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 The penal record imposed previously was retracted.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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The black and white of Pistoia

San Giovanni Fuoricivitas church, PistoiaWhat a great way to explore a rather lesser known beauty, Pistoia,  only half an hour or so from Florence and even better when the exploration is with a group of friends of which two are Art Historian guides. It’s a journey through time, from Romanesque to Renaissance, Baroque to Neoclassic to Contemporary Art.Detail of Church San Giovanni Fuoricivitas

We are bowled over first by the dual tone stripes of the 12th Century Romanesque Church – San Giovanni Fuoricivitas. It’s splendid facade and geometric pattern clearly Pisan style with a touch of Iberian Arabic since the town is on the pilgrims route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The portal is heavily decorated and a wealth of stories – a Last Supper adorns the architrave with Judas on the outer and John resting on Jesus’ shoulder, and lions protecting humans and fighting off monsters above.

It’s already time for a coffee before we see the splendours inside and how could we go past the fabulous Caffe’ Valiani next door, in an ancient chapel transformed into a Caffe’ in  the 19th Century. Tempting cakes and pastries line the window and the aroma of coffee fills the air. It has been tastefully decorated, with a mix of contemporary artworks that do not detract from the frescoed walls and vaulted ceilings.

Luca della Robbia The VisitationBack inside San Giovanni Fuoricivitas the sight of Luca della Robbia‘s ‘Visitation‘ a milky white glazed terracotta has us in awe, seeing the delicate gaze of Mary to Elizabeth, and the touch of her hand to Elizabeth’s shoulder. An early Renaissance masterpiece, considered one of the greatest of its time and the earliest large freestanding statue group. And there is more – the Gothic style pulpit carved by Fra Gugliemo da Pisa, and the Holy water font probably made by Giovanni Pisano ( who carved the pulpit in the Cathedral of Pisa).

The black and white stripes continue in the impressive main square which houses the beautiful Cathedral and Baptistery, Town Hall and ancient Bishop’s Palace now the Court House. And while centuries separate the construction of each there is a stunning harmony between them.

Baptistery and Court houseThe black and white stripes are misleading as the black is really the ‘green‘ serpentine marble from Prato and the white from Carrara. Locals flock to the Piazza for the weekly market as well as attracting tourists to its famous Palio race – Joust of the Bear ( with no bears allowed!)  and Pistoia Blues Festival which has seen B B King, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Blues Brothers and many more perform over the years. Church of Saint Andrea                      The last but not least important of the black and white Pistoia is the pretty church of Sant’ Andrea, found along the pilgrims route to Rome and serving as a church for baptisms. Inside it has an important pulpit, considered a masterpiece of 1301 by Giovanni Pisano and restoration work was just being completed on it.

Daily market Piazza della SalaBut Pistoia is not just about historical monuments, it has a very cute medieval market square with lively fruit and veggie stands and intimate bars and restaurants surrounding it. The Medici coat of arms and lion, adorn the Leoncino Well, symbols of Florentine dominion over the city so locals do not forget. Fortunately today it contains clean water whereas in the mid 1400’s when slaughter of animals took place outdoors most of the scraps were thrown into the well.  And in the nearby street one of the most typical,  and delicious restaurants for lunch – Locanda del Capitano del Popolo. A menu full of local specialities and delicacies – ‘prisoner’s’ soup, polenta with truffles, black cabbage, Florentine beef steak and tripe, and loads more in an eclectic atmosphere with a very humorous owner – Checco Bugiani

And to top off the day after lunch we round the corner to a big surprise – the medieval Ospedale del Ceppo with its elegant Renaissance loggia with a magnificent  frieze by Giovanni della Robbia and Santi Buglioni in polychrome glazed terracotta. Each section depicting an Act of Mercy – attending the sick, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners, feeding the poor….Hospital del Ceppo, della Robbia Frieze

 

And Vasari‘s majestic dome on the Basilica of the Madonna dell’ Umilità the 3rd largest dome in Italy after Brunelleschi’s Dome in Florence and St Peter’s in Rome.

Pistoia is an absolute gem, and there were so many stories and legends attached to each place we visited. So much so that I am saving them for day tours which I am proposing as an Airbnb Florence experience and a new website to start soon GimmeGuides.net. So spread the word to anyone who may be thinking of coming over……after the virus has left us!

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Machiavelli – the Prince’s exile

Hiking around San CascianoOn a rare day without rain and in solidarity for the humanitarian Onlus Emergency my hike group explored the hills, vineyards and villas once belonging to ‘The Prince – Machiavelli’. It was by no means a tough hike, not our usual style, but for a worthy cause, and we were in for some real treats!

Starting from San Casciano Val di Pesa, which is only a hop skip and jump from Florence (18kms) towards Siena, in the Chianti Classico wine area we were headed for Sant’ Andrea in Percussina, home to Machiavelli’s villas. A carpet of cloud covered the valley between the towns and the rolling hills blessed with vines now looking rather straggly as there autumn colours slowly fade. Still it was a relief to be out under sunshine and in good company.

A guided tour of Machiavelli’s villa was promised, and we were to delve into his tormented story. He had been considered the rising star of the new Florentine Republic, a brilliant civil servant and head of the Second Chancery, a post that placed him in charge of the Republic’s foreign affairs after the expulsion of the Medici in 1494. But when the Republic fell and the Medici returned to power he was arrested, tortured and expelled from the city. He retreated to his farmhouse ‘Albergaccio‘ ( meaning bad hotel) as it linked to the tavern across the road often filled with dubious characters.

The Albergaccio restaurant today and tour of the farmhouse:

 

Machiavelli wrote “Here, in Sant’Andrea in Percussina, where I tend to my vines and family matters, I, Niccolo’ Machiavelli, have found refuge from events in Florence, fatal for me. Hikers breakNext door there’s the Hosteria, a continual source of refreshment for me, for the labours borne in my long office, tasting that which the land has made into marvellous fruit.”

And we enjoyed tasting a refreshing prosecco from his land before the tour!

Inside we passed through the rather simple rooms of the farmhouse including his study where he wrote his famous book ‘The Prince’ , his notorious political tract advising dynasties, like the Medici, how Machiavelli's studyto combat the vicissitudes of fortune and stay in power. Considered a key intellectual figure of the Florentine Renaissance his isolation from Florence was under sufferance, especially since he had a clear view of Brunelleschi’s Dome from his garden daily. Most historians now emphasise the much greater importance of his later writings in Discourses on Livy and the History of Florence, where it becomes clear that his preferred political model was one based on freedom and democracy, a world without tyrannical kings and princes.

From the cellar we could see yet another of his villas – Villa Mangiacane thought to be designed by Michelangelo and where we had been promised our lunch break.

A brief stop at the Machiavelli store to peruse the gadgets and gift ideas and then back to hiking before we got too distracted by the alluring aromas coming from the restaurant kitchen, or tempted by another prosecco!

Down the valley, through the vineyards and with stomachs rumbling we trooped past the Villa Mangiacanefile of Tuscan cypress to the entrance of Villa Mangiacane to enjoy lunch on the garden steps. Fortunately for us the luxury resort was closed so no one to object. The villas remained in the Machiavelli family for centuries and only recently have been sold to an Italian Wine Cooperative.Machiavelli family tree

For us it had been a fun day out, a good fundraising day for Emergency and a very easy hike in the lovely area of Chianti Classico.Hikers trail home

 

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Hooves clicking on Black Marble

Hiking in the National ParkOut in the heat hiking not far from Siena we are exploring an area of Italian marbleblack marble or commonly known here as Serpentine marble. And while we are no longer able to see the quarries where the ‘marble‘ came from, we are conscious that every step we take is on this precious material. Officially it is not really ‘marble’ but a serpentinite, “a metamorphic rock derived from the rock of magmatic origin that formed about 200 million years ago on the bottom of the ancient Ocean Tetide, where it underwent a process of hydration by interaction with sea water.” The name originates from the similarity of the texture of the rock to that of the skin of a snake, easily seen here in the village wall. Serpentine marble in village wall

The territory of Murlo is rich in outcrops of this rock and it was used to create the black and white dichromy in the Sienese Cathedral. Not an easy feat considering we are hiking amongst tough Tuscan hills around 27kms from Siena.


We are also lucky to be hiking with a mix of experts                                                          – our faithful Environmental guide Grazia, to give us all the info on the local flora, fauna and terrain underfoot                                                                                                          – a geologist Andrea, eager to explain the difference in the formation of marble and serpentinite i.e.  “Marble being rocks that having undergone a process of metamorphism at high temperatures and pressures that has made the minerals recrystallize.”                                                                                                                      – and Grazia’s father Ivo, who was born in the area, now a National Park, and keen to recount old farming techniques and memories of times past.

Cathedral SienaAt the time of the construction of the Cathedral, begun in 1215,  the ‘Opera del Duomo‘ responsable for the construction bought or rented land with quarries or rich in building stones,  vineyards and fields to obtain wine and bread for the workers, water for making mortar, and woods for work timber. Historical records show that the serpentine stones were partially worked in the quarry and each block of black marble weighed approx 80-100 kg and was carted by mules Siena Cathedralacross this rather rugged terrain. Unlike Florence there was no substantial river course to use as an easier alternative. In the end transport became so expensive and difficult that the black marble was used less and abandoned by the 14th Century.

We hike through typical Mediterranean vegetation dominated by holm oaks up and down hills, past some vineyards along trails that linked communities, ancient parish churches and monasteries. We are on our way to the Hermitage of Montespecchio, thinking of the poor mules that carted up to 20 tons of marble to Siena each 6 months and in this heat we are hard pressed to cart our small back packs laden only with bottles of water and lunch!

Now only the ruins of the church remain of the Hermitage, which was in its heyday a large complex and a wealthy one both from donations not only of money but also land and a healthy income to the Augustinian friars from the sale and transport of the black marble. The welcome shade renew our energy as we exlore the ruins from the 12th Century and despite the striped walls so typical of Romanesque architecture the place has an exotic almost Asian feel to it.

We are now close to Ivo’s birthplace and he delights in telling us that he was often here, looking for his pigs that sometimes went astray and enjoyed Old Tuscan schoolforaging in the woods. In the past there were large fields of grain and cereals cultivated on rotation, and each family depended on that and their livestock to survive. We pass the farmhouse, converted school, that he walked 3kms to each day with his 8 brothers and sisters, now a private residence used probably only on holidays.

Then next to the delapidated buildings where he’s was born he calls us onto the overgrown area which was once the paved ‘aia’ or piazza, where they would tie a horse in the centre and with his continuous circling thresh the grain with his hooves. They would gather the grain on enormous sieves and toss it into the area to separate the grain from the kernels. At the end of harvesting there would be a big dinner on long trestle tables in the piazza where all the families would meet and party.

Ivo's childhood home

 

The buildings and land were left to the Forestry department which has sadly left the buildings go to ruin and the local vegetation has taken over. There is a definite hint of nostalgia as Ivo reminisces, yet satisfied as we are appreciative of his stories of times gone by.                                                           So next time you are in Siena and enjoying its splendour you can appreciate even more the hard work that went into trasporting the black marble.

Farming tales

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Leonardo Da Vinci and the Battle of Anghiari

Since it is 500 years after the death of Leonardo Da Vinci, Italy is celebrating the anniversary with exhibitions, pageants, and local theatrical performances. The country is floooded with events and is encouraging all of us to explore new places and lesser known facts about Leonardo.Anghiari

Photo credit- Museo della Battaglia e di Anghiari.

 

I had taken up the opportunity to combine my love of hiking on an easy trail between Anghiari and Sansepolcro to follow the itinerary of the Florentine soldiers in the crucial Battle of Anghiari of 29 June, 1440. The Battle, played out on the plain between the two towns, was to be colorfully recounted by various local actors along the trail. Unfortunately the performance was cancelled due to stormy weather predictions.

However curiosity had got the better of me and I drove to Anghiari early morning well before the storm and spent a very pleasant few hours exploring the nooks and crannies of this beautiful medieval village. Along the way to set the mood I stopped at Ponte Buriano bridge to contemplate the scene with Da Vinci, since it is this bridge which features in the background of the Mona Lisa.

Garibaldi at AnghiariGaribaldi welcomed me into the historical centre of Anghiari, a popular statue in towns all over Italy. Shortly after I was to cross the moat, or where it was once, through the drawbridge gateway that protected it from foreign invaders.Anghiari Moat Gate

 

 

 

 

I had stepped back in time; winding alleyways, opened onto intimate piazzas, overlooked by medieval buildings now incorporated into Renaissance palaces. It was beautiful!

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Tuscan Spring(s)

It’s that gorgeous time of year when Nature bursts back to life and everything begins to sprout, infinite green on greens as if every plant wants to show off its uniqueness. There is no chance of ever getting tired of the Tuscan landscape and traveling around in the past weeks has been a delight.Tuscany in Spring

Even on just a short walk from home the surroundings are enticing as the vines begin a new season and the iris, the symbol of Florence since 1252, start popping up all over the place.
At San Polo in Chianti there is the Associazione Toscana Gaggiolo of over 200 farmers who continue the tradition of cultivation of the iris as its delicate essence, derived from the root, is used in the production of perfumes, creams and herbal medicines. In fact it was of great economic importance in Tuscany between the 1800’s and the last century, exporting the major part of the production to France.

Iris Garden Florence

photo credit Iris Garden association, Florence

While in Florence publicity is already up, reminding people to visit the Iris garden just below Piazzale Michelangelo “where you can admire over 1,500 varieties of iris from all over the world in full bloom.” Free entrance and opening for only a month from 25th April – 20th May.

Hot Springs San Giovanni TermeSpringtime is also another favorite time for me to visit the Hot Springs, for a relaxing day of total indulgence for body, mind and soul. Just driving through the rolling velvet hills of Southern Tuscany intermittently broken by the grey of ‘Le Crete’ clay pits is so pleasing to the eye. I must have seen it a thousand times, but every year it has the same uplifting effect. We are on our way to the San Giovanni Hot Springs in Rapolano Terme. It’s a glorious day of sunshine and going to be a pleasant 19 degrees and by the time we get there I am thinking I should have packed the sun cream!
Bathing in any of these Hot Spring establishments feels like living in the lap of luxury.

The Romans knew how to spoil themselves bathing in natural hot springs or their sophisticated bath houses progressing from the warm to hot, steamy room and cleansing off with a massage in the cool room. We like to keep that tradition going!

We pass through the relaxation area, specially signposted with no mobile phones allowed, thank goodness, and slip into the coolest pool. While being invitingly quiet we are View of Internal Hot poolsoon dripping our way up the stairs to soak in the warm pool. Delicious squelchy white mud coats the bottom of the pool, the sulfurous sediments from the Natural Spring. As the blurb goes we are sitting in water “rich in sulphur and calcium bicarbonate…to combat ailments relating to muscular and skeletal system and respiratory disorders…in up to 39 degree water”. So you can see why we are here to soothe our muscles, wash away our aches and pains and simply relax. As the day is so warm the indoor ‘hot pool’ is less inviting and besides the surrounding landscape too good to miss!

San Giovanni Terme Some time out on the lounge chairs and then as the sun starts to set we need to make a move for home. Reluctantly we drag ourselves out of the pool, comforted by the knowledge that we will be back again….and again!

So whatever you may be doing over Easter, I hope you all have fun and a relaxing time somewhere special. Buona Pasqua!Easter


 

 

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Hiking Val D’Orcia – Tuscany

A hike in Val d’Orcia amongst the poppies and spectacular views is relaxing despite the heat. The endless rolling hills of Tuscany, a patchwork of vineyards, olive groves, and fields of hay ready to be baled is an inspirational sight.

Val d’Orcia is is in the Southern part Tuscany past  Siena. 

Poppies Val d'Orcia

The area is home to delightful medieval villages like Bagno Vignoni, Pienza, San Quirico d’Orcia, Castiglione d’Orcia with views across the valley to the hilltop  town of Montalcino  famous for its full bodied Brunello wine.

Our hike was to start at San Quirico d’Orcia, but we sneaked in a quick stop at Pienza in time to catch them decorating the main street with ginestra (broom) petals for the Corpus Domini celebration later that day. A welcome touch of normality in a town that attracts many tourists.

Fortunately the Val d’Orcia is far enough away to avoid the mass tourism intrusion that is a constant battle in the bigger cities like Florence and Pisa and more accessible coastal  areas like the Cinque Terre.

We move on to San Quirico d’Orcia, the lesser known neighboring village which has it’s own attractions – the medieval Cathedral which incorporates an earlier 8th Century parish church and an example of a plague door next to the main entrance used to take out dead bodies in the superstitious hope the disease would leave with the body.

San Quirico Central CafeSome local humour at the central cafe with a sign – “We organize recovery courses for teetotalers” and the  inviting fragrance of jasmine draws us into the beautiful linen ware shop.San Quirico d'Orcia linen shop

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our local environmental guide  calls us out as after all we are here to hike to the hot Springs of Bagno Vignoni. The hike take us up and down dale through vineyards, woods and hay fields, surrounded by magnificent views at every climb: a full immersion in Nature relatively unchanged for centuries.

It reminds me of hearing tourists respond to their limo driver when asked were they going  to San Gimignano and Siena – “Yes San Gimignano, Siena and Tuscany!” The limo driver rolled his eyes and politely led them to the car…..during the day he would have to explain that Tuscany is the whole region. Yet if an area depicts Tuscany as tourists picture it, it would have to be the scenery of Val d’Orcia.

It’s an area I know well having stayed at Bagno Vignoni on tour with many of you and Studio Enrico Paoluccicontinue to visit regularly to see dear old friends, Isabella and artist Enrico Paolucci. 

While it’s still Spring, the day is hot and the sound of Hot Springs is not too enticing but then our guide knows of the pools below the village where the water is a little cooler  and it’s to be our lunch spot.

 

Bagno VignoniThe village of Bagno Vignoni remains magic and a popular place for locals and tourists all year round.

The view of Castiglione d’Orcia dominates and there is a sense of peace and freedom……before hike back!View to Castiglione d'Orcia


 

 

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No bones about it – Florence exhibition

View of FlorenceThe Humans of 2015 are now just a skeleton this year in the ‘Ytalia’ Art Exhibition at Forte di Belvedere, Florence! No bones about it Florence never fails to surprise me!

As I wandered up to the Fort  I thought of the other exhibitions that had fired my passion or uninspired me, yet I always return to this fantastic location and never Spritual Guard jan Fabreget tired of the fabulous panorama.

Last year’s Jan Fabre Spiritual Guards’ had an overdose of beetles and crosses for my taste. Although I did like the gold turtle in the main square of Florence. While the Zhang Huan‘s exhibition of Buddhas ‘Soul and Matter’ had been a startling reopening to the fortress in 2013.

This year we are treated to polystyrene fiberglass bones covered in gypsum which precariously sway in the breeze and for safety and security reasons have to be tied down!

The Ytalia exhibition – presented 100 Contemporary Italian works of Art about Energy, Thoughts and Beauty to demonstrate, as the pamphlet blurb read: “how Italian Art has strongly influenced the international artistic community and has been a model to admire the perfect balance between classicism and anticlassicality, eclecticism and purism, invention and citation, immanence and transcendence.” 

Forte Belvedere entranceI have my doubts that the exhibition lived up to its promise but it was still well worth the visit.Art Exhibit Florence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lots of beautiful marble alongside rusty iron and the geometric nature of the exhibits  lures the eye into labyrinths and techno prints reflecting Fibonacci’s sequence.

A splash of colour inside the building seems totally unconnected….

and other weird to the absurd exhibits leave me pretty flat!

Skeleton Florence

 

I am constantly drawn back to the panorama of Brunelleschi’s dome seen between oscillating bleached ribs and lassoed toes, or about to be blow-dried…..

 

Art Exhibit Florence

 

And the typical Tuscan view of cypress trees, olive groves and a stray castle tower at the back of the fortress, while stumbling through marble blocks much to the disdain of the Fort custodian!

So just in case you are in Florence, there is still time to see the  ‘Ytalia’ exhibition as it remains open until the 1st Oct and there are more exhibits dotted about town – the Basilica of Santa Croce, Palazzo Vecchio and Palazzo Pitti.  I would suggest Forte Belvedere any year you may be over for the view, the relaxing alfresco wine and café bar and the cheap entrance fee!

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Hot as Hell, Devil’s country

When it’s as hot as Hell there is no better place than the natural Canyon of Orrido di Botri, in the mountains 40kms above Lucca.

The area, known as Garfagnana, part of the Province of Lucca, encompasses some of the most beautiful natural woods and mountains of Tuscany. Orrido di Botri is one such place, and only accessible during the Summer months as the hike entails wading in and out of the River Pelago, hugging the rock face till the end of the trail at the natural “swimming pool”

Home to the Devil and Devilish legends add to the already mystical air as we set off early to wind our way up the mountain to Ponte a Gaio (740mt) the meeting point and entrance to the National Park area.

Ponte della Maddalena or Devil's BridgeOn the way we have our first encounter with the Devil at the ancient Ponte della Maddalena commonly known as the ‘Devil’s Bridge’Legend has it that a master builder was commissioned to build the bridge but could not get it finished on time and asked the Devil to help him. The Devil made a pact with him that he would finish the bridge in one night and as recompense would take the soul of the first person who crossed the bridge. The builder agreed to the pact but later, filled with remorse confessed to a priest who advised him to send a pig over the bridge first. The Devil, infuriated at being made a fool of, and not knowing what to do with the pig, disappeared into the river Serchio leaving behind a cloud of sulphur.

On arrival at the Forest rangers office we need to be equipped with helmets and our hike shoes as we’ll be wading in areas up to our thighs, through the canyon with rock walls of up to 200m high. The hairnets under the helmets get a giggle and gives us a rather incongruous look as Cristina explains the logistics of the 4hr hike.- River temperature around 10 degrees, and the canyon only a few degrees warmer, with a warning that it’s easier to wade than risk slipping on the rocks. To avoid any rocks falling on our heads we should place our hands on the rock at the entrance in homage to ‘Botri’. Legend of Botri

Botri being the ugly crippled shepherd who found shelter in the canyon with his flock after being driven out by his compatriots for his terrible appearance. Famine struck and the same citizens pleaded with Botri to allow their flocks to feed in the Canyon but Botri offended and angered threw rocks at them to drive them away. Unfortunately during the fight he slipped and fell, breaking his neck in the Canyon, where his ghost still reigns! So we are only too happy to place both hands on the entrance rock so Botri won’t be offended.

Rain was forecast, surprisingly the only day in the entire Summer, as we set off into this majestic wild beauty of ferns and moss alongside crystal clear water. The Devil is considered a regular visitor to the Canyon and parents often frightened their children from venturing into the Canyon alone, describing an enormous winged monster that would swoop down and take them away in his claw – a large shiny orange mark imprinted high on the rocks is said to be the burn mark from his tail!? And there is a Devil’s garden and the Devil’s claw mark.

While amused by the various horrific tales we stick close to our two qualified guides, heeding their warnings along the way. As the thunder rolled in and it began to pour,  small stones bounced off two helmets and the atmosphere took on a more sinister feel. Cristina was quick to reassure that wild goats tend to wander along the edge of the cliffs above and the shrapnel is probably from them……not Botri?! Royal Eagles and falcons also nest in the area but are rarely sighted and the more timid animals like capriole ( bambi deer) are unlikely to venture out while we are around.

The thunder passed and the air cleared so we managed to complete the hike to the end, becoming quite used to wading in the river or clinging to ropes that line some of the rock face. In the swimming pool

The photos do not do it justice and are marred by my waterproof holder, but I hope to have enticed some of you into this treasure chest of uncontaminated Nature near Lucca.

 

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Shooting the rapids on the Arno – Florence

Rafting on the Arno riverA couple of hours late afternoon ‘soft’ Rafting the Arno River in Florence sounded super inviting with the heatwave we have been experiencing. Combined with the fact that it would be an historical tour of the old Mills and Wool factories that had thrived for centuries on its shores, made it even more enticing. The organisers were keen to reassure clients that it would be ‘soft’, nothing strenuous and little chance we would finish in the River, although a second pair of shoes could be handy! I had visions of shooting the rapids over the weir breaks and quite hoping for an adrenaline rush of ‘hard rafting’ and ready for the big splash.

T-Rafting organized the event and we were lucky to have both guides , Enrico and Sebastian – expert rafters, kayakers, and lifeguards with an impressive list of skills from rescue technicians to teachers of freshwater ecology and river restoration. So we were in for a real treat.

A brief explanation of what was in store and life jackets for us all as well as the waterproof bin for all our personal things so nothing could get wet. I was already getting excited….Down to the riverside and into the rubber dingy, paddles for everyone and we were ready. “Let’s try to synchronise paddles….go…go…go” was the instruction and while there were only 6 of us I could see we would not be winning any medals for our coordination. Fortunately Sebastian steered our way out of trouble as we may have gone round in circles and never left home base!?!

Rafting on footAs we drew closer to our first ‘rapid’  and old Mill I began to understand the meaning of  ‘soft‘, as in the current heatwave and drought, the level of the River is far too low to cruise across the weir breaks. “Everybody out!” My dream was crushed and my feet wet!

Still we could at least climb the steps up to the Old converted Mill, now a sweet Bed & Breakfast, and realise the importance of the Mills and later the Medieval Wool factories – Le Gualchiere, strategically placed along the Arno’s banks.

The Arno had been essential for transporting goods, like wood from Casentino to build the Cathedral and Palaces, with navigation possible, at least in the winter months, all the way to Pisa and Livorno. Enrico delighted in relating the old latin expression still used in Florence ‘a ufo’ meaning free/gratis as A.U.F.O ( ad usum Florentinae  Operae) was stamped onto the beams to be used in the Church as they were allowed through ‘duty free’!

I love these quaint tales and connections to historic details which over time get lost and no one really remembers the origins.

Trusty Guides working hard

Our trusty guides worked hard hauling the dinghy across the various weirs and then it was back to rowing, one.. two…three…. each to our own beat but at least we went forward! We passed more mills and wool factories now converted to hotels or divided into apartments or more unfortunately abandoned.

 

Wool was traded from all over Europe to be ‘worked‘ in Florence in the medieval factories harnessing the hydraulic energy of the river. The most prized being English wool for its long fibres that were cleaned and combed, entwined and then pressed with the enormous wooden hammers powered by the river, belting this woollen fabric to make it tough, waterproof  and sought after by the wealthy far and wide. A tough smelly job, the continual noisy banging, and damp and dirty amid lime and urine used for cleaning and vegetal products for colouring.

I was so fascinated by the Wool fabrication that on hearing there was to be a theatrical performance at one of the largest Wool factories, ‘Le Gualchiere di Remole’ my name was first on the list for a ticket. A video in Italian here gives an idea of the process.

Medieval Wool factoryBuilt in the 14th century, now unfortunately abandoned and in ruins after centuries of production of these fabulous ‘blanket-style’ mantels. The ghosts of the Gualchiere recounted their lives, their loves, their hopes and dreams, and their sufferings as  workers in the factory. The terrible floods – 1333, 1547, 1740…..Ghost of the wool factory

My vision of the Arno River and Rafting in Florence had certainly changed after these experiences, while my appetite for ‘real rapids’ remain and Enrico and Sebastian have left me with an open invite for one of their many rafting experiences on www.t-rafting.com. 

Check them out: White water Red wine rafting, Sieve Bridges and Tortelli Rafting, Florence Ponte Vecchio Rafting with an aperitif at sunset,….. to name just a few!

 

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