The Cinque Terre – not quite in season

Cinque Terre in Italian simply means “Five Lands”, and refers to the five villages that are inserted into crevices in a rugged coastal peninsula at the eastern end of the Italian Riviera. For most of their long existence, the villages – Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore – were pretty well isolated; by land, they were accessible only by way of sketchy donkey trails leading through rugged and densely forested wilderness, so that the only realistic way of approaching them was from the sea. This made them a target for pirate raids, against whose depredations the towns built forbidding fortifications, but otherwise they were left in peace until the 19th century, when a railway line was built through a series of coastal tunnels, inaugurating the era of mass tourism. The whole area has been a Unesco World Heritage site since 1997, which has no doubt been a saviour of sorts, preventing rampant over development.

For our visit, we based ourselves in the most northerly of the five villages, Monterosso al Mare. After a two hour train trip from Florence, towards the end of which we had a series of tantalising glimpses of the various villages and the sea as we flashed in and out of tunnels, we decamped from Monterosso’s railway station to find ourselves on the waterfront of the “new” part of the town. We were lugging our entire worldly belongings, so it was a relief to realise that our accommodation, the Hotel Baia, was just a few minutes’ walk away.

Hotel Baia
Hotel Baia, Monterosso al Mare

There is a breed of hotel in Italy that hovers somewhere between two and three stars, comfortable enough in itself but not quite ever aspiring to heights of greatness in terms of service or facilities; the Hotel Baia is one of those. Built in 1911 as apartments and converted into a hotel after the second world war, its four stories stand right on the waterfront. The rooms are well appointed, and the public areas well kept; the staff are polite and helpful, though not effusive. They are presided over by a somewhat grumpy looking woman who we presumed was the owner, who, when she wasn’t sitting out on the street having a cigarette, was engaged in endless conversations with her employees, the kind where even without a word of Italian you can just tell that they are all having a good old whinge together.

As we observed the operation of the hotel, we could sense the faint ghost of Basil Fawlty. For example, the lift, though perfectly functional, is reserved only for the movement of baggage, definitely not for the use of hotel guests. And though there is a big restaurant, it is only open for breakfast, which seemed to be a wasted opportunity, especially considering that it sports a splendid outside terrace facing onto the beach. Anything that involved moving food or drinks outside the confines of the hotel building also seemed to be a problem; though the hotel offers its guests an exclusive beach area, complete with umbrellas and sun lounges, it couldn’t quite manage to organise food or drinks down there. And when we were meeting some new acquaintances for a drink before dinner, we were told that we could drink on the terrace, but our guests couldn’t. You get the idea – it all seemed slightly comical without ever really being inconvenient or difficult. And we did have a very pleasant stay there.

I read in my faithful Lonely Planet guide that “coming to the Cinque Terre and not hiking is like sitting down for dinner in an Italian restaurant and eschewing the wine”. Anybody who knows either of us would of course be aware that hiking is not exactly our favourite pastime, but that phrase rang in my ears like a challenge, and so we decided that we had to attempt at least one of the trails. Several of them are completely closed following the floods in 2011, and all of them are prone to periodic closures if there has been any rain. When we were there, the supposedly most accessible Blue Trail between Monterosso and Corniglia was open, so we decided we would at least do the first section, to Vernazza. Can’t be too hard, we thought – a couple of hours walking, we were told by the park officials, and we’ll be sitting down for lunch.

What they didn’t tell us is that the first part of the hike is more or less straight up. A short stretch of gently climbing path lulls you into a false sense of security, and then you are hit with a good forty minutes of climbing upwards along a series of flights of steps, each cunningly arranged – or so it seemed – to mislead you into thinking that this was the last flight before the path levelled out; arriving panting and red-faced at the top, you would turn a corner to be confronted, not with the nirvana of a flat stretch, but with yet more steps. Having overcome the temptation to just quit and go back down, all we could do is soldier on, with frequent stops get our breath, admire the view, and chat to the many others who were out that morning attempting the same feat. Though there were many experienced hikers who passed us, all properly kitted out and with determined, professional looks on their faces, there were also plenty who, like us, hadn’t quite anticipated the challenges the trail would bring. There was one particular girl, American and very much on the large economy side with respect to physique, who had clearly been duped into making the attempt by her friends; she was entertainingly inventive in her curses for them and for the obstacles she was being forced to clamber over. But she did have pluck, I’ll say that, for she kept going and made it to the end.

Monterosso, far below us – and we had barely started climbing!


Once the climbing finally stopped, and we were on a relatively flat section of the trail that clung rather perilously to the side of the terraced hill, closely planted with olive trees and vines, the view made it all worth it, and the pain of the climb was if not forgotten at least buried. As we looked back down on Monterosso, we marvelled at the toughness of the villagers who must have made this trek on a daily basis to get to their trees and vines in order to eke out a living, something that many still do – although these days there is a kind of simple funicular that carries them to and from work. Of course, the advent of mass tourism has also created opportunities of other kinds for the locals – including one old timer who, with the shrewdness of country people everywhere, has installed himself at a bend in the trail with a pile of oranges and lemons, and a small electric juicer plugged into a power point somewhere up in the trees, from which he sells juice to just about every tired and thirsty hiker who passes, at €2 per cup. We reckoned he probably made a tidy sum over the summer.

Old Man Juicer
Not a word of any language other than his local dialect – but always happy to pose for the cameras!
A relatively civilised section of the Blue Trail

When the objective of our walk, Vernazza, finally came into view we were well and truly ready for lunch. After an equally steep – and at times just as trying – descent down the hillside, we jagged a great spot at a waterfront restaurant just below the iconic castello. Vernazza is pretty as a picture, and really the iconic Cinque Terre village. The houses rise in pastel painted terraces from the only really workable harbour of the five towns, shadowing a warren of narrow lanes, strung with the ubiquitous washing lines that seem to be a visible measure of the villagers’ indifference to the tourist tide surging below their windows.

Picture-perfect Vernazza

While it would have been possible for us to continue walking along the trail, we felt we had done enough to claim our “I’ve walked the Cinque Terre” T-shirts, and therefore had earned a leave pass to use the railway to visit the other villages, starting with the furthest from us, Riomaggiore. This is the largest of the five and considers itself the “capital” of the Cinque Terre, boasting such marvels as a proper supermarket and a post office. Like Vernazza, it clings to either side of a narrow crevice that runs up from the water, where there is the tiniest of bays, barely big enough for fishing boats to creep in and out. Manarola, where we arrived the following day by boat from Monterosso, also has a miniature harbour, and a nice laid-back feel to it. The smallest of the group, Corniglia, which we didn’t get around to visiting, is perched on a hill somewhat inland; unlike the others it is without any water access at all.


Back in Monterosso, we also took the brave step of spending an afternoon on the beach. In early May the weather is pretty well perfect – averaging 20 degrees plus or minus, mostly sunny days with the occasional thunderstorm that passes pretty quickly – and while there are plenty of people about it’s nowhere near as crowded as later in the summer. So planting ourselves under an umbrella wasn’t a hard decision to make. What did require bravery was going into the water, which is still pretty cold. I’m a Melbourne boy, and I’ve swum in Port Phillip Bay, and it can’t be any colder than that, I thought. I was wrong. It was bloody freezing. Still, after ten or fifteen minutes my body adapted and – weird – it actually seemed quite OK! And I will report (with appropriate smugness) that I was much braver than Robert, who couldn’t manage much more than a quick hop up to his knees …

The beach at Monterosso late in the afternoon – perfect weather but very cold water!

So that was the famed Cinque Terre. All up we spent three nights – effectively two and a half full days – and we could easily have spent another day or two, enjoying the pleasant small-town vibe of the place. But it was time for us to move on to our next stop, Santa Margherita Ligure – the subject of my next post.


Napoleon and Elba

At 8 pm on May 3rd 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte, the former Emperor of the French, arrived in the pretty harbour of Portoferraio on the island of Elba, aboard the British frigate Undaunted; he disembarked the next day at 2 pm, to be met by the sub-prefect, local clergy, and other officials. With him were his faithful generals Bertrand, Druot and the former commander of the Imperial Guard, Pierre Cambronne, along with 600 Guardsmen. Ten months later, he departed under cover of darkness aboard the tiny flagship of his equally tiny navy, the brig L’Inconstant, on the night of Sunday February 26th, 1815, and embarked on the inveterate gambler’s last throw of the dice – the so-called Hundred Days in which he recovered France and almost defeated the British and Prussians at Waterloo.

Napoleon’s exile on the island of Elba is one of those footnotes of history that are always rather intriguing. What must it have been like for this towering military and political genius to be reduced to sovereignty over a mere 220 square kilometres and 11,400 inhabitants, a speck in plain sight of the coast of Italy, just 10 kilometres away? At times, it must have seemed like a sick joke – Napoleon himself disparagingly referred to Elba as “an operetta kingdom” – yet at other times it seemed as if he had resigned himself to his fate and was content to live in a form of retirement.

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The small pedestal table in the Palace of Fontainebleau where Napoleon signed the letter of Abdication that ended his reign as Emperor of the French. Next stop – Elba.

Mind you, Napoleon’s version of retirement would exhaust most people. During his 300 days on the island, he reorganised his new kingdom’s defences, gave money to the poor, reformed the customs and excise system, repaired the barracks, built a hospital, paved parts of Portoferraio for the first time, organised regular rubbish collections, set up a court of appeal, and established an inspectorate to widen roads and build bridges. In between times, he read voraciously (and left a library of 1,100 volumes to the city of Portoferraio), played with his pet monkey, grew avenues of mulberry trees, and planted vineyards. I rather suspect that any modern government that was this active would be unassailable!

The pretty harbour of Portoferraio, not all that different today from the town that Napoleon must have beheld in 1814

Today, Elba is a very popular holiday destination for Tuscans; a mere three hours from the capital by road and ferry, it is accessible and yet it also feels remote. Leaving Piombino, the rather unlovely Tuscan port that is the closest point to the island, its popularity is underlined by the sheer volume of ferry traffic: there are three ferry companies that service the island, providing a virtually continuous service every half hour or so. The island itself looms ruggedly out of the Tuscan Sea, and on a sunny day the short journey is magical, as is the arrival into the sheltered harbour of Portoferraio, dominated by fortifications erected by the Medici after they took the place over in 1546. The town, incidentally, gets its name from the iron ore that used to be one of the island’s principal exports, and you can still see the old mines high up on the mountains opposite the harbour.

But beautiful though the town of Portoferraio is (particularly viewed from over a very nice lunch and a glass or two of wine at one of the restaurants that line the curved waterfront), the pursuit of Napoleon was our primary mission on the first day of our visit, and so, suitably refreshed, we climbed the steep stairs leading up from the Piazza Camillo Benso Conti di Cavour (that’s a mouthful) to get to the retired Emperor’s city pad, the Villa Mulini.

The steps of the Via Garibaldi, leading up to the Villa Mulini from the Piazza Camillo Benso Conti di Cavour. Like every Italian town, Portoferraio loves its Risorgimento heroes!

The building’s official title is actually the Palazzina dei Mulini, which seems appropriate for a place that is rather larger than your average villa, but nowhere near grand enough to really wear the title of Palace with pride. Still, it’s a pretty nice retirement option, sited high on the cliffs so there is a breeze even on the hottest days (the Palazzina actually gets its name – the Palace of the Mills – from the three windmills that were demolished to make way for Napoleon’s garden).

The garden and rear facade of the Palazzina dei Mulini

Inside, the bedrooms and more intimate living rooms are all on the ground floor, while the upper floor – added at Napoleon’s request – is dominated by a large and airy reception room whose floor to ceiling windows open to the garden, giving it a wonderfully open and airy feel. The rooms are all furnished with items from the period, either original or reproductions; in one room, rather incongruously, stands the Emperor’s campaign bed, a reminder that this man, though he had at his disposal such sumptuous palaces as Versailles, the Tuileries, and Fontainebleau, was at heart a soldier for whom this simple contraption was as comfortable as a four poster.

Apart from the accommodation for the Emperor, the house was also home to his mother, Letizia, the fierce old matriarch who was probably the only woman other than Josephine of whom Napoleon was genuinely afraid, and his sister, Pauline, the only one of his rather grasping brood of siblings who came to join him in exile. As one wanders from room to room, it’s quite easy to imagine the miniature court that must have formed around the villa’s illustrious new owner, though it all must have seemed rather surreal compared to the glittering recent past. Even so, to all accounts, far from looking down on his Elban subjects, Napoleon seems to have treated them with courtesy and even affection.

Walking in the gardens on a bright summer’s day, it is hard to resist posing the question of why, given such idyllic surrounds, Napoleon would have ever wanted to leave. The Emperor himself frequently said that he was content to see out his days here, and that his days of world domination were done. But perhaps he was just gulling his “jailers”, the commissioners who were appointed to make sure he behaved himself. Of course, such a tiny dominion would probably never have been enough for such a titanic force of nature. But his erstwhile enemies, in their foolishness, also did their level best to offer him sufficient provocation to take his final gamble. They withheld the payments that had been promised for his upkeep, and they denied him access to his wife and son. But most of all, the Bourbons, having returned to power without learning or forgetting anything, soon reduced France to such a state of discontent that Napoleon was pretty sure he would get a good reception if he came back. And so, on that dark and moonless February night, he slipped aboard L’Inconstant and sailed off to his destiny at Waterloo.

Intriguing as the story of Napoleon is, there is much more to see on Elba than just his villa. The island’s landscape is absolutely spectacular, and although it is small – you could drive from one end to the other in a couple of hours – it is packed with fabulous vistas and amazing little harbours. Unfortunately for us, we only had time to do a quick drive to visit a couple of the more immediately accessible – Porto Azzuro and Rio Marina, both on the eastern side of the island – before catching our ferry back to Piombini. But we’d love to come back one day and spend a bit more time exploring this lovely place.

The harbour of Rio Marina, on Elba’s east coast


Portrait of a Piazza

In Italy, it’s called a piazza. In Spain, a plaza, in France, a place. No matter where you go in Mediterranean Europe, the town square is the focus of local life and organisation. In small towns and villages, the piazza is the social centre, the setting for countless conversations over coffee or aperitivo, and the stage on which the daily ritual of the passegiata is performed, during which couples and groups of friends take in the evening air while strolling around the square. And in larger cities like Florence, the piazza originally provided a focus for neighbourhoods, replicating the rural function of the piazza in an urban setting. Today, of course, they tend to be overwhelmed by the weight of tourism, and the grand piazze of modern Florence host swirling hordes of tourists busily rushing from one sight to the next, pausing only to consume tourist meals in the restaurants that line the square.

We are fortunate in that our local piazza, Santo Spirito, still retains some of that old-fashioned character. That’s probably because on this side of the Arno there are far fewer tourists, and those who do come here are intent on visiting the Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens, a couple of blocks away to the east.

Piazza Santo Spirito is a kind of irregular quadrilateral, widening slightly towards its southern end, lined on each side with what were originally town houses, and are now mostly apartments. They are uniformly four stories high on the eastern side, and five stories on the western, giving the square a slightly lopsided appearance. The western side is also the side where the bulk of the restaurants are, six of them, each with outdoor seating under massive umbrellas. Two rows of trees – a rarity in central Florence – flank the long centre of the piazza, providing welcome shade in the summer. In the very centre there is a fountain, which serves as a perfect rendezvous point. It’s also where the local drug dealers hang out at night.


Most public places all over the world host a statue to someone or other whose contribution to society has long been forgotten by all except the most enthusiastic local historians; Santo Spirito is no exception – ours, located at the southern end of the piazza, almost tripping up the traffic on Via Sant’ Agostino, is a gentleman named Cosimo Ridolfi. An agronomist and politician, he came from one of the most ancient of Fiorentino families. In between serving in various governments of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, he found the time to establish a bank, specifically to encourage investment in farming. Operating from the family Palazzo in the Via Maggio, just round the corner, it eventually became the Cassa di Risparmio of Florence, still an important financial institution today. So I guess a statue is probably justified.

Also at this end of the piazza is its second-most important building, the Palazzo Guadagni. Built in 1502 for a merchant who just couldn’t cope with having multiple houses, the Palazzo follows the standard Tuscan design – rusticated stonework at the ground level framing an imposing gate, two further elegant stories above, topped by a wide loggia to catch the breeze (and probably also to look down on the poor people in the square below!).


Palazzo Guadagni and Signor Ridolfi are at the southern end of the piazza; balancing them at the opposite end is the blank off-white face of Santo Spirito church, in front of which there is a broad apron, raised above the square, that is a popular place for people to sit and chat at every time of the day. It was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi – the guy who put the dome on the main cathedral of Florence – but it was not completed before his death in 1446. Brunelleschi did in fact design a facade for the church, but it was never built due to post-mortem wrangling, hence the blank face that it presents to the world today. Like many churches in Florence, an unfinished exterior does not mean a drab interior – quite the reverse; the elegant renaissance interior of Santo Spirito hosts a dazzling array of art works, including a newly-restored Michelangelo crucifix.


Of course, any piazza worthy of the name must have at least one restaurant; Santo Spirito has nine. Let’s do a quick tour. Starting from the north eastern corner, which is where we usually enter the square, the first cafe you come to is called Gustapanino – which roughly translates to “tasty sandwiches”, actually a pretty accurate description of their specialisation – panini, foccacie, and crostoni, all variations on sandwiches; this place is very popular with younger people. Next one along is another little cafe, Volume, which is a kind of trendy hipster hangout. The first proper restaurant is the next one, Borgo Antico (“The Old Village”). This was the first restaurant we went into on the evening we arrived, and it has become a favourite. With a simple menu, great pizzas and cheerful staff, communal tables where complete strangers readily find themselves engaged in conversation do give it a real “village” feel. Next door is Caffe Ricci, similar in style to Antico, but with a more extensive menu of Tuscan specialties. It was here that we first tried peposo, the peppery Tuscan beef stew, served with creamy mashed potatoes. Finally, at the end of the run is Tamero, best known for the fact that they make all of their own pasta on site; though we haven’t eaten there yet, we have bought fresh pasta from them.


The other side of the square has only three restaurants. Pop Cafe is a cute little place where I go most days for a caffe latte and a pastry. Unlike most Italian cafes, they serve their coffee hot without being asked – Italians prefer their coffee lukewarm so they can drink and go. A little further up is Pitta M’Ingoli, a cafe to which I took an instant dislike when the bartender ostentatiously ignored me in favour of those customers who were clearly Italian-speaking; needless to say I’ve never been back. And finally, in the corner is Osteria Santo Spirito; the term osteria denotes a family-run restaurant, usually offering good quality but rustic food, and that is a good description of the fare here. It is very popular and probably has the best food on the piazza, though their serves are absolutely enormous – we generally find a ridotto portion is plenty.

So those are the restaurants – plenty to choose from. But the piazza also has a couple of other important shops that are very typical. One of these is the local tabacchi. As the name suggests, the principal function of these outlets, which appear every few hundred metres on every main street, is the sale of cigarettes and tobacco products. But over time they have also become the main outlet for all sorts of other small but important services, For example, you can generally get your phone plan topped up at a tabacchi. They sell bus tickets and lotto tickets, along with an array of tourist related items such as maps and guides, and many also have an ATM. After hours, if you want to buy cigarettes you can do so from a dispenser located outside the tabacchi’s shuttered shopfront – but there’s a catch: to use the machine you have to insert a valid Italian identity card. Needless to say this has perplexed many a hapless tourist in need of a nicotine fix. But in Italy bureaucracy just stimulates innovation – in this case encouraging an enterprising local who hangs about the machine offering the use of his ID card for €1 to anyone who needs it!

If you want to buy a newspaper or magazine in Italy, you usually do so by going to an old-fashioned news kiosk; ours is on the corner of the square next to Osteria Santo Spirito. It’s a metal box with fold out doors on which are displayed an array of newspapers and magazines; the proprietor lurks in the back, a barely visible grey-haired guy who gives you a grumpy look if you don’t produce the exact change – in my case €3.20 for my copy of the New York Times, the only English language newspaper that he sells. At around 1pm, the whole thing is shuttered up while the proprietor, no doubt exhausted from his morning’s labours, goes off for a couple of hours lunch, before reopening from 3pm until the early evening.

For Italians, shopping for food is a daily routine, and consequently the type of small and specialised food provider that has all but disappeared in Australia remains very much the norm here, and so we have our local pasticceria, a source of fresh bread as well as pastries of every kind, the macelleria, or butcher’s shop, run by the cheerful white-smocked duo Leonardo and Massimo, as well as a polleria (poultry shop) and several good alimentari (small grocery stores, where you can buy fruit and vegetables as well as basic grocery staples). Venture into any of these shops, and you’ll find locals buying their daily provisions, focusing on whatever is fresh that day.


As well as all these permanent shops, there is also a daily market which sets up at the southern end of the square; as well as fruit and vegetables, there is an array of other goods that vary through the week – one day it’s men’s clothing, the next might be women’s clothes, while later in the week all sorts of hardware and household items appear.

The market starts the daily routine – first thing in the morning the vendors are busy carefully and painstakingly setting up their stalls, while the street sweepers are at work giving the square a brush-up. By about 9:30 or 10:00 students and other locals who are at leisure have begun to appear, and settle into the cafes on the sunnier side of the square. The market starts to pack up at around 1:00, which is also when the lunchtime trade starts to fill the bigger restaurants on the eastern side – by 3:00 the place is filled with the sound of people enjoying lunch. About this time, too, the paved area in front of Santo Spirito church fills with people – mostly students – eating their panini and soaking up the afternoon sun.

There’s a bit of a hiatus until around 5:00pm, when the excellent Italian tradition of Aperitivo kicks off as a prelude to the dinner hour. During the week, this is the time when Italians get together with friends after work, enjoying a Campari or an Aperol spritz, and feasting on the array of finger food that is provided by most bars either free or for a small cover charge. Aperitivo leads into dinner – the Italians eat later than Australians or Americans, though not as absurdly late as the Spanish, and the restaurants on the square pump until midnight or later, when peace and quiet finally descend and the piazza goes to sleep until the whole routine starts again the next day, as it has for hundreds of years, and hopefully will for many years into the future.

In Pursuit of Pontormo

A little story about obscure art controversies and … singing!

There’s a minor art controversy involving a painting of a young man wearing a red hat, by a relatively obscure Italian Renaissance artist named Pontormo (aka Jacopo Carucci – 1494 to 1557). His artistic output wasn’t huge, and most of it is in the form of frescoes. However, this particular painting is one of the few that is on canvas.

Pontormo Portrait

The controversy around the painting (which is widely regarded as a masterpiece) involves a US hedge fund type, Tom Hill, who purchased the painting for 30 million pounds from an English earl. The National Gallery, who want to keep the work in England, have raised the required money to buy it back from the American, but in the meantime the UK voted to leave the European Union, the pound fell in value, and so the hedgie is, quite naturally, asking for a further $10 million US before he will sell the picture. And that’s where it sits today.

Why is he telling me all this, I hear you ask? Well, because this controversy led us into an amusing little incident here in Florence. You see, Robert has become somewhat fascinated by this work and its story, and so he has been doing some research into Pontormo and his works. It transpires that there are several of his frescoes in various places in Florence. And so, one sunny afternoon, off we trot to have a look at one of them, at the Church of Santissima Annunziata, a place hitherto unknown to us.

After a quick gaping admire of the frescoed cloister that fronts the church itself, in we went to the dim interior. Finding the fresco we were after, however, didn’t turn out to be straightforward, since the work we were looking for was not important enough to be highlighted among the rather sparse signage dotted around the building. After a fruitless hunt in and out of the little side chapels that line each side of the nave, Robert decided that he would ask a rather bored looking monk who was sitting at a desk near the entrance how to find it. Since Rob has no Italian at all, I was summoned over to translate (a triumph of optimism – my Italian is hardly fluent!). The monk’s directions came out in rapid-fire Italian, accompanied by a rather impatient frown, but I got the general idea that the chapel we were after, called the Capella degli Artisti, was somewhere a sinistra – on the left side of the building. So off we went for a second search – but despite looking into every nook and cranny (bar one, as it turns out) we still couldn’t find it.

This is where Robert’s methodology for problem solving and mine part company. I decided to go off and spend some time searching on my phone to see what references I could find to the Capella degli Artisti, thinking that maybe it is in an adjacent building. Robert is more direct and less patient, so he went off and tackled the priest, by now positively grumpy at our inability to understand simple instructions, and literally grabbed him by the arm, insisting that he be personally escorted to the chapel, which, it turned out, was off another cloister accessed through a door covered in a  curtain – none of which was signposted.

Having released the poor priest, Robert then came and found me (still fruitlessly searching for information on Wikipedia), and off we went, back into the church, through the secret door and out into a beautiful little cloister. But to our consternation, the entrance to the chapel had in the meantime been closed, our way to the door blocked by a little chain across the colonnaded path that led to its entrance.

It was then that we encountered the Old Man. Of indeterminate age – but I’d guess seventy or more – he was one of those men who you just know was very handsome when he was younger. A strong, very Italian face, surmounted by a full head of stiff grey hair, a neat moustache above stubbled cheeks, and lively dark eyes. His clothing was what one would call vintage; an old-fashioned dark jacket, much frayed at the cuffs, clean but shabby tracksuit top underneath, and black pants and shoes that had seen better days. Clearly not a rich man, but he carried himself with an upright dignity that was immediately both appealing and commanding.

“The Capella is closed”, he said, in fairly clear but accented English. Then, sensing our disappointment, he looked quickly around the cloister, as if checking to make sure that no-one was watching, and gestured for us to follow him, removing the flimsy chain as he did so. He walked with a kind of quick shuffle, talking all the time in a mixture of Italian and English, and then, to our astonishment, breaking into song – the familiar refrain of “O Sole Mio” !! He must somehow have intuited that we were music lovers, because as he unlocked the doors of the chapel, he started talking about its acoustics and how he liked to sing in there.

So in we went, to discover one of those little gems that one finds only by fluke or through persistence. Now hopefully you’ll remember that the original object of the exercise was to find a picture by Pontormo. And that we did. But the chapel also contains an array of wonderful works by the likes of Vasari, Luca Giordano, and Giovannangelo Montorsoli. And rather casually, our guide pointed to a burial tablet in the middle of the floor and told us that this was where Pontormo, Montorsoli, and most surprisingly, Benvenuto Cellini were interred (and hence its name – the Chapel of the Artists).

Cappella degli Artisti

And yes, there, on the side wall of the chapel, was the Pontormo Virgin and Saints that we had come to see.

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So much for the art. But the best bit was yet to come, for the Old Man, having shown us the treasures of the chapel, opened his arms and gathered us towards him.

“Now”, he said, “we sing. Dilegua, o notte. Come, you sing”. And so, a few moments later, we found ourselves, to our great bemusement, accompanying him in the last verse of Nessun Dorma ! He had a great voice, which ours could not really match, particularly in that last great phrase – all’alba vincera! – which he belted out with all the sang-froid of Pavarotti on a good day.

And then it was time to go, for we were well past the chapel’s closing time. The Old Man insisted on walking us through the church and back to the entrance, where the monk who had been so unhelpful earlier sat half-dozing at his little desk. Quite what the formal status of the Old Man was, we never discovered, but I suspect he was one of those volunteers without whom many such places would not function. He was also pretty good at extracting money. In no time at all he had the monk jumping up and finding us a copy of the English language version guide book to Santissima Annunziata – something that I am sure he would not have bothered to do otherwise, for which we paid ten euros, so that, including the five euro donation that we felt compelled to make, the whole visit cost us some fifteen euros. Not a lot in the scheme of things, particularly for the entertainment value.

So there you are. We set off to find a particular painting, and found ourselves singing Nessun Dorma with an ageing Pavarotti in a gorgeous chapel over the gravestone of some of the most remarkable artists of the Renaissance. That’s life in Florence!



The Davids of Florence

How many statues of David are there in Florence? One wit said that there are probably thousands if you count all of the replicas of Michelangelo’s version that can be found in every souvenir stall in the city. That’s being too cute. But there is definitely more than one – in fact, there are five separate and original representations of the biblical hero made by the greatest sculptors of the Renaissance. So here’s a bit of a tour.

Let’s start with the big fella, Michelangelo Buonarotti’s extraordinarily evocative work that stands in the Accademia Gallery. This is obviously the most famous David in Florence, and probably the world, and it is still an incredibly popular attraction, despite its ubiquity. Like the Mona Lisa, we all have to stand in a crowd to see it. We thought we might be able to beat the crowd (and save a few Euros) by getting up early and walking across to the Accademia in time for its opening, on the first Sunday of the month, which is the day when every major gallery in Florence opens its doors for free. Well, we may have been a bit tardy, but we still got there at 8:30, but sure enough the queue was already half way down the street!

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So what is it about this cliché of a work that gets Italians and tourists alike out of bed on a cold and wet Sunday morning? Of course, you know what its going to look like. Yet, even seen over the heads of the crowd as you approach, there is something different about it that none of the photographs ever quite capture, and that is its luminosity. The statue seems almost to glow with a purity that is not just a trick of the light. Close up, it is enormous, and the famous proportions really do work when viewed from below.

The other thing that is interesting to me, particularly in light of the other statues I’ll talk about in a moment, is that this is a particularly virile representation of David. He is shown as a strong, perfectly muscled young man (many a gym bunny would die for these pecs and abs), mature and confident. The expression on his face is one of intense concentration, although its not exactly clear whether the artist intended to represent David in the moments before or after his triumph over Goliath. But all in all, the statue conveys an image of physical prowess.

There are a couple of copies of this masterwork elsewhere in Florence; most famous is the copy that stands in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, the ancient seat of Florentine government, placed there after the original was removed to its present home. Grey and weather-stained, it doesn’t really come close to the original, even though it is a reasonably faithful copy. And then there is a bronze copy high up on the Piazzale Michelangelo, the viewing platform that overlooks the city – up here, the famous calm face seems to have an expression of distaste as it looks down on the legions of tacky souvenir sellers flogging plastic copies of himself by the hundred.

Back across town, the other three Davids all live in the Bargello museum. This is a fascinating building in itself, Florence’s first town hall, then the seat of justice, where the Podesta meted out judgements, and eventually one of the most feared prisons in the city. Its square, castle-like shape and high stone tower were the model for the nearby Palazzo Vecchio, which echos the design of this comparatively modest building, but on a grander scale. Today it houses what I think is one of the most enchanting and accessible museums in Florence, devoted almost entirely to Renaissance sculpture.

So, let’s have a look at the next most important (in my opinion anyway) statue of David in Florence. This is the one by Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi – better known as Donatello. To my mind, this statue is almost the complete antithesis of Michelangelo’s muscular stud.

Where Michelangelo gives us a mature man, Donatello’s David is clearly and obviously a youth, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, well muscled but unformed, coltish, gangling. The hat is of the type that a peasant might wear in Donatello’s own time, and combined with the long hair and the pose with hand on hip, the statue has a distinctly androgynous feel about it. Donatello gives us David in his moment of triumph, his booted foot on the slain giant’s head, yet the look on his face is rather sly. All in all, I think this is a rather fascinating and intriguing image.

The statue is important not just for its subject matter, but also for its technical and historical achievement, for this was the first life size male nude to have been cast since antiquity. It was commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici in 1430, and when completed it stood in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici, itself designed by Donatello’s business partner, Michelozzo Michelozzi, another of Cosimo’s favourite artists. Florence was such a small community back then.

Some forty years later, another great Florentine, Andrea del Verrochio, had another go at the subject of David.


Like Donatello, Verrochio represents the hero as a rather skinny youth (it has been suggested that the model might have been the young Leonardo Da Vinci, who spent some time in Verrochio’s bottega). This is unquestionably David triumphant, his foot firmly planted on Goliath’s head, which wears an expression of surprise as if astonished at the youth of his slayer. And unlike Donatello’s statue, this David is fully clothed!

So that’s three Davids. The other two are not quite as well known, nor as prominent – and one may not be David at all.

Our friend Donatello had in fact had a previous encounter with the biblical giant-slayer. Back in his early twenties, he had been commissioned to carve a statue to be placed on one of the buttresses of Florence’s great Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. For various reasons it was never placed there, languishing in storage for a while before finally being placed in the Palazzo Vecchio.


There is probably not a lot to be said about this statue, for though it is beautiful in its own way, and it shows the promise of the future great sculptor, it is entirely conventional in style with its classically draped form and curiously blank face.

And so to our final David – and we are back with Michelangelo. Actually, it’s a bit of a cheat to include this statue, since it is unfinished and it is not certain that the figure it represents is David at all – the work is equally commonly referred to as being Apollo.


The confusion arises because Giorgio Vasari, the Renaissance artist and critic, said it represented Apollo taking an arrow from his quiver, whereas whoever catalogued the inventory of the art works of Grand Duke Cosimo I identified it as “David”. If it does indeed represent David, it is a much more melancholy and remorseful representation, quite different from the sculptor’s later and more famous work.


So there you are, five different representations of David in the one city, whose fascination with this particular biblical figure seems to have stemmed from its self-image as a small and weak republic facing the giants that surrounded it – Venice, Milan, the Kingdom of Naples, and the ever-present threat from France and Spain, both keen to control the fractious Italian peninsula.

The subject of David continues to resonate in modern Florence. On a recent visit to the hillside village (suburb, really) of Fiesole, we were startled to encounter in the town square this modern statue of David and Jonathan – explicitly homoerotic in character – by Filippo Dobrilla.


And, finally, let’s descend from the lofty pedestal of high art, and finish with the version of David most often seen in Venice – though not often in such glorious colour!



At home in Florence

There’s a weird thing that happens to time when you travel. It slows down. I’ve just had a look at the calendar and realised it’s only two weeks since we arrived in Florence, but it feels like twice that long. Well, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but certainly it seems as though we have been here much longer than that. So having been here two long travel weeks, perhaps its time for a post about the apartment and the neighbourhood.

First the neighbourhood. We chose the Oltrarno (literally “the other side of the Arno”) because we though it might be a bit quieter than the busy centre of Florence. That was exactly right – every time we cross the river into the centre of town, we are confronted with hordes of tourists, even at this early time of year. But our neighbourhood is much quieter, populated mostly by locals and students. Our street, the Via Maggio, is a relatively broad avenue that bisects an area that is otherwise a warren of small lanes, and it dates back to the second half of the fourteenth century, when wealthy Florentine families began building their palazzi here, presumably to escape the urban press of Florence’s centre. Today you still walk past houses that bear the names of the families who built them – Velluti, Corsini, Biliotti, Michelozzi, Pitti, Capponi, Ridolfi – whose early investment in the street paid off a couple of hundred years later, when the Medici Grand Dukes of Tuscany moved their court from the Palazzo Vecchio to the vast brown pile of the Palazzo Pitti, just a few yards away. The wealthy elite piled more investment florins in, and soon the Via Maggio became one of the most aristocratic streets in Florence.


So on one side we have the grandest of Florence’s palaces and the enormous Boboli Gardens that ascend the hill behind it. On the other side, and just around the corner from our apartment, is almost its antithesis, the Piazza Santo Spirito. This square is dominated at its northern end by the blank white facade of Santo Spirito church, in front of which is a broad raised platform, where locals and students gather to chat and enjoy the odd burst of winter sun. The piazza itself has a small fountain in the centre and a row of trees that are bare at this season, but which will no doubt provide beautiful shade in the summer months. Along this same side there is a row of restaurants and cafes (for some reason there are only two on the other side of the square). Every day, a small group of stallholders set up a market at the southern end of the piazza, selling fruit and vegetables, clothes, shoes, and assorted knick-knacks; on Sundays, this becomes a full-blown market covering most of the square. All in all, the piazza has a homely feel to it, quite the opposite of the bombastic grandness of the Palazzo Pitti.

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That’s the neighbourhood. Now for our apartment. We’re on the third floor of number 32, and a plaque on the facade of the building tells us that this particular palazzo was the residence of one Gioacchino Taddei, apparently a noted chemist and pharmacist, who lived here during the 1800’s. His picture is on the wall above my desk in the main living room of the apartment. Originally the apartment occupied two floors, but it has now been split into two separate spaces, accessed via a common main door. It turns out that the apartment above is rented to two gay guys, an Englishman and his Italian partner, who introduced themselves a few days after we arrived. We’ll look forward to getting to know them better.


Our apartment is actually huge, far larger than we really need. The living room must be sixty square metres at least, and is filled with a charming collection of mismatched furniture that gives it a lovely, eclectic feel. Three big windows look over the street and let in floods of light in the morning (until the sun disappears behind the buildings opposite!). There are two bedrooms, both large, and both with their own bathrooms, that look into a kind of internal courtyard. The kitchen is small, but workable – although the absence of an oven had us perplexed for a bit – and we have already made a few excellent meals. All in all, the apartment will be a great base for us to explore Florence and the surrounding area over the next couple of months.

As I said at the start, we have only been here a couple of weeks, during which we’ve mostly been settling in, getting to know our new home, and generally not doing much. Except visiting the Uffizi, the Bargello, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the Boboli Gardens. And the Mercatio Vecchio. Oh, and day trips to Fiesole and Lucca. So maybe we haven’t been as slack as we thought! I’ll write some more on our various museum explorations in a separate post – probably several, since there is so much to see in this town.

Although we have been eating at home quite a lot – that was the point, after all, of renting an apartment – we haven’t completely neglected the restaurant scene. We’ve already decided on our favourite restaurant in Piazza Santo Spirito, a little trattoria which seemed very welcoming on our first night here, and that offers an excellent if limited menu of good quality Tuscan fare. Since we are that rarity, tourists who have come back to the restaurant twice, we have become welcome guests whenever we turn up. There’s an easy sociability about the place –  one lunchtime, Robert got us chatting to a couple of young Americans, Rocky and Brendan, who turned out to be here on their honeymoon! That led us to spending a couple of very pleasant evenings with them before they headed off to Venice, the next destination of their whirlwind tour. I suspect we will have many such encounters before we are done.

So that’s a quick thousand-word introduction to our life here. As yet we aren’t quite into a routine, and there is lots still to explore, but we do feel as though we have settled in and we are actually “living” in Florence, rather than just passing through. Which is a nice feeling.

What have we been doing so far? (Part 2)

Trains are one of the great joys of travelling in Europe. All of the big European countries have developed excellent networks of fast trains, and Italy is no exception. The Italians call their fast train networks Frecciarossa, Frecciabianca, or Frecciargento, depending on which network you are using.  Freccia means “Arrow”, so the trains translate to “Red Arrow”, “White Arrow”, and Silver Arrow”. All much more romantic than the soulless acronyms assigned by other countries – TGV, AVE, ICE. So it was on a Frecciarossa train that we left Rome to travel all the way up and across the Italian peninsula to our next destination – Venice.

The trip from Rome to Venice is about three and a half hours, plus about half an hour at the station beforehand. So all up about four hours, time that we passed by watching the scenery go by, chatting, and having lunch (which in accordance with local custom we brought aboard, our own home made sandwiches and a delicious piece of a Roman style tart purchased in the Campo di Fiori). The train journey itself is spectacular, crossing the northern half of the Italian peninsula, through the Apennines and through Umbria, and finally out onto the flat expanse of the Po River valley. Orvieto, on its great crag, passed in a flash, as did many other small hill towns in a region that we look forward to exploring at some time in the future. The train ascended into the mountains mostly through tunnels, so we just had glimpses of snow-covered country as we went from one tunnel to another, and then we were back down in the flat lands again.

Arrival in Venice is always a spectacular thing – walking out of the modern, bustling terminal of Venice station and being confronted with the Grand Canal in all its splendour seems as ever to be completely surreal. A couple of tickets to the Vaporetto, and we were off, down to the Rialto bridge, near which we met our genial AirBNB host, Paola, who took us to the apartment. The photos on the AirBNB website didn’t do the place justice – well furnished, well equipped, and with a great location overlooking a small canal, along which gondoliers ply their trade, mingling with all sorts of working boats that go back and forth on their various tasks.

Why on earth go to Venice in winter? That was the question we frequently got from our friends when we were talking about our plans for this trip back in Australia. So here’s the answer to that question. Many years ago, our old friend Michael Shmith, then a very senior writer at The Age newspaper, wrote an article that sang a paean of praise for the joys of Venice in the winter time. That article caught Robert’s imagination, and has stuck in his mind ever since, and so when we were planning this adventure, of course we had to fulfil his long-held desire to see Venice in winter for himself.

Although I was something of a sceptic – cold and wet have never much appealed to me – in the event Robert was entirely vindicated. It is true that we were lucky with the weather; of the three weeks we were there, we had bright sunshine for all of the first, a fair bit of rain in the second, followed by pleasantly mixed sun and clouds in the third. So that helped. And we did have a few days of fog and mist, which were undeniably romantic.

The Grand Canal from the Rialto on a misty day

Mind you, even in winter the area around San Marco is still pretty much Disneyland for adults, as someone once characterised it. Virtually every shop window is crammed with “Murano” glass trinkets (most of which are made in China, believe it or not), Carnival masks, and every kind of tourist tat you can imagine. But go just a little away from the main tourist areas and you are into a Venice that is completely different, very quiet at this time of year and populated entirely by locals going about their everyday business. And absolutely no queues for entry into the museums, churches and other sights.

Venice is, we discovered, an eminently walkable city. In fact, we spent most of our first week just walking around each of the major neighbourhoods, getting the feel for the place, and just enjoying being there (one of the more underrated pleasures of travel, really), and seeking out nice little local places for lunch, like the small bar near the Arsenale, where a group of very raucous older Italian men were sitting at tables out front in the sunshine, laughing uproariously at their own jokes and generally having a great time. The bar owner, a plump lady with penciled-in eyebrows, seemed to regard them with amused tolerance – clearly they were regulars.

But it wasn’t all relaxation … there was lots of hard work visiting museums too! Venice is packed with art treasures, and with three weeks available, we were able to get to see most of them, using one of the most value-packed city cards we’ve ever encountered. For a mere 20 euros, we got access to half a dozen of the city’s museums – the Ca’ Rezzonico, the Museo Correr, the Palace of the Doges, the Ca’ Pesaro, plus a few lesser but still interesting places like Carlo Goldoni’s house. The card didn’t cover everything, so we still had to pay for entry to the Accademia and the Franchetti gallery at the Ca’ d’Oro, but it went a long way.

And then, as in Rome, we had to do some opera. Our first event was quite charming – something called Opera in the Palazzo. Though clearly designed to attract tourists, this is a rather lovely concept – the opera is staged in a number of rooms at the Palazzo Barbarigo-Minotto, and the audience moves from room to room following the action. The production (Rigoletto, in our case) is pretty cut-down, the music provided, very energetically, by a piano quartet led by a junior Pavarotti look-alike who was having a great time releasing his inner Italian Maestro, the singers costumed in 18th century garb consistent with the décor of the palace, and the rather faded palace and its furnishings providing the set. One curious note – the opera commences in what is called the Tiepolo Room, so-named for a ceiling fresco by that artist, which, we were told, is worth more than the whole palazzo! All in all, a unique experience.

We had always intended to go to an opera at La Fenice, but we despaired of getting tickets at any kind of reasonable price. We decided to visit the opera house anyway, just to have a look, and find out what we could. To our great joy, it turned out that there were great seats available for Tannhauser, rush tickets for just 50 euros apiece. The production, in the event, was somewhat challenging – originally from Antwerp, a modernist interpretation that in my view missed the mark. Fortunately Wagner’s glorious music overcame those problems with ease, performed by a fine cast of musicians and singers.

Before we left Venice, there was one other event that we had been keen to see – the fabled Venice Carnivale. Unfortunately the Carnivale proper didn’t get under way until the week after we left (something we only discovered once we had arrived), but there was a week of “prequel” stuff that started on our last weekend there, including a grand night launch on the Cannareggio Canal, and a boat parade the following day in the same place. The crowds for both events were huge, people crammed onto the bridges and lining the banks, all waving their selfie sticks around in an effort to get pictures of the goings-on. Which, it has to be said, were pretty underwhelming. Think Moomba on the water … But still, it was fun to feel as though we were at least a part of this most Venetian of events.

And so, after three weeks, it’s off to … Florence!

What have we been doing so far? (Part 1)

OK. This post is a bit of a catch up for those who haven’t been following us on Facebook, so it might be a bit longer than future posts are going to be!

We arrived on Friday 13th of January (which was not, as it turned out, even slightly inauspicious for us!), into a cold and blustery morning, which was something of a shock after leaving overheated Australia. There is nothing quite like the sense of wonder that accompanies arrival in a foreign city after a long flight; in our case it seemed almost as if the city was waking itself up just for us – we departed the airport in darkness, but by the time we got to the Campo Dei’ Fiori, right in the centre of the historical centre of Rome, the city was well and truly awake and bustling. Nowhere more so than in  the Campo, where its famous market was just setting up.

Our apartment – right at the back of a rather crumbly looking block that overlooked the cobbled square – was small, but perfect for our needs. Very centrally located, the fruit and vegetable markets of the Campo right outside our door, a comfy bed, roomy lounge, and a tiny but workable kitchen. In short a splendid base of operations for our 10-day stay in Rome.

We normally “do” a city in three or four days, so having ten whole days in Rome seemed like a luxury.Yet this city is so stuffed with things to see and do that we still managed to miss out on a few things, even though we visited a museum of some kind almost every day! We haven’t been to Rome in over 20 years, so it was really a lot like being there for the first time – although there was a certain amount of that strange familiarity that comes with seeing famous places and things with your own eyes for the first time. I’m not going to make an exhaustive list of all the places we visited (but it does occur to me that people might be interested in our “top 10”, so I might do a separate page on that), but the highlights were probably the Colosseum, which is awe-inspiring from every angle, the nearby Capitoline Museums, the Forum and Palatine Hill complexes, and the fascinating MAXXI (Museo dell’Arte della XXI Secolo), as remarkable for its architecture as for its exhibits.

The Colosseum still inspires awe

But the greatest joy in Rome is, I think, the simplest – just walking around. The city bustles, no doubt about it, and even in the middle of winter is thronged with tourists, but it is still great fun wandering among the cobbled lanes that can open at any minute onto a famous piazza, like the Piazza Della Rotonda, dominated by the architectural marvel of the Pantheon, inspiration for both Michelangelo and Brunelleschi. Or being enticed into a nice warm little trattoria by the inevitable spruikers  who seem to be employed by every restaurant, a welcome escape from the cold and often a nice culinary surprise.

A church dome and campanile seen through a screen of the ubiquitous Roman pine trees, from the top of the Palatine Hill

Rome is of course also stuffed with art. We didn’t make it to the really big galleries – the Borghese, or the Vatican Galleries – which we’ll save for another trip later in the year, but we were both quite taken with a couple of exhibitions that surprised us. One was an excellent small retrospective of the work of the American Edward Hopper, in a neat little gallery under what used to be called the Vittorio Emmanuele Monument, and is now, apparently, simply the Altare della Patria (The Altar of the Country). And the other, as mentioned above, was the Capitoline Museums, where almost every room has some sculpture or picture that takes your breath away.

And we had one major performing arts experience, a night at the Rome Opera for a performance of Cosi Fan Tutti. We had booked seats in a box on the side of the theatre, and when we were making the booking the lady at the counter had given us a bit of a funny look as she told us that the view wasn’t great. She was right – we had “rear” seats, though the seats were in fact moveable chairs, one a little higher than the other. Our companions in the box turned out to be just one rather taciturn man, and another who turned up, took one look, and never reappeared. So there were the three of us, which made it a little less squeezy. Rob managed to ease his way to the front of the box, which gave him a good view, but I had the seat at the back, where half the stage was obscured.

Rome Opera – The boxes look glamorous, but aren’t always comfortable and can have sightline problems …

Nonetheless, challenges with our choice of seats aside, we did have a nice night. The sparse stage set was modern, a sort of schoolroom with a few chairs and desks, whiteboards, and sundry cupboards and chests. A large screen and projector were used creatively to suggest scene changes and events such as the departure of the two young men to go off to war. But overall this is an opera where the setting and costuming add (or detract) little from the story – which is mostly silly anyway! Mozart’s music never fails to scintillate, and on this occasion the orchestra performed their function with great verve under the direction of Speranza Scappuci. We had the A Cast, all of whom were splendid, but especial standouts were handsome Argentinian tenor Juan Francesco Gatell as Ferrando, Francesca Dotto as Fiordiligi, and Monica Bagelli as Despina.

To cap off the week, our very last event was a dinner with our old friends Peter Reeve and his partner Jaycen Fletcher, at a restaurant called the Casa Coppelle. We had been being fairly frugal up to this point, eating  in relatively low budget restaurants or at home, so it was lovely to enjoy a 6 course degustation menu with matching wines in a very fine restaurant indeed.

And so our ten days in Rome came to an end, with a lot left undone to be revisited again at some point in the future. Next stop, Venice – subject of the next entry …

Welcome from Two Gents

If you are reading this it is probably because you are a friend or acquaintance of ours and you have some mild level of curiosity about our doings here in Italy. You may or may not have been following our progress on the ever ubiquitous Facebook (or as a friend of ours calls it, FaceStalker), and if you have some of our first few blog entries will probably be something of a repeat, but hopefully with a bit of added extra zing!

If you don’t know who we are, have a look at our About page.

Writing a blog is something of an experiment for me, so expect to see a few changes and updates as I get used to the medium and discover what it can do. My aim is to communicate something of our experiences over this year-long sojourn, hopefully entertain and perhaps inform those who are reading this. Feedback will be appreciated!

Oh, and in case you haven’t guessed, when I say “I”, I mean Tony, and you can safely assume for the most part that when you see that personal pronoun that it is me who is talking; if His Excellency the Other Half should choose to weigh in from time to time, I’ll remind him to make sure that it is clear who is talking. Wouldn’t want to have people confused about who is saying what …

Lastly, if you want to follow the blog without having to remember to look in from time to time, click on the Following Two Gents in Italy button, and you’ll get an email notification whenever we put up a new post.

Well, enough of the introductory guff, let’s get on with some real posts!

Stunning view of the Grand Canal in Venice from the roof of the Fondaco Dei Tedeschi – of which more later!!