half was much more convincing than the first part of the program.
Ready for the dance in the Teatro Romano
  • Chamber Music Series. We went to as many as we could of the series of concerts put on by young performers from the Fiesole Music School. As always we were blown away by the sheer virtuosity of these young players at the beginning of their careers, not to mention the simple, austere beauty of the venue – tiny Romanesque Sant’ Eufemia Church.
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    Colombian Music. Colombia has a classical music tradition that we were certainly unaware of. This concert showcased a number of Colombian composers – some of whom seemed indistinguishable from any other mid-20th century music, but some of whom managed to produce work that sounded distinctively Colombian.

  • Requiem Mass. A big work for choir and orchestra performed at dusk in the piazza outside the Duomo, this was a moving modern requiem for the dead of the earthquakes that devastated the Abruzzo last year.


  • Visual Art. It was all over the place, and we didn’t have a huge amount of time left to look at it all, but we did make it to the city’s museum dedicated to contemporary art, which is a spectacular space in which a number of exhibitions commissioned for the festival were staged.


I’m sure we could have seen and done more, and possibly we could have stayed longer to see some of the works that were later in the festival (including Robert Bolle’s dance company and the closing concert conducted by Italy’s much admired Riccardo Muti). But I guess it’s a good (and optimistic) idea to leave something to come back to …



Bologna – Red, Clever and Fat (and many other things)

The region of Emilia-Romagna covers a huge slab of northern Italy that stretches from Piacenza in the far north-west down to the Adriatic resort town of Rimini. Along the region’s southern border, the Apennines begin their long march down the spine of the peninsula, but fully half of the region’s 22,000 square kilometres is covered by the wide, flat plain of the southern Po River valley. Along the Via Emilia, the ancient Roman road that runs from the north-west to the south-east, are dotted some of the most famous cities in Italy – Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Imola, Cesena – while to the east lie the equally storied cities of Ravenna and Ferrara.

And at the heart of the region is Bologna, its bustling and energetic capital. Stepping out of the railway station, the contrast with refined and elegant Turin could not have been more stark. The city we had left just a few hours ago, much further north and sheltering beneath the Alps, was enjoying balmy spring weather; Bologna, on the other hand, was already sweltering. As our taxi took us up the Via dell’ Independenza for the short ride to our apartment, it was also obvious that this was a much grittier, down to earth sort of place.

The first thing you notice, as soon as you step outside the railway station, is the colour of the buildings, shading from a near-pink to a deep terracotta, and which give the city one of its three monikers – La Rossa, or “The Red One”.  The colour preference dates back to the middle ages, as do the 38 kilometres of porticoes that line the streets; originally they were built by decree of the city authorities in order to provide shelter for visitors to the city – merchants and pilgrims and the like – and so they had to be a minimum of six feet deep. Over the centuries the original wooden structures of the porticoes were replaced by stone arches, which today provide shade and shelter from the sun and rain for the Bolognese as they bustle about their daily business. And bustle they do – this is a busy city that has a sense of energy about it that is quite different from the languid pace of Turin or the chaotic tourist crowds of Florence.

A typical portico, being modelled by a typical portico stroller!

Part of that energy derives from the ubiquitous presence of young people. Bologna, the home of the world’s oldest university, hosts some 82,000 students and nearly 3,000 academic staff, and gives it the second of its three nicknames – La Dotta, “The Learned One”. Students are everywhere, not just in the north-eastern quadrant of the historic centre where the university itself is located, filling the cafes, walking or cycling the streets, and enthusiastically joining in the various protests that erupt from time to time in this left-wing city. Compared to the other major cities we’ve visited, Bologna feels incredibly young.

When they aren’t studying or making good-natured mayhem in the streets, Bologna’s students, like students everywhere, supplement their income by working in the city’s restaurants and bars, where the source of its third label, La Grassa (the fat one), is proudly celebrated in a rich culinary tradition that draws on the agricultural wealth of the Po Valley. Most famous of course is the sauce that has been adopted world wide as the chief component of the dish that is variously called “Spag Bog” or “Spag Bol” (though as one quickly learns here, that dish is a bastardised version of the real thing, which is a meaty ragu served with tagliatelle, never with spaghetti). But Bologna is also home to tortelloni and its miniaturised cousin, tortellini, as well as mortadella, a rather fatty sausage akin to luncheon meat.

Our apartment has, over the last three weeks, provided the perfect perch from which to observe all these aspects of Bologna’s character, and more. We’re on the second floor of a building that has a wonderful view across to the brick pile of the medieval Palazzo Re Enzo, below which there is a constant stream of people crossing the eponymous piazza, watched by the occupants of the outdoor tables of a cafe that shelters beneath the walls of the palazzo. Further to the right is the big open space of the Piazza Nettuno, named after the statue of Neptune in its centre, currently covered in scaffolding undergoing restoration. To the right again is the massive structure of the Palazzo Ragione, the town hall, which also dates back to the middle ages. Out of sight, just behind the Palazzo Re Enzo, is an even larger square, the Piazza Maggiore, flanked on two sides by wide porticoes that are home to yet more restaurants and cafes, and on the third side by the vast blank front of the Duomo. So we are right in the middle of it all, which, when I made the booking on AirBNB, seemed to be perfect.

The view from our window – Palazzo Re Enzo, Piazza Nettuno, and the Palazzo Ragione

But I should have remembered my cardinal rule when booking apartments – never book somewhere directly on a piazza. The view might be enticing, but invariably there is a lot of street noise, particularly in Italy, where sleeping seems to be an optional activity for most Italians. So it proved for this place, compounded by the fact that the Via Rizzoli, one the city’s main thoroughfares, runs directly below our building, rumbling all day and late into the night with the sound of cars and buses. And no-one mentioned the popular bar right outside our front door, which operates until the small hours of the morning seven days a week.

Still, these small inconveniences notwithstanding, the location has proven to be outstanding. We are in easy walking distance of two or three good supermarkets, and just behind the Piazza Maggiore there is a tangle of narrow streets in which we can buy fruit, vegetables, meat and all sorts of other goodies from the various vendors jammed in among the restaurants and cafes. The city brims with museums and art galleries, as well as the usual swag of churches and chapels, and though the historical centre of the city is quite large by Italian standards, virtually every major sight is within a twenty minute walk. There’s also a very pleasant park that is about fifteen minutes away where we have enjoyed late afternoon walks and a nice cheap lunch at a lakeside restaurant.

The lake in Giardini Margherita, post lunch.

Above all, though, it is the constant activity going on right outside our front door that is most fascinating. The Bolognese really do make use of their outdoor public spaces. The Piazza Maggiore, for example, has been converted for the summer into a huge outdoor cinema and performance space, where they have a mini-film festival that runs for a couple of months. And in between, there are rock concerts (we’re not so pleased about those) and classical concerts. Pretty much by chance we found ourselves at one of the most moving concerts that I think either of us have ever experienced. The performers were the orchestra of the Teatro Pubblico di Bologna (the city’s opera company) conducted by their director Ezio Bosso, a rather remarkable man who is suffering from ALS, a type of motor neurone disease. His physical frailty is obvious – the illness has paralysed him from the waist down, his fingers and wrists are swathed in bandages, and his speech is halting. Yet when those fingers touch the piano, and when he is directing the orchestra, he is a man transformed, the face projected on the huge screen is close to ecstasy, and the orchestra responds to produce beautiful, beautiful music. Watching all this was both moving and humbling, and it was clear from the reaction of the audience that Bologna is in love with him.

Ezzio Bosso Concert
The remarkable Ezio Bosso in concert on the Piazza Maggiore

The Bolognese, mind you, are like most Italians – a pretty excitable lot. It takes nothing for a flash mob to appear, as we witnessed one evening when a bunch of lads wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with a white ‘V’ (about all we could see from our window) came along the street and halted in the piazza, chanting at the top of their voices some phrase over and over again. Then we heard the sound of dozens of horns from Vespa motorbikes as they went up and down the street. Ah, we thought, someone has won a soccer game somewhere. But there was more to come; in no time at all the crowd had swelled to what looked like a thousand or so people, all very excited, chanting away, singing songs, even lighting up flares. The Vespa riders stopped going up and down the street and abandoned their bikes on the side of the road to join in the fun, as did virtually every other passer by. It was all very good natured, and after a while the whole crowd moved off to some other part of the city, leaving the piazza as calm as if nothing had happened.

And the cause of all this commotion? Not a soccer match at all – it seems that the local basketball team had just won an important match that put it back up into the A-league for that sport! If that’s how excited they get over a basketball match, I can’t begin to imagine what it would be like if it was about something the Italians take really seriously, like football. One other footnote – despite the size of the crowd, there wasn’t a policeman or Carabinieri in sight. Nor were they needed – the crowd, though excited, was entirely and completely happy.

Slightly fuzzy view from our window of celebrating basketball fans … 


Real protest, with a hard political edge, does happen here though. Bologna’s famous red plaster has also harboured for much of its post war existence a different kind of redness – that of the Communist Party, which dominated its government until the election of a right-wing mayor in 1999; today the city’s council is dominated by PDI, Italy’s centre-left party. Over our four weeks here, we have probably seen half a dozen demonstrations, a couple quite large, but most fairly small, being staged down in the piazza. Regardless of the size of the demo, they share two characteristics: they are noisy (Italians cannot, it seems, do anything without an awful lot of shouting) and they are for the most part fairly well behaved.

Robert wouldn’t forgive me if I completed this post without talking a little about the city’s art experiences. There are of course the usual array of churches and chapels that are home to many fine frescoes, and there are several excellent traditional galleries that exhibit Gothic, Renaissance and Mannerist art of the type that we have become familar with over the last six months, but Bologna also has a very fine modern art gallery, called MAMBO (Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna), where Robert discovered the work of a local art hero, a gent named Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), who lived in an apartment in Bologna with his sisters for his whole life, devoting himself to painting still lives and landscapes around the house that he built in Grizzana, a hill village outside Bologna. The painter exercised such a fascination on Robert’s mind that he undertook one sunny (read hot!) day to go and make the pilgrimage to the country house, which is today decked out as a museum. Splendid idea, except that, as it turned out, the railway station was down in the valley, and the walk to the house took two hours, all uphill; when he got there, the place seemed to be closed! Robert, however, is never deterred by such trivialities, and after asking some friendly though surprised locals, he managed to find the curator of the museum who not only opened it up for him, but drove him back to the station. Another example of the generous nature of Italians once their sympathies are engaged.

Morandi still life on the wall in the Morandi house in Grizzana-Morandi 

My little word-counter tells me that so far I’ve written some 2,000 words in this post, and I find myself wondering quite how to summarise this city. Perhaps I can’t – for sure there are any number of glib paragraphs that I could write, but I can’t help feeling that this multi-layered, very Italian city somehow defies simple categorisations. It’s gritty and down-to-earth, while at the same time culturally sophisticated. Its public architecture is imposing and a little austere, but the tangle of lanes in the old city harbour street scenes as pretty as anywhere in Italy. Italians know it well and regard it with affection, yet it is a city that relatively few non-Italian tourists put on their itinerary, other than as a way-stop or connection point. That, indeed, was its main attraction to us, and we have used it as a hub to visit the many and varied cities of Emilia-Romagna (the subject, I suspect, of another post) – but we have come to share the Italians’ regard for this place, and though it is time for us to move on, I feel sure we will look back on our sojourn in Bologna with fondness.


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Next real blog post coming up soon …


Two weeks in Turin

Turin was something of an afterthought when we planned this odyssey (if an odyssey can, properly speaking, be planned). To the extent that we thought of Turin at all, the associations were cars – meh! – and football – more meh! So when we had an unexpected gap in the itinerary, our only thought was that, since we are in northern Italy, a couple of weeks here seemed more a matter of logic – filling in the gaps – than anything else. Now that two weeks is almost over, and it seems absurd that we never had Turin on our list as a highlight to be anticipated with the same delight as Rome, Venice, or Florence.

The first thing that strikes you, almost from the moment you leave the railway station and find yourself on busy Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, is that this city is very self-consciously a royal capital. Almost every piazza has a statue of one member or another of the house of Savoy who for almost a thousand years ruled, as Counts, Dukes and Kings, a region that included at various times Sardinia and Sicily, as well as modern Piedmont and bits of France and Switzerland. Not to mention providing the four Kings of a unified Italy after 1861. They are a martial lot on the whole, usually portrayed astride a horse, waving a sword at their invisible enemies, severe and determined expressions stamped on their features. And though Turin has lots of piazze, there were also a hell of a lot of Savoyard worthies to celebrate, so almost every street is named after one or another of them.

This one’s Emanuele Filiberto

The very layout of the city has an imperial feel, too. The core urban street layout mimics and extends the city’s Roman origins as Augusta Taurinorum, with long, straight streets arranged in a nice neat grid. But after 1563 Turin became the capital of the Duchy of Savoy, and its new importance spurred the development, over the next two centuries, of the grand piazze and wide, colonnaded boulevards that are the hallmark of the city today. Inserted like jewels into this fabric are the grand palazzi of the royal family and their retainers – the enormous Palazzo Reale in the middle of the city, the Palazzo Madama, a baroque building stuck onto one side of the original 16th Century Castello, and the vast Palazzo Carignano, which today houses the Risorgimento Museum, to name only the three most significant.

Palazzo Madama, in the Piazza Castello, Turin’s royal precinct

Like most European cities, the historic centre of Turin is a lived-in place. For the most part, the city’s apartments are contained in eighteenth and nineteenth century buildings of a uniform five stories in height, plus in many cases a mansard roof pierced with dormer windows. Many apartments have full length, Venetian-shuttered doors opening onto balconies that overhang the street, and the apartment buildings are usually arranged around an internal courtyard, which means that even a small apartment like ours can get an abundance of light and air-flow. At street level, there are the usual shops and restaurants, and much of the city centre is either completely pedestrianised or subject to limited traffic rules, so wandering the streets is a pleasant, diverting experience. People, not cars, are masters here, and those drivers who are moving about the city streets are cautious, almost ginger, as they patiently wait for pedestrians who take, in true Italian fashion, as much time as they want to cross the street.

Nowhere are people more in evidence than on the piazze of the city. Those in Turin are particularly grand; the daddy of them all, the Piazza Vittorio Veneto is reputed to be the largest square in Europe, something that is easy to believe when you stand in its centre and contemplate the acres of open space that stretch in every direction. One of our favourites, the Piazza San Carlo, though somewhat smaller, is still grand in scale and to my mind is every bit as elegant as Piazza San Marco in Venice. There are many other piazze in the city, big and small – in fact, even as we prepare to leave we are still discovering some we hadn’t noticed before – but regardless of whether they are grand or modest, every piazza is lined by restaurants and the benches and statues are filled with people enjoying the sunny days or the early evening cool before they go off to dinner.

Piazza San Carlo in early evening

Taken together, all these characteristics – the wide boulevards, the grand architecture and public places, the uniformity of the apartment buildings – have led to the common characterisation of Turin as an Italian Paris. I can see that – though for me the presence of iron balconies overlooking the street also evokes Madrid or Barcelona – but it is still very much an Italian city, if one that has a lot of self-satisfaction about it; as an English expatriate writer who lives in Turin who we met the other day put it, “Turin has always been so rich that the Torinese don’t actually care much what outsiders think of them. For example, if they speak English to you it’s not because they have to, but because they want to”.


Turin does after all have a lot to be proud of. Though it has had periods when it has been under the foreign yoke, most notably between 1802 and 1814 when Piedmont was annexed by Napoleon, for most of its history Turin has been the capital of a successful and wealthy independent state, one that in the eighteenth century was much admired and envied throughout Europe. And Piedmont was the engine room of the unification of Italy, driven by the King and his wily, corpulent prime minister, Camille Benso, Count Cavour, who can be easily imagined sitting in his natural environment, the coffee shops on the Piazza San Carlo, wreathed in cigar smoke, arms waving as he plotted and planned for a unification of Italy that many thought was actually not much more than a grand power grab by the Piedmontese.

Caffe Torino – Cavour was probably here!


When that objective was achieved, and Vittorio Emanuele became King of Italy, Turin became the new country’s capital for a few years. The wonders of industrialisation arrived with the new century, and Turin rapidly developed as a manufacturing centre, with the establishment of Fiat and Lancia initiating the development of one of the most successful automotive industries in the world. That drove the city’s prosperity through the vicissitudes of the First World War, the rise of Fascism, and the trauma of the Second World War, and the automotive industry then played a pivotal role in the economic miracle of Italian recovery after the war. Only relatively recently has the city suffered a degree of decline, because of the various oil crises and the long running difficulties of the auto industry, though the depopulation that it caused has been reversed in recent years. And finally there were the highly successful Winter Olympics that the city hosted in 2006.

There are a few curiosities that we have observed in our time here that make Turin seem quite different from the other cities we have visited so far. One of the most striking is the relative absence of non-Italian tourists. They are around, certainly, but not in anything like the numbers we experienced in Rome, Venice and Florence, cities whose character is almost crushed by the weight of tourism. There are plenty of Italian tourists, though, who come here for the museums, the food, and the football. That also means that English is not as widely spoken here as elsewhere; it is common to go into a restaurant, for example, and find that none of the staff speak any English, something that rarely happened in Florence.

Speaking of food, it is as ubiquitous here as elsewhere in Italy; sandwich shops, bars and restaurants display the usual Italian goodies and Piedmontese specialities with the usual care and panache. But it is also curious that Turin has something of an obsession with Asian cuisine; there are Sushi shops all over the place, along with quite a few Chinese restaurants (though one, I remember, rather cunningly hedged its bets, offering both Chinese and Italian cooking – it would have been interesting to see the kitchen at work there!).

Every Piazza is lined with restaurants

One footnote to add a small dose of vinegar to temper what might be a rather rose-tinted view of the city (with apologies for the mixed metaphor). Like most tourists, we’ve spent the bulk of our time in the historic core of the city, which is charming and beautiful. But we did make a trip out to visit the Venaria Reale palace (more on this below) that took us through the suburbs, which are, to be polite about it, pretty scruffy. Dominated by uninspired apartment blocks built in the fifties, when town planning seems to have gone missing in action for a decade, the streets are blighted by graffiti, the few green spaces are unkempt and overgrown by weeds, and the roads are potholed and in need of repair. This is not an unusual pattern in Italy – as one writer put it, it is almost as if there was a tacit agreement after the war to preserve the historic centres while allowing developers to have free rein outside those limits. Italy’s present economic difficulties have plainly exacerbated the problem.

So that’s Turin. A surprise for us (though I am sure not for some), and a thoroughly enchanting city with lots to see and do – it’s taken us two weeks, and there are still a few things we’ve missed. And as a bonus, in true travel article style, here are our best half-dozen:


The Mole Antonelliana and the Museo Nazionale del Cinema. The Mole is the national symbol of Turin, a 167 metre tower which was originally intended to be a synagogue; it was never used as a place of worship, and was instead dedicated to King Vittorio Emanuele II and used as a museum to Italian unification until 1938. Today it offers panoramic views of the city from a viewing platform reached in a glass lift suspended only by cables – on the way up through the interior of the dome it is as if you are floating in space. And the dome itself now houses the quite marvellous national cinema museum, not so much a museum as a temple to the art form, with an emphasis on Italy’s contributions, naturally. The section dealing with the development of cinema from its earliest says is absolutely fascinating.

Museo Egizio. Personally, I tend to find Egyptian museums a bit of a bore – endless rows of expressionless statues and acres of ancient pots – but this museum is very different. Superbly curated, it is the largest collection of Egyptian artifacts outside Cairo. The collection is organised and presented in such a way as to give a real insight into everyday life in Egypt, as well as the usual mummies and statues. There is also an excellent section on the Italian Egyptian expeditions. Well worth the visit and not a moment of boredom.

Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento Italiano. This museum does need a bit of preparation if you’re not Italian. Housed in the vast Palazzo Carignano, the museum charts every moment of the unification of Italy. Though the displays are beautifully organised and very accessible in themselves, a bit of an understanding of the Risorgimento is needed to follow the labyrinthine path of the country’s journey to nationhood. Nonetheless, we found it an absorbing and fascinating place to visit.

Museo Nazionale dell’Automobile. Turin is the home of the Italian car industry, so going to see this museum seemed a requirement. Though neither of us are car-buffs, we were enchanted and fascinated by this purpose-built homage to the automobile located near the former Fiat factory. The displays are original and innovative, and take you on a journey through the development of the automobile from its earliest days, with a focus of course on Fiat, Lancia, and Ferrari.

Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea. Having overdosed on Renaissance and Baroque art in Florence, it was great to visit a first class modern art gallery. The permanent collection is huge, but the gallery hires curators to reconfigure the displays on a regular basis. A real treat.

The Venaria Reale. This enormous palace complex was progressively developed by the House of Savoy as its country residence. It is one of the largest royal residences in the world, but was abandoned after Napoleon’s conquest of Piedmont and fell into complete decay. An extraordinary €235 million restoration project funded by the EU has resulted in the reincarnation of a truly astounding royal residence. The museum tracks the thousand-year history of the Savoys, using many innovative techniques, including film sequences specially produced by Peter Greenaway.

The enormous pile of the Venaria Reale – an Italian Versailles

And honourable mentions go to the Parco Valentino, a tranquil public park along the Po River, complete with fake medieval village and castle, which was a great place for us to get away from the city for a while; The Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, housed in a Castello in the suburb or Rivoli, which Robert visited and reported to be “amazing”; and the Palazzo Reale in the centre of the city, which has an extraordinary art collection.

Valentino Park – Complete with fake medieval village and castle