Saturday, 21 April 2007



originally uploaded by deskspacemedia.

Settignano was everything I wanted Italy to be, like those Stella Artois adverts they show on Channel Four before the Sunday night movie. Last week I heard someone whistling the Godfather theme as I walked past the Duomo. It would have been a more appropriate musical accompaniment to a stroll through this village, positioned high above Florence in the Tuscan hills.

The bus deposited most of the passengers at various points around Florence, leaving just three of us to make the ascent into Settignano. Opposite me sat a beautiful Italian girl wearing a University of Pensylvania T-Shirt. To my left was sitting a man in his eighties with a walking stick. He was wearing shades, jeans and trainers and was talking to himself, as many elderly people on Fiorentine buses seem to.

Settignano itself is beautiful. The sheer simplistic loveliness of it, and the oppressive like-wading-through-treacle heat made the whole experience quite dreamlike. First I wandered roughly West, past a primary school and along a road that offered supreme views over a small, bright-yellow field, on to a thick patch of woodland and over Florence, the Duomo always visible. The road led to an up-market cemetery and then a children's playground, which could have been one from my childhood in Kings Lynn were it not for the silver birches and olive trees that circled the swings and roundabouts. Everywhere seemed empty. I saw only two people, a couple sharing an intimate moment leaned up against a Fiat, Badly Drawn Boy drifting from the car stereo, out of the open door and across the field. Occaisionaly, a scooter buzzed past.

I walked back to the central square and then headed in the opposite direction, what I assumed to be South-East. This road offered views over the other side of the village, looking out North to the Tuscan countryside, a view even more beautiful than the vistas of far off Florence. Perfectly arching hills, more of those silver birches, a few plush hillside houses and a gravel track that swooped down for must have been a mile before arriving at a beautiful converted farmhouse, that for some reason I imagined belonging to a wealthy English family.

By the time I boarded the return bus to Florence only around fifty minutes had passed in Settignano, but it was easily one of the most enjoyable experiences of the trip so far, a much needed contrast from the dusty lived-in centre of Florence.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Florence Nightlife

Dmitri spoke English with a kebab shop owners accent. A young Greek who had spent half of his life living in Brighton, he was travelling through Europe on a Yamaha and spent much of the evening searching for cheap accomodation near Milan. That evening we sat sipping Chianti from plastic cups as the delicate score from the Usual Suspects floated across the common room. More wine was consumed later at the Astor Cafe, a stiflingly hip and semi-debauched bar / club / cattle market nestled behind the Duomo, an ironic clash of ideologies not lost on the two nuns we saw walk past the window, heads turned in shame.
Dmitri spent most of the night talking at me about his French girlfriend and the myriad of subtle complications that blighted their relationship (travel, commitment issues, ex-boyfriends, ex-boyfriends that were 38 and had a wife and two kids). He waved a camera phone picture in my face and admitted that the initial attraction haed come, on his part, from a desire to be with the woman from the Clio adverts. It seemed a relationship doomed to failure.
Afterwards we meandered through night-time Florence, past the behemoth Duomo and across the Ponte Vecchio, a dissapointing anti-climatic mess of tourists and tacky jewellry shops that ranks alongside Wembley and Buckingham Palace in the things-to-do-before-you-die-but-wish-you-hadnt stakes. More impressive, in a gentler, more modest way, was the Church of Santo Spirito and the piazza that shared its name. We walked down one of the deserted streets and heard Football coming from one window and Opera from another, an appropriate introduction to Italy, indeed.

I returned to the Astor Cafe the following evening with Camillo - a Colombian / American as flamboyant as his name and Daniel - a bespectacled German as flamboyant as his name. Daniel spoke English perfectly, possibly because he had spent a year living in Camden, a stay that resulted in an ability to affect a perfect Cockney accent. Camillo tried a similar trick when regailing me with stories of his various conquests throughout Europe and the four girls from Kings College he had shared a room with in Rome. At one point, he told me, one of the girls had mocked another's accent with the put-down "you're such a Mellinda". Only later did I realise that Camillo had misheard, and this girl was actually referring to her friends flat Leicestershire vowels.
Camillo's quasi-misogony pailed compared to the young Italian men in the Astor Cafe who set about confirming every prejudice I had ever had. They poured over the group of straight-haired, white-toothed Minnesotan girls sitting to our left. Even my Colombian friend, who had earlier outlined his desire to "pick up some hot Iyalian chicks", was appalled by their leacherous behaviour, and I thought back to what I had discovered in Amsterdam, that cliches are only cliches because they are true.
We walked home past San Lorenzo Church and saw a young local lad pissing by the side of its walls. This was where, just a few hours later, throngs of tourists would queue to experience this impressive monument to organised religion. Maybe thats why he was doing it, out of some loathing of tourism or Catholicism or both of the above. The following week, I saw a gang of lads kicking a football against the side of Siena's duomo and realised that, while the loud Americans and English at least respected the historical sites, the locals just didnt give a shit. I guess its the equivalent of chavs in Winchester necking cider just outside the Cathedral grounds. Just because its in the Rough Guide doesnt mean its more important than booze or copping-off or Wembley Doubles.

Before he left the hostel the following morning, Camillo shook my hand and patted my back as I lay sprawling, semi naked and half-asleep on the top bunk. That was the kind of guy he was. I saw him again that evening, just after I moved into my apartment in Florence, clutching two bottles of wine and accompanied by a couple more of those Minnesotan girls that seem to outnumber locals 3 to 1. No doubt that night he went about creating new stories to entertain that hostel dwellers in Venice, his next port of call.