Sunday, February 5, 2017

-- La Direttisima --

A daunting beauty exists in the unknown. A bus ride hours before sunrise, cruising through the damp streets of a city immersed in a wintry sleep, whilst the mind can only wander about what awaits in the next destination.
Indeed, this time no plans have been made, no hotels have been booked and no main sights have been researched, improvisation inviting to relaxation only achieved by travelling solo.

The flights leaves at the break of sunrise, rising over a thick layer of clouds only broken hours later by the sharp edges of the snowy Alps, moments before starting our descent into a colourful blanket of dry crops at times pestered by strong crosswinds.

Bologna is a relatively medium-sized city. Its geographical position, embedded in the centre of Italy, turning it into a strategic crossroads in Italian logistics, its small airport receiving numerous flights from all over Europe and the distant Dubai, and its three-story train station bisected by local and high-speed trains alike every couple of minutes.
Venturing into the city centre is an experience that surprisingly, can be completed in a couple of hours. A wide avenue sets the pace on the march of locals and tourists from the train station to the Piazza Maggiore. Shady vault-ceiling galleries timidly shelter from the strongly present winter in the Emilia Romagna, a constant breeze charged with humidity blowing from the Apennines, despite the blue skies.

The Piazza Maggiore is an open space in which students munch on slices of pizza like pigeons lined up on a sunbathing spree right on the steps of Palazzo del Notai.
Buildings and buildings of old architecture, dated back from the Middle Ages, pile together gracefully over narrow alleyways in which visitors take selfies. Alleyways dynamically revolving around dishes of antipasti laid on small tables unevenly placed in the wet cobblestones. I lunch on a rather pricey bowl of black rice dotted with mussels and quenched with a glass of white wine at the Mercatto di Mezzo, topping up with a Piadina Romagnola, which is basically a toasted wrap overflowing with Parma ham, rocket and Squacquerone, a spreadable cheese with a tarty flavour.

I glance at the Towers of Bologna, remnants of the 12th Century and a time in which rich families built, arguably, between 150 and 180 towers in the city as mode of both protection and ostentation. The slender figure of these two having survived the passing of time, despite the soil subtly subsiding underneath them.
An assortment of market stalls sell rosary beads next to naughty lingerie and fake designer bags at Piazza dell'8 Agosto and the bare trees hang over the steps of Parco della Montagnola, overlooking the heaving Bologna Centrale, from where I jump on 'La direttisima', a train line built with the intention of creating the 'most direct route' between Turin in Northern Italy and Salerno in the South. Cruising at speeds of nearly 300 km/h, the 'Frecciarossa' resembles a red Ferrari rushing through a series of long tunnels carved in the karst walls of the Apennines.
Only forty minutes later, a velvety voice announces the arrival into 'Firenze Santa Maria Novella train station'. A rather poetic name for a rather poetic city, for I have left Emilia Romagna behind and I have now entered the famous region of Tuscany.

Florence is the kind of place that strikes the eyesight from the very start.

The lines of the train station dating from the 1940's seem to clash with the idea of arriving into the 'birthplace of the Italian Renassaince'. Black billboards announce generic conveniences at the very best 'fascio littorio' style, the ornaments of the Renassaince hid under planks of straight marble, steel and glass.
An elegant welcome to a city famously known for its wealthy past dated back from the Roman times, later becoming an important trade point in the Medieval Europe and later the capital of the Kingdom of Italy.

The three hundred thousand-something city exudes history. Like a few places in the world, I feel like I am walking into a mega-sized museum and, once I come out of a musty underground passage, the sight of the Duomo resting over buildings of colourful green venetian windows strikes me with a shiver in the spine.
My heart races faster and my steps become aggressive in a mental attempt of rushing towards the Piazza and silently admire the sight of the Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiore in an obvious awe.

I soon learn the motto of this place: to appreciate the beauty in the clutter. Florence doesn't seem to follow a particular order but instead, the place is full of small surprises at every single corner.
Only a few (narrow) streets down, I tick off an item from my bucket list. Spanning peacefully over the Fiume Arno is the Ponte Vecchio. Sturdy yet fragile, glowing on the inside from its lineup of jewellery shops and showing its attitude and endurance through time in a strong tone of yellow coating dotted with green venetian windows on the outside.

The night catches up with me at the smooth sound of the Arno dragging pebbles underneath the bridge. A quick hotel search provides several reduced options in the low season and, backpack on shoulders, I rush towards the steep streets leading South of the city centre, the groups of tourists slowly dissipating as the neighborhoods grow quieter over the round hills. For a quarter of the normal price, I rest at the Hotel Vila Betania, the large windows of my suite overlooking the wealthy statehouses and mansions of the Poggio Imperiale.

A trip to Italy cannot take place without having a gastronomic coma, my first day in the country closing within the warm confines of a small trattoria. A table for myself, a litre of house wine, a basket of bread carefully dipped in olive oil and vinegar and a dish of comforting 'tortelli mugellani' enough to feed a small army.

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