Friday, 3 October 2008

Italian Diary 2008: Day One

I don’t know what time it is (my alarm clock battery seems to have run out) but I’ve been staring at the ceiling through the dark for what seems like hours. I’ve skimmed the guidebooks, I’ve been through the lists a hundred times in my head, there really is nothing more I can do. We’re going on holiday and there’s no stopping us now.

It’s been nearly ten years since our last proper holiday and by proper holiday I mean going somewhere that requires a passport for longer than a week, I don’t mean the two damp weeks we spent wandering grumpily round Northumberland wondering what we were doing there, nor the weekend trip to Venice where I went down with a stomach virus the second we arrived at the hotel leaving P to escort my Mum and our friend Nicky around every handbag and shoe shop in town.

But ahead of us are ten days of adventure in Italy, three days in Florence, three in Siena and three in Naples (taking in Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast) and I’m nervous. Nervous because I’m not sure I remember how to have a holiday. Are we going to arrive in Florence and hate it? Are we going to have enough money? Is the world going to be sucked into a black hole on Wednesday? (OK this last one wasn’t a major worry to be honest, partially because I knew it wouldn’t, but also I was secure in the knowledge that if it did at least I’d have a decent coffee in my hands when the universe turned inside out or gained another six dimensions or whatever.)

Have we got all the tickets/passports/documents we need? Will our online check in work? How am I supposed to sleep with all this going on in my head?

Of course the inner ‘sensible’ bit of me is reminding me that we’re only going to Italy, not attempting to cross the Andes by frog, that we’re both seasoned travellers and that I once left home for a two month tour of Europe with a measly £250 in my pocket and survived.

But still the paranoid litany continues….What if something goes wrong with the hotel bookings? What if the flight’s delayed? Is P going to strangle me after the umpteenth fascinating monologue about Medieval art?

For god’s sake get a grip.

I get up and have a cigarette, and then head back to bed checking P’s alarm clock as I pass. 4.10. Oh great, twenty minute before we’re due to get up. Might as well have a bath then….

We dress in silence, bar grinning and shouting “Holiday!” occasionally – both focussed on getting ready and by 5am we sitting, coffees in hand, twiddling our thumbs (which is tricky when you’re holding a coffee). The plan is that we leave the house at 5.30, but itchy feet get the better of us and once P has checked and rechecked every lock and power point, we leave, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. What would my father (dogmatic itinerary adherent par excellence) say….?

It’s a bright morning and we roll down the hill to the station – our trolley bags making a racket as they bump across the non-slip paving stones. We offer a silent apology to the locals who’ve been woken by the noise.

The station’s quiet – a few people bumbling around eyes half open, difficult to tell who’s just on their way home after a night out and who’s starting work for the day, this being Brighton though the two possibilities are by no means mutually exclusive.

We catch the train and watch the South Downs slide past, P leafs through the Florence guidebook and I snigger at the bawdy tales in The Decameron trying to get my head into the culture of medieval Tuscany, but in reality just giggling at the rude jokes.

We arrive at Gatwick and head to the South Terminal and the mysterious ‘bag drop’. Now I’m as techno-friendly as the next person but the whole business of travelling without a ticket still freaks me out. Somehow the lack of one of those multipart tickets with red carbon bearing arcane numbers and symbols brings out the inner luddite in me and I feel like some superstitious yokel from the middle ages muttering “No boardin’ paaasssss – bain’t natural.”

Still we overcome my belief that such check-ins can only be the work of witchcraft and once we’ve realised that the place we need to go has cunningly been disguised with large red “Bag Drop Here” signs, we say goodbye to the luggage and head off in search of breakfast. (Perhaps it was my imagination, but I’m sure I felt P flinch as the bag containing his camera equipment disappeared on the conveyer belt. Actually I consider myself lucky that I wasn’t shoved into the bag so the camera gear could have my seat..)

Our search for breakfast leads us to the rather optimistically named Gatwick Village – a collection of Starbucks, Burger Kings and amusement arcades that once probably looked quite shiny but now are dulled by the accumulated grime of a decade in a airport. Optimistically we plump for continental breakfast at Café Gerrard where we are well and truly ripped off, paying thirteen quid for two cups of something pretending to be coffee and a limp Danish that’s been warmed up in the microwave.

Seething quite badly due to this, but console ourselves with the knowledge that we’re going to be drinking decent coffee for the next ten days…

Our flight is called and we get through passport control and security checks fine, despite my continuing worries that the home printed bit of A4 paper that I’m waving can’t possibly be as good as a real ticket.

We settle into our seats and enjoy an uneventful flight, P drinks in views of the Alps while I slip into the semi-asleep state that I can only enter on planes or trains (you know the one where you’re just conscious enough to avoid lolling and dribbling on the passenger next to you.)

We arrive in Pisa and having got through customs wander out to find the bus to the hire car pickup place. We locate the bus, get on and are then treated to a journey of about two hundred metres. Everyone on the bus giggles at the apparent insanity of this trip, raising eyebrows as if to say “these crazy foreigners eh?’ and we pour out to pick up the cars.

We head to the Thrifty desk feeling smug that ours has the smallest queue (i.e. no one), but pride comes before a fall and all and our smugness is given a cold shower when the guy behind the desk asks for sixty five euros for local taxes and to cover the fact that we’ll be dropping the car off at the office in Naples. A bit put out by this, but not an insurmountable problem.

The guy behind desk then says “Oh your credit card won’t work.” I frown and say that there’s easily enough credit to cover the 65. “Oh no, “ he says “For the five hundred.” Um what? “The five hundred euro deposit.” I splutter and grab the booking confirmation and there it is – right at the bottom in letters the size of Higgs Boson . Bugger.

A quick financial meeting ensues at the end of which we decide to abandon the car – we could stump up the 500, but it would pretty much clear out our budget for the rest of the trip. P absolutely furious as his dreams of sitting on top of a mountain catching the sunrise over Tuscany vanish in a puff of small print.

We take the ludicrous bus journey back to the terminal, P silently seethes as I make optimistic noises

“Well it’s a bit more of an adventure now isn’t it?”


“We’ll save money on petrol.”


“We won’t have to pay for parking.”


Ok better leave him to it….Happily the high dudgeon is short lived as we quickly locate a bus to Florence and board. P groans occasionally as especially photogenic areas of Tuscany pass us by while I try and locate the hotel in the guidebook. I’m a little worried that it seems to be off the map. Still it’s my job to be the optimistic one so I keep schtum.

After the rural landscape of Tuscany, the prospect of navigating our way across town with luggage in tow seems a bit much, but once we’re deposited at Santa Maria Novella station we can’t actually work out where the taxis are so gamely we step into the bustling streets to find our bed for the night.

I keep my head down as we walk through the town, partially keeping an eagle eye on the map and partly ensuring that I don’t see anything that will make me forget the job in hand. Also, if truth be told, staggering through the streets, partially uncertain of direction and lugging bags isn’t what I want my first impressions of Florence to be.

After walking for 15 minutes or so we hit the banks of the Arno – locals and tourists mix happily, dodging the cars by the Ponte Vecchio and hawkers selling miniature copies of Michelangelo’s David.

We head west along the river, heads still down, although we can’t help noticing the Florentines sitting on a weir in the middle of the river basking in the sweltering afternoon sun.

With tired feet we finally reach the Grand Hotel Mediterranean. Despite my earlier concerns it’s right on the edge of the City centre, about a ten minute walk – no problem. The staff are efficient (if not exactly brimming with warmth) the place is clean, cool and well organised – a little characterless and something of a tourist factory, but it’ll do very nicely - first gold star to P in his role as Hotel Booker.

We unpack and shower off the airport grime that’s accumulated on us in a bathroom the size of our living room at home and head off, refreshed, if a little weary to begin the holiday proper.

Our first port of call is the Piazza Della Signoria – the old medieval town square filled with Renaissance sculptures including Michelangelo’s David. On our way P comments that he hopes I won’t have an attack of the vapours, referring to the scene from Room with a View where Lucy Honeychurch witnesses a stabbing in the Piazza. I glare at him saying that I’d much rather he viewed me as Rupert Graves than Helena Bonham-Carter. I flop my fringe and consider buying a cricket jumper.

We wind through the rabbit warren of streets in what feels like the right direction. I should point out that our standard practice for orientation when we arrive in a new city has always been to wander out into the middle of it and get deliberately lost - the logic being that if you get lost in a city and then find your way the geography sinks in a lot quicker plus the added bonus of getting to see sights off the standard tourist routes.

Now, this has served us well in cities that are organised around a central feature such La Ramblas in Barcelona; where it can get, let’s say ‘entertaining’, is somewhere like Amsterdam where the organising principle is concentric rings of canals that all look exactly the same. In that case, we ended up spending a few very giggly hours in the rain attempting to find our hotel – although I will admit there may have been other factors in Amsterdam that led to our grasp of geography being somewhat compromised.

Happily Florence has the Arno running right through the middle and the Duomo and tower of the Palazza Vecchio are visible from practically every point in the city, so navigation for the newcomer is a cinch.

Making a beeline for the tower we make a dog-leg down a quiet side street and there ahead of us is a magnificent…, well, arse basically. The arse belongs to Hercules, well, a sculpture of Hercules and Cacus by Bandinelli that stands at the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, flanking the gate in a pair with a reproduction of David.

The 16th century sculptor and theorist Benvenuto Cellini disparagingly referred to the sculpture as resembling a ‘sack full of melons’ and, comparing it to both David and Cellini’s own Perseus with the head of Medusa that stands in the loggia opposite, it’s clear that Bandinella had a very different image of ideal masculinity to those who came after him. While David and Perseus are slim, boyish and, let’s be honest, as fey as anything, Hercules stands stock still, legs apart, muscles bulging. Of course the difference is as much a matter of politics as it is one of aesthetics. David was commissioned by the Republic to celebrate booting the Medici’s out of town in 1494, it makes sense that they’d want to display the model of what was perceived as the ideal, Grecian male body with its implicit historical connections to an ideal Platonic Republican society.

Then in 1512 the boot was on the other foot as the Medici seized power again. A few years later Hercules and Cacus was commissioned to celebrate their victory to be placed directly opposite David - a reminder to the population of who had the greatest might; a magnificently arrogant piece of political posturing in the name of art so typical of the Medici.

That all said though I prefer David and Perseus. Oh, and my researches are yet to reveal quite why Hercules appears to be shoving Cacus’s head into his groin – perhaps it’s all too easily read as political allegory, but a little foolhardy none the less, give that the mythological Cacus was able to breath fire. Ouch.

We walk across the square to the Loggia dei Lanzi, where a few more tonnes of marble await our attentions, some Roman and some Renaissance but all working through themes of very beautiful nude people beating/raping/murdering each other. Great stuff and it’s a treat to get into the shade for a while.

P announces his intention to undertake a photographic project consisting of numerous shots of bronze and marble penises. I can’t help sniggering, but it’s really not as prurient as it might sound, in fact I’m sure there’s a coffee table book or and academic paper in there somewhere – Florence, The Medici’s and the Renaissance Cock 1280-1560: A Critical Investigation maybe, I’ve read stranger. Of course from the point of view of practicalities, there are rather a lot of them around, so he won’t be short of subject matter. I leave him in the company of his camera and Patroclus’s groin and meander through the sculptures.

I settle on a marble bench next to a sculpture or a pre-rape Sabine woman (she actually had some clothes on) and bask in the early evening sun. I grin at the square – it’s just hit me – we’re on holiday. I grin at the square some more. I’m still grinning when P approaches. I grin at him.

“We’re on holiday.” I inform him through a grin.

“Yes we are.” He concurs and grins at me.

We grin like idiots at each other, sculptures, pigeons and random strangers – happily most reciprocate rather than backing away in fear (well the people anyway, I’m not sure if pigeons are physiologically capable of grinning.)

Having established that we are indeed on holiday we both realise how hungry we are and we head north in search of the first of many pizzas.

The streets and pizzas are starting to fill up for it’s about six o’clock, the beginning of the passeggiata – the Tuscan evening promenade, the ‘hour of looking good’ and the locals are coming out in their finery to gossip, drink or just swagger about looking fantastic.

The thing about the Florentines is that they’re all so elegant. Yes they’re well dressed, but it’s more than their clothes, it’s the way they wear them, they’d wear Primark in the same way they’d wear Armani and that’s what makes them look good. Perhaps swagger isn’t the right word as that would seem to imply a level of arrogance and that isn’t what comes across at all. There’s something about the Florentine grammar of body language and fashion that seems to say “Yes I know I look good, I can’t help it – I live here.” It’s as much about a shared pride in their surroundings as it is about an individual pride in themselves. Psychobabble aside, they’re like peacocks and they’re beautiful, damn them.

We meander through the throng feeling distinctly unglamorous. And following a recommendation in the Rough Guide we descend on the Pizzeria Nutti for supper. We eat our pizzas and swig our wine watching the streetlife pass us by.

We finish up and head off in search of Ice Cream. The shops are all lighting up now and suddenly Florence looks like a modern city, the broader streets now thronging with people window shopping in the cool evening breeze.

North African street traders appear to flog counterfeit handbags, spreading their wares out on sheets so they can be scooped up for a quick getaway. Quite why this is necessary at first seems unclear – the few policemen we see wandering about seem to be focussing largely on the Florentine habit of swaggering and looking good and don’t pay the traders the slightest bit of notice.

We later discover that the reason the police we saw were so unconcerned was that they were the wrong type of police. Evidently there are (depending what you read) between five and seven different police forces, each with their own remit – so I guess these weren’t the fashion police, which, given our dishevelled state, was probably a good thing.

We buy ice-creams and slowly walk back down to the Arno. As we walk along the bank and out of the city centre quiet descends interrupted only by the splosh of oars as canoeists glide past us on the river. P digs out the camera.

“So what do you think of Florence then?”

“I love Florence” he says to the viewfinder.

“Mmmmh it is rather splendid isn’t it?”

I leave him to it and stretch out on the river wall and skim the guidebook for ideas for the following day.

“So what are we doing tomorrow then?” P asks his camera.

“Haven’t a clue. How marvellous is that?”

“Aha, we’ll be on holiday then.”

Another round of grinning ensues.

“Well spotted. Come on, I’m knackered”

When all possible shots of the canoeists have been exhausted, we head back to the Hotel where we retire and fall asleep almost instantly


Lucy said...

I am absolutely sick with jealousy :D

Anne-Marie said...

I didn't realise they did the 'I got it written down on a bit of paper' thing on airlines too - it was bad enough driving up to the ferry last year, right up to the last minute I was convinced they'd refuse to let us on the boat.

sheringham said...

I want to go on holiday. :(

Anonymous said...

Are you two really that adorable or are you just exaggerating? ;P I'll be looking for part two. Curses to the blogger spam filter.