Summer in full spin – Florence

And Summer is in full spin in Florence as around 500 cyclists braved the 30+degree heat to do a marathon cycle in one of the most panoramic piazzas of Florence – Piazzale Michelangelo.

 

Michelangelo’s David was aghast and had to turn away before he fainted, while us lazy onlookers enjoyed the tension, the rousing cries, and the stamina of the cyclists pounding away to the beat of the music. What a way to go!

Florence Merry-go-round

 

For the families there’s the classic Merry-Go-Round in Piazza della Repubblica that never seems to go out of fashion. And the wonderful bubble maker who delights the kids from the world over.

Florence rickshaw

To take you on a tour around town is Matteo ( and others) with his electric rickshaw from Velotours, for a quick jaunt of 20mins or a full immersion in the labyrinth of Florence while hearing its history and legends.

Past popular pork snack bars, now an all time favourite for tourists in Via dei Neri – All’ Antica Vinaio or La Prosciutteria, although I cannot understand why one would queue for a sandwich and wine to eat sitting on the pavement! Or rest tired feet under one of Florence’s most dramatic statues – Perseus while listening to a sentimental busker.

Then as dusk falls look for a place to have an aperitif – a spritz is still the most popular cocktail, although on a hot Summer day a chilled beer or wine goes down well too.

Florence Reale Cafe

Florence boasts new bars this season, one of which is right next to the train station and looking very snazzy. – Reale Firenze. I understand it’s run by the promoters of the Central Market food mall and soft music wafts across the fountains as the sun goes down.

A contrast along the Arno river is the Wood bar with recycled warehouse crates and benches, and the music is lively.

And nearby, still on the river, is the open air dance venue of Summer Suites, so if you are around on Tuesdays that’s salsa night! Free dance workshops and it rocks on until dawn.

And while some clubs are new, some things never change – like the Red Garter club, which has been the haunt of American students ever since I came to Florence 30 years ago and is still going strong by the looks of the crowd spilling out onto the street. I have to admit I have never been inside as under 21yrs pour down alcohol like water enjoying the freedom of Italian regulations….not like back home!Florence Re Garter clubHowever if you’re after some peace and quite, head for the hills outside Florence as it’s been shooting Summer moonstar time, and quite dreamy waiting to make a wish on the forever elusive meteoroid burning up on it’s way to earth!

Summer in full swing at the Cinque Terre

Vernazza 60's Pop band“Let’s twist again, like we did last Summer…” blares out across the piazza of Vernazza and nannas and poppas, kids and tourists jive and shake, bop and twist while others giggle on the sidelines. Summer is in full swing in the Cinque Terre! Vernazza Pop band guitarist

 

 

Guitarists shimmer in their gold lamé jackets as a replica Nancy Sinatra belts out her song and jangles her tambourine under the psychedelic lights. I haven’t seen Vernazza rave like that for a long time. And it’s not the only village that is entertaining locals and holidaymakers alike.

Corniglia offered their version of a Tom Waits, John Lurie style of Blues in the main street with singer songwriter Folco Orselli and his 3 piece band – Live in Caruggio (alleyway). Milanese by birth but a lover and regular resident of the Cinque Terre. If you’d like to get into the mood click here on his album “Outside is my side”

And more  Pop music at Corniglia the following night – with popular Elvis numbers, crooning Beach boys ‘Do you wanna dance.. with the crowd doing a great ‘do you do you’ chorus, ending the night with Gloria Gaynor classicsI will survive…..”

But it’s not just the music that makes the Cinque Terre so magic. We wandered down to Vernazza at sunset having hiked the trails between the villages, captivated by the views, the myriad of vineyards, the strong scent of Mediterranean brush and the hot sun baking our skin rewarded by a refreshing swim on arrival.

Free beach space is always a problem but I have learnt to squeeze in and create my own space seduced by crystal blue seas and in this heat….is there an option?

Corniglia Marina is fast becoming my favourite spot despite the 300+ steps down to it!

ManarolaWhile Manarola is an old time haunt, the high trail is a little taxing in the heat and the thought of a crowded train ride sometimes puts me off.

Living almost solely on fruit and gelati, waiting for the evening breeze to revive us from the Summer heat, watching kids glued to their mobiles or searching for pokemon….yes the craze has hit even the Cinque Terre!Monterosso kids

 

 

 

Drooling over a private food table in the ready for the Disabled Scuba diving club of Monterosso, and very impressed by their watermelon sculptures.

 

And it’s reassuring to see families playing table soccer in the main square of VernazzaVernazza surrounded by restaurants bulging at the seams with clients enjoying pesto dishes, seafood pasta, local fish and of course anchovies fried, pied or lightly marinated.

As the sun goes down, Vernazza is in its prime……

Vernazza

 

 

Cinque Terre sunset

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

and the Cinque Terre remains an enchanting paradise.

 

 

 

 

 


 

Changing Faces of David

Black David statueA black statue of Michelangelo’s David lay in the main square in Florence, as in mourning, “a symbol of the pain and suffering of mankind today. A world that is prey to blind hatred and madness.” The Mayor of Florence dedicated the statue to the victims of Nice as while the life size replica of David had been planned months earlier its unveiling during the Michelangelo week coincided with the tragic terror attack in Nice.

It would be one of the rare occasions that tourists could lie in the arms of David, a rather odd pose for such a famous work of art, created yet again by the skilled workers from the Carrara marble area.Black David statue

It brought to mind the many faces of David that we are exposed to, apart from the obvious masterpiece in the Accademia.

In the panoramic square overlooking the city – Piazzale Michelangelo, an elegant bronze copy of David adorns the square keeping a watchful eye on the city and the hoards of tourists at his feet.

I must add that one of my historian guides did suggest that she considered the copy a poor one as she felt David had a ‘floppy’ bottom….which I leave you to judge for yourselves!

Florence CathedralThe original David was commissioned to demonstrate the virtues of a good government, forever victorious against the enemy, represented by the biblical figure of David who killed Goliath with a stone from his slingshot. Many of you may not know that it was originally to be placed on a side chapel of the Cathedral hence the slightly oversized head and hands to cater for viewing from below. However on seeing the finished statue it was agreed that it was too beautiful to be placed so high up and better placed in front of the Palazzo Vecchio ( the Town Hall) as the defender of civil liberties and a warning against intruders.

It was only moved to the Accademia in 1874 after being damaged more than once in the public square, and it remains there today continuing to awe its viewers.

Curiously David was carved from a block of marble previously abandoned by another sculptor who considered it of poor quality, while Leonardo da Vinci contested Michelangelo for use of the same block. Legend has it when the Minister Soderini who had ordered the purchase came to inspect it, he criticised the big nose, so Michelangelo pretended to chisel away at the nose letting some marble dust fall to keep the Minister happy. Other more modern criticisms I have heard from many unabashed tourist who asks – Why do these sculptures always have small penises? “…small penises were more culturally valued… large penises were associated with very specific characteristics: foolishness, lust and ugliness ” For those interested in the full article click here.

And so this magnificent sculpture, probably the most famous in the world is also used and abused:

In an anti junk food campaign – Mivchelangelo's David

before and after Big Macs!

Or in trashy souvenirs –

aprons, magnets, statuettes

that abound in Florence,

and not so trashy magnets, that animate my fridge!

Still Michelangelo’s David survives it all and in his serene beauty remains the most spectacular sculpture in history and we are forever blessed with his presence here in Florence.

Davide Michelangelo


 

A legendary place – Island of Montecristo

Montecristo IslandOff on a new adventure to the Island of Montecristo, one of the most wild and intriguing of  the Tuscan Archipelago. This tiny island off the Tuscan coast is only just over 10sq km and a Natural Reserve with restricted access of only 1000 visitors each year allowed to explore the 3 trails on the Island accompanied by Forest rangers and Environmental Guides. Only 50 people per visit and more than a 2 year waiting list.

It meant an early dawn start for most of us with a 2hr trip from Florence and a 2 1/2 hr boat ride across from Castiglione della Pescaia. The excitement mounted on seeing the island shrouded in clouds, exuding mystery and provoking a murmur about the treasure to still be found!

Guides Montecristo

Forest rangers to greet us, together with the custodians of the island and our Environmental guide to give us an introduction to the flora and fauna and regulations about hiking together – not wandering off the designated trail or even dipping a toe into the very inviting sea.

In 2012 Montecristo had become so infested with black rats threatening the birdlife of the sanctuary that 26 tonnes of rat pellet poison was air dropped on the Island much to the objection of many environmentalists. It has however proved to be a success, restoring the Islands’ ecosystem with the return of the Storm Petrels and Shearwater  Seabirds and various migratory birds. Wild goats, Tyrrhenian painted frogs and the Montecristo vipers are special to the island although I was hoping we would only come across the first two on our hike!

Vegetation is monitored to ensure the native Mediterranean flora, aside from the port area, Maestra Cove, which flaunts exotic imported plants, since it was the only

Montecristo Cala Maestra

inhabited area over the centuries. Years past it was a penal settlement until a wealthy English botanist – George Watson Taylor, bought the island in the mid 1800’s for a mere 50,000 lire (€ 25) and introduced different plant species and many eucalyptus. He succeeded in making a good profit when the Italian Government bought the Island back in 1869 for 100,000 lire (€ 50)!  Please note a correction to the Lira currency value in comments/replies.

But we were off to find the hidden treasure protected by the ferocious dragon that had kept many pirates and fortune seekers at bay. As the legend goes the Bishop of Palermo – Mamiliano  miraculously saved from the Vandals in Africa and blood thirsty pirates was not to be deterred by a fiery dragon in finding a safe haven on the island of Montecristo. He managed to kill the monster, burn it and threw its remains into the sea and retired as a hermit in a cave – Grotto Mamiliano

In honour of Mamiliano, a Benedictine monastery was built  and here the legend of the fabulous treasure began, supposedly made up mostly of chalices, sacred and precious furnishings, gold and prized stones, which the friars were hiding.

While many sought the treasure, including Cosimo I de ‘Medici, the only one who has managed to find the fabulous treasure, as far as we know, is the legendary Edmond Dantes, in the “Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas.

Hikers Montecristo

 

But perhaps the real treasure is the pristine nature of the island itself, its stunning wildness, glorious views and we felt privileged to have hiked its steep ledges and crevices and were beguiled by its mystery.Isola Montecristo

Tuscan coast mapLeaving Montecristo

 

Walking on water- Christo!

Christo Floating piers

Christo’s Floating Piers had to be seen to be believed and we were not to be put off by the thousands of visitors which increased steadily until the last days. Besides it was our chance to ‘walk on water’ and the experience was not to be missed!

 

 

Christo had invaded Lake Iseo, Northern Italy with a rather unusual project – 90,000 Floating Piers Christo sketchsquare meters of yellow fabric sewn into panels and stretched across 220,000 polyethylene cubes covered with a 70,000sqm of felt to form a Floating Pier. A 3km walkway from the mainland to the large Island of Monte Isola, across and around the tiny (privately owned)  Island  of San Paolo and another 2.5 kms of fabric lining the streets in the villages of Peschiera Maraglio and Sulzano.

The experience was fantastic! Walking across the enormous expanse of silky gold, the gentle rocking beneath our bare feet, the rhythmic undulating rolling of the waves massaging the pier and us into a magic sunset.

 

Floating PiersThe Art Installation was literally taken by assault as soon as it opened on June 18th averaging around 75,000 visitors in a day, and the enthusiasm did not wane despite the blazing heat and the queues and general chaos to get there. On a reassuring note 120 lifesavers and 150 assistants monitored the walkway, although with the record crowds they were a mere drop in the ocean….or should I say Lake!?

However there were no tragic incidents and the crowds enjoyed strolling across the floating pier, and those fortunate enough like us sat and bathed in the sunset over the Lake.Floating Piers

Christo decided that the installation should open during the period in the year when there were more daylight hours, to maximize the light effects on the fabric: “On the lake the humidity is constant and the colour of the fabric reacts and changes constantly. It is red in the morning and goes to yellow and gold in the day. ”  So true.

The Floating Piers has cost $15 million and was financed by the artist through the sale of his works. As all installations of Christo and Jeanne-Claude it was temporary and is being dismantled today and the materials to be recycled.

Weird as it may seem it was a great event, an amazing experience and a delight to be softly rolling with the vibes of Lake Iseo!.Christo Floating Piers

Christo wrao Sydney coastine

I had vague memories of Christo‘s previous works – wrapping buildings and a very early one wrapping the Sydney coastline in the late 1960’s! His famous work wrapping the Riechstag in Berlin, together with many other awe inspiring projects, details of which were on display in the Museum of Santa Giulia in nearby Brescia.


 

 

 

Bridge of love – Florence

 

Florence Bridge preparation

Bridge of Love in preparation

A mix of luxury and love has created the new Bridge of Love installation over the Arno River in Florence. Designed by Florentine  Claudio Nardi Architectssymbolizing the desire to give hope to people living in severe hardship. The work stands as an element of public awareness on the refugee crisis and is part of the program of events of World Refugee Day 2016.’Un Donation scheme

 

Promoted by  Luisa Via Roma fashion designer to coincide with the Pitti Uomo fashion week it has easily enticed International VIP’s and jetsetters to participate in a rather expensive Gala evening at €1000 donation per head for an Invite, followed by an  encouragement to contribute on a regular basis to the United Nations Refugee Scheme.Bridge of Love evening

 

 

‘Beauty that is ethereal but yet tangible, emotional and habitable, both to one’s body and one’s sight. White clouds lying down on the water surface, traversed by mist and profume, by the light from the very sunrise till sunset, by breeze and by sound’.(Claudio Nardi Architects)

 

Just stunning the way Italians can make tent-like constructions on plastic rafters sound so amazingly stylish and elegant!?

Bridge of Love

 

Bridge of love Design

Project design:credit Claudio Nardi Architects

The opulent Gala evening of dining and ‘Underwater love’ entertainment will leave these white clouds then open to the public for the exhibition on the ‘interpretation of water as a symbol of destruction and renewal, hope and solidarity”.

The Bridge seen during the day appears less ethereal and romantic but as the sun sets it takes on a rather heavenly appearance afloat in the midst of a glittering Arno. And while the Gala evening oozed wealth and frivolity, some of that was gleaned off to help Refugees, so in the end it has been worthwhile. Besides local Florentines always protest fiercely when the Council rents out their public monuments – ie. Ponte Vecchio,  Ponte Santa Trinita, Uffizi, Boboli Gardens for such events,  so creating a new Bridge was a better alternative.Bridge in Evening

Florence San Niccolò towerIt’s in a favourite area of mine, near Clet’s studio and just below the Piazzale Michelango at the  San Niccolò tower. One bridge down from the Ponte Vecchio.Florence Arno river

 

And while the Arno River may appear innocuous today it certainly raged out of control on the 4th November 1966, engulfing Florence. So the Bridge of Love exhibition also incorporates the memories of the flood 50 years ago.

Florence water level 1966

 


 

 

 

 

Seville – Flamenco, Tapas, Bullfighting and exotic architecture

Seville - Presidency of Andalusia Who could go past an invite to Seville – Spain, even if only for a few days…and to surprise a lifelong friend by my visit! My head was filled with the click of castanets, pulsating clapping and the swish of a matadors cape to the cries of Olé Olé! In my bag the ‘Ten best things to see in Seville’ to read on the plane as it had been a rather last minute decision. And what a magnificent place it was! Grandiose and gracious, spacious yet still intriguing, colourful and intoxicating.

The sound of church bells, carts and horses crossing the piazza and chatter of locals brought us down to the Cathedral  square in time to catch the beginnings of one of the most important festivals in Seville – El Rocio pilgrimage

Gypsy style wagons and oxen decorated with flowers and bells circled the piazza, while handsome horse riders stood in readiness to lead off as women flaunted copious frills and garish flowers in their sleeked hair. And this was only Day 1!

Seville CathedralJust to see the glorious Cathedral is awe inspiring for its size as it is the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world. A legend says that when the plans were drawn up, church elders stated: ‘Let us build a church so beautiful and so magnificent that those who see it finished will think we are mad.’ A true reminder of Seville’s, power and wealth after the Reconquista – the fall of Islam.

A climb up the 39 ramps to the top of the Giralda bell towers was well worth it…..just breathtaking!

Seville bullring entrance

Tempted as I was to see a bullfight I didn’t go but strolled past the oldest bullring in Spain, which dates back to 1758 with 14,000 arena seats.Matador statue

 

 

 

 

 

Friends had organized tickets to a much more emotional performance of  traditional flamenco instead.

 

A wander through the exotic Alcazar Royal Palace felt like a flashback on my Iran experience. Centuries of Moorish decorations in a complex of Palaces with delicate arches and courtyards set in exquisite gardens.Alcazar Maiden's courtyardSeville Royal Palace

 

 

 

 

Plaza EspanaSeville is an easy city to stroll around, everything so close at hand which makes it hard to get lost. We head to the lovely gardens near the University and into the spectacular Plaza de Espana – Impressive buildings created for a world Fair in 1929 that almost left the country bankrupt and which today provides a fabulous fun park to navigate on the moat or laze about and soak up the sun.Seville Plaza EspanaPlaza Espana decorations

 

 

 

 

Seville Metropol Parasol

Metropole Parasol

 

 

 

Yet Seville is not only historical architecture, the futuristic Metropol Parasol in the midst of the old city, is a stark contrast to one of our favourite Tapas bars nearby.

 

Seville Tapas bar

Tapas bar

Seville street corner

 

 

 

 

 

Tea and Spice shop

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And as we wander the Old Jewish quarter of Barrio Santa Cruz by spice shops and artisan boutiques some kids push past in a rush to get to their ‘fiesta’.

Seville local children

 

Future flamenco dancers for sure!

 

 

 

 

 

Golden tower

 

 

A wander along the river past the Golden tower in search of a good spot to enjoy a sangria and the sunset on our last day in this great city Seville – Spain.

 

 

Seville at dusk


 

Shop till you drop – The Mall, Florence

The Mall shopperSpring is here and time to change the wardrobe and perhaps use the excuse to go shopping at The Mall, Florence one of the most popular designer outlets. Oddly enough it’s only 5mins from where I live yet I rarely go unless my overseas visitors are curious. It’s perhaps the only time many of the shoppers ever get to see the beauty of the Tuscan countryside. With around 3 million visitors each year it is not surprising that The Mall has continued to

The Mall Prada

Prada – The Mall

expand despite the economic crisis. The little local village of Leccio has incorporated the rather trendy architectural shopping blocks, though most shoppers rarely get out of The Mall precinct, since it has more than one restaurant and café area and the bus services and many private NCC taxi drivers take customers to the door.

These days the major clientele are Asian – Chinese, Korean and Japanese who come in droves, often in their own Tour coaches.

It has been a boom for the area however giving a lot of new work opportunities both inside the outlets as well as in the new constructions and surrounding landscaped gardens in need of constant maintenance. Regular bus services and additional taxi services are also a benefit to locals. And besides when it gets gruellingly hot in Summer we can all escape there into the air conditioning!The Mall expansion

 

Other outlet areas have opened close by – the Fashion Groove home to Geox shoes, Timberland, Calzedonia and others, Dolce and Gabbana at Primo Piano and the Fashion Valley.

But it has not all been a rosy picture as the closure of Fashion Valley can testify. Murky green ponds, dirty statues heighten the dismal effect of closed shop windows now in the Fashion Valley. The only place still open is the Asian restaurant – La Fenice which obviously has a special deal going as Coaches bus groups there daily for lunch.

Still a visit to The Mall is worthwhile, even without buying, as the ‘idyllic Tuscan countryside’ as described in the brochure is very relaxing on the eyes from the rooftopNike gym shoes restaurant of Gucci. And I must admit even I succumbed to a bargain in the Nike Outlet, after all how could I go past new gym shoes for only €29.50!!

Little do visitors know that they are just below the beautiful Castle Sammezzano which we hope will one day be open to the public to visit.

Tuscan countrysidePs And besides it’s safer to be out of the city these days considering what happened when the water pipe burst in Florence near the Ponte Vecchio last Wednesday!!


 

Even Paradise needs a Gardener!

 

Save Vernazza TeamSave Vernazza voluntourism project has started for another season in the Cinque Terre with 50 Busabout guides and drivers spending a morning getting their hands dirty and learning about the project so they can pass on the information to their clients.

 

 

It’s the Fourth Season of the “Turisti nei Cian” project which over the past 3 years:

  • 450 travellers joined 50+ excursions to provide direct assistance to save Vernazza’s fragile territory and to promote sustainable tourism.
  • 20 different landowners were helped to rebuild terracing and stonewalls (for which Vernazza and the Cinque Terre have been recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO), restore olive groves, cultivate vineyards and harvest grapes.
  • Busabout guests donated over €6.600 to assist with Save Vernazza’s restoration and preservation efforts, including building five dry stonewalls and restoring land above the train station (to prevent further landslides onto the tracks).

Busabout Tour managers

While still a drop in the ocean in restoring damaged land after the 2011 flood, recuperating abandoned land terraces, or  recovering olive groves, the project has made a significant contribution to the community.Busabout Tour manager

 

 

 

 

 

Landowners were already smiling as they recounted the first day’s experience, as there is nothing better than being surrounded by enthusiastic young people giving a helping hand and enjoying the experience.

The Busabout staff  felt satisfied and at the end of the morning enjoyed a well earned lunch and laugh together.

The agency is part of the Treadright Foundation which is committed to ‘Sustainable Tourism, to keep this world beautiful!’

 

So if you are over this way and want to participate, check the calendar here and contact Save Vernazza – Irene di Martino project manager and sign up.    Email : workwithus@savevernazza.com   or  Whatsapp: +39 3485306953

Save VernazzaI guarantee you will find it a rewarding experience, the guides are young locals, the farmers all with a good story to tell and the lunch is super. You don’t have to be a Busabout client to participate in the Voluntourism project  and your contribution (€ 19) for the morning’s work and lunch covers equipment and expenses for the day. It is hard work and often hot so be prepared, but it will get you away from the madding crowds and give you an insight into the real community of Vernazza.

And as Save Vernazza’s motto says: ‘Even paradise needs a gardener!’

The Good and Bad news about the Cinque Terre

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore

The tourist season has started at the Cinque Terre and since Easter we have been blessed with some great weather which only changed at the end of April. After the numerous discussions and meetings of Trenitalia, the Cinque Terre National Park, Local Councils and Ligurian Regional reps over the inundation of tourists and lack of services, we all had great expectations.Cinque Terre train

 

 

 

 

The good news was the introduction of the new train timetable – Cinque Terre Express which runs every half hour and stops at every village. This has meant a 24% increase in the number of trains available, a 40% increase in the number of stops (often in the past Corniglia was not included)  and a 25% increase in the number of seats. Offering around 50,000 seats per day within the Cinque Terre. It will also mean that shortly the cost of the train ticket will change to €4 for the entire trip between all 5 villages.

Wow! So what’s the bad news?

The new timetable started in time for Easter and the long weekend of the 25th of April with a record numbers of tourists, and unfortunately there were long queues to the stations, train delays and the ‘cattle truck syndrome’ inside carriages with pick pockets delighting in the squash. And this is only the beginning of the season! Train delays can happen for many reasons as the same railway line takes the rapid train to Genoa and through to Nice which always has priority against local trains. However the main problem appears to be the difficulty in getting people up onto the platforms while allowing for those disembarking to get down and out of the station area.

Solutions? We may have our own style ‘train pushers’ as is done in Japan to assist the crowds into the station and onto the platform to avoid continuing delays. Extra Trenitalia staff are to be placed at the stations to do just that, so look out!

Bartolo, Cheo winery, Vernazza

Bartolo without the T-shirt in his vineyards of Cheo winery, Vernazza

Another issue raised has been for local residents who will not be required to pay the €4 but the current €1.80 between each station, although how they will be identified is unclear. An article in the local newspaper suggested we may need to be micro chipped or possibly  tattooed?! I hope that doesn’t eventuate and thought of Bartolo a local wine producer from Vernazza who often wears a cute T shirt “I am not a tourist, I live here!”

The current Cinque Terre card which allows tourists to hike the coastal trail between Corniglia to Vernazza, and Vernazza to Monterosso costs €7,50 per person  or including all train travel  €12 for a day, will increase to €16 just so the train company get their quota.

Cinque Terre- Corniglia

Looking down on Corniglia

Monterosso

On the trail to Monterosso

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The good news? The Cinque Terre is still gorgeous, a delight to the eyes, an enchanting unique area that will survive even the worst inundation of tourists……we hope!

And I will keep you posted of developments.