ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
Summer seemed a very long time in coming. The battered remains of the winter will have seen us through to July, and be with us until next year, visible in the gaping voids of once dense hedges. The disaster will be glaringly punctuated by isolated, uninhabited islands of ceramic vases on the terraces, to remind us of the Apocalypse. It has been a long winter of discontent. Like children, gardens take years of education before they’re mature, so a stern winter reminds you to look after them, even in the first flush of a spring sun. Nature, when of a mind, does not take prisoners. The wily Italians, dodge the winter bullet by settling for the mad colours of Annuals, but despite all this Latin bling, create an eventual ostentatious and beautiful monotony. As in everything, too much is not always a good thing. I suppose that the higher you go you must expect the winters to be colder, but I’ve never been aware - being closer to the sun - of the summers being hotter! Even the panchina – a grizzled conchiferous sandstone hereabouts, used for villas and walls – looks fed up by the loss of its loose pointing which changes its timeless face into a scowling bad tempered one. Volterra used to have five and a half miles of forty feet high, or more, Cyclopean walls keeping the hooligans out. There weren’t so many then, of course. One look at the 2000 feet aerie was a slog too far merely to lose your head. Now the SUV’s make it a doddle, and locals pursue your money instead. The dainty Romans, avoiding hard work, added smaller blocks and cemented them together. Where a sizeable amount of the original massive masonry went is a mystery, given that the lower courses weighed half a ton or more, and stayed put for a millennium without any glue. No one blamed the day-trippers. D’Annunzio, an early turn of the century tourist, referred to this ancient town as “a capital squeezed into its ancient ramparts as into armour.” He didn’t have the tourist in mind though, or the Medici’s very own Schengen plan. However, I calculate the worst of the weather is over - optimistic as ever, and trusting in a few Martins who’ve returned to base. But I'll be totally convinced when the Swifts join them.
They won’t be the only things returning. One sure sign that summer has arrived is due to the proliferation of foreign registered motors living the good life, and clogging up the car parks, or circling round in the forlorn hope of finding one. How a driver, with sunglasses blacker than black, can even see the steering wheel let alone the highway, strikes me as a feat of legerdemain worthy of Prospero. Even pretentious Italians still with a job, having pauperized themselves to purchase huge German behemoths, must bow to the inevitable, and take their mistresses to Rimini instead of the Côte d’Azure, or the family to Cecina instead of one of the Balearic Islands.
Despite this, and an ever-spiralling overdraft, the season for escaping reality seems to be growing exponentially every year. The two weeks holiday of my youth have become four in my dotage, if you don’t count those Methuselah like gadabouts who sneak abroad in the spring. One would think that half the population of Europe, and the Anglo Saxon world, has time on its hands. Even the heterodox when they run out of ideas can find a niche on a sea going freighter. Not so much a ‘slow boat to China’, more a ‘heavy freighter out of Rotterdam!’ Some of these gargantuan tubs might suit athletic types; being large enough to run half marathons from stem to stern. Landlubbers, on the other hand, can keep their feet dry by tackling the hills on the two wheels of a cycling holiday. They’re not guaranteed to lose weight, but the purple faces pushing their fifteen gear steeds up a 1:5, ten-kilometre hill in a broiling sun is a strange sort of masochism for the no longer owners of a lot of puff. They’re not called ‘mountain bikes’ for nothing. The more sedentary call up Google and surf the Internet looking for a ‘cool’ vacation with a cut-price tan. Some, quite by chance, end up in this neck of the woods. Somewhere in the glossy margins it must have said ‘with a good view of the sea’, or some such, which if not exactly accurate, has a kernel of truth. From this height on a clear day, and with the help of a handy pair of Ross binoculars you can see Corsica, which is as close to any French beaches you’re likely to get. The Italian shore, being on the other side of the hill, is charmingly out of sight, meaning beach balls, and serried ranks of ‘sunbrellas,’ don’t spoil your view. One should try and avoid the glossy chat, and search for the ‘warts and all’ bits that would be of some assistance in helping you to know where, and what to avoid. Not that you’ve got much chance of discovering these closely guarded secrets. Going back to the popular mode of transport, they’d hardly tell you that being banned from most towns with a wall enclosing it, you must circle like flies round a pancake, waiting your turn to alight in a space designed for a Cinquecento. It makes excellent sport watching those fifteen feet juggernauts trying to manoeuvre into a miniscule ten, with the Mrs’ waving her arms about like one of those tarmac controllers parking a Boeing 747. Talk about trying to wedge a square peg into a round hole. I can tell you, the person who invents a concertina car will make a fortune! In the meantime, manufacturers will make a ‘nice little earner’ out of bent bumpers.
You’ll soon become aware that most famous Tuscan towns are built on hills, so if you’ve managed to find a place to leave your wheels, you’re probably still in for a lot of climbing before you arrive at the gate, and vexed to find that ‘steep’ also takes you round the streets. The Etruscans didn’t seem to have much of a personal style, borrowing it mostly from their Greek neighbours, but they had every intention that what they built should keep the visitors out. A hooligan looking for trouble would be flaked out clambering over the wall, let alone by the time he reached the top of the ‘high street’. Unhappily the ancient folks were unaware of the ‘diabolics’ of nature, and their fellow men. Tourism in those days was as destructive as it is now. Phalanxes of them, all in close order, armed to the teeth, and hell bent on taking over the place. At least they only arrive now with Nikon’s, and wave tablets instead of spears! One feels old Aulus Cecina, the local ‘me-too’, would have had a ball with the modern Facebook.
Siena is built on a series of hills, which lends itself to roller-coaster streets where you can get up enough speed on the down stretch to make it up the other side. Florence, on the other hand, is pretty flat, but then it isn’t old, which means most of its buildings are ‘Renaissance original’, and all the better for that. Whereas, those cities that are Millenniums old, having had the stuffing knocked out of them, don’t have much to show for their glorious halcyon past, except some ancient foundations supporting gloomy evocative Medieval high-rise apartments, the occasional inspirational palazzi squeezed in amongst them, the odd derelict open air theatre minus the people if not the proscenium, and plenty of tombs with no bodies in them. Most have had an upgrade to a local museum! Of course there are the churches, rather a lot of churches, enough for every family to have one each. Inside you’ll undoubtedly find an architectural gem, though the paintings on the whole are so gloomy even Lucifer would steer clear of the place. Those that weren’t, have been carted off to the Vatican, or a museum in Florence. But if it’s just plain atmosphere the globetrotters are looking for then they can take their time. These gloomy, moody cities have an atmosphere that perfectly expresses their past, and as it wasn’t all wine and roses, you’ll get to feel it in your bones, besides your wallet. But not if you arrive at mid-day, you won’t. At six o’clock in the morning you’ll be able to brush away the cobwebs of that illusive, slumbering past to find yourself hundreds of years away from the hamburgers and rock and roll, or whatever they call abominable music these days. It’s all - right there - under the layers of daytime tourism spoilt by the Pizza Parlours that open and close with the seasons. At least they don’t advertise their presence with a Tandoori Emporium bouquet. Not yet they don’t, anyway.
Sadly it’s an axiom that while few open fine restaurants where one can enjoy the decent local cuisine, and even the welcome change of a cool glass of Sillery, most must make do with a cheap take-away, or a calzone lookalike, with bottles of carbonated fizzy water. Ice creams these days are from another planet, and as colourful as the Annuals. The only trouble is that whereas Annuals are quiescent, ice creams are in motion, out and about, and more often grasped by some tiny little fingers. The ice cream has become a modern moveable feast with a purpose all of its own, determined in the hands of a gawping juvenile to end up glued to signor Luciano’s chinos. It’s inevitable. There is no driving test for ice creams. One is just thrust in among the digits, and let loose on the highway. Legislation, I think, is long overdue. Not that the owners of these (suicidal) angels being towed along like trailers, fill one with any confidence either, considering they’d be more properly dressed walking about in their underwear. What persuades people, who appear to be perfectly sensible, to abandon decorum the moment they become strangers in a sunny place? Not that I’m averse to a good-looking gal, but I see nothing remotely aesthetic in dishabille, or semi-naked carbohydrate avoirdupois. The telly-tubby generation displaying acres of décolletage, and hips the size of the freighters out of Rotterdam, do not a Botticelli make. I suspect its because they can’t be seen by the neighbours, or Eric at the office. But I’m being picky. After all it’s nothing new. One only has to turn to Rubens to admire such a quantity of Flemish Bessie Bunters flesh, and quietly thankful when Alma Tadema came along to return ladies to their natural, dignified form. Let’s not quibble, holidays provide that element of escapism for a people completely dissatisfied with their lot. You can tell the number who have missed out on an enlightened education, identified by their tan, not being capable of acquiring such a tone in pedagogic places like museums, galleries or architectural locations. One wag invented a shade chart to give the game away – all the tints from Stockholm to Cape Town. And the men are no better. Bahaman shorts, and faux Panama hats that won’t fold up to go in their pockets with the crushed pack of Marlborough’s. They need to be out and about, don’t they, mixing with their peers, enjoying a pizza in one hand, and a Moretti in the other. What’s wrong with that, you may ask? If you don’t know I won’t say, but in their defence I will add that they are adding to the sustainability of isolated places that would wither and die if left to a few pensions, and the absence of noisy youthful enterprise. Don’t say it. Heaven is not on this earth.
Naturally, I do agree, they’d all be better off ensconced on a nice sandy beach, which is the proper place for acres of flesh, turning nicely to a deeper shade of Sangiovese, soon to return to a deeper shade of pale in the windy bits of the Tottenham Court road. Just as well they don’t know about the autumn chill of Tuscany. That would make them wrap up. Still, they’ve got the pics’, two thousand or so to flick through before Christmas, none of which will strike a bell. “That can’t be our Pam, surely?” “What’s that tower Sally’s propping up? No. Not Mum. The one behind that white church.”
Hmm. Sadly, all this will persuade them that they’d had a jolly good holiday. Which I’m quite sure they did. But facing the inevitable, those crestfallen, gloomy faces that pile the suitcases and sundry tacky mementos into the boot will return again next year, bound for yet another Agriturismo with an even larger swimming pool. This way they can ignore those precipitous streets, and all the history, having made sure that in their only outing into the unknown, the refrigerator will be loaded with ice creams, bottles of lager, and pre packed pizzas from the local Coop, which is on the flat, and has plenty of parking space. You’ll spot them with their shopping trolley, loaded down at the back by thirty bottles of the red and white stuff, which indicates to all and sundry that they haven’t the slightest intention of going anywhere!
I blame it all on the modern Barbarians who can’t find a parking spot, and now try and park among the ruins.