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.

 

 

Post Holiday Reflections – I Need a Word

I’ve just come back from an amazing four day break in Florence (taking in a day trip to Venice). It was my second time in Italy (last year I went to Rome) and I’m hopelessly in love with what I’ve seen and experienced (more about that in other posts, once I’ve had time to think about how to present them), so I’ve decided to write a reflection on how I feel now I’m back, and it’s not great. It’s not that my depression has in any way returned – and that’s something I need to keep in mind and perspective – but that I have the strong feeling of being unsettled, of an inner agitation, a sense that things are not right, for me, for now. Being away, and now coming back to ‘real’ life, if you will, has made all that surface again.

I’m aware, of course, that being on holiday is a very different way of life. When we’re away, our worries and concerns (hopefully) disappear, or at least lessen, and we enter a kind of existence that (again, hopefully) frees us, liberates us, from what we’ve left behind. Take last year, for example. Before I left for Rome, I was, and had been for months and months, a depressed and anxious mess. It was so bad just before the holiday that I honestly felt like cancelling it, which was a terrible way to feel, considering that I was going away with my amazing and supportive daughter, and that Rome was a bucket list destination for me. Trying to act normally, but feeling as though I was dying inside, I wanted to cancel up until the point when we were on the plane. I didn’t believe it was possible, given the state I was in, to even think about enjoying myself. And yet, when we arrived in Rome, and I saw the Trevi fountain, busy with tourists (including us, of course) I just burst into relieved tears that I was there. But they were also tears of appreciation of the beauty. Beauty, I have found, however you may define it, has that effect on me. It feeds me, and helps me to feel positive. So that holiday was an amazing experience. I joked about living in Italy for a year, but the actual feeling itself wasn’t a joke. And it isn’t a joke now.

When I saw the sheer beauty that is Florence, when I stepped out of Venice station onto the concourse and saw the Grand Canal, I cried again – again, more on this in later posts. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Why should I be ashamed of being moved by beautiful places, beautiful things? I cried when I left too; it was as though part of my heart had been ripped out and left behind. And that feeling has resurfaced again now I’ve returned. While I was away, I didn’t think about anything else but where I was. I lived in the moment and for the moment.  Now I’m back, I’m living yet again in an uncertain future. I want to be somewhere else that isn’t here in Luton, doing something that isn’t what I’m doing now – not the teaching side of my job, mind you, never that –  but the rest of it, the sense that I’m just working as a cog in a machine that no longer values people, or that treats us respectfully. I go back on social media to find the same divisions, the same hate for anything that is considered ‘wrong’ – ‘You don’t believe the same things as I do? You’re a bad person.’ And I’m less tolerant of it than ever.

I’m all too aware of my extreme idealism, because I know that’s what it is. I know that many people feel that way about their jobs, and their lives, and I think it’s sad. I know I should be grateful for what I have, and on one level, I am. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to tolerate, and post-holiday, after being in a place that inspires me, that makes me want, more and more, to just discover more in general, and myself in particular, what drives me, how I learn to be driven by my passions, my heart yearns to do it. It yearns to really live life, rather than just be a passenger, drifting on the currents.

It all comes back, I guess, to needing change. That elusive ‘something’ that I can’t put my finger on, or define. I know I can’t just up and leave, for many reasons, not least financially, but the temptation to do just that is becoming almost overwhelming. While I was in Florence my daughter and I watched the Italian section of Eat, Pray, Love again. I love that film, it’s hopeful, and celebrates a freedom most of us can only imagine, but it’s a freedom born of despair and misery. But we can’t all afford to take a year out, and we don’t all have the courage to travel alone, as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert did. Again, much of that comes down to courage and the willingness – not just the desire – to change, and a huge amount of faith that one can change one’s life in profound ways. Anyway, I cried (yet again!) watching the beginning of that film, because whatever else Gilbert may be, however privileged she is, she still experienced that desperate unhappiness with her situation, a situation that many people thought she should be grateful for, that they thought she should tolerate, because why would she want to throw it all away? But surely sometimes we have to find the courage and the means to make those changes, take those positive steps to our own peace? Surely sometimes we have to tear it all down to build something new and more meaningful.

Anyway, those are my feelings now. This has been a really difficult year for me, as I’ve written before, but I’m emerging, still emerging, from the deadening cocoon of depression into what needs, so desperately, to lead to a new way of being. Something that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Italian friends said in the film during a discussion about finding a word that sums up where they’re from, and which represents themselves was interesting. It made me think a lot about myself: Elizabeth Gilbert said that she was a writer, but she was told that was what she did, not who she was. Maybe, someone said, she was a woman in search of a word. I kind of couldn’t stop crying at that, because it sums up my emotions now. Coming home to a place that is stagnant (my word for where I live), back to a profession that is ‘lecturer’, which is what I do, has made me think about that line again. Maybe ‘teacher’ is more what I am – and I think there’s a big difference between ‘teacher’ and ‘lecturer’; ‘writer’ is definitely who I am. One of my friends tells me I should be happy because my being a lecturer in creative writing enables me to be a paid writer, but he doesn’t get that it’s not who I am. It’s not the same, although his words, of course, have some logic to them.

So although I’m probably not going to run off to Italy to find myself, tempting though that is (I’d get on a plane right now if I could!), I am going to search for my word, and live it before it’s too late and I’ve lost it forever.