The other side of Florence

As a student in Bologna I made a few trips to this capital of renaissance opulence, bobbing up for air in cool basilicas before plunging into palazzo after palazzo, packed closely with more art than I could chew in a lifetime, let alone a day, before sinking into a bowl of something starchy somewhere shady, off the deeply beaten tourist track that circles Brunelleschi’s egg-topped duomo.

Now in my 33rd July, I’m pleased to be back in Florence with a little more time. I recommend you give Florence at least 3 days – enough to let it introduce itself to you in its own time. I’m not one for these prescribed “36 hours in” tours, which tie you to your map and your intention on getting there, missing the joys of happenstance. Cities like Florence, with so much to see and eat everywhere, are designed to be eaten whole, from seed to peel.

My favourite quarter is on the other side if the river,  L’Oltrano, across the river from the Uffizi and duomo , near the miles of box hedges in the Boboli gardens. Here, on the other side, is space and peace broken only by mouthwatering artisanal markets and brilliant buskers . Also, in seeming homage to the statue of Abundance (L’Abbondanza) that surveys this quarter from the top of the Boboli estate , there’s not a street or piazza without a place to feast on beef and udon-like ‘pici’, gnocchi, bean stew, wild boar and all manner of Tuscan treats, finished off with a basket of edifying almond-packed Cantuccini biscuits steeped in soul-affirming Vin Santo.

 

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Where was I? Ah si si, the other side of Florence’s  river Arno, bridged by the ancient, tourist-heavy jewellery arcade that is the Ponte Vecchio, joint equal with Venice’s Rialto, the most touristed bridge in Europe and possibly the world. As if by magic the tourist flow dissipates once you cross over, with the duomo behind you, as the Oltrarno’s network of clear streets welcomes you into its confidence. 

Here you’ll find a couple of palazzos now turned into public museums and art collections,  time capsules created by the 18th and 19th century aristocratic ‘grand’ tourists and later “cognoscenti”. Here you’ll also find the piazzas of Santas Spirito and Croce. The former is perhaps my favourite square in Florence. Its beauty is not it’s ornate medieval-renaissance architecture, that forms merely the stage – it’s the players: Florentines, students, immigrants, all milling about, lining the long steps outside the Basilica of Santo Spirito, letting the stirring of the busking dancers and musicians fan their ‘discorsi’ in the gently simmering dusk.

 

Santo Spirito

 There’s a 15th century convent on this square that the Catholic church have obligingly allowed to become a lovely hotel, each room blessed with its own character and heavenly views over the city. There’s one with a bathroom that looks like there’s a romantic painting of the cathedral on the wall, until you realise it’s actually a window with the best view in Florence. I’ll never forget having a shower, looking out into this with the evening sun and breeze flowing through the window, mingling with the smell of gorgeously cheesy opera music wafting up from the Piazza below.

Room with a view

Hopelessly sentimental I know, but Italy does this to you, it’s very hard not to be lost in ‘sentimentalità’ here. I have a friend who is one of the rare breed of non-Italians who have managed to penetrate the impenetrable ancient world of the Florentine artisan. What I wouldn’t give to have a little garret  in Piazza Santo Spirito and have a pastry and espresso under the trees before making my way to my cave-like workshop in a dusty side-street to work diligently and thoughtfully on an altar piece or a memorial stone of pietra dura, carving different stones into animals and crests and flowers before stopping for a beautifully simple lunch somewhere delicious and affordable

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But back to reality and London frenzy we Londoners must go, thanking Italy for yet another beautiful city of art, love and of course, food. Here are some of the places I love in Florence. If you spot them, bene, if you don’t, bene, you will no doubt find your own treasures. The only thing I would recommend above all, is to stay in the converted covent in Piazza Santo Spirito, formerly known as Convent of the Sorelle Bandini (Bandini Sisters), now Hotel Palazzo Guadagni.

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How to survive the Roman rat-race and open Heaven’s gates before lunch

If you are going to Rome to escape the daily grind of commuter overcrowding, don’t set out for the Vatican.

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Never was there such an economy built on subsidized queue-skipping. And once you are in, there is no turning back. You must go with the flow of 25,000 tourist and pilgrim rats that run their trainer tracks through the Vatican every day. After all that queuing, it does feel like a race to make up for lost time. No-one stops to look at anything, the modern art display glides by in a  Sistine-hungry haze; eyes and bellies craving the long awaited micheangelan feast ahead.

And when you get there? Police not priests, and much firefighting of illegal android flashing. The police, in riot-managing mode, hurling riot-squad voices across the ‘chapel’ make you forget where you are and forget to look up, as they urge you to “keep moving”. There’s the sense that it wouldn’t be Christian to linger any length of time, that you are taking up scarce standing space for the next rat-batch to swell into.

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Guided tours can short-cut to the cathedral but humble individuals must power on through the halls of relics (if lined up, they’d stretch for 9 miles). However interesting they might have been to our un-queued selves, they can’t compete with the currents that pulls us all: the prospect of food or at least a moment of sitting down on a non-stoop modern Italian loo. Phew! Will have to Google Sistine-chapel and look at God and Adam’s garishly restored sinews from the time and comfort of my London broadband sofa…

But it’s not over yet, we still had Heaven’s gates to open, before lunch.

St Peter’s Basilica

Having paid to skip the queue for St Peter’s we found ourselves queuing in the queue for the paid-to-skip-the-queuers.

Then we paid some more to take the elevator and skip 500 steps to God and the top of St Peter’s, the world’s highest, largest stone dome.

With no expectation, only that tourist-tick-box feeling that we must reach the end of the last queue, whatever the cost, wherever it led, we were struck, as we came out onto the dome’s inner ledge, by a throat-tickling, eye-stinging awe.

The majesty of the sheer drop beneath and the arc above are enough to make even the most atheist of spines tingle. So many thousands of square feat of marble hosting so much space for thought and prayer and song.

Saint Peter’s is like a mountain. Humbling, terrifying, and yet intensely liberating and peaceful. Truly as close to a house for God as we humans can make. And, as a non-Catholic agnostic yoga, humanist-leaning type, I can say I’m unbiased.

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And so, after all this terrific peace and splendour, you’ll need something warm to bring you  back down to earth. Here’s where the Vatican’s canniest rats find the best crumbs:

Perdincibacco – pizza, spaghetti – simple, subtle yet traditional, bicycles hanging on the ceiling, wine lining the walls, you can sit outside if you don’t mind being in the traffic scooting round the Vatican. Via Delle Fornaci, 5/9 San Pietro.

More tasty morsels:

Near the Trevi and Pantheon

Za Za Pizzaorganic sourdough, charged by weight unusual twists like salmon + pots + mascarpone –  I was highly suspicious but quite possibly these bites were the best pizza moments of my life to date. Note that it’s no frills, just pure pizza  –  outside on plastic chairs in the pretty square. Piazza di Sant’Eustachio 49

On and near the Island

Tiberino –  cat’s tongue biscuits (like anorexic shortbread) and coffee or some homemade gnocchi, if it’s close to mealtime and you fancy being tucked away in the old attic by the bridge – better in colder weather. Via Ponte Quattro Capi 18

La Gensola  – sea-bass tortellini, fresh anchovies, tart lemon sorbet, fish is the thing here as you sit overlooked cartoon-doodled table-coths hanging on the wall , drawn by former patrons, well oiled with the excellent wine. Piazza della Gensola 15

Near the Circus Maximus

(and that stone face, the Bocca della Verita that thousands queue to touch, thanks to Audrey, Anita and Brigitte)

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Volpetti –  best tonarelli (the Roman lovechild of tagliatelle and spaghetti) and anything you like from the sister deli (rated by Guardian as one of Rome’s 10 best delis).  Via Marmorata 47

Gelateria ai Cerchi – nice selection, nutty flavours are best, all good for gearing up for a ‘giro’ round the circus maximus.. or a queue to stick your hand in the old Bocca della Verita.. Via dei Cerchi, 61

Near the Botanical Gardens and Trastevere ( if you fancy a bit of peace and quiet)

 Da Gildo – woodfired pizza, homemade pasta, seasonal veg and  the best tiramisu of all time. Via Della Scala, 31/A

Where I’d try next

At least 3 of these 9 pasta places

Where I’d stay again

VOI Donna Camilla Savelli 

 – especially in Spring, when the magnolias and camellias deck the courtyard, a haven of 17th century ex-convent bliss with a breakfast that would have have had nuns confessing to the 2nd deadly sin every morning…

Taking my mind off to La Gomera

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After a week spent in the Canaries, at La Finca eco-retreat on the verdent island of La Gomera, I find I’m relaxed, happy and well nourished. The only images I have been exposed to have been 100% natural, organic, no added flavours or colourings.

My eyes have been feeding on a natural diet of flora, fauna, sea, sky and the odd statue, here and there.  I have drawn some pictures – a Whale, a tree, two Buddhas, some leaves, a frog playing a violin, some pond fish, a dolphin.

I have not been force-fed 200 marketing messages every hour, not mentally farting away my afternoons, as glossy mags,news, tweets, posts, ferment in my bloated brain.

On La Gomera I was free of this uninvited eye food, free to walk lighly without the constant call to eat or save or recycle or compost what I’d seen. I wonder if app developers have already come up with a mind-watchers programme, like weight watchers, complete with its own fit-bit that tracks how many visual calories you’ve consumed, giving tips for cutting down and making what’s seen and read less fattening and flatulence inducing…

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Back in London, this app, in analogue, would simply be a pair of human blinkers that would filter  ads on the escalator and other periphery visual onslaughts we unknowingly consume while on the go.

These human blinkers would probably have a company behind them: ‘BlinkedIn’. People could sign on to connect with like-minded BlinkedIners or BlinkInIdiots and share lots of images of what blank things you haven’t blinked@ that day 😉  #BlinkBlank

No doubt you’re already aware of the mushrooming ecosystem of ‘switch it off’ apps and new ‘old skool’ devices designed to cut down on sensory overload. But this is not just a tech problem. It cannot be switched off through an app or a device.

Its branches reach offline. It’s billboards, it’s newspapers, it’s endless supplements within supplements in the Sunday and Saturday news. It’s magazines, its more box sets and more telly and more sport everywhere, in the corners and centres and sides of our eyes, all the time.

In one 45-minute journey, the average London commuter is exposed to more than 130 adverts, featuring more than 80 different products. Only half of that information makes any impact, while unprompted we can remember none of the blur of adverts. In an entire day, we’re likely to see 3,500 marketing messages (Source: Guardian)

I’m not saying that we don’t need and like and even love some and/ all of these things, even some ads. I’m just repeating the ancient Greek maxim that still seems to stand the test of time ‘meden agan’ (μηδὲν ἄγαν) – ‘Anything in excess is too much’. We must be more aware. We must pay more attention to things, one at a time. Our brains, under the strain of sensory overload, start to shut down to conserve battery power, in self-defence, as any sensible computer would. This shutting down amounts to a growing inertia, disconnection from ourselves and what really makes us tick, both physically and mentally.

After just a week of so called ‘disconnection’ i.e. no wifi, no city, no TV, No news, pure visual detox, I felt completely rebooted and ready to start smaller, healthy doses of meaningful visual connection.  Now I’ve been back ‘in the world’ a week, I’m visually farting already, but my gut is stronger and digestion is, I think, more efficient. My visual blood-sugar is more stable, better able to cope with any force feeding/self-indulgent binging I might do to sweeten up tonight’s commute.

I’d thoroughly recommend a week on La Gomera, one of the quieter, most verdant of the Canaries. And while I’m on the subject of Islands and birds I’d recommend devoting some precious attention to ‘The Island‘ by Aldous Huxley, if you need a healthy complement to watching the flora, fauna sea and sky….

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Some final links, if you fancy risking more information overload…

Where to stay  – La Finca Argayall’s ‘ alternative, experimental and experiential community

Article –  how much we involuntarily see..

Article –  how our visual bellies are getting bigger and bigger

Article – 5 apps that switch you off

Venice has a mask for every face

In 60 years sea levels will have crept 8 more inches up the Doge’s already stumpy columns. In 60 years, I, on the verge of death, hope to take my zimmer for one last ride up San Marco’s bell-tower lift and survey Venice’s mysterious, sinking glory.

There is nothing wrong with Venice. The stalls teeming with tack only set in relief the sheer beauty of this cunning floating city, scene to so much stinking tilted wonder.

It’s impossible to get lost in Venice. Every track, if you ignore ambiguous signs to the Rialto and San Marco, leads to some new, somehow intended, discovery: a part of Venice meant just for you, at that particular moment.

Lions  lead the way.  Immortalized in stone and bronze, they look down regally from the balconies or, guarding doors, gaze up watchfully. I feel intrusive, cruel and a little scared, as I push one of the many brass doorbells that is also a lion’s tongue.

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Having witnessed so much for so long, at such intimately close quarters, Venice and its lions have become somehow animate and wise. Whatever your mood, you feel it is sensed by more than the Venetian authorities’ liberal peppering of CCTV. The ancient canal-veined piazzas are like crafty Venetians, canny as they are charming – they play your mood up or down to suit their whim. You find that one piazza offers sweet antidotes, another plies irresistible corruption, the next lays you bare and leaves you pitifully exposed. And they swing from mood to mood. Today Santo Stefano is expansive, Campo Bandiera e Moro is vacant, San Marco is indecisive.  Tomorrow, the opposite may be true, depending on the light, the fog, your mood and theirs.

This is, I suppose, how we project our thoughts onto our environment at home, but Venice is a city of mirrors and the reflections are clearer, never quite what you expected. No two people or objects ever share the same view.

One day it will all be buried under the sea, like Atlantis.  Maybe a dozen lucky lions will be rescued and revived and speak of their masters.  Men who tricked geology and the waves for 3 millennia. Tricks of bricks and glass-flutes and chandelier-like masks, all continuously and elaborately confessed beside Tintorettos and Titians under precariously high belfries, with here and there a freshly minted icon, for luck and good measure.

I feel privileged to have seen Venice in all its weary decadence, before it puts on the final death mask. A place of constant magic. However old and jaded, it never tells the same story twice. Mother of the Commedia dell’ Arte, it too, is an unscripted drama. The light and sound and smell is forever switching, bringing out something new or secreted, in both itself and its audience. One moment it’s thick and clogging and fools you into thinking you can predict it; the next, it’s free and crisp and glistens anew with a brilliance that strikes fresh awe.

How I hope, beyond hope, that Venice somehow manages to carry on its magic tricks, recklessly ignoring the inevitable swell, facing sea, silt and pestilential swarms of selfie-sticks with its myriad of shimmering masks, grimacing and grinning into eternity!

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Where to eat

Dinner/Lunch

Osteria “Al Covo” (interesting twists on traditional favourites – all locally sourced as part of the Italian slow food movement. Known for it’s amazing biodynamic wine list

http://ristorantealcovo.com/   Tel: +39.041.5223812 Castello 3968 Venezia

TAVERNA DEL CAMPIELLO REMER (Venetian classics and nice live jazz music in an old cellar)

SESTIERE CANNAREGIO 5701 Venezia

Osteria “Il Paradiso Perduto” (nice place for lunch – don’t be put off by the multiple translations of the menu for tourists, home-made parpadelle is top notch)

Cannaregio, Fondamenta della Misericordia, 2540 – 30100 Venezia

Gelato:

I’ve tried a lot and this was definitely the best (pistachio actually tastes of pistachio and not just green food-colouring) and in a nice, off the beaten track square, :

Gelateria del Doge  (http://gelateriaildoge.com) Dorsoduro 3058/A, Rio Terà Canal, 30123 Venezia