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City hopping

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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?

 

Featured

Meandering in Milan

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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.

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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.

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Lago di Como

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There is no time like the present. And to make use of the limited time I have here, I’ve made a commitment to myself to go exploring every weekend, at least one day. This Saturday it’s a trip to Varenna and Bellagio on Lake Como.

The temperature is brisk, but in exchange there are no hordes of tourists and that is something to be treasured. I get the 09:20 train to Tirano that takes about an hour to reach the little village of Varenna. It is a beautiful, pastel-coloured village on the side of Lake Como and when I arrive mid-morning, there is hardly a soul around except for a few Italian tourists and an annoying street vendor, who tries to sell you woollen hats when you’re already wearing one and then launches into a lament about needing food for the bambini. He’s on repeat and approaches everyone with the same refrain. Nobody is buying.

I meander through the village, observing the soft and warm colours of the buildings  – not how I feel! I’m grateful for my warm boots and wishing I had put on soft-shell pants instead of jeans. After a walk around and a warm coffee at one of the few open establishments, I decide to take a ferry across to Bellagio, where I suspect there will be more options for lunch. It takes a mere 15 minutes to putter across the lake to famous village of Bellagio. I can’t imagine what the tourist hordes must be like in summer and I’m glad I can experience it in quieter times, even if it must be spectacular in summer.

Bellagio is another pastel-coloured dream, with tall cypress trees and narrow staircases leading up from the waterfront to the piazza. I walk around scouting for a nice place for lunch and eventually settle on a cafe near the waterfront. The sun has finally come out and I take a punt that it will be warm enough soon to enjoy sitting outside. I order a Negroni for aperitivo to be followed by a lasagna. The Negroni arrives with various appetisers and so do the sparrows, intent on securing a few crumbs or more. A couple two tables to the left of me lose part of their sandwich to the intrepid birds. Their size belies their strength and one has to pay close attention to the food on the table to ensure it doesn’t go ‘fly about’.

I bask in the sun for a while, taking in the views and savouring the warmth of the sun. Eventually I move to take the ferry back to Varenna, from where I take the train back to Milano. As the sun gradually sets on Lake Como the colours change to steel-blue greys as the train winds its way along the lake. Approaching Lecco nature treats me to a magnificent alpenglow on the nearby mountains, a fitting finale to a very nice day out.

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