Helping hands in Florence – The Misericordia

Florence Under Siege by John HendersonThe importance of all the volunteer associations in Florence and elsewhere during the Covid 19 crisis has been critical to our survival, and will continue to be so in facing the difficult years ahead. And my avid reading during this time has also been useful in understanding why ancient words like ‘lazzaretto  reappear. June 3 – Phase 3 we can move across regions and welcome in the first tourists from Europe and plan our holidays outside of Italy, although we want to support our local tourism. In the excitement of this news Greece initially banned Italians from visiting and our Foreign Affairs Minister, di Maio responded with ‘We are not a ‘lazaretto’!” Visions of Italy being considered one big dreadful quarantine hospital full of infected people was certainly not a pleasant thought, and fortunately Greece has reneged. Or at least only thinking of quarantine for Italians from the North!

But how many people know that Florence was one of the first places in Europe to introduce  volunteer services to assist those in need way back in the Middle Ages. The first established by a Dominican Friar San Pietro from Verona – The ‘Misericordia di Santa Maria’  – the Brotherhood of Mercy in 1244 at a time when Florence was one the biggest cities in Europe and a magnet to outsiders.

Florence volunteer ambulance serviceMany of the wealthy donated funds to the Brotherhood as well as their time and by 1321 the Brotherhood was able to buy a property opposite the Cathedral where it remains until today. Easy to see with a line of Ambulances parked ready to go.Florence Misericordia Museum

Or more precisely it has moved out of the frescoed Bigallo home which is now the Tourist Information office across the road to its operational base and Museum. The great charitable work, helped plague victims and buried the countless corpses as well as managed a ‘lazzaretto‘ outside the walls of Florence. It provided a dowry for poor young girls, helped prisoners and their families, in general attended to the health and  welfare needs of society.

Charity by BBrotherhood of Mercy Florence.

Credit to Misericordia di Firenze Museum

Hooded buffa Misericordia

Hooded ‘buffa’ and today’s uniform Credit – Misericordia di Viareggio

Curiously the volunteers were to remain anonymous and wore a black robe with a hood, called a ‘buffa‘, a rather fearsome looking garb. For years they carried the sick and corpses in a huge cane basket on their backs until the stretcher ‘cataletto‘ was introduced in 1478 as seen on the cover of Henderson’s book above.

And the Misericordia continues today to provide an essential service for us all, as well as tourists. It has expanded and more have developed with medical clinics all over the territory that allow specialist visits at a discount price, as the specialists volunteer their services and the clinics are mostly staffed by volunteers.  It manages rehabilitation services for disabled, takes care of elderly, and is also our Civil Protection service setting up many camps for earthquake victims both in and outside of Italy. It has been supplying those in need with food parcels and essential services during Covid 19 lockdown and distributing the anti virus masks, Their assistance is endless and essential and the volunteer network is enormous, creating solidarity and companionship in the community. We are so lucky to have them.

Horse and carriages outside Loggia di Bigallo

Horse and carriages outside Loggia di Bigallo – original office Misericordia

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Lockdown Italian style -Part 2

A friend ready to go shoppingNow into our fourth week of lockdown in Italy due to the dreadful corona virus and just beginning to see some signs of a slow down, thank goodness! My local car park is full as we stay home ‘smart working’ or just pottering about filling in our time. Italy registered its lowest number in new cases (4050) in 13 days on Monday 30th and its highest number of recoveries (1590). However in the closed cases so far only 56% have recovered and 44% have died.

In Tuscany the numbers continue to rise with 4608 cases @ 31/3/2020, although unlikely to get out of control, as it has done in the Northern regions.

Yesterday at noon we commemorated the victims, offered condolences to their families and gave thanks to all those working to save us with a minute silence – medical staff, police, carabinieri, volunteers and those still working in essential services. A very sad silence for over 12,000 victims, including 66 doctors and medical staff.

After that dramatic introduction I would like to share some of the lighter moments of the past few weeks which may never hit International news –

It became clear we had to respect the lockdown and as stricter regulations were imposed, we were more informed about the scale and seriousness of the virus. Mayors were seen shouting at their local citizens, threatening flame throwers, drone surveillance and more….which we took as a sign of affection for their ‘brood‘!

Movement was further confined to only our local Council areas unless for an emergency reason and fines for disobedience increased from € 200 to €400 min/€3000max and possible confiscation of the car or scooter. The penal record imposed previously was retracted.

We went back to gardening, cleaning out the garage/storeroom, and generally driving the garbos to desperation for the never ending rubbish that was being thrown out in the clean up.

 

We now have a wealth of facts and figures to study and I think we are already looking to what happens ‘after’. Grave concerns for the future, doubts about the competence of our leaders, and lack of collaboration from the European Union. Emergency financial measures are being put into place, while discussion continues about the longer term measures to take.

ducks go to the pharmacy

Photo credit Florinda Noka

The quiet streets have enticed some wild animals to move in – In Milan hares were seen in the park. In a suburb of Florence a mother duck and her ducklings marched into the pharmacy from the nearby park and pond. Florinda Noka, the owner offered them food but they seemed uninterested and she spent the next hour catching them so they could be safely returned to their habitat.

The high tech ‘Makers’ discovered that the full face scuba mask, that has been popular over the past few years, could be successfully readapted as an oxygen mask and called on us all to get them out of the cupboard and donate them. With 3D printers and new technology they patented the concept ‘open source’ so it will remain free of charge as an idea and can never be a money spinner. Fantastic Makers!

Cuban Medical team

photo credit Fabrizio Casari – Altrenotizie.org 22/3/2020

Some Companies have managed to convert their production to masks and other medical equipment although we are still far short of what we need. Cuban, Russian, Chinese and Albanian medical teams arrived in the past week bringing supplies as well, a very welcome sight for the local medical teams. Many Doctors and medical staff have returned from retirement to assist as well as newly trained staff begin work. When the call went out from the North for 700 volunteer nurses and doctors over 7,000 people applied!

Airbnb asked all hosts in the area to offer their homes and apartments to those medical and volunteer teams free of charge and thousands came to the call, while Airbnb managed to connect the homes with the Civil Protection Base and Hospitals.

Major companies like – Mutti canned tomatoes, Rana pasta, Scotti rice have given a 25% pay rise to all workers continuing to work through the lockdown.

My WIFI went into lockdown as there has been an enormous increase in consumption, and urgent warnings and advice went out from the satellite company to avoid it happening again.

So the days pass, at a slow pace, and the radio continues to entertain me most of the time with the weird and wonderful stories to brighten the day:

– like the marathon runner continuing his training at home running 21kms in 3hrs 50mins doing 840 laps of his balcony!

-102yr old Nonna Lina ( Italica Grondona) nominated ‘La Highlander’ by medical staff as she recovered from corona virus, beating the previous record of 95yr Grandma Alma Corsini. Nonna Lina comes from Genoa and I can certainly vouch for the Ligurians as being a tough lot!

– many supermarkets are out of yeast now as people take on baking bread and delicious cakes at home.

Craggy peaks Reggello in snow

Photo credit – Giuseppe Taras

As we face reality, we have come to appreciate the little things, neighbourly gestures of help or just a friendly wave from afar. The swallows have returned to their nests in the corridor under my place. We had the first and only snow for the entire winter, the day after we were in T-shirts and shorts. snow next door

Lots of online meet ups and exercise classes, cooking lessons, hobby classes, so we all have an opportunity to try something new.

I did my first radio interview on Australian Radio Luke Grant show 2GB after they found my blog and for those who didn’t hear it on 22/3/20 you can have listen here to the podcast. After all it was 5am in Sydney! The interview begins at time 3.29.10

When the weather is nice I stick to gardening, wash the car inside and out which is a rarity, catch up on my reading and was reduced to cleaning the silver!

I think this will be my last post on the lockdown since we are all in the same boat and dealing in our various ways with the emergency created by the corona virus. Some ‘boats‘ are travelling a little more sluggishly than others but we will all come out of this in the end. Tentative suggestions are that Italy will come out of lockdown around the end of April.

Comments are welcome.                                                                                                             I wish you all well and Stay safe!


 

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Florence’s renewed Flea Market

Florence Flea MarketFinally the Florence Flea Market has opened in its new permanent structure, after years of indecision and protests. Not everyone will be happy about the changed appearance but from an insiders point of view I can guarantee the traders are happier. They have a bigger and warmer covered space that will protect them, their clients and their merchandise against variable weather conditions.New Flea Market Florence

 

In fact the Council of Florence is doing quite a lot about cleaning up areas and making them more people friendly, even greener when the opportunity arises, as well as restoring monuments and fountains as funds become available.

Loggia dei pesci in front of original Flea market

Old Flea market and Loggia dei Pesci

For those unfamiliar with the Florence Flea market, it has lived most of its life in front of the beautiful late Renaissance loggia designed by Vasari for the fish mongers, in Piazza dei Ciompi. The stands were rather fragile with plastic ripple coverings plyboard thin walls and possibly some asbestos thrown in as well. Years of weathering brought them to a sad and sorry state and the Council decided to move the market out and restore the famous ‘Loggia dei Pesci‘ to its former glory, green up the piazza and make it into a relaxing place for locals and tourists and the occasional flower market.

The Loggia itself has a rather interesting history, designed by Vasari in 1568/9 at the request of Cosimo I who had decided to move the Fish market located near the Ponte Vecchio because of its bad odour and dirtiness. The market was moved to the Old market area in Piazza della Repubblica leaving ample space now for Vasari’s famous corridor to be built linking the Town Hall to the Medici’s residence at Palazzo Pitti. The compensation to the fish mongers was a beautiful loggia under which they could sell their wares.  But when Florence became the Capital of Italy 1865-1871 a clean up campaign moved the old Market out of the piazza and the Loggia dei Pesci was dismantled and stored in the San Marco museum until 1955. Local citizens protested and persisted until a local bank donated funds and the Loggia was reassembled and placed in piazza dei Ciompi and the Florence Flea market grew up under its watchful gaze for over 50years.

But plans to restore the Loggia to its former splendour and revamp the Piazza saw the removal of the Flea market to an alternative abode, temporary tent accommodation in a nearby Piazza – Largo Pietro Annigoni next door to the Saint Ambrogio food market. Not a very pleasant experience for traders nor customers.

Then finally the new Flea market in a permanent building, larger stands, a covered walkway and two weeks for stand owners to create their own exhibit space with individual furnishings and lighting. So it was all hands on deck and I helped my friend with her stand specializing in Sheffield and silver from the U.K.

Playing cards Flea MarketAnd while we, and others, were busy painting, putting up curtains, moving stock, stumbling over boxes and working around electricians and carpenters, the usual group of Flea marketeers were already happily playing cards as they have always done!

The inauguration on 26 October came with all the pomp and ceremony that only Florence can provide with the Mayor puffing out his chest in Mayoral garb.

Opening day was a great success and Catherine Glasser’s stand the best of them…..but then maybe I am biased!? If you are in the area do drop by to see them all and see what you think of the new market structure.

ps  I hate to say that the new Florence Flea Market complex has a definite Parisienne air but c’est la vie!

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A Handmaidens Tale at Mantua


Mantua, Piazza Erbe
How could I go past seeing Margaret Atwood at the Mantua Literary Festival? She was such a drawcard that I booked her event early and lucky I did as on the day there were no extra tickets available. It had been a few years since I had been back to the Festival although each year I was tempted as the list of writers from all over the world is exciting and Mantua is a such a picturesque Renaissance city, with fluted merlins on many of its historic Palaces. Besides it’s so lovely just to wander or bike as the locals do under the warm sunshine as Summer comes to an end.

As the Organisation  says: “The Festival plays host to world-famous writers and poets, some of the most interesting voices from emerging literatures, essayists, musicians, artists and scientists who foster a more complex and unusual notion of literature that includes unconventional literary domains and languages.” The choice of events was awesome – Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Joshua Cohen, Nadeem Aslam, Ali Smith, Valeria Luiselli  together with economists and political writers like – Domenico Quirico,  Felwine Starr from Senegal, Gilles Kepel,  Mariana Mazzucato, Amin Maalouf and Donald Sassoon. Only some of whom I managed to see.

I bounced between meetings on the European Union  Crisis,  Civil wars and Immigration, Economic Alternatives to the current Inequality and how to put value before profit, Words we use and abuse, Post Colonialism and the new developments in Africa, Antidotes to our current Dilemmas and more. It was easy to become totally engrossed in arguments, enlightened by some positive prospects, challenged by the global issues knowing we are all in the same boat….if only we all paddled in the same direction.

Margaret AtwoodMargaret Atwood rather than discuss her new book talked mostly of how relevant ‘The Handmaidens’ Tale’ relates to today, the regression we have seen in women’s rights, the challenge we face to restore what we have lost and move forward. To her delight the audience greeted her wearing handmaiden’s caps which the organisation had supplied and which we clumsily put together and clung on to on her entrance. Margaret Atwood haindmaiden audienceAnd at the end of the event a flash mob of ‘handmaidens’ appeared with placards regarding female homicides and women’s rights as ‘Everything is political when you’re a woman‘ and the queue for signing her book wound right around the courtyard.

In between events the piazzas overflowed with book stands, poetry readings, quiet courtyards to relax in and shady parks for time out. An open air ‘free’ event caught my attention as the audience was spellbound, like babes listening to a fairytale, as Antonello Vanoli recounted a sentimental voyage on the roads that made our history – the Nile, the Mediterranean, the Silk Road, the Orient Express to Route 66. An hour’s journey through the centuries with this fascinating storyteller. We were all on board and loving it!

This year I had a bike on loan which was especially handy since I stayed across the causeway and discovered the most beautiful bike path that cruised alongside the lake.

A delightful start to every day

The Historic centre is charming with its majestic buildings, beautiful parks and courtyards and an impressive Cathedral and of an evening the place glowed and flowed with wine and aperitif spritzs!

Mantua Liteary Festival

 

The Mantua Literary festival is truly a magic experience. The only drawback maybe – How do the locals manage to walk on the pavement stones every day…..even in heels??Mantua Pavement

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New Madonna at San Bernardino

San Bernardino churchHow does a small village like San Bernardino, in the Cinque Terre, with only 10 permanent residents, 3 dogs and about 5 stray cats manage to keep its community alive? It has certainly been an experience being a part of this village,  warmly welcomed each time I visit, and feeling the need to contribute whenever I can to this small community: helping with maintenance, lobbying the Mayor for better services and listening to the local grumbles. Volunteer labour is an essential part to keeping this village alive, which in the past rebuilt the entire church!

Best of all is helping out at any festivities which are now few and far between. Even our local bar has closed as the younger generation have found work elsewhere so the social meeting point is now sitting by the bus stop. Yet the locals have not lost their resilience and resist by having the world come to them, renting out their rooms and apartments to tourists during the season. When this generation disappear the village will only be for second home owners and tourists passing through unfortunately.

Yet San Bernardino is in the hearts of many, especially those from Corniglia as it is their Sanctuary dedicated to the Madonna. And at the festival to the Madonna early September a procession led by the local priest still hikes from Corniglia to celebrate. In fact it is the religious festivals which unite these communities (like many others throughout Italy) and bring back life and laughter to the hearts of all.

Madonna dei Tarsi statueSan Bernardino is entrenched in the heart of a local sculptor, Giuliano Carro, who having seen the public fountain moved to the opposite side of the church square thought something more spiritual should be placed on the space it left. So after months of study and work, and on finding a large sandstone boulder he took up his chisel and gave life to this statue: Madonna dei Tarsi
Described by the Mayor of Vernazza “as a work that is the result of the sweat of one of our artists who, out of pure passion, driven by boundless love for our places, without asking for anything, in all humility, and satisfied only by the ecstatic gaze of those who will linger and admire his finished work.”

Attendance at the inauguration was a must and with over a 100 people the air was charged with chit chat and laughter, like a huge family gathering. Young and old from Vernazza and Corniglia, and those who introduced themselves to me were invariably called ‘Basso‘ the family generated from this village.

Vernazza mayor with sculptor Giuliano CarroThe honor of unveiling the Madonna was given to the 3 oldest members of the community, looked on rather jealously by the two youngest members. And while Giuliano could hardly get the smile off his face, when asked by the Mayor to say a few words he responded  “I am a man of few words, and work with my hands.” He did however share one of his poems for the occasion (read by another local!)

 

Hands
the sun has not yet dawned
your footprints leave little trace
while you caress
the earth under the moon
step by step, like always,
every day until evening

Respecting it as you would a mother,View from San Bernardino
you love these plants like children
that cling to the rocks,

that challenge the absurd
but which without you
they wouldn’t last an instant

always thinking of your world
you are not afraid of it
for your life, when it ends
in every stone there is a memory
hands passed over a face
as a tear falls between the vines

to the moon, to the sun, to the stars
show your huge hands
hard hands, suffered yet true,
frank hands and outspoken words,
hands full of earth, yet never dirty,
huge hands, full of love

and his comment in the brochure- ‘Stop here for a moment and think about the difficulty and poverty but also the greatness and the dignity of the people that for centuries have shaped this earth. Think of their immense fatigue, their defeats, their will, their strength, their sweat. And then, if you want to, lay a flower, or say a Prayer.’

Mayor, Sculptor, Revered guests of honourThe crowd were almost moved to tears. My amateur video failed to capture the moment the drape fell as I had to join the grand applause and cheers that I am sure could be heard as far as the ferry boats chugging along down below!

It was time to party! You could not believe the amount of food and wine that was passed out to the tables, all volunteered from San B  and Corniglia locals . Generous helpings served by us with pride and affection to all the visitors who ate happily in front of the most panoramic view of the Cinque Terre.

The music blared old favourite songs and the partying and dancing continued on into the night. That’s what brings and keeps this community together.

The Madonna dei Tarsi now quietly sits and keeps an eye on us all and the rest of the Cinque Terre below.Cinque Terre, Madonna dei Tarsi statue

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Puff go the Magic Dragons

 

Works of Art

The Dragon Boat Festival in Florence of Breast Cancer Survivors has ended and we are dearly missing these wonderful women, so full of energy, courage and spirit. Living up to the motto of  the IBCPC- International Breast Cancer Paddlers Commission – ” Never stop trying, never stop believing, never give up and Paddles up!”  Over 121 Teams and supporters made up the 4,000 participants from more than 18 countries  with the Festival area  a blaze of pink and colourful Team shirts and costumes.

Many Teams had a composite of members, sometimes not even from the same country, to guarantee there was a full boat of 22 as not everyone could afford the trip or time off from work and family commitments. But that never stopped their amazing comradeship and caring sisterhood. After all they were not here to win as they are already winners just by being alive! A mixed age group of young and old and some with obvious signs of post cancer or relapse and various disabilities associated with age,  But there was no stopping them, even under the hot July sun and 33+ degrees heat.

Dragon boat Festival AmbassadorsIt was an honour and loads of fun for us bilingual Ambassadors to be welcomed by the Teams with open arms, assisting them in wading through some of the logistics and daily issues that arose during the Festival,

And the City of Florence became aware of their presence as they paraded from the Pitti Palace across the Ponte Vecchio to the Palazzo Vecchio in a lively multicoloured procession, chanting,  singing and waving to the crowds.

The next day they were swapping Team pins and trinkets between the various stands. Participation was the key word rather than winning as they caught up with friends from previous Festivals and made new ones, even Paddlers for Lifeamong some of us working as volunteers or Ambassadors for Teams. Their sense of humour was infectious and Team names were no exception in capturing their fighting spirit – ‘Missin’ Mammaries, Dambusters ( Dragons Abreast Melbourne), Mammoglams, Breast of Friends, Boobops, Wonder Woman’s Warriors….!!’  To name just a few.

Before the races many had the chance to paddle from the Private Canoe Club at the Uffizi under the Ponte Vecchio, giving them a whole new perspective of paddling the Arno river and a great photo opportunity since the races would be held way downstream. Afterwards they couldn’t resist a Team song and I couldn’t resist a paddle!

Dragons warm upThen it was time to warm up for the races at the Cascine Park, each Team having it’s own style and often bopping along to the loudspeaker music.

Into the marshalling area and down to the embarkation pontoons. Five teams each race, paddling up to the start and racing down 500m. No easy feat steering and paddling and an absolute Dragon Boat racinginspiration to watch and cheer them on! Two days of continual racing and these fabulous ‘Dragons’  never let up, with hugs of joy and encouragement, sharing the thrills and spills right till the end.

And then the most moving ceremony as closure to this wonderful Festival when the dragon boats locked together as a raft on the river and thousands of women and supporters lined the river bank and threw a flower in memory of those who never made it. Such an emotional farewell as they swayed to the music, arms locked together amid smiles and tears on tears…… Something that will remain in my heart forever.

As we all moved across to the Park for the final farewell speeches a French Team kept us entertained…..There is nothing that will stop these women and I have nothing but admiration for what they do and think I will need to take up paddling! The Dragon Boat Festival 2018 will live on in our memories and we wish all the best to these fantastic Dragons!


 

 

 

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Dragon Fever in Florence

Dragon Fever has spread amongst the population of Florence as the place prepares for the Dragon Boat Festival 2018. It’s the first International festival for breast cancer survivors  to be held in Europe and the Florentine organizers from ‘Firenze in Rosa’    (Florence in Pink) have been working non-stop to coordinate  preparations for the event.

Bilingual volunteers were called upon from the expat communities in January, which  dragged loads of us out of the woodwork to be ‘Ambassadors to a Team to ensure they have all the information and assistance they need to make their stay in Florence and their participation in the event a successful one. Meetings and emails have continued to circulate ever since as we begin to know our Team members and travelling supporters and answer their various queries. There was a bit of a kerfuffle when we saw the uniform included shorts…..as many mature age volunteers are not ‘shorts’ people!?

Fierce Dragon boat waiting for paddlersAnother massive call to the general community for other volunteers to help at arrival/departure, registration time,  people traffic control, assembling tents, manning Red Cross boats, medical services on land, embarkation and debarkation….the list is endless. And delighted to see a large group of African refugees volunteering and much appreciated since they are strong young men, speaking French, so can handle more of the physical jobs and translate for the French speakers.

Florentine dragon boat team +supportersOver 4000 participants from around the world – a major participation from Australia of 900, America, Canada, some South American countries –Argentina and Brazil, many European countries with single teams and 1 Team from Singapore.

I had never heard of it, nor even knew what a Dragon Boat looked like and it has been a fun time understanding what the Festival is all about. An amazing bunch of courageous women who have survived breast cancer and showing their strength and vitality in paddling Dragon Boats – that has to be an inspiration to us all!

There are 22 team members per boat – 20 paddlers, a drummer to keep the paddle rhythm and the ‘sweep’ or  steerer standing at the rear of the boat.

Last Saturday Florence held it’s own Dragon boat festival which was something of  a test run to the major event to be held in the first week of July. It was on the Arno river next to the Cascine Park which is the largest green area of the city and a favourite place for joggers, cyclists and dog walkers.

Dragon boats were off loaded and the various teams began warm up exercises before Dangerous launch of a Dragon Boatlaunching, somewhat precariously, these sleek long boats onto the Arno.launching Dragon BoatTeam warm up

 

Dragon Boat judges from LILTThese teams were mixed sexes and not necessarily breast cancer survivors however the judges of the event were the pink ladies from LILT  – Italian League for the Fight against Cancer, and it was a fun day. Lots of hilarity, the rhythmic  ‘tum, tum, tum…’, a few lost paddles and a couple of wet paddlers!

I am excited about the coming Dragon Boat Festival and looking forward to meeting my Dragons’  from Dragons Abreast Team Inspiration…..and of course will be doing a follow up blog after the event.


 

 

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Asmana- welcome to paradise in Florence

A rather ordinary exterior hides a magical paradise on the outskirts of Florence – the Asmana Wellness Centre. And while I rarely promote commercial activities think this place is an exception to the rule and rarely found by tourists. It is an enormous luxury complex of relaxation – warm pools indoor and out with spas,vortices and waterfalls, indoor relaxation rooms, sauna, foam baths, and Hamman with enriching wellness ceremonies.Who could ask for more?

Asmana Tropical Pool barAnd incredible as it may sound, no mobile phones are allowed…or only as far as the changing room wardrobe!! An enormous relief, no beeps, tings, pop song ringtones,  disturb the enticing tranquil atmosphere. The calming ambience induces people to converse quietly, more frivolity in the pools as we all play like kids amongst the vortices and waterfalls while other areas, like the Hamman total silence is the norm.

I have always delighted in Hot SpringsBagno Vignoni having discovered them first in Italy, my favourites being Bagno Vignoni and Rapolano Terme, south of Siena. A good soak in these Springs is a super way to de-stress, alleviate various aches and pains, increase blood circulation and generally lay back. After all populations world wide have been enjoying the therapeutic benefits for centuries.

The pools in the Asmana Wellness Centre are heated water only but still as beneficial and the Hamman brought back fond memories of my time in Iran. A similar design without the elaborate tiles typical of the ancient Hamman in Iran.

Multi sensory experiences are offered by the Master of ceremonies in the Sauna and Hamman areas. As Asmana describes: ‘rituals of different origin, handed down over time from distant civilizations. Moments when time and space can dilate and allow you to enter a dimension of pure pleasure…..Only by recovering a balance between mind and body sensations and emotions can take you to distant worlds.’ We were already convinced and ready for the trip.

On return from our cultural voyage in the salt and cocoa ceremony we tour the relaxation rooms, like the Fire Room, Salt room, the Temple….with sumptuous cushions, water beds,Asmana Room of Nests hanging chairs and swinging lounges, inebriating aromas and lulling music delightfully lure us to explore till we lounge quietly in the Room of Nests  to the sweet tweeting of birds.

Our four hours of sensory experiences and relaxation vanishes quickly and we need to face reality, find our wardrobe and embrace the night air of Florence.

The place is magic, accessible by bus from Florence and even being a tourist can be stressful  so some time out is well deserved. For more details and photos check the Asmana Wellness Centre website


 

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Master Gardeners, Italian style

Vegetable garden next doorIf you have ever lived next door to an Italian you will know how prolific they are in producing vegetables – front garden or back, it makes no difference.

My next door neighbour is constantly passing me generous bags of veggies, so despite my lack of a veggie garden, am munching my way through oodles of zucchini recipes as they sprout overnight and never cease! Or he leaves me home grown peaches and apples on my terrace at dawn, not to wake me up. Being a vegetarian makes him even more keen to be sure I have plenty…..meaning enough to feed an army of friends!

Nowadays all the talk is about, 0 kilometre produce, eco sustainability, the sharing economy, recycling, seasonal choices of vegetables when Italians have been well ahead of the times with this approach to life….if they have any square inch to cultivate.

The farmers have come a long way from the dangerous pesticides of the past and spraying sulphur till they came home looking like a green Martian! Now enclosed tractors and masks are the norm and many of the dangerous pesticides are no longer available in Italy or in Europe.Cinque terre vegetable garden

When hydroponics seemed fashionable for producing a lot in a small space without soil, Italians have been true Masters in producing quality and quantity in confined spaces for centuries and continue to do so.

The terraces at the Cinque Terre boast many a good veggie patch in the most confined spaces.

From master gardeners to farmers, this Italian Summer has been a real struggle with drought conditions and consistent heatwave temperatures of more than not 40+C  since the beginning of June.

Olive trees have lost their fruit and their leaves point skyward to lessen their heat exposure in an effort to stay alive, and while they are very resistant trees it is an extreme test for them. Grapevines also look haggard although for some it may be a top quality year, low on production but high on quality. Grape picking started early and up North in the Pinot Grigio area it has already finished. Bees are producing less honey, fig trees are losing their leaves and their fruit remains undeveloped and as the drought continues many crops are ruined.

Fires have broken out throughout Italy, creating enormous damage to farmers with loss of livestock and crops. National Parks have come under threat both from natural fires and dreadful pyromaniacs, with close to 89,000 hectares ( 220,000acres) of land burnt, an equivalent of ‘124,000 football stadiums’ as they said on the TV News!

City folk look at the news as they turn up their air conditioning or fan themselves under the shade, incredulous that the heat does not wane and sceptical of the possibility of water rationing, more expensive fruit and vegetables and no new Extra Virgin Olive Oil in November!

So it’s a tough old time this Italian Summer, one that is not unfamiliar to other countries as climatic change persists and we fail to find solutions.

Basil in a barrow

 

Still if you are coming over and would like to be an Italian gardener, do join us in the Cinque Terre on the Tourist in the Wild project – Save Vernazza as “Even paradise needs a Gardener”

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The Old and New of Milan

Milan Navigli canalA weekend in Milan, exploring the new and enjoying the old as we stayed in  the area of the canals – Navigli. I think it’s the only place to stay as it has a layback feel to it, a residential atmosphere that kicks on into party time of an evening as the canals are lined with bars and cafes. But the noise can be shut out as most of the apartments hide inside courtyards locked behind mega doors.

In the quiet of the morning we explored the old laundry area alongside the Opposite the old laundrygrand canal. The florist offered an amazing insight into the side street and its past of laundry workers who resided in the area and worked non stop on providing services to the well to do of Milan.

Laundress

She also specialized in Kokedama– often called poor man’s bonsai. A ball made of wet Akadama soil and Keto (peat). The plant is set into the ball and afterwards the moss is wrapped around it.  Aluminium wire or nylon wire fixes the whole bundle, and it is sometimes used to suspend the Kokedama in the air. She had all sorts of plants in kokedama – orchids, ferns to succulents. As well as a lovely selection of handmade soaps with delicate perfumes.

The old laundry

 

The old laundry exposed the ancient stone slabs used to beat the washing clean under the shade of the roof.

In the same street, hidden courtyards with artist studios and handmade products.

In contrast the curves and fluid lines of the new skyscraper area of Milan around Piazza Gae Aulenti, viewed from the ground was pretty remarkable…..

from above, on the 39th floor of the Lombard Regional office, quite awesome!

More enticing sinuous lines in the Mudec cultural museum together with a beautiful exhibition of Kandinsky.

God Save the Food restaurantFollowed by a great lunch in a trendy, very vegie restaurant, jovially called “God Save the Food” where the beetroot humus and wok vegies were delicious! Served up by a very friendly Tuscan waiter who was homesick, and tired of the frenetic pace of Milan. In fact the constant noise from traffic, Metro and general buzz is not something I would ever get used to.Navigli Grand Canal Milan

 

Still while our real reason for the visit to Milan was something quite different – an Enrique Iglesias concert not to be missed – discovering the old and new of Milan during the day was just as enjoyable.

 

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