Van Gogh Alive in Florence

Van Gogh self portrait

It has been a very Italian year for Van Gogh with a fabulous exhibition in Milan  with some of his most famous paintings.  I didn’t get to see that but instead saw him ‘Alive’ in Florence at the deconsecrated church of Santa Stefano in a wonderful multi media experience. Van Gogh starry nights

As the blurb read “forty high definition projectors, multi channel motion graphics and cinema quality surround sound – resulting in one of the most exciting multi-screen environments in the world” It was a fantastic explosion of colours, enveloping the church and the audience, changing moods and music to recreate the most important periods in Van Gogh’s life. Van Gogh’s words captivating us all, taking us into his mind, his world, his art, his passions and his torments.

Santa Stefano altarVan Gogh irises

Some art purists were critical of the presentation, as it is more an ‘event’ than an exhibition, yet a provocative immersion and a new approach to understanding and appreciating the beautiful works of Art of Van Gogh.

We were enchanted, enraptured, we moved with him through his life, transported by the music which gave an inkling into his prevailing state of mind.

Santa Stefano church 2

Cherry blossom

Van Gogh JapanHis Japanese phase: “The way to know life is to love many things”


His love of nature and rural life.

PansiesVan Gogh flowers“I dream of painting then I Parispaint my dream.”

“In a certain way I am glad I have not learned painting”


Van Gogh nature 2






The mood changes and we were swept into his paranoia, his suffering, his anguish.Van Gogh fire

“But if it is possible that everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong. I am not counting on it, it may never happen”                     

Van Gogh self portrait



“As a suffering creature I cannot be without something greater than I – something that is my life – the power to create.”

Curiously an article appeared recently in “The Guardian” on the connection between mental illness and creativity, implying that “creative people are  25% more likely to carry genes that raise risk of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.” It seems Van Gogh did not consider his illness such a blessing  writing in a letter “if I could have worked without this accursed disease – what things I might have done.”

A brief video on Van Gogh Alive

And to think Van Gogh only sold one painting during his lifetime, and that for a very modest fee. His masterpieces today continue to attract mega figures and even some con artists! Recently a Hong Kong businessman was cheated of his €1 million  in cash, as three con artists, who had agreed to help him sell his Van Gogh painting, swapped the money for blank paper – South China Morning Post 10 June, 2015.

And while many of you may not have been in Florence during the Van Gogh Alive installation, it still may come your way as it is a roving exhibit in Europe, at least, so keep your eyes on the look out for it.

Van Gogh

“I will not live without love”


Natural history in the hills of Tuscany

Spring flowersSpring is the perfect time to be hiking trails, especially in such beautiful spots as Tuscany. The sweet rolling hills inspired me to join an Environmental guide and discover some of the stories when man was more in tune with Nature.

We start at a little known village of Gerfalco – ‘the bearer of the hawk’ a reminder of a common noble pastime, in the province of Grossetto, disputed for centuries by great noble families for its natural resources.


Medieval arches

And while those are not medieval pants flapping in the breeze, some of the local buildings boast very important facades.


Others instead unconventional tile decorations.

Tuscan house

Chestnut grove



Secular chestnut groves welcome us as we hike along the trail. ‘Well looked after’ as our Environmental guide – Beppe had us note. The ground has been cleared beneath them, and they are not showing any signs of the dreaded bug which has infected so many of the chestnut trees in other areas. Roasted Secular chestnutchestnuts, chestnut cake ‘il castagnaccio’, chestnut jam, chestnut pancakes ‘i necci’, being very much a part of the mountain inhabitants diet and equally sought after at Autumn festivals nowadays by city folk. Rich in minerals and vitamins and lower in fat than other nuts, many claim they help reduce disease, create stronger bones and are a definite energy boost. Survival food during harsh winters for our ancestors, and locals are wise in caring so well for the 300-400 year old trees we hike by.

‘Ginestra’ – This particular variety of Broom was also important in the past as its square shape frond was critical to the charcoal maker ‘il carbonaio’ as it could be easily thatched together to cover the stacked wood that would burn down to produce charcoal. Again a common practice in the mountain areas of Tuscany.

Etruscan white violets

Etruscan violetsBut on and upwards, as we had a mountain to climb! And before we idly place our hiking boots on some delicate violets, Beppe has pounced to tell us they are rare Etruscan violets, a protected species and difficult to find!

Carlino plant

Carlino plant

As we madly take photos, and are surprised again by Beppe’s “watch out, you almost stepped on the Carlino plant!” A spiky cactus like plant known for its medicinal qualities from the Renaissance period when Charles VIII of France, riding through the area used the plant to ease his stomach pains. Since it worked they named the plant after him!

And it’s not the only mixture of legend and fact that Beppe relates. As we pass by a walnut tree he points out that nothing ever grows under walnut trees and for this reason they were often considered to be the home of witches and therefore planted near the farmhouses to keep the witches outside!

Yet we are still not at the summit, and no point having a break until we reach the top where we are treated to a magnificent view towards the Tuscan coastline and a well earned rest.Tuscan summit







We say goodbye to Beppe, our fabulous guide and storyteller and head for home. All this hiking has worked up an appetite and on the way back we can hardly resist the homemade roadsign for “fresh cheese”. We turn down the drive to a lovely Tuscan farmhouse, now made into an “Agriturismo” (Farm holiday resort) yet still continuing its farming traditions.Cheese maker

Two cats come to greet us, rubbing up against our legs, while the guard dog rolls in the gravel for a tummy rub!

Inside they have everything – ricotta, fresh pecorino (sheep’s cheese), to the more mature tastier version, homemade salami and sausage. Who can go past that?Tuscan farmhouse

It’s the end of a great day hiking and I’m off home to cook up a ‘spaghettata’ with ricotta and zucchini, while the others can enjoy their sausage and salami.








Nature Walking guide

Silvia Napoleone

If you are going to be in Tuscany contact Silvia Napoleone, she’s a great Nature Walking Guide and speaks English!






Working on the Cinque terre

Cinque terre volunteers “Even paradise needs a gardener” is the motto of the voluntourism project run by Save Vernazza in the Cinque Terre. And how true is that? While the project initially began as a response to the damage left by the devastating flood in Vernazza in Oct, 2011, it is a continuing one.  The territory requires hard work, and many of the landowners are elderly or the land has been passed down to absent lanowners and left abandoned. So the project between Save Vernazza, Busabout and the  Treadright Foundation has started its new season and will run until the end of October.

If you are coming to the area please join us on this worthwhile project and know that you will have contributed something very substantial to the ongoing restoration and rebuilding of the area. Cinque terre volunteersThe Cinque Terre area is not just the villages but the territory surrounding them and it will give you a great insight into the lifestyle and culture that has made this region so unique for centuries. BUT….it is hard work, often just climbing up to the worksite is tough, and the various tasks  require a lot of energy.Volunteers




Even if it is only for half a day, you will be tired and dirty, but as the evaluations show – “very satisfied, amazing, awesome, loved it, great experience….” Every work experience is accompanied by a local bi-lingual guide and a great lunch is provided!

Details of the dates can be found on the Save Vernazza website and bookings made direct to

Unfortunately this year there is no wine and food tasting project that ran in 2014.

And it’s not the only project that is contributing to the restoration and maintenance of the area as the following photos show – photo credits to Catherine Unger. The photos were taken during the rebuilding of some of the dry stone walls above Manarola.

Cinque Terre hauling stonesManarola building wallsHere over the past month a group of 12 unemployed – 7 of whom are African refugees who arrived on the Island of Lampedusa 8 months ago – have been clearing land in the terraces and carting stones to repair the old walls, together with landowners and local community volunteers. The project is being organised by the Fondazione Manarola, the Cinque Terre National park and the Caritas ( Charity group who house the refugees).It’s the first of its kind and from what I heard the project has been very successful and participants proud of the work done up to date.Refugees working hard

Cinque Terre project

Photo credit: Catherine Unger

Every little bit helps and as the Manarola Foundation comments ” the project provides important evidence of how it is possible, with tenacity, a common commitment and organization, to address the issues of our time and understand that solidarity and integration are not merely rhetorical words but real opportunities for personal and collective growth.”

So do join us this year or donate to Save Vernazza. Save Vernazza in turn recently donated a new stretcher to the Alpine Emergency Assistance of la Spezia who are often called in to rescue hikers who have fallen along the trails. All donations are spent within the territory and details can be seen on Save Vernazza. It’s a long haul, but we are all in it together so the ‘gardens’ of the Cinque Terre remain a ‘paradise’ for all of us and future generations.


‘Together we can make a difference.’