Florence: First Impressions
The alarm rings early in the morning, we have a day trip to Florence planned. The train cuts through the colours of Tuscany; burnt umber and rich ochre and deep reds and verdant greens – the neverending blue sky. The city itself is a maze of small streets, filled with Medici palazzi and Renaissance facades. We buy gelati – the day is filled to bursting with sunshine and heat – we walk down to Ponte Vecchio where the jewellers’ wares glint and glitter at us. The river Arno is a beryl-like green, milky, jewellike, reflecting the cloudless sky.
It is Sunday, and the Duomo is closed to visitors. We climb the Campanile instead, all 414 steps of it, stopping to catch a breath and admire the view at each ascending terazza. The Cathedral looms large; its green, pink and white marble facade a riot of colour and linear shapes. A Sienese architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, designed the Duomo; an irony, given the rivalry between the two cities.
In the Piazza della Signoria, the crowds flock like pigeons. A Medici duke on horseback, Neptune with his nymphs, a pantheon of old gods and a copy of David dot the piazza. The medieval bulk of Palazzo Vecchio dominates the square.
It is Jeff’s birthday, and we’re in Florence, after all, so we go in search of a restaurant that serves a good, genuine bistecca alla fiorentina – a cut of T-bone from the Tuscan Chianina cattle, hung and aged and tender, 3-5cm thick and seared on all sides, a beautiful, ruby red and perfectly juicy on the inside. We order: antipasti of crostini toscani – a crisp, light bread with tomatoes and basil and olive oil; a thick, rich duck liver pate; stewed white beans; silky strips of prosciutto and salami.
We have pasta for primi, and then our bistecca arrives; one kilogram of prime cut, perfectly cooked, the meat falling off the bone as our waiter, with typical Italian flourish, cuts up our portions for us in swift, practised gestures. The potatoes are ignored (though crisp on the outside and a wonderful powdery softness on the inside – I noticed, later on), the steamed spinach cast aside. Jeff and I exchange no words for long minutes, we eat in silence, in rapture.
A Masterpiece of a Man
After fruit and a macchiato fredo, we stagger out into the mid afternoon heat, our bellies heavy with carnal pleasure, and satiated appetites. We head to the Galleria del Accademia, to see Michelangelo’s David. He is five metres of sensual, sublime marble. Beautifully proportioned, his head and hands seem too large, but when seen as a whole, there is some kind of perfect harmony and balance to him. He stands, tense, his weight on one foot, his body almost-poised for movement, the veins and muscles under his skin almost-pulsing, his sling hoisted over a shoulder, his eyes staring into the distance, contemplating Goliath.
We sneak in a few illicit photographs while the draconian elderly Italian ladies who watch the Galleria are gossiping and distracted – their irritable cries of “No Photos!” ring out on a regular basis, the Capital Words sounding loudly around the walls of the gallery.
It is hellishly, humidly, hot outside and we have no time for Botticelli at the Uffizi. Queuing for David took an hour in the afternoon, and quite queued out by now, Jeff and I make an executive decision to leave the Uffizi for another trip to Florence, coupled with a jaunt out into the Tuscan countryside. It’s an excuse to come back, and I am more than willing.
While waiting for our return train to Rome, we head to Guardino di Boboli, inside the Palazzo Pitti. Formerly a private villa, Cosimi I, the Medici Duke once lived here. The gardens are massive, landscaped and formal, filled with statues and fountains and grottoes and tall hedges.
My feet are dusty, my soles dirty, cracked and hardened from a day’s worth of tramping around. We sit on crushed grass, on my bright pink cardigan – it has served purpose as headcover at the beach, camera wrapper-arounderer and now, picnic mat – and recount our day to each other. It is a half hour too late by the time I realise I have misread our train tickets times. We rush back to Stazione Firenze Santa Maria Novella, hoping that we can catch the next one home. Thankfully, there is only a nominal fee to change our train times, and we board the next one back, quiet and drowsy and exhausted from the heat.
There and back again
The train pulls into Trastevere just after sundown; Rome welcomes all travellers home, with her noise and traffic and dust. The dome of San Pietro is just-lit up, the air is cooler down south. We take the train to Tivoli, the next day; our carriage is empty the whole way there, through the industrial backends of Rome; the steel factories and distraught, empty lands. The plains, when we reach them, stretch away lazily in a hazy blue of heat, all the way into the horizon. Tivoli is set in the foothills, settled over a gorge and filled with tiny cobblestoned streets that fall away from our feet.
It is late morning by the time we arrive – the view from the train takes in a cascade of waterfall and the balanced rotunda of the Temple of Vesta and the Sybil, set in the lush greenery. We stop for pizza and gelato on our way to Villa d’Este, it is cooler here than in Florence, less crowded, less noisy, less dusty. I like Tivoli the more for it already. We pass Rocca Pia, a turreted, solid looking castle on a hill, built to win over the town to the church; built for defence and never really used.
The fountains of Villa d’Este
We find Villa D’Este behind high walls and on a slope of a steep hill. The Garden of 500 Fountains play its magic, I am a child again, finding joy in the simplest things of water and sunlight and green, growing things. Originally the home of a Roman cardinal, with wonderful, entirely-frescoed rooms in the Villa, it was also once a Benedictine convent. The gardens are unfinished, its grand plans for a final, Fountain of the Sea yet unrealised. All the water displays are gravity powered, constantly singing, trickling, dancing in rainbows of light.
At one end we find the Fountain of Tivoli, a vast round, cascading waterfall. Old stone benches line the concave wall, set underneath even older, wistful trees. There is a drinking fountain bubbling out here, cool and fresh, a breeze and the soft thunder of constant water in movement. This is my favourite spot in the entire Villa, and we sit for awhile, in the shadows while tiny flower petals fall from the branches above us.
We explore, wander the landscaped paths, through the cold, echoing grottoes, past the statues, weave in and out of shade and between sprinklers while the fountains sing ceaselessly. The gardens cast a glamour, a magic, on us – Jeff stands by the Fish Ponds silently lost in the green waters and searching for the quiet splash and ripple of shadowy carp. It is a space for reveries, a space of big horizons and arching views. Space and a sky to look into. A luxury, in the cities we waste our lives in. Space and a blue sky and sunshine and water combining to make a spell that catches us willingly in its snare.
We stay until we absolutely must go; we go with lighter hearts.