Thursday, February 9, 2017

-- Dazzling Tuscany --

Dazzling, an adjective used to describe extreme brightness. A striking feature of the Tuscanian morning unfolding outside the big suite window. Tall and slim eucalyptus trees swing at the bitterly cold soft breeze and hide in between the nearby mansions.
Once a sumptuous breakfast is enjoyed, as you would in Italy, I leave the quietness of the Southern suburbs and, just like those inhabitants entered the city in ancient times, I do so through the Porta Romana.

The bright morning sunshine turns the streets of Florence into a weak tone of gold, its strength still not powerful enough to warm the cold marble and terracotta stones buildings which channel the wintry cold wind in swirls of dry leaves.
In the morning, tourists are still nowhere to be seen. The Ponte Vecchio remains calm at the sight of closed stores and not a selfie stick in sight.
I return to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore whose construction started in 1296 and only finished 140 years later, when the Dome, covered in green marble tiles was crowned. A festival of lines carefully adorn the contours of this architectural masterpiece, like a classy woman proudly wearing its most expensive garments, ready to pose for the cameras.

Tuscany is also famous for the production of high quality leather garments and, having my mind set on a nice plain leather jacket for years ( and failing to acquire such object on my last visits to Italy and Argentina), I find no better place to spend a morning hiding from the cold wind that the lineup of leather shops surrounding the Mercato Centrale, where bargaining is not an option but an order.

An hour later and wearing a brand new Italian-cut leather jacket, Tuscany bewitches around the sweet indulgent contours of an espresso, Ponte Vecchio at the backdrop, whilst watching tourists battle wind with their elaborate selfie sticks.
A stroll around the many alleyways that bisect the old town with its row of small dusty hotels and trattorias getting ready for the night shift invite to imagination of bygone times, of the same type of trade that has happened in this very own streets since ancient times. Pieces of succulent red meat are displayed as tempting omens of bisteca fiorentina to come, and slim-looking youngsters wearing thick glasses and sporting carefully trimmed beards sip on coffees in minimalistically furnished shops.
It is the old Florence sticking to its traditions and yet, merging with the trendy fashionista city of the future. Meanwhile, Santa Croce disguises in a combination of shade and wintry afternoon light.

I cram my way up the hills at the time the Arno turns as golden as the jewelry offered at the high-end stores of Via de' Turnabuoni, and the thin clouds release shy snowflakes over the city. The daylight succumbing at Piazza Michelangelo and turning the city even prettier at dark, the Duomo almost floating over buildings like a magical trick of lighting. Time for another visit to the trattoria.

Pisa is next. A heavy feeling in my stomach, product of a combination between another Italian breakfast and my good-byes to the hotel. Surprisingly, only a forty-minute walk separate the hotel from the train station across town, the city  slowly gaining momentum amidst the Monday morning rush hour rhythm.
Once on the train, the decayed buildings smothering the railway give way to a flat and fertile valley opening up to the seaside at the Pisa / Viareggio region.

Pisa is famous for its leaning tower. It was built in 1137 and finished 1372. Structural fails have led the 55-something meters tower to incline to as far as a 5.5. degree angle, inviting experts from over the world to align the tower to an inclination safe enough for the tower to survive, yet inclined enough to remain attractive and cute to the thousands of visitors (me included) that dance to 'Thriller' whilst posing for pictures at the ample marble-built Piazza.
Apart from this, I find Pisa rather unremarkable. I sit on a cold marble slab in the esplanade, at midday the white structures reflecting the light of a crisp sunshine, and once again try to improvise my next move. Returning and overnight in Florence wins as best option.

Snow now heavily falling over Florence turns the narrow alleyways into cold-numbing wind tunnels.
I find a (cheaper) smaller room in a hotel next to the train station, the reception covered in battered pictures of Florence framed in broken glass, and a wooden desk zealously policed by the owner who, with his basic English, thick eyeglasses and abrupt mannerisms, explains the features of the hotel in more detail than an Airbus A380 safety video whilst briskly scanning my passport on a 1970's Minolta copy machine. Pointless I find, the lift is broken and I will be leaving early in the morning.

My last night in Tuscany turns melancholic. The small room overlooks a deserted street whilst snowflakes timidly fall over the wet cobblestones, weak enough to disappear at the very contact with the surface. I venture around the corner and purchase two warm paninis overflowing with fatty and absolutely delicious porchetta and a bottle of cheap wine. I enjoy these in my room, the amber-coloured sink leaking drops of warm water as a sleepy lullaby. Too much wine for now, time to sleep.

I leave Florence early. The night shift receptionist barely reacting to my steps and squinting through his eyes covered in sleep. Not a single soul in the empty street below, a row of commuters Italian-style queuing for hot food at Santa Maria Novella Station.
An announcement in Italian is heard over the loudspeaker and the train does not move past forty minutes beyond its departure time, the locals shout and curse as expected, the ticket officer replies in the same manner and everything seems to be back to normal. The train moves away from the city and enters a series of tunnels that climb the Apennines, zig-zagging through fields and villages covered in a foot of snow, the reason behind all the delays.
A blizzard develops and snowflakes crash against the dirty window train, only declaring a truce five minutes before reaching Bologna Centrale, where I have breakfast before taking the bus to the airport.


I munch on my last piadina before boarding. The flight from Dubai arrives and catches everyone's attention in the small terminal, whilst in the queue for boarding, conversations related to snow and cancellations unfold in tones of Italian drama.
My flight leaves amidst heavy crosswinds before peacefully cruising over a Continental Europe covered in a white veil.

Ironically, three hours later we land in Dublin, where it is a balmy ten degrees Celsius. The land of good food, romantic streets and cold dry wind now a memory in my head, the warm sea breeze of Sandycove now welcoming me home.

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