Venice: On the Trail of La Serenissima.

I barely sleep the night before our trip to Venice. It’s always like this when something big is going to happen. Anxiety gets the better of me. Will I be disappointed? Will the train be on time? Will I fall into a canal? These questions and more rush through the tunnels of my brain like the high speed train we’re going to take today.

But the train is on time (at 07.53), our prima seats are really comfortable, and Kat and I eat our croissants and train snacks and just sit and chat for the two hour journey, and of course, my anxieties dissipate one by one as excitement overtakes me.

My first view of Venice is from the train window. As the lagoon comes into view, we hit the Via della Liberta, the causeway that connects the mainland to the main island. My breath catches in my throat as we pass some of the smaller islands dotted throughout the water, as we pass boats, pleasure craft and fishing craft, and then… there! A line of buildings, immediately recognisable as Venetian. I’m almost overwhelmed by the desire to shout ‘There it is! Venice! Can you see her?’ But of course I don’t, although I’m fidgeting in my seat, eager to get off the train. And then the train arrives and we alight onto Venetian soil.

I’m not prepared for what I see when we exit the Santa Lucia stazione. It’s so amazing I almost can’t take it in. Because the station concourse is on the Grand Canal, directly opposite the Chiesa di San Simeon Piccolo, a most magnificent church, which shines white in the sunshine, topped by a verdigris cupola. Immediately my eyes fill with tears. I’m here, in this dream, this fairytale city, a place I’ve longed for ever since I learned of its existence. My tears are of relief, of joy that I’m here, and a response to a place I’ve never seen the like of before. Kat stands next to me, and I think she’s a bit teary-eyed too, although she’s been here before. I think she’s as much excited for me as she is for herself. And I’m so glad she didn’t tell me about this view before, that she’s allowed me to see it fresh, to see it unbiased by her recollection of it.

 

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We stand and stare for a while, and I eventually pull myself together. Originally we’d thought we’d get the water bus to the Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), but the queues are long and it looks confusing so we decide to walk instead. And so I have my first experience of a Venetian bridge.

The Ponte degli Scalzi is a beautiful white stone bridge with elaborate balustrades, and spans the width of the Grand Canal. It’s also steep and stepped, and I watch as a couple of young girls try to haul massive suitcases upwards. It occurs to me then that Venice is even more different than I’d thought. The canals are the streets and all transportation is by boat, or on foot. Thinking about it kind of blows my mind a bit as I consider various scenarios, and this continues to preoccupy me as we move through the city.

Off the bridge and we’re off in search of the Piazza San Marco. Immediately we’re sucked into a warren of narrow alleys filled with old buildings. It’s exciting, like being thrust back in time. I imagine the swirling skirts of women hurrying to meet their lovers, shrouded by the night and intrigue. I imagine murders committed in the dark. I imagine… so much. Through and through and through the streets we go, following the signs to the Piazza, which are at least clear, although a couple of times we get lost in the labyrinth and have to retrace our steps. It’s wonderful, and I mean that in all ways. Wonderful and wonder-full. We constantly cross bridges over canals, where houses overhang the water, where gondolas sit at the bottom of steep slippery steps, the gondoliers looking like men out of romance novels, dressed in their uniforms of striped tops, black trousers and wide-brimmed hats as they wait for customers.

Occasionally the alleyways open up into streets lined with shops selling the masks that Venice is so famous for. I become obsessed at studying them, because many of them veer toward the grotesque. Skulls. Creepy baby doll faces with blank eyes and red lips. Feline faces. Long nosed plague masks. Devils and Day of the Dead. Steampunk masquerade masks. Feathers and filigree, full and half face. Too many styles to describe, all utterly fascinating. Kat finds them disturbing and I guess I can see why, but for me, as a writer of the weird and strange, they inspire stories in me.

Venice is making me want to write.

 

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The Piazza San Marco, when we arrive, swarms with tourists. Again, it’s to be expected, and although it’s crowded, it doesn’t really matter. This is the main public square in Venice and I’m here, here, here. The Piazza is overseen by St Mark’s Basilica, and I can’t do justice to a description. Suffice to say that like so many buildings I’ve seen in Italy (Rome included) it’s a triumph of architecture and design. Then there is the clock tower (Torre dell’Orologio), and its beautiful, recently restored clock face, which feature golden figures representing the astrological signs around its centre. And then there’s the Campanile, the free-standing bell tower of the basilica, which stands proudly alone. It’s so tall (323 feet in total, including belfry and pyramidal spire) it hurts to look up at it. Like so many other landmarks, this is also recently restored, and there’s a queue of people waiting to climb it, but that’s not for me, so I just stare, awestruck. I find, as I continue my journey through Venice, that I become a little obsessed with clock towers. They are everywhere.

The rest of the square is open, shops and restaurants lining its perimeter, but we leave the actual square and walk toward the water’s edge, still on the Grand Canal, gondolas bobbing in their moorings, but here it widens out into the enormous lagoon. We’re opposite a couple of islands, and it strikes me again that Venice is unique; its water based way of life is compelling and yet a little alien to me, who’s used to roads and traffic.

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Now we’re at the Rialto and its famous bridge. It’s choked with tourists and it’s not easy getting onto the bridge, but we haven’t walked through dozens of little streets, crossed so many bridges, not to stand on this one now. We take in two views – one over the lagoon – spectacular of course; and one toward the Bridge of Sighs (named in English by the poet Byron) or, more sinister, the Ponte dei Sospiri, its name reminding me of the Dario Argento film, Suspiria. The Ponte dei Sospiri is white with stone-barred windows, and passes over the Rio di Palazzo. It’s a link between the Doge’s Palace and the New Prison, and it is said that prisoners would pass between the two to their place of execution, and sigh at their last sight of the beautiful city. Anyway, that may or may not be myth, but it makes me sad to look at it, the idea of passing from paradise to hell, with no hope of escape. My writer’s mind writhes with imaginings.

It’s lunch time by now and we search for food. It’s a shame that in a city as special as Venice that good food is a little hard to find, because so many restaurants cater for the tourist trade, and we don’t bother too search too hard, just find a pizzeria that serves good enough pizza. I’ve heard it said that the Venetians keep the best restaurants secret – fair enough!

After lunch we wander some more, and cross to the other side of the city, via more bridges, through more squares with gothic looking houses that we play ‘would you stay there overnight?’ games (no, we wouldn’t, is the general consensus we come to!) so that soon we’re walking opposite the Piazza San Marco. We pass the Santa Maria della Salute, a magnificent Roman Catholic Church, known as the Salute because it was built to offer thanks for deliverance from the plague in 1630, and which stands on the narrow tip of the Punta della Dogana, which pushes out into the lagoon, and offers a breathtaking view of the water and the skyline with its basilicas and campaniles. By now time is passing quickly so we take our leave and begin to walk back, although a shower of rain stops us for a little while and we seek shelter under a lush tree growing behind a wall in what must be a private garden.

When it stops we go in search of gelato. We find a Grom, a small chain that we’ve visited in Rome before (and there’s a ranch in London too!), and order our flavours. Kat has strawberry meringue – yummy and tastes intensely of strawberries, but a little sweet for me, and pairs it with pistachio; and I choose a single flavour, raspberry, which is tart and again, tastes intensely of the fruit from which it’s made. It occurs to me that I’m purely and simply happy. I’ve been like this since we set foot on Italian soil, and it’s such an unusual emotion for me that I wish I could bottle it to take away with me, for when times get tough. Maybe I can find a Venetian apothecary who can extract its essence from my mind and body? But this is fanciful of course, and I must enjoy these moments when they come. Store them away in my own spiritual vessel, so open it when it’s needed.

I want to buy some Murano glass earrings so we look in shops now. Murano glass holds a real fascination for me. I love how it looks, the depth and swirl and intricacy of colour and design. I love the idea that there’s an island just for glassmaking, romantic in itself, as well as the idea of the craftwork and dedication to this one form of art. Eventually – I’m being fussy – I find a pair that have been made on the island (at least I decide to trust the label), and that are neither too cheap nor too expensive. They’re drop earrings, spheres, gold the colour of molten sunshine, flecked with ruby-red running throughout the gold, swirls of god blood. Anyway I don’t have anything like them, and although I ‘um’ and ‘ah’ – there are so many colours and patterns – these are the ones that keep calling to me. I’m satisfied, and I’ve been wearing them a lot since I’ve been back, and I imagine I can hear La Serenissima whispering to me when I do, and her voice is sweet, yet dark with mystery.

We arrive back at the station concourse and sit on the steps, looking at the Grand Canal, at the traffic of boats, at the people disgorging from the station towards their own experiences in this city of wonders. Of course I cry when we have to leave, but as Venice disappears from view, I hope and wish that some day I will return.

 

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Florence Part Two: Admiring Art. Finding Food.

We wake up early today, and step out into bright sunshine and 26 degree heat, and go in search of breakfast. Over Danish pastries, we discuss our plans for the day. A visit to the Profumu Farmaceutica di Santa Maria de Novella, originally home to an infirmary in a Dominican monastery, which has, over the years produced perfume for Caterina de’ Medici, become an apothecary’s shop (opening to the public in 1612), to what it is now, a most beautiful home to a pharmacy and perfumery. We enter a paradise of ornate rooms with painted ceilings, into the pharmacy’s perfume shop, where displays of old bottles hug the walls.

As we expect, the perfumes are expensive, way beyond our price range, but we look and explore anyway, wandering from room to room, sniffing scents and soaps, examining the displays of bottles, old mixing paraphernalia, lists of ingredients and the artworks on the walls and ceilings. One of my particular favourite sounding mixtures is Pennywort Compound, which claims to have an ‘aesthetic’ effect on cellulite; and the Pausadonna, which – and its name speaks for itself – claims to aid the menopausal symptoms.

We emerge from this display of opulence and claims of cures into the street, and head for the Piazza della Signoria, which is crowded with tourists. We’re here because we’ve made the decision not to visit the two main galleries – the Uffizi and l’Accademia – because we’re time stretched, so we’ve come to Florence’s main square instead, once the site of Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497, where thousands of pieces of art, cosmetics , musical instruments and even books – including the works of Dante and Ovid – were burned in a warning against immorality, sin and temptation. After Savonarola’s execution, the Palazzo Vecchio, which overlooks the piazza, welcomed the triumphant return of the Medici family and the rebirth of the Renaissance. The piazza is also the home to copies of many famous statues, including Michelangelo’s David, which was placed outside the Palazzo as a sign of rebellion against Medici tyranny. I’m not sure of the year that happened, but this David is impressive anyway, and beautiful.

In fact the whole square is full of wonderful sculptures, and we’re particularly taken by the Nettuno, erected in 1575 to celebrate Medici fortune at sea. To our left, is the Loggia dei Lanza, an open air art gallery with yet more impressive Renaissance sculptures. It’s almost impossible to take it all in, but we sit on the steps inside the Loggia for a while, soak in the atmosphere, and then decide to move on. We’re on a mission to try what are alleged by some to be the best sandwiches in Florence. So we get up, press our way through the crowds of tourists, towards lunch.

We see the queues before we see the two sandwich shops, one on either side of the Via Neri. This is the Osteria All’Antico Vinaio, (http://www.allanticovinaio.com/it/) which Kat discovered via YouTube. We take our place in the queue that’s on the shady side of the street, and wait, eagerly discussing what we might eat, despite the fact that we can’t see the menu yet! But we’ve heard about the sandwiches, made with schiacchiata all’olio, a flat bread special to Tuscany. As we wait – and the queue moves quite quickly – we watch a man carry piles of this bread to and fro between shops, and the smells of warm bread and preserved meats fill our nostrils. It’s only midday, but we were up early, and we’re made extra hungry by this assault on our senses.

Finally we’re in the shop, where our orders are taken quickly and served with ultra efficiency – I’ll admit it’s all a little too frenzied for me, and I exit the shop as quickly as possible once we’ve got our sandwiches, which are monsters, and an absolute steal at five euros each. We take our first bites – Kat has decided on a mix of porchetta, truffle cream, fiery pesto and roasted vegetables; and I’ve decided to try the Speck ham, Parmesan cream, porcini cream and scamorza cheese. Our first bites are heavenly. I’ve never eaten a sandwich like it. They’re ridiculously good, each bite full of flavour. We swap regularly – and we get moved off the street by patrolling police officers who tell us we can’t eat near the shop, presumably because it gets blocked so easily. So we eat and walk and savour the food and the atmosphere, and observe that most people passing us by on the street have sandwiches clutched in their hands.

We walk towards the River Arno and Ponte Vecchio, the major bridge in Florence. A bridge of shops, it was, in the thirteenth century, home to butchers and fishmongers, but it was decided – because of the noxious stench and concentrated rot – to house the city’s jewellers there instead. Apparently it was the only bridge spared from bombings in WW2, because Hitler couldn’t bear to destroy its beauty. And so it is now the most famous bridge in Florence, and, naturally, a massive tourist trap. Of course, being tourists ourselves, Kat and I don’t care. We ascend the arch of the bridge, occasionally stopping to look in a particularly beautiful shop, and finally get to a place where we can take photos of the Arno and the other bridges we see from this one.

We spend a little time admiring the view, then decide to go in search of gelato – it doesn’t matter that we’re still rather full from our sandwiches – we’re in the birthplace of gelato and it’s rude to not try as much as possible! As Jenna Evans Welch says in Love and Gelato (2017): ‘So… Italian gelato. Take the deliciousness of a regular ice-cream cone, times it by a million, then sprinkle it with crushed-up unicorn horns.’ We need to prove this assertion to ourselves, one flavour (or two!) at a time.

We head back the way we came, to the Via dei Neri, and find the Gelataria dei Neri, recommended as one of best gelataria in Florence. Again, the queue isn’t too bad, and moves quickly. I pick peach – I’ve never had peach gelato before, and it’s gorgeous – and pair it with fig and ricotta, because fig is my favourite fruit. I can’t remember what Kat has, but they’re equally delicious concoctions. By now it’s around three pm, so, gelato cravings satisfied, we decide to wander back to our hotel and have a rest before going out to dinner.

Tomorrow we’re taking the train for a day trip to Venice. Kat’s already booked first class tickets, and I’m excited and terrified in equal measure. Like Rome, Venice is a bucket list destination for me. Why I’m excited is obvious; why I’m terrified isn’t so much. Examining my feelings, I can say admit that I’m scared I’ll be disappointed. Add the fact that I get super anxious about travelling to new places, and I think I understand it. Partly to allay my fears, we decide to go to the station we’re travelling from tomorrow, in order to check it out, and to see how long it takes to walk there from our hotel. Turns out the Santa Maria Novella station is only ten minutes walk away, max. It’s an uncomplicated place. My worries about finding it difficult to discover what platform we might be travelling from disappear, because they’re all there right in front of us. I feel a little better. We have a little look around the station shops, then go to eat dinner.

We’ve decided to eat pizza tonight, and are visiting the Pizzeria da Michele, which serves Neapolitan style pizza. It’s very close to our hotel – like everything else – and we stop on the way to have a drink in a trattoria. I feel quite drunk after two glasses of a delicious house white, and so we go to eat. The pizzeria comes highly recommended and is one of a small chain across Italy, including one in Rome, where some of Eat, Pray, Love was filmed. Weirdly perhaps, there are two restaurants in Japan. We sit in the outside area. It’s very hot but the Italians have an interesting way of cooling their patrons down – with a very fine mist of water. It’s a bit weird at first, being sprayed, but you get used to it, and it’s refreshing. The menu is pretty small, and most of the pizzas are vegetarian, except the calzone, which has salami on it. We both decide to order the doppia (double) mozzarella, which also has pecorino cheese and basil in the mix. When it comes we have to laugh – at only nine euros, they are absolutely enormous, edges hanging over the plates. They’re cheesy and gooey and utterly delicious. We eat what we can, savourin every decadent mouthful, until we’re almost bursting and can’t eat any more. Full and satisfied, we pay up, and go back to our hotel room and prepare for tomorrow’s adventure.

 

Florence Part One: In Search of a Sense of Peace

‘Florence is considered to be the artistic, historical, and cultural capital of not only Tuscany, but of all Italy. Its physical elegance coexists beautifully with the il dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing) lifestyle of the Florentines and it reveals the city in a strong, yet gentle way that makes us want to delve deep into its art, culture, and history.’ – (Remembering Florence and its Renaissance Beauty at https://www.globotreks.com/destinations/italy/remembering-florence-renaissance-beauty/)

 

We – my daughter Kat, and I – land at Florence airport late afternoon, and step into an inferno of sunshine. We have arrived, and I look forward to having a new adventure, but also to decompressing after what has been an awful year for me in terms of my mental health. Perhaps even finding some peace in my still too-cluttered mind.

When Kat suggested we should go to Florence for our annual break together, I was initially not overly excited. Last year I’d completely lost my heart to Rome, a bucket list destination, and Florence had never really been on my go-to list. How could it possibly compete with the Eternal City? I’ll hold up my hands now and say, I was wrong. Totally and absolutely. As soon as I set foot on Florentine soil, I have the sense of homecoming, much like I’d had with Rome last year, but in a quieter, more gentle way.

A quick tram ride from the airport takes us to our hotel, The Apollo Guesthouse (http://www.apolloguesthouse.it/en), which is set in a huge apartment building. We enter through a big wooden communal door into a large atrium and an old-fashioned lift takes us up to the third floor into a lovely small hotel, where the manager shows us into a big, bright and airy room. He tells us a little about our location – a mere ten minute walk from Florence’s Renaissance centre. I’m excited to begin to explore, to leave behind (if that’s possible) at least some of my worries and concerns for the upcoming academic year, and try to live in the moment.

After unpacking and a brief rest, we leave our hotel and make the short walk through narrow streets to the Duomo – the Cathedral of Santa Maria Fiore – where I am left almost speechless by what I’m seeing, by its sheer size and unexpected beauty. I’ve seen it in photos, read about it, but that hasn’t  prepared me for actually seeing it, just like last year, when I wasn’t prepared to come face to face with the Colosseum or treading in the footsteps of Julius Caesar. I’m suddenly in tears, overwhelmed and moved by what I’m seeing. How it speaks to some deeper part of me. To the dreamer that is so often repressed by the pressures and stresses of my ‘real’ life. These monuments from a long ago past affect me so much; their timelessness, the knowledge that I’m in the presence of the genius of their creators, and the feeling that I’ve been transported to a kind of fantasyland, makes me want to create. So it is with my first view of the Duomo, with its intricate facades, its light and shade chiaroscuro. I’m not a religious person, but the sense of the numinous in this place that transcends words is so strong I can almost touch it.

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As we explore, we discover that Florence is a city of narrow roads and alleys, which suddenly widen into piazzas that bubble with life. Around every corner there’s something new, something that will take the breath away. On that first early evening we wander, quite by chance, into the walled garden of the Palazzo Medici, built by Michelozzi for Cosimo Medici between 1444 and 1484. We linger a while in the garden, with its fruiting lime trees (something that excites me almost as much as the architecture) absorbing the atmosphere, which, despite the few tourists who, like us, are admiring the classical statues, the mosaics on the floor, is peaceful and respectful. This was to become, in the few short days I was in Florence, a feeling I carried with me. That sense of peace. It wasn’t that the city was empty, because it wasn’t  – it’s August, after all, the height of the tourist season, and the city has a vibrant feeling of life – it was just that it induced that hoped-for sense of peace in me. An absolute sense of peace that I’m trying to hold on to, now I’m back.

We wander a little more – well, I say wander but in fact we’re in search of gelato (apparently gelato originated in Florence). Kat and I LOVE our food, and she’s done a lot of research into places to eat and drink. On this late afternoon, we’re specifically hunting for a gelateria in the close-by San Lorenzo area, My Sugar (https://my-sugar.business.site), a tiny independently owned shop tucked away down the Via di’ Ginori. The owners are a young couple, and today we’re looked after by the female half of the partnership, who takes our orders, which we make in badly pronounced Italian, but hey, we’re trying, and we experience our first Florentine gelato. I have to say that I can’t remember what Kat had, but I choose the dulce de latte, served in a cup, and the first bite is soft, smooth cold heaven. We move slowly now, savouring the sweetness, toward the Mercato Centrale (https://www.mercatocentrale.com) the covered market complex which has an upstairs eating and drinking area, for a pre-dinner glass of wine, a local rose, taking in the buzzy, vibrant atmosphere. It reminds us a little of the Time Out complex in Lisbon, where we spent some of evenings, and the Mercato will become a similar focus in evenings to come. We chat for a while, excited about what we’ve already seen, and then we go to dinner.

Our first meal in Florence is in a restaurant opposite our hotel – Malatesta (https://www.bracieremalatesta.com/en/)  – and we have a money off voucher. This is very handy, because we’d planned to eat there anyway. We’ve already decided to order the bisteca alla Fiorentina, the traditional Florentine steak, cut from the Tuscan breed of cattle, the Chianina. The waiter – friendly and helpful on what to choose, takes our order, and we wait, drinking a very good house white wine and nibbling on bread. When the steak came, we gasp at the sheer size of it (a Florentine steak is meant to be about three to four fingers high, and we’ve ordered the traditional cut, all 1.5 kilos of it!), the Australian couple next to us laugh. The waiter, as he cuts the very rare meat from the bone, seems to think we won’t  manage it all, and that it might be too rare for us, so we take that as a challenge. It’s hard work, but we eat it. All. And since we both like our steak rare, that isn’t a problem. I think the waiter is impressed!

 

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And so ends our first evening in Florence. We go back to our hotel, just across the road, full of steak and wine, and watch Friends on Netflix. I realise, as Kat and I laugh, and chat away about the day, that I can feel a sense of letting go, of having lived in the moments I’ve experienced, AS experiences, instead of being preoccupied with what might stress me out, of what might go wrong or make me anxious or unhappy. I mean, don’t misunderstand: my anxiety is ever-present, even though my depression has gone for now, but today, this evening, here in a magical city, it’s further away than it’s been for an age. I embrace that, and fall asleep easily for the first time in a long time, and look forward to the next day.