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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A knight’s legend – San Galgano

Vineyards and Olive Groves in MaremmaOn a return trip from the wineries in the Southern area of Tuscany realized we would be passing by a place of legends – San Galgano. It has been years since I had been here and it conjured up images of the Kingdom of Camelot: King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table. Why?

…..Because San Galgano houses the sword in the rock!

Reaching the Abbey at sundown only to see the heavy wooden doors close on a private wedding party inside, and no positive response to our pleas of “We came all the way from Australia to see this! was disappointing. Although the custodian did suggest we hurry as we would still be in time to see the sword in the stone at the hermitage above.

Still the Abbey, built between 1218 and 1288 by Cistercian monks, is impressive from the outside, sitting proudly in the middle of nowhere. And a sneak peek through the side bars gave just a glimpse of its ancient grandeur. Cypress trees line the entrance and despite it being without a roof, it looks in great condition and not surprising a bride would like to celebrate in its evocative ambience.San Galgano Abbey

The Monks abandoned the Abbey in the 15th century, retiring to Siena after years of famine and plague and it has since been deconsecrated.

 

Hermiatge of Montesiepi

On the hill nearby is the Hermitage of Montesiepi, with a small circular chapel which houses the sword in the stone of San Galgano. As the legend goes he was a young knight from Siena born in 1147 who had a vision whereby the Archangel Michael convinced him to give up his life of war and violence and pursue the divine wish of God. Sometime after the vision riding through the woods his horse stopped and refused to proceed and Galgano recognized the hill of Montesiepi to be that of his vision. At that point he drove his sword deeply into the stone, gave up all his earthly possessions and spent the rest of his life living as a hermit at Montesiepi. He died a year later at the age of 33 and was made a Saint 4 years later in 1185.

Carbon-dating by the University of Padua in 2001, has revealed the sword to be from that period and confirmed that the two mummified hands in the same chapel were also from the 12th century. Legend has it that anyone who tried to remove the sword had their arms ripped out!

Perhaps Italy is still waiting for a wise ruler, like King Arthur, to pull the sword from the rock at San Galgano …or our current unwise rulers to try anyway and get their just dessert?!Map of San Galgano


 

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De-Tours in Tuscany and Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre, MonterossoAs the Garden tour in Southern Italy never ran this Spring, I was rather disappointed and thought there is nothing for it but to go out and find additional work to my day tours in the Cinque Terre. So after my wonderful trip in Cuba I revamped my CV, scouted the list of jobs and sent off various applications.

A whole new world opened up again: new trends, novel ideas, and varied responses, from “awesome….but over experienced, …. consider your application and contact you,” together with no reply and two interviews! Which in the end I thought was pretty good going, in a climate of heavy competition and economic pressures.

The new trends seem to be “Food guides” or anything to do with food. Day tours, in Florence, taking tourists for tastings at the market and local delicatessens, providing them with a real Tuscan insight on the local specialities. Maybe they found out I am vegetarian… as I didn’t get an interview even though I was sure I could win hands down talking about Tuscan food despite not eating all of it!

No interview either for the day tours in the fabulous 500 Fiat ‘bambino’ as the tour guide was required to have mechanical experience and to know how to double clutch. Double clutching I was sure I could manage but had to admit I wasn’t sure if the engine was in the back or the front, let alone fix it if we broke down on a country road!

A friend and long standing lover of Florence, Penny Howard, has been doing special tours/workshops and kindly offered to promote my day tours in the Cinque Terre so I now feature on her website: Beyond the Yalla dog. She does some very interesting workshops with local experts – on fresco painting, mask making as well as beautiful day trips to gardens and villas like La Foce. So check out her website and get in touch if you are interested in any of her activities. Thanks again Penny!

Tourist Eco cartI did get an interview for driving tourists around the centre of Florence in an electric golf buggy, but fortunately declined as the pay was a pittance and with the crowds in the city these days I thought I could be ‘dangerous’! Worse still they were keen to Florence rickshawsencourage the 6 of us to drive their newly acquired rickshaws – power assisted bicycles – where I thought I would be even ‘more dangerous’ and potential tourists would take one look at me and think ‘she won’t get us very far!” So no go.

Finally I fell across a new Aussie/Italian tour agency called Tuscany Untouched who are offering day tours, weekly tours and customized tours with the slogan “Live like a local, with a local” So here I am, their new ‘local’, taking day tours and potentially weekly tours when Matteo is not available. So spread the word as we are both looking forward to a busy season ahead and you know how much I like working with tourists.

My first tour was to the Natural hot Springs at Bagni San Filippo in the gorgeous area of Val d’Orcia, near Pienza. A truly relaxing day for all of us.

Contact me directly especially if you or friends are interested in a tour in the Cinque   Terre or fill out Tuscany Untouched booking form for anything that takes your fancy or you would like us to develop for you.


 

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The unexplored treasures of Casentino in Tuscany

Porciano CastleThe area of Casentino in Tuscany is rarely explored by tourists, yet it is home to ancient monasteries and parish churches, centuries old forests,  medieval castles and traditional handicrafts. A place where Dante Alighieri, father of the Italian language, found refuge after his exile from Florence, and the birthplace of Michelangelo.

The valley was once a prehistoric lake as fossil traces have shown, later home to the Etruscans and if you look into the Arno river as it flows under the Ponte Vecchio you will see a part of Casentino float by as the Arno originates on Mount Falterona.

And its not the only thing in Florence that comes from the Casentino area – as the beams inside Brunelleschi’s Dome on the Cathedral come from the forest cultivated by the monks of Camaldoli, floated down on the Arno River.

Castle at PoppiThe place is full of legends and plots against the Florentines, mostly organized by the Count Guidi family who had castles not only throughout Casentino but all the way to Northern Italy. Legend has it that they could get a message from their Castle in Poppi to the border of France in less than 8 hours using a system of flames and mirrors from tower to tower.Poppi- Castello di Conti Guidi

 

 

 

At their Castle di Romena the Guidi family hired Maestro Adamo to make counterfeit florins with the idea of flooding the market with inferior coins bringing the ruling Florentine families to their knees. But the Florentines found out and Adamo was burnt at the stake while the Guidi’s got off scot free! They were known as a blood thirsty lot, which their nicknames indicated – Guido Guerra ( the war maker), Guido Bevesangue (the blood drinker), and housed Dante at the Castle for a period of 5 years after his exile from Florence.

 

Locals and pilgrims pass through the area stopping at the ancient parish churches like – Pieve di San Pietro a Romena……

continuing on their way to the Monastery of La Verna, that sits on a spectacular rocky outcrop. Count Orlando Cattani captivated by Saint Francis’ oratory on love and forgiveness, donated the mountain to him as a hermitage for those in need. Saint Francis loved the wilderness and spent many years in retreat here. It had a bustling atmosphere when we passed through and the friars were very welcoming.

 

 

Casentino woolCasentino also boasts traditional handicrafts that are sort after to this day. Panno CasentinoCasentino wool has been around since the Etruscans, quite distinctive for its frayed ringlets that make the wool both warmer and more durable. Originally the effect was made by

Casentino jacket

Photo credit: Jane Telford

 

beating the cloth with a stick, a process now which is done by machine. In the Middle ages the monks wore robes of Casentino wool and the House of Savoy ( the royal family of Italy) in the 19th century used the bright orange cloth as a decorative and warming cloth on their horses. The bright orange became the tradition on overcoats and jackets although not always the colour chosen, as seen here on my workshop colleague.

Stia is well know for its wrought iron work, and anyone searching for quality wooden furniture can find it here. The forests produce the most beautiful wood together with chestnuts which have been ground in old flour mills like the one below for centuries.Mulino Grifoni Open to visitors as a tourist attraction, the miller gives a great explanation on the process and the changing nature of grains, working on the reintroduction of old grain types known to be healthier for us.

Mulino Grifoni AD 1696 inscribed over the entrance!

So just when you think you have seen all of Tuscany, make sure you have incuded Casentino on that list.

 

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Spring fever in beautiful Pienza

View of PienzaAs Pablo Neruda said “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep Spring from coming”. I have just spent a few days at my artist friend in Pienza bathed in glorious Spring weather and fields of wild tulips and cherry blossoms. The gently rolling hills of Tuscany can not get any better than this area of Val D’Orcia and I am always pleased to be back.

The area has UNESCO World Heritage status: as it is an exceptional reflection of the way the landscape was re-written in Renaissance times to reflect the ideals of good Val d'Orciagovernance and to create an aesthetically pleasing pictures. The landscape of the Val d’Orcia was celebrated by painters from the Siennese School, which flourished during the Renaissance. Images of the Val d’Orcia, and particularly depictions of landscapes where people are depicted as living in harmony with nature, have come to be seen as icons of the Renaissance and have profoundly influenced the development of landscape thinking.

PienzaThat sense of harmony prevails and I could spend hours along the walls of Pienza absorbing these views in the changing sunlight. Or, as we did, take a stroll to the ancient Church of Corsignano with its decorative monsters above the doorway from the 12th Century, although parts of the church date back even to the 7th Century!

Complete harmony in nature. Pienza too is an absolute delight with its elegant Renaissance square and harmonious buildings, as Pope Pius Piccolomini had the money and power to transform his birthplace (Corsignano) into a Utopian dream city.

But that’s not all as the strong scent of the local food speciality, namely the pecorino cheese, wafts along the street and the delicatessens display other tempting delicacies like pici pasta, dry porcini mushrooms, salamis, local honey and extra virgin olive oil.

The quaintness of the place continues with unique shops selling exquisite linen ware, and the kitchenware shop is full of copper pots and pans, basket ware, handmade knives and unusual olive oil servers.

My artist friend Enrico Paolucci is hard at work on a special ‘owl’ commissioned for a birthday surprise so I am left to wander the studio taking photos of his new work ( a homage to his father, Aleardo) and make the most of his hospitality.

After work, dinner in a quiet spot in Pienza and a late night stroll to catch the magic of the moment. Pienza never loses its charm nor the Val d’Orcia, Tuscany, its harmony with Nature.

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50 years on – Florence flood

On the 4th Nov, Florence called for the Mud Angels of the tragic flood of 1966  to return to Florence to participate in the Anniversary commemorations. The most dramatic flood to hit Italy since 1557 with flood levels reaching 5m high. Level signs along many streets and above shop windows remind us of the drama.

A flood that no one had expected or could imagine. Santa Croce was the worst hit area and the wooden crucifix by Cimabue (c1265), while restored, still bears massive scars from the flood.

A symbol of the 50th anniversary was the restoration of another masterpiece – Last Supper by Giorgio Vasari ( 1546) only just finished in time for the local and overseas visitors to admire. Paula Deitz, now an Editor of an Arts Journal, and curiously in Florence at the time of the flood, gives details of her experience and the restoration process here.

35 people died, 17 in Florence, 18 in Province, 70 horses at the race course and a favoured dromedary from the local zoo. Around 5,000 people remained homeless and  6,000 business were damaged. Prisoners in the city prison were released and housed by locals in upper floors of buildings, most of whom returned on their own volition to local authorities after the flood subsided!

Florence was without electricity, telephones went down and the city remained isolated for 3 days. Florentines had to rely on each other for assistance and passed requests along by shouting from window to window  ” in via di Fico” all the way to the Town Hall for the Mayor to respond back, ” Received Palazzo Vecchio, Over ”  Emergency supplies and teams gathered in the Soccer stadium and with whatever means – rubber dinghies, fishing waders, shutters laced together with paddles, brought basic supplies to those afflicted. For months after the city was nothing but slime and sludge with a disgusting smell of naphtha and sewage.

It mobilized the biggest international volunteer movement to save the city and its artistic heritage. Mud Angels, poured in from everywhere, personalities, clergy, art lovers and thousands of young students from the rest of Europe came to clean up the sludge from books and documents, and move artworks to safer abodes. It became a catalyst for new techniques in restoration, of which Florence is now famous.

Theatre performance on Florence Flood

‘Sotto una Gran Piova d’Acqua” Theatre

I relived the experience of the flood at a performance by an Itinerant theatre group – Teatro delle Seggiole who read from 3 diaries of the period: the Mayor of Florence, Piero Bargellini; a 16yr old lad; and the Director of a national newspaper, Enrico Matteo. It was a gripping account of the reality faced by Florentines before the arrival of outside assistance.

An excerpt:

The Lad looks on from his window:  “4.30am a crash. The course of the Arno, shortly after is in Piazza Mentana , curves right and rushes under the Ponte Vecchio. The lights of the Old Bridge are low. The current and its overflow has dragged tree trunks and rubbish which transforms the bridge into a dam. The violent water finds vent on the right, causing the collapse of the parapet and the road. Now the furious Arno pours throughout our part of town.”

The Mayor announces to his city by radio. “At this time I have been informed of the sad news that the Arno water has arrived in Piazza del Duomo. In some areas the flood reaches the first floor. And it is that area that needs our most urgent help. I invite everyone to stay calm and minimize your circulation. Any owners of rubber boats and amphibious vehicles, even in plastic, please make your way to the Palazzo Vecchio, to assist with immediate sanitary, food and rescue relief ”. In the days following he continued to protest loudly to the TV and newspapers indicating the gravity of the situation seemingly underestimated, and to the political institutions with a special plea to the Prime Minister to understand the scale of the tragedy “the damage is immense”. 

The Journalist: “On arrival I found along with the Florentines who were not affected – that unforgettable night spent in mournful vigil on the edges of the another city, a city that water had separated from us, mysterious, inaccessible like a world inhabited on another planet, and that touched us with its breath, with  a dank breath – a scene of total despair ”  It was largely due to his reporting of the dramatic tragedy to Rome, together with the Mayor, that forced the mobilization of military and others to the aid of Florence.

Also completed just in time  for the 50th Anniversary was the road alongside the Arno which had collapsed in May due to a burst water pipe,  devouring a number of parked cars in the process!. The worksite was operative 24hrs a day and only asphalted in time for the President of the Republic to walk down it on 4 Nov 2016. The next day following days of rain, the Arno level rose to alarming levels again and equipment from the worksite had to be hurriedly craned up.

Which just goes to show we should never take it for granted, and keep an eye on the Arno and Mother Nature! Having been involved in the Vernazza  flood of 2011, the drama of Florence 1966 seemed even more credible.


 

 

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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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A legendary place – Island of Montecristo

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

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

Guides Montecristo

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

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

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

Montecristo Cala Maestra

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

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

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

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

Hikers Montecristo

 

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

Tuscan coast mapLeaving Montecristo

 

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