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.

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.