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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Nothing beats a Moka pot

 

Moka coffee pot

My new Moka pot for one

In a moment of distraction, I burnt out my Moka coffee pot….Oh No!!!

The handle literally melted off the side and while the rest was still intact, it was definitely time to buy a new one. No replacement base would do as it would ruin the coffee flavour since it had gurgled out of water for far too long. So as I popped down to the shop to get my new one, I thought how Italian I have become!

My Moka pot has been my coffee maker at home ever since I arrived in Italy and it is definitely my favourite coffee machine. No new fangle dangle devices can compete, not even a flashy George Clooney Nespresso model….unless it comes with George!?!

While the rest of the world, and a large part of the Italian world, has embraced coffee machines so they can enjoy an espresso or cappuccino at home, quite a few of us have clung to our Moka. Why?

It makes a great espresso, or added to hot milk a wonderful breakfast caffé latte. Comes in various sizes from, just for one, for 3, 6, 9 and a mega 12 person Moka which I have only seen in the Bialetti shop. Takes 5 mins to make on a gas or electric stove, and for the most part the Moka is indestructible, with easy to find replacement parts like filters, and gaskets etc.

Moka Bialetti 1940's cartoon

Bialetti’s 1940’s cartoon on how to use a Moka

Bialetti would have to be biggest brand, and in fact is the inventor, which in the Italian post-war depression was a great convenience for all people who could no longer afford to go out. Renato Bialetti is the  moustached cartoon figure that appears on their logo.

 

There is still an Art in the Making’, as in everything Italians do.

Fill the base with water to just below the heat valve, heap the coffee in the funnel just a touch, squeeze tight and place on a low flame not bigger than the pot and turn it off just as it starts to gurgle. If sharing the larger pots it’s best to give a quick stir in the top so the coffee consistency is uniform for everyone. Use only warm water, NO SOAP, to clean it and it will serve you forever.

Florentine Moka pot

Just about everyone now has a modern coffee machine, which I found out the hard way when I went to my friends wedding in Finland. I took, what I thought to be, the perfect gift: a Florentine (Brunelleschi style dome top) Moka pot with trendy illy coffee cups. I was very happy with myself until I walked into their home and was offered a cappuccino from their coffee maker!

In fact at the Milan Expo on food in 2015 I discovered that the Finns are the highest consumers of coffee, followed by Germans, Brazilians with Italians only rating fourth! Although that should come as no surprise since I think Italians do most things in moderation and think they own the coffee legend.

And while I do love a cappuccino and a good espresso, I save that desire to when I am out at the bar or restaurant as something of a special treat. Now that’s Italian!

I have already seasoned my new little Moka pot, working it through 3 coffee rounds before taking a first sip. Ahhh, just lovely! I will treat it with due respect and continue to enjoy this fabulous Italian invention and great tradition.

My Moka pots

My Moka pots for 1, 3 and 6

And if Italy is in your next travel plans, check out my post on Italian Coffee etiquette so you too can feel like a local when you get here!


 

 

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Merry Xmas and Happy New Year!

Xmas FirenzeIt’s that time of year again, and the days seem to disappear in a rush.

There is just a smidge of snow on the mountains near home, not really enough for Santa and Rudolf to sleigh down on, but I think he arrives via a smartphone App these days! And while I have seen a few letters to Santa publicized I think the rest are probably emailing or whatsapping! How the world changes. We are also hoping Santa may have solution in his sack to our current government crisis….??

Yet Florence still has its reassuring traditions – the Nativity Scene is back beside thenativity scene Florence Duomo along with the Xmas tree and Xmas lights adorn most of the streets in the centre giving the place that special magic.

The wonderful panettone and pandoro cakes have been in the supermarkets  now for ages – which makes me wonder how much preservatives must be in them? But I succumb every year and my pandoro star will get it’s good shake of icing sugar and a little warming in the oven when my first Xmas guests drop by.

And the faithful guardians of our city keep a watchful vigil on us all.

So I thank you all for reading my posts and am open to any suggestions you may have or things you may be curious about in Italy but didn’t know who to ask. Ask me via the comments box or email anytime.

Gourmet cooking school and foostoreFor any Melbourne readers I add a little plug for my niece’s Gourmet kitchen cooking school. If you’re stuck for a gift idea she has lots of interesting kits, gourmet delicatessen items, Xmas hampers with a difference, recipe books and gift vouchers for doing a cooking class on all sorts of wonderful foods – Thai, Spanish, Pasta making, Japanese etc and currently helping many make delicious macaroons for Xmas. Check the website here or drop by at 20 Margaret St, opposite Moonee Ponds Station.

I hope this year has been a good year for you all and wish you a Very Merry Xmas and a Happy, Serene and Healthy 2017!

I am off to Cuba in January for a few weeks so will leave you with just a taste of what the atmosphere may be like in the video below…….you never get too old to dance!!!

Gente di Zona with Marc Anthony – La Gozadera

 

 

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It’s raining sweets in Cinque Terre

Bridal couple toss benediga

Foto credit www.fotografi-matrimonio.com

I was rather intrigued by a recent post from the Mayor of Vernazza – Cinque Terre about an old custom that started around the 1800’s – the benediga. It appears to be almost unique to Vernazza, and I remember some years back being surprised by sweets that rained from the heavens onto the Main Street of Vernazza as a bridal couple tossed them from a balcony above.

Enzo Resasco ( Mayor) writes : “This is one of many traditions that has remained unchanged in Vernazza and it would be nice to tell the many tourists who visiit here.When there is a wedding or a baptism, after the religious ceremony, the bride and groom or the godparents, from a balcony that overlooks either the square or along the main street of the village, throw “the benediga”…..

Often, the many tourists are suddenly caught up in the middle of a crowd of children, women and men from the village who bend down to pick up candies, chocolates, nuts, confetti raining down in torrents from the sky. Immediately it is difficult for them to understand what is happening. In their eyes you can see the wonder and perhaps a hint of fear, of seeing people gather, shouting and shoving, for this manna from the sky.”

Tourists gather confetti

Tourists gathering the loot!

Foto credit: http://vernazza-corniglia.com

Investigating further another Italian, Guido Allegrezza writes:
“A benediga worthy of respect, must “weigh” a total of at least 45 kg, evenly distributed between sweets, chocolates and confetti ( sugared almonds). In the past, when poverty was a daily reality, the benediga saw the launch of nuts and almonds festively wrapped…..Throwing  45 kilos of candy and confetti can take 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the skill of the couple or godparents parents…..” and if ever caught up in this melee  he suggests to be wary of the elderly who while not at a soccer match tend to fight for the sweets with almighty fury, elbows out and baskets and sacks on the ready. Locals scream and wave their arms then dive on the goodies as they fall – something of a pagan ritual, a homage ….,”he benediga gives concrete expression to the sense of belonging to the community,” a festive celebration of a key moment in the community….and a temporary belonging to the tourists surprised by the event!

The Mayor is very concerned about maintaining traditions and not letting economic interests of tourism override the social fibre of the community. He writes:

“The biggest mistake we can make with our tourists is to make them feel as if they were still in their own country. Street signs type Fast Food, Take Away, Sangria, Happy Hour. This is not what they want.

They want Italian spirit. They want to live the rhythms of Italian life and our rhythms are special. Sit on a bench or at a table in a bar along the main street or square or the Ventega, in the evening at sunset with a Cinque Terre Doc. They do not want the supermarket, do not look for any “Gardaland” effect. They want the small shop or the weekly market knowing that to be served will mean a queue and maybe waiting for the seller to finish his conversation with the old lady of the place.”

The Mayor is fighting something of an uphill battle to retain the authenticity and uniqueness of Vernazza overrun with mass tourism and slowly depopulating, changing its face…or at least putting new make up on.

 

Foto credit for Yesterday: www.vernazza-corniglia.com


 

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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!

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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

 


 

 

 

 

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