A long time ago my friends Graham and Andrew went on a group holiday to Florence. For years they have bored me with their tales of that trip – “Florence this” … “Florence that”. At last I can now bore them with my own tales!
The cycle north to this beautiful city, which the Italians insist on calling Firenze for some reason, was an idyllic mix of rolling hills of vineyards and olive groves, and gorgeous little towns stacked on the hilltops … so many that I stopped taking photos or even remembering their names. It was always “Monte-something-o”, the clue to their lofty location being in the name. Some days I melted under a fierce sun and other days shivered in torrential rain. On those wet days I sat out the heaviest downpours in bars as every village has one. I had to remember to ask for my coffee “molto caldo” or it would come at a luke warm temperature, insufficient to heat me up after a soaking. The menfolk of the village can always be found sitting outside these bars during siesta. The amusingly-named village of Grotti had an electronic community notice board opposite the bar and so the menfolk sat there for hours, watching it spell out such fascinating facts as the pharmacy opening hours. It was the most exciting thing in Grotti. As I wasted away from malnutrition waiting for the “alimentari” to open so I might buy groceries for supper, I joined them. The pharmacy in Grotti is open … like most things in Italy … hardly ever!
The last section of the ride has been most notable for a few little acts of kindness. One evening, after a long day of cycling and without a campground on my route, I was struggling to find a spot to put up the tent. It’s usually not a problem – late afternoon I simply start looking for a dirt track that heads off the road into the woods and somewhere along it will be a perfect little place for my tent in the dappled sunshine below the trees. But that day I just couldn’t find it. So I ended up asking a chap who was working in his garden if I could camp in the field next door. He said “yes” but as I was getting the tent out, came down to tell me that I could use the empty apartment below him instead. He gave me the key and that night I enjoyed a sofa-bed, a kitchen and a hot shower! Then there was the greengrocer who gave me free bananas when he learned I was cycling to Scotland and a kindly campground manager who donated milk and fruit when the shops were closed again.
A few more miles and I rolled into Florence which was a bit of a shock as traffic, tourists and souvenir stalls crowded the narrow city streets. These last two weeks I have been cycling in a different world of quiet rural villages going about their business where bent-over grandmothers sweep the pavements and old men in flat caps poke about in the woods along the empty back roads. I’m not sure what day it is and I’ve forgotten who is Prime Minister … though I hope it’s not still that Thatcher woman. If you want lots of cultural information about Florence, you are reading the wrong blog! I simply had a pleasant time on a grey, wet day ambling aimlessly along the banks of the grotty Arno and crossing back and forth on the famous Ponte Vecchio with its quaint little jewellery shops. Yes, I admired the Duomo and the Baptistry doors, and giggled with the girls at the many naked statues of well-endowed men at the Palazzo Vecchio. But my favourite sight in Florence was Il Porcellino, a beautiful, life-size sculpture in brass of a wild boar tucked away in the Mercato Nuovo. I placed a coin in his mouth which is said to bring good luck and rubbed his snout to ensure a return to Florence. Judging by its shine, millions of tourists have done the same.
I know this is an outrageous thing to say about one of the world’s most famous cities but I wasn’t blown away by Florence. A couple of days before I had cycled through a tiny town to the southwest of the city called San Gimignano. With its ancient towers and narrow streets reaching into a blue sky above a delightful Tuscan scenery of red-roofed farmhouses amongst rolling hills of vineyards and olive groves, I thought it oozed much more charm and magic than its more famous neighbour. But what do I know?
I do know this … that my friend Andrew wrote a funny story about that holiday to Florence all those years ago and he’ll be peeved that I stole the title which was … Frenzy in Firenze!
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