ANECDOTES FROM TUSCANY - 1
Published: April 2006
This month in the first of two features on Tuscany he visits Florence, Pisa and Lucca...
Ah Tuscany, that fertile region of northern Italy to which millions of international visitors flock, keen to explore the unique settlements and sediments that impress art lovers and sommeliers alike. Late one autumn my sister and I pounced on some reasonably priced flights and embarked on a flitting adventure to find out what all the fuss was about.
If you've travelled elsewhere in Italy then at first you might be rather unimpressed; the landscape is beautiful but you can find better, cheaper and less congested places in the south. What you won't find however is such a concentrated array of bold history, art, culture and cuisine.
Reeling off the main draws is easy; Renaissance Florence and its archrival Gothic Siena both pack a punch when it comes to sights, smells and sounds. Lesser Pisa, Volterra, Lucca and San Gimignano are only smaller in size. For many reasons they are far superior to their historically bad tempered neighbours. The countryside is also speckled with other gems, names familiar to fine wine consumers around the globe; Greve and Castellina in Chianti, Montepulciano and, of course Montalcino, to name but a few.
Walking is a way of life in Tuscan towns and Florence is certainly no exception. Strolling the Piazza della Signoria for sculpture viewing; Piazza del Duomo for gazing in awe at the, you guessed It, Duomo; Piazza Sante Croce for Sante Croce Church; and lingering on the iconic Ponte Vecchio are all a must on any time restricted tour.
Piazza della Signoria has been the political heart of the city since the Middle Ages and it's worth setting aside time to spend on the details. The façade of the Palazzo Vecchio is mesmerising. Be sure to look to your right and feast on the view down past the Uffizi Gallery to the River Arno. In front of the Palazzo are three statues, one of which is Michelangelo's "David". Many a tourist ends up debating whether it's the original or not. Sadly the answer is not, as the real thing now resides in the Academia Gallery. Consider where it could have ended up. The location was a task charged to a committee, which included Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli amongst others. They proposed placing it under the Gothic roof of the Loggia dei Lanzi where some 15 statues now stand. Other top sites on the Piazza included the Fountain of Neptune, and the adjacent marble plaque marking the spot where Girolamo Savonarola was burned at the stake.
If you have more than a day to kill, the sky's the limit on what can be seen. Each alley seems to harbour an old church or impromptu effigy. There are museums aplenty and enough cows to keep a fast food restaurant hamburgered for a year. Oh yes, Cowparade was on during my visit. A host of fake bovine beauties are trundled around every landmark and any other space you could, well, fit a cow in really. So if the four and a half hour queue to enter the Uffizi Gallery (the worlds largest collection of Renaissance art) isn't your shot of espresso, then marvel instead at the modern creative genius required to decorate the exact same sculptured cow fifty times over!
Shopping in Florence isn't quite up to Milan or Rome's standards but there's certainly enough variety to keep a discerning socialite's air miles accumulating. Wandering past Roberto Cavalli's boutique I overheard a choice conversation. In the window there was a spectacular dress recently sported by Victoria Beckham. Admiring it were two large American ladies.
Wow - just look at that dress, I know that dress, that's the dress that.
Yes, Victoria Beckham wore that dress!
Victoria Beckham, yes, my God, she looked so beautiful in that dress. Isn't it glorious?
It is glorious, wow; you know you'd look great in that dress too
You think? No, no way
Sure I think, It's so your colour
Do you think they make It In a Size 16? (British Size 20).
I'll never know.
My exploration of Florence covered two days; one night spent sampling the fairly low-key nightlife. There are a couple of modern bars and the odd club, but on the whole café culture rules the roost, dying out disappointingly early.
On day three we took to the road. Inside my Fiat Punto hire car I felt like a real Italian. Spurning the main roads for more attractive options, it wasn't long before we encountered our first Ape. Not the hairy, near human type, more the three-wheeler trad peasant transport. Once the newest and smartest way to get around the backcountry and impress the ladies is now sadly neither new nor smart. I subsequently found out they have a top speed of 28mph, which impressed me, and that they traditionally require no driving license to operate, which didn't. However, there are few stereotypical images that sum up this region more than an elderly couple squeezed into an Ape, hauling a cart full of logs out back.
Pisa was our first stop-off. My friends sold it short. I was told to grab a photo of the tower and get out. Turns out there are three major monuments in the "Field of Miracles"; the Baptistry, Cathedral and the Leaning Tower. All of them merit attention. In fact, the Baptistry also leans, although to a lesser extent than you know what.
Further south in this walled town are plenty of attractive roads leading down to the River Arno, each offering good pavement space to grab a bite and/or a glass of vino. Having spent a couple of hours on the obligatory three-mile walk we were back In the Punto and making a B-line for Lucca.
This town harboured little expectation. None of my friends had visited and I must confess, I'd never even heard of it. As I neared, the town's walls really impressed. Standing 12 meters high they are a daunting sight. A shame then, that they never realised their potential. Having set the standard for then-modern walled defences, they were never really put to the test. What was lucky for the medieval Luccans therefore is lucky for us. Since the walls were never really attacked the result is a near perfect preservation of the town meaning Lucca offers a bone fide snap shot of ancient Italy.
Before dipping into the town, I entered the gates and immediately climbed the wall. A circumference walk takes three quarters of an hour and offers splendid views into the town's back yards. It's lined with trees, shade is plentiful, so you can take your time strolling picking out the sights, all the time getting your bearings. Half way round I couldn't wait any longer. I took an early exit and ventured in. Ambling around was a delight for all the senses, especially as the sunlight began to fade. The Gelateria's fumes wafted on the breeze and the long shadows of the golden hour ghosted across the town. I happened on one of the bell towers, paid my dues and scrambled to the top. On this late autumn evening the view was one of pure fantasy, gazing over the rooftops and out to the walls, across the fields to the distant hills beyond, blissful. The peace was shattered when the bells tolled just three feet behind me. The shock promptly diverted me to the exit in search of a drink.
With Michael the Archangel overhead, I pulled up a chair on Piazza San Michele and settled down for a crisp lager, a bowl of olives and entertainment generously provided by the adjacent brass band. Little did I know of the drama that was about to unfold.
There is almost no traffic within the confines of Lucca's walls. Bicycle is the favoured mode of transport and there's a constant stream of tourists and locals ringing round each corner. As I stared fixedly at the band a gentleman of around 60 years old cycled right across my view, his front bracket sheared. He crashed head first to the pavement. There are few sounds that compare to flesh and bone colliding with rock. I sat stunned. My sister on the other hand, being a doctor, rushed to help. Within moments the police were on the scene, then, perhaps the largest investigation in Lucca's history began. Police were drafted in until they numbered around a dozen. A crowd gathered. The man seemingly in shock was conscious but didn't move and our guesstimates suggested at least a broken arm or shoulder. Before an ambulance arrived the man attempted to get up, cries of No, No, rang out from the Carabinieri as they urged him to stay where he was. Then one of the most remarkable things I've ever seen occurred. One of the policemen took out a chalk from his pocket and began to draw the outline of the unfortunate cyclist on the road as the poor man and his inconsolable wife looked on! I can only imagine the horror he must have felt. What could he not see or feel that was so bad the policeman was chalking him off? The ambulance arrived, the crowd swelled. I ordered another beer.
Eventually the man was stretchered into the ambulance and a recovery seemed likely. The investigation however was only just beginning. Out came the pads and pens, notes were hurriedly taken. Digital cameras were fired up for photographic evidence followed by a tape measure to calculate the distance from the chalk body outline to the adjacent bank - had they pegged the cyclist as a potential ram raider? The dislocated wheel was then removed for examination. Following a lengthy deliberation it was reasoned that perhaps it had got caught in a shifty looking drain, throwing the victim over the handlebars. A reconstruction however seemed to rule this theory out. Sitting four feet away I'd seen the whole thing, he had been nowhere near the drain but they didn't seem interested in witnesses. Two plain-clothes guys made off with the wheel (to destroy evidence?) followed eventually by the police. An hour of investigation, one body, many photos and a stolen tyre later, my beer still hadn't arrived. The waiter was as engrossed in the event as I was.
Soon the beer came, the voyeurs left, and the usual trickle of tourists resumed. However, as they passed by they saw more than they expected. On the floor outside the café was the unexplained chalk outline of a body with a pool of blood in the head area. Their faces were a picture. They gasped and pointed as a nervy waitress ran for a bucket of water to wash away the evidence. Murder on the Piazza? No sir, a simple fall off a bicycle. I suddenly realised that there probably isn't a lot of crime in Lucca.
TO BE CONTINUED ...
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ANECDOTES FROM TUSCANY - 1
Ged Cleugh is one of our most experienced producers. Ever the adventure traveller, he takes on the projects in the farthest reaches of the planet. From the Amazon to the Nile to the Mekong by boat, train and chopper if there’s action to be had then he’s there. Ged’s worked in temperatures from +50°C to -121°C and loves pushing technological boundaries to bring the exotic and remote back on film. His scariest moment? Sleeping in a tent surrounded by lions, crocs and hippos in Mozambique.
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