ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
MADE FOR WALKING.
“Old friends are best. King James used to call for his old shoes; they were the easiest on his feet.” - John Seldon 1584-1654.
I don’t often buy shoes, not being in my case, a fashion accessory any longer - and having arrived in Italy, well stocked with brogues and Oxfords, have in the last twenty plus years, only once, felt the need to augment the shoe cupboard with something new. Having moved from a smart city to a country one where all the streets were made of large flag stones careering up the side of a mountain, it soon became apparent that one required something more substantial than elegant Grenson or Trickers slip-ons. A nice pair of comfortable boots would do just fine. In Florence I had found a pair that avoided the military touch and looked civilised enough with everything that wasn’t a suit - not that I donned a pinstripe very often, but there were times when on grand occasions or sad farewells, the need arose. They were a good buy and only now, after twenty years, have finally been relegated to workshop duties!
Such demotion left a gap in the footwear department, and the environment hadn’t changed at all - in fact it had worsened, being under doctor’s order to walk for half an hour every day after by-pass operations left my leg muscles below par. You’ll recall what I’ve just said about the pavements - well they hadn’t changed either - and two miles watching where you put your feet is demanding, to say the least.
Locating such specimens suitable for this new regime was the problem. Have you looked in your average shoe shop these days? Like me, what’s on offer may not exactly fill you with enthusiasm. The word artisan appears never to have crossed their doorway, all their offerings having the appearance of being pressed straight out of a mould somewhere in northern China - not a stitch in sight anywhere, and even if there was, very probably just stuck on. Well, at least one supposes that they probably don’t leak!
To accommodate this imposition, my wife patiently pointed out, that as I really did need a new stout pair of boots, and as I had an aversion to driving all the way to Florence, the only option available to me was the local market. Heavens forbid! That for sure wouldn’t be Tricker country. But the lady was of the sentiment, that what was on offer would very likely be orientated towards local needs, despite a probable scattering of beastly modern trends. The logic being that country people the world over still know what is good value for their hard-earned pennies. If their shoes were made for working, they would surely also be made for walking!
The visit, I decided, would be very dégà vu! So why not?
In the early years of our residency, we regularly visited the Saturday market which oscillated between a large car park outside the city’s Medieval walls in the summer, switching to the large ‘Piazza’ in the city centre, over the winter months. The latter meant a hard slog over the flagstones, if a rather easier return carrying the essential provisions, and yes, shoe stalls there were, though I cannot recall if we ever had the need to give them more than a glance. The real problem lay in the fact that winter meant too often inclement weather, while the summer meant the inconvenience of finding a place to park the car. It was a no-win situation, that as age caught up with us, demanded we find a more convenient arrangement. Calm mid-week window shopping was more relaxing, but it’s unlikely that in this neck of the wood an emporium selling footwear would also sell those illusive boots - even less likely than the odd pair of slippers lurking somewhere in an odd corner. Platform wedge heel and suede moccasins galore, sometimes even what might pass for ‘seven-league boots’, but they couldn’t escape from what is nothing more than a Boutique store. As Chaucer’s good woman might have counselled - the market remains your last chance to resolve the problem of a longer drive to Florence.
It’s true, my wife’s optimism was not shared by me, but continued to insist there was a stall that she remembered which had a fair range of masculine footwear, including boots. As we were in the winter months, and parking the car was no problem, even I had to agree there was little to lose in hunting for those illusive boots, despite refusing to believe the stalls wouldn’t be jam packed with left over summer canvas espadrilles and Doc Martens!
Naturally, I was wrong, but not quite in the way you might suppose. Wandering about under the canvas awning of the stalls a quaint and interesting instrument caught my eye parked on the stone paving in front of a shoe stall. It was a mechanical Shoe Stretcher - a professional example of the more common expandable Shoe Tree.
More encouraging was what appeared to be, at the end of the stall - Boots. Strong, stout, comfortable looking boots.
You could see at a glance that these were quite different to the conventional footwear ranged alongside them.
Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to create them, so it was no surprise to find that they were made by the owner of the stall. In this matter, handmade locally if not “custom made”. Handmade shoes - and boots - these days are difficult to find, but they still just about exist in Tuscany, so perhaps in other regions as well. The shoe or boot maker needs a Last to create footwear - for the ‘well heeled’ customer these can be custom made - and represent the basic form required. Obviously, there are two lasts - left and right. No two customers feet are the same and this is where the ‘tailor made’ reference comes in. The luxury of handmade footwear, for the comfort of your feet is to be highly recommended, as small tweaks can be made to fit them perfectly. However, for most of us, when purchasing shoes or boots they will probably be ‘off the shelf’, even when made locally, so important to make sure ‘they’ fit you, and not the other way round! “Round” perhaps being the operative word, and not those dreadful “Winkle Pickers” of the Fifties which my wife used to suggest were nothing more than torture chambers! Your feet probably never forgave you. One other point, on ‘my boots’ there are four double lace holes which is more than sufficient. Doc Martens may have had eight - which is not something needed when you’re in a hurry!
Of interest, I understand that the long Medieval style boots are still being handmade for the famous Italian Contrade’ events performed in Tuscany. Contrade represent the Wards of a city. For example, Volterra has 8 wards, and Siena 17, which were established in the Middle Ages. So hopefully the shoemaker’s trade has not been completely abandoned in Italy.
Therefore, it could well be advantageous keeping your eyes open in an Italian market. Seeking the shoe stalls, may be more rewarding than you might expect!