City hopping


The network of fast trains in Italy has really opened up easy travel between cities. With Firenze only 1h40 by Frecciarossa from Milan it’s easy to plan a day trip there. There is nothing keeping one from making it a weekend either, but having been away all weekend the previous one, I felt a day trip would be enough and boarded the train on Saturday morning. My anticipated glimpses of Bologna came to nought, when I realised that the fast track is entirely underground and barely getting out of the spectacular tunnel system through the Apennine Mountains just before Firenze. Not a lot to see, but it sure is quick!


The weather was cold and wet when I arrived in Firenze and I set off walking at a good pace to get warm. Firenze is full of history; every corner, every way you turn you find incredible historical buildings, churches and statues. I wished a few times I had access to Mary McCarthy’s book The Stones of Florence or had brushed up on my history knowledge to get more out of it. And in between the historical buildings there are tourists. Lots of tourists. Including me.

The first church you encounter is Santa Maria Novella, after which the train station is named; from there it doesn’t take long to see the telling shape of the cupola of Santa Maria del Fiore, a giant dome covered in red tiles. Notwithstanding the cold weather, tourists were everywhere, lining up for a chance to see the inside or going up the steps to the Cupola for a view. I had decided to just go with the flow today, rather than try and cram it all in. So I skipped the lines and walked into less crowded streets and in the general direction of the Galleria dell’Accademia de Firenze, the home of the David by Michelangelo. Somewhere on a corner I ducked into a local cafe to grab a hot cappuccino. Suitably warmed up I joined the queue for admission, which looked quite manageable and within 15 minutes I was inside and in possession of a ticket. I think I was just lucky that most people were still in the queues at Santa Maria del Fiore or at the Uffizi.

I had on previous visits seen replicas of the David statue, but never the original. It was incredible, hard to believe that hard marble can be made to looks so soft and sinuous. I was particularly fascinated at how his hands were sculpted, every vein and tendon so visible and realistic that you want to reach out and touch it, to make sure it really is what you are seeing.

This cultural experience was followed by hedonistic one, given I was near the leather shop that had been recommended to me by a friend. Ciro and Sofia took good care of me and it didn’t take very long for me to walk out with two fine leather jackets to add to my collection. By now the sun was out and Firenze looked even prettier now, the white, pink and greyish green stones of Santa Maria del Fiore illuminated in their intricate patterns.

It was time to look for some food for lunch and I decided to find the restaurant that had been suggested by a colleague. The directions took me through Via de’ Tornabuoni, the luxury designer strip of Firenze until I arrived at the river Arno, just as the sun radiated on Ponte Vecchio, the perfect location for some photographs of the bridge itself, rather than from the bridge.


The recommended restaurant was closed, but not too far from Ponte Vecchio I found another restaurant serving Tuscan food and had lunch there, before continuing my meanderings over Ponte Vecchio, briefly to the other side, Oltr’arno, and back towards Piazza della Signoria and from there to the Basilico di Santa Croce. By now the weather had deteriorated again and it started to rain and the light started to fail quickly.


It was almost time to make my way back to the station through the small streets to board my train back to Milano, but not before looking at a few window and market stall displays: a cornucopia of gloves, chocolates and spreads.

On the train back I pondered that there is so much to see in Firenze and it is all so steeped in history that one day simply doesn’t do it justice. You could spend a lifetime here and still not see it all. And the tourist crowds don’t facilitate good sightseeing either. This is a problem not unique to Firenze; other tourist cities suffer the same and it raises the question how you keep tourism in balance, to provide income for a place, but not disrupt normal life for its residents to such a large extent. I have no idea how the Florentines live in this city, particularly not in the summer months, or at least from Easter onwards until September. Are we killing all the beautiful places in the world with our desire to see it all?


Where are all the women artists?


Saturday announced itself with a sunny outlook. My plan was to head out and make my way to the Pinacoteca di Brera. The Pinacoteca contains one of the best collections of Italian paintings, particularly religious works, many of them large altarpieces. Consequently I was administered more than my share of madonnas with babies, annunciations and crucifixions. One thing that stood out for me – not just on this Saturday, but on Sunday as well – that most of these art galleries mainly represent art made by men. Women are sorely under-represented and I know there are historical reasons for this, but I can only hope that for contemporary art this trend is reversing. The only work by a female artist I saw yesterday was a self-portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola, which was my favourite work yesterday in the Pinacoteca, and not because she was a woman, but it was such a delicate and yet cheeky painting. Her eyes look at you whether you are standing straight in front of it or sideways.


Having finished with the Pinacoteca, I walked over to Corso Buenos Aires, which is where the normal people shop; those that haven’t got well-padded chequebooks. To my delight I discovered a French-style pharmacy that had lots of pharmacy brands to choose from and good prices (Parashop on Corso Buenos Aires – not far from Porta Venezia). After walking up and down and as I got close to Portages Venezia again there seemed to be an accumulation of people and police cars; then I saw TV cameras and soon realised I had walked into a doorstop interview of one of the deputy PMs (Matteo Salvini) here in Italy. Rather than photobomb that, I chose to beat a hasty retreat. Finished the day with a nice glass of wine and a homemade cheese and meat platter.


Sunday was the absolute opposite of the previous day in terms of weather: it was cold, grey and sleeting. I headed off for the Museo del 900 near Duomo, with a quick detour through the Max Mara outlet (around the corner from my office – great for genuine Max Mara coats for around 300 euro). The museum is located next to the Duomo and from this architecturally interesting building you have some spectacular views of the Duomo, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the piazza in front of the Duomo. On a sunny day it would have to be amazing.

The museum itself features predominantly paintings and sculptures from the early 20th century and has some absolutely wonderful works on display. I was impressed by the works of Umberto Boccioni, who I had never heard of before. The main theorist of the Italian Futurist movement, his works are vibrant and dynamic and he did some interesting sculptures as well. But again, hardly any works by women, whereas I would have expected a bit more on display for the time period the museum reflects.

After finishing up at the museum I walked over to the Castello for a visit to Decathlon (a large shop that sells every imaginable piece of sporting equipment – even snow shoes!). Suitably geared up at bargain prices for doing a bit of yoga at home I called it a day and headed home back into the warmth. May spring arrive soon!




Meandering in Milan


Last weekend I had a visit from an old schoolfriend who was keen on visiting Lake Como and Bellagio. We took a different approach from my excursion a week ago and jumped on a train from Milano Cadorna to Como first. Coming out of the station you go left on the waterfront to find the fast boat to take you to Como. Unfortunately I had erroneously aimed for the 11:10 boat, but we found out it only ran on Sundays, so we had to wait until 12:25, which gave us time to explore Como first. It’s a bustling little town with an impressive church, stalls in the market place and many shops and cafes. The latter were a blessing, as it was actually very cold and grey and suitably powered up by cappuccino and hot chocolate after our sightseeing walk, we took the ferry to Bellagio.

That was a great trip and I highly recommend this approach. The ferry takes about 40 minutes and stops at various villages, one more picturesque than the other, even in grey and overcast weather. We admired the precision throwing skills of the ferry staff who would manage to get the rope loop around the hook at each location without fail the first throw. In Bellagio we walked around for some views first and then found a cosy and warm restaurant to fuel our bodies up again against the cold. Sadly this Saturday the weather really wasn’t conducive to sitting in the sun sipping a Negroni. The boat trip back to Como went fast and this time we were in the front seats (inside!) with a great view of our entire journey.


Sunday was spent sightseeing in Milano. We headed out first for some breakfast at a pastry shop in the centre (pistachio croissants, anyone?) and then headed to the Duomo to see if we could secure tickets. The queue for buying the tickets seemed to be at least 30 minutes and the queue for getting in looked even longer, so after a brief war council we decided not to proceed with the Duomo, but instead keep walking, and enjoy the sunshine outside. We walked to the Castello Sforzesco, an impressive castle in the city that features multiple museums. We ignored the museums and explored the park behind it instead, soaking up the sun.

That put us close to our lunch venue on the rooftop of the Triennale building. A bit upmarket, but with a great view over Milan from its terrace (both inside and outside). Beautiful food too and we indulged in a spinach salad with burrata and walnuts and a fine glass of wine. After that we had to walk off the burrata and walked over to the Navigli – the canals of Milan. I didn’t know there were canals here, but someone told me about them and I can confirm this is a great place to walk around, have lunch, coffee or an aperitivo. It’s a picturesque location and we whiled away a nice hour there before heading back to the apartment. And so ended another weekend.