...to cider and black at The Star on Wakefield Road, to the smell of pine from a real Christmas tree, to my limitless supply of books, to my cat, who between naps on the back of the sofa probably hasn’t even realised I’ve been away for four months, to British television, to walks around the frozen lake at Cannon Hall, to tattoos that remind me of second year summer, to having a sofa again, to Love Actually and Bridget and Pride and Prejudice, to a snow covered Thorpe Lane, to mince pies, to Mingles, to Castle Hill, to the Comedy Store, to Dirty Dancing in Manchester, to Piccadilly station, to rolling hills, to mulled cider at Giraffe, to present exchanges, to my grandparents, to garden centres, to cheap, acidic wine at Huddersfield Yates, to the Kingsgate Centre in festive lights, to Haigh’s farm shop, to fireworks, to the Yorkshire accent, to gingerbread smells, to snow, to boxes of Celebrations, to baubles, to Christmas stockings, to woolly hats, to Morrissey and the Stone Roses, to driving back over Saddleworth moor, to pointing out the chippy with the mushy pea fritters, to my own quilt, to chocolates on the tree, to Nosh, to Zephyr, to Chaophyra, to exhibitions of Alice in Wonderland and Ford Madox Brown, to Christmas cake with plastic Santas, to cups of tea from an actual kettle, to 19 days of an unopened advent calendar, to a hundred photographs of Almondbury, to making Christmas cards of Siena, to Wench Banter, to everyone in the world that I love, to Lancaster in January, to Friary and Merchants and Bar Eleven (before 9pm) and Water Witch and The Sun and afternoon drinking at Robert Gillow, to hallucinogenic spinach wraps at Venue, to the castle, to catch ups; to London, to The Independent, to learning shorthand, to reciting media law, to the British Museum and the V&A and Kensington High Street and crowded tube trains, to Royal Parks, to a pile of journalism books, to newspapers, to no more procrastination, to the next chapter...
1. Advent calendars. The Italian version of the advent calendar does not contain chocolate, which seems to me to defeat the entire point of its existence. I remember when I was about four years old, getting an advent calendar from my childminder that contained only festive drawings of deers behind every window. Luckily I had the real thing from my parents/ grandparents, but the disappointment of the one chocolate free advent calendar was palpable. Now, imagine that the pretty deer pictures were the sum total of what was behind the advent calendar doors for your entire childhood. It’s a sad thought, isn’t it? And this is if they exist at all – I have been informed that they do, but I’ve get to see evidence of twin advent calendars at the Bellomos, and December is now two weeks old.
2. We have Hyde Park Winter Wonderland.
3. We also have Christmas crackers. They don’t exist here. Wtf?
4. Snow. Nothing says ‘festive’ like a glittery dusting of the white stuff, and over the last few years England has come up trumps in its provision of it. I find it extremely difficult to care about people not being able to get to work when the world is swathed in silver. The temperature here is autumnal, and the landscape is reflecting it. Rust coloured leaves do not say December to me. They say October.
5. X Factor. A poor one, I know. But it’s going on the list, despite it being (in the words of my mother) ‘crap – apart from Gary Barlow’. Since X Factor hasn’t been in my life this year, I’ve been clamouring for it. It is a Christmas tradition for the 21st century. I have even forgiven it for providing the world with Jedward.
6 Christmas Costa. I don’t care if I’m in the coffee capital of the world; get me a Gingerbread Latte and a festive cupcake. Pronto.
7. Christmas farm shops, particularly Cannon Hall Farm Shop at Haigh’s at Mirfield. Farm shops at Christmas, I feel, are a very British invention. Every year we troop to Haigh’s and buy our Christmas tree, and there is always a slight worry that it will not fit in the back of the Yaris. British farm shops make me stupidly content.
8. Love Actually. My absolute favourite ever; a beautifully put together piece of British cinematic festive fluff. It’s just so happy (apart from for Emma Thompson). I love Andrew Lincoln. I love Colin Firth. I love Hugh Grant’s dancing. I love Love Actually because it contains Andrew Lincoln and Colin Firth and Hugh Grant’s dancing.
9. Christmas cards. Again, I see no evidence of this most traditional of Christmas traditions in Italy. Admittedly, the sending of Christmas cards has fallen over the last few years. But with all things retro currently en vogue, I sense a comeback. As soon as I’m home I’m going to make mine using pictures from Siena, and dash them off in the last minute first class post.
10. Rudolph. In Italy, there is no Rudolph. There is no red nose. There are just... reindeers. That’s all. It begs the question, how do they understand the songs?
11. Christmas songs. They are all in English. I refute the probable fact that this is because English is one of the world’s dominant languages, and instead choose to believe that it is because, quite simply, England is best at Christmas.
12. British Christmas television. Recent and not so recent years have provided us with Christmas Specials from The Office and Gavin and Stacey, amongst others, that have passed into the comedy hall of fame (if there is such a thing). What classics have I got to look forward to when I get back this year? Well, the annual Yuletide offerings: The Big Fat Quiz, the Royal Variety Performance, this year hosted by Peter Kay, and Micheal Buble all over my life, to name but three. We will also see Dickensian classics given a festive tint with Great Expectations and The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff, starring Robert Webb of Peep Show fame. And then there is the Outnumbered Christmas Special, and The Many Lovers of Miss Jane Austen, and the return to our screen of Edina and Patsy in the first of two Ab Fab specials. After Christmas we will be treated to the wisdom of Charlie Brooker in his 2011 Wipe. Yes, British television is the best. I’m possibly most excited about 4OD-ing My Big Fat Gypsy Christmas.
13. Alright, I know I said 12, as in 12 Days of Christmas, but I’ve thought of another. Yankee candles from Mellow Moments in Huddersfield. Lighting them in our cosy dining room. Candles that match the wallpaper. Cinnamon, baked apple, spice, wood smoke, pine. Nom.
I love Christmas, I love England; the two combined is a fairly winning combination. Add Baileys and a box of Roses and I’ll be utterly content until January rolls around. Now, I’m going to dig out the wrapping paper and toilet roll tubes. The twins have crackers to make.
In the morning I go to the Galleria Accademia, where I see a lot of pretty intense art, as well as some beautiful sculpture. Michelangelo’s David is the highlight, of course – it really is mesmerising. It takes me a long time to get round the Accademia, and by the time I get round to recounting it in this blog, whilst sat in a square in Siena, it feels like it was a very long time ago.
The Accademia is the last thing I do in Florence, before collecting my bag from the hotel and catching the bus to Siena. I felt that I should really get to Siena before the evening, since my hotel is outside the city, a bus ride away, nestled amongst the Tuscan hills. I don’t particularly want to try and find it in the dark.
On the bus ride I mainly read the Daily Express, which reminds me why, at home, I never read the Daily Express. I am also thinking, hmm, Tuscany. A bit like Yorkshire.
The Historic Centre of Siena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is clear why. The streets are narrow, and cobbled – it is like the Ghetto in Rome, but a whole (tiny) city of it. If I thought parts of Florence were medieval fairytale-esque, they have nothing on Siena. The centre is also full of festivity – huge silver stars are strung everywhere, above the tourists as they squeeze down the tiny streets. Siena is the most festive place I think I’ve ever been (possibly aside from Whitley’s Garden Centre, Mirfield).
I go to check out Piazza del Campo, followed by the Duomo. Both are breathtaking. They look like settings from an over exaggerated Disney film. Here they are. See what I mean?
Afterwards I go to a restaurant at Piazza del Campo and get pizza – again. I don’t meet any random friends tonight, sadly, but it’s ok because I feel like getting back to the hotel and being cosy (Alberto was right, Siena is freezing).
Unfortunately, so is my room. Bizarrely, it has shutters that won’t open. When I checked in I took a photograph of the view from between the gaps:
Here is the view from outside:
I get under a blanket and fall asleep straight away, and then am woken up at what I am surprised to find is only 11.30pm by my mother, who is ringing to check that I am still alive. I assure her that I am, and then immediately fall back to sleep. Tomorrow: further exploring of Siena.
I dispense with the map and have a wander on Friday morning. Beautifully and completely by accident, I stumble upon a food market at the bottom of a windy path. There are samples everywhere; I feast on cheese, pork, and bruschetta despite only just having had breakfast. I want to buy some cheese, but resist since I’m fairly sure the fridge will be full of festive formaggi when I get home a week before Christmas. Instead I purchase two jars of chutney, one spicy pear and one spicy peach. I feel very festive. I am so, so paying excess baggage to Jet2 next week.
My first official stop is Siena Cathedral – the Duomo. It is without a doubt the best cathedral I have ever seen, probably because it is so different. The columns inside are black and white; they make me think of a fifteenth century jester’s tights. It is all very medieval. I feel like I’m in an Italian version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
There are a lot of interesting things about the cathedral. On the left wall, amongst statues of various other saints, is a depiction of Saint Paul that has been attributed to Michelangelo. Next to Saint Paul is an image of the Virgin with child – a typical picture, at first glance. There are thousands of them, all over Italy. But no, at second glance it becomes clear that she is breastfeeding. The Virgin Mary, boob out. This is crazy.
On the floor there is, in marble, a depiction of the She-Wolf of Siena. The image could easily be mistaken for the She-Wolf of Rome, as it is almost identical – but, the audio guide informs me, a different set is twins is present here. They are Senius and Aschius, sons of Remus, who fled from Rome to avoid the anger of their uncle Romulus, and went on to found Siena. On the founding of the city, they sacrificed a wolf. Black and white were decided as they colours of the new city, hence why the inside the cathedral is largely monochrome. The legend of the She-Wolf of Siena, being nothing to do with Italy’s capital, is obviously less well known than the story of Rome’s founding.
I also find out that the cathedral itself was originally built in around 1000, but that it was rebuilt in medieval times to such an extent that none of the original remains. There are around 170 busts around the ceiling of the cathedral, below the stained glass windows. All of them are Popes from across the centuries, from the cathedral’s beginnings to the end of the 1500s.
I am in the cathedral for quite a long time. Afterwards I decide, because I feel that I should whilst I am here, to climb to the top of the tower in Piazza del Campo. I had gone in earlier, before I returned to the Duomo, and found that the climb was not advised for those suffering from claustrophobia, or, I imagine, a fear of heights.
But I climbed the Dome in Florence so now I decide to be fearless.
To a certain extent, anyway. I climb the standard 400 steps, but I decide to stay away from the rickety wooden stairs that lead to the very, very top. A sign at the bottom of them says that, in parts, they are ‘exposed to the elements’. Why would anyone inflict this upon themselves? There is no need for this. I have a good enough view after 400 steps. I stay exactly where I am.
After the long climb back down, during which I almost trip and twist my ankle, I sit in Piazza del Campo and read my map whilst drinking an espresso. I had previously written down that I should visit the Sanctuary of Saint Catherine of Siena, so this is where I head now. On the way I stop at a beautiful candle shop where a couple of women are crafting away with hot wax, and purchase a candle moulded into the shape of an owl.
The Sanctuary of Saint Catherine is basically a small church, but it is set high up in the winding Sienese streets and offers a lovely view. Here is Saint Catherine herself, guarding the entrance to her casa, and the panorama of Siena that I found around the corner when I visited the Basilica of San Domenico:
The Gothic Basilica of San Domenico, just around the corner from Catherine’s sanctuary, is stuffed full of art. I read that it dates from the 13th and 14th centuries, and since then has survived 15th and 16th century fires, a 16th century military occupation, and various 18th century earthquakes.
The view of Siena from outside it is a beautiful way to end my visit.
It is going up to 4 o’clock; I have to get the bus, pick up my bag from the hotel, get back on the bus, find some food to sustain me for the journey and locate the stop for the cross country SITA bus before it’s departure for Rome at 6pm.
I leave Hotel Vico Alto, and as I am waiting at the bus stop and taking photographs of the view, an old Italian man appears and tells me, in Italian, that I have a beautiful hat. It is a nice hat, purchased from La Chieve in Largo Argentina (thanks mother!), but still, how very surreal. I thank him. His tiny Chinese wife looks confused.
And so, back to Rome. I am restless on the journey. I’m tired, and am not anticipating a late night change of metro from Tiburtina. As soon as I’m on the bus I want it to go faster towards the capital and the hotel and Alphabet House. My Bronte Myth book (by Lucasta Miller, weirdly) does not hold my interest. For a lot of the time I just stare out of the window, trying to distinguish shapes in the darkness.
The journey (three hours) feels overly long. Just outside Rome, I start to notice women stood at the side of the road. The first one I see is texting, from a lay-by. I think how unfortunate it is that her car has broken down in this particularly grim location. And then I see another women. And another. The third one I see is wearing bright red, patent leather boots. And it is at this point that I realise they are in fact engaging in the oldest profession in the world. This is extremely disturbing. They are touting for business on the main autostrada into Rome. And five minutes later, the bus drops me off at probably the most dangerous looking station I have ever seen in my life.
My advice on Roma Tiburtina Autostazione is this: avoid it as if it were a Florentine plague.
Unless of course you enjoy being surrounded by litter, homeless people and questionable taxi drivers touting for business whilst you search for a metro station that just doesn’t seem to be around.
I am relieved when I find it, and even more relieved when, half an hour later, I let myself into Alphabet House dump my bags on the floor. Shower. Bliss. I then get into bed without even drying my hair. Sacrilege in Italy!
...will not remain in Florence, obviously, but will be recounted in minute detail on this blog. Would you expect anything less?
Before 6am on Friday, I am sat on a train at Termini, waiting for it to pull out of the station. Florence bound! I left the hotel at quarter past five, and my fingerless gloves (I am prepared for the cold in Siena), new hat and departure under the cover of darkness makes me feel like something from a Graham Greene novel.
There are a few tramps asleep at Termini, most of whom smell like fragrant piss. Incongruously, they all seem to have un-bashed, brand new suitcases to rest their trampy heads on whilst they nap on the edge of the platform. Bizarre.
Finding piattaforma 1 (East) isn’t difficult, but I am assisted anyway by an Italian man who seems to be wandering around the station. Clearly I look less like a spy than I first assumed – more likely I look tired and British. He appears as I am accidentally reading the Arrivals board instead of Departures, and having a momentary panic because my train doesn’t appear to exist. My helpful new friend offers me a few words of advice in Italian, before deciding that it would be better if we spoke in French. Yes, ok – who am I to question? In French, he tells me that I should go straight on, then right, then through a tunnel. I thank him in Italian, because this is what is in my head, and retreat with shouts of bon voyage following me down the platform. Bon voyage aussi, you helpful station wanderer.
On the train, then. I am almost the only passenger, aside from a woman who is walking up and down the carriage and looking extremely confused. Our first stop is Roma Tiburtina, just down the track. I pay particular attention to it because this is where the bus from Siena will drop me off on Friday evening, leaving me to make the last stage of my journey by taxi or metro, depending on the time. Tiburtina looks a lot like Clapham Junction, with the tracks stretching on and on, but I doubt Clapham is ever this deserted at 6am.
I fall asleep, while the train is still rattling along through indistinguishable Roman darkness, and when I wake up it is light and we are approaching Florence. An American couple have invaded my seating area and are talking loudly about the hilarity of almost having booked a hotel room in Rome, Georgia, by accident. Dear God.
I find Hotel Fiorita easily (it is only 300 metres from the station) and am very happy to find that because of a cancellation my room has been upgraded to a double with ensuite. Yes, Florence! You are working well for me so far.
After dumping my stuff and picking up a map I get straight on with exploring. My first stop is Basilica San Lorenzo, which the extremely friendly reception man has circled on my map. I reach it through an outdoor market, which is full of stalls selling ‘I Love Firenze’ hoodies. The Basilica is nice – my favourite part is the garden, which contains a big orange tree. It is very Florentine.
(Did you know, also, that Dante, Petrarch, Machiavelli, Galileo Galilee and Da Vinci have all called this city home? This is a fairly impressive list, considering that it takes in undisputed masters of literature, science and art, as well as the man who actually invented the sonnet. Mind blown).
I carry on walking, vaguely following the map. And then I round a corner and am visually smacked in the face by the most impressive building I’ve ever seen: the Cattedrale di Santa Maria de Fiore.
I go and sit at the top of the Dome. The view is mental. I could even go as far as saying that it is off its tits, but I feel that this phrasing may be disrespectful to Santa Maria. We are so very, very high up. Considering my all encompassing fear of heights (I could never even jump off the three metre diving board at Huddersfield Sports Centre without squeezing my eyes shut) I have no idea why I’m not shitting right about now. I’m not, though. I’ve even walked all the way around the outside and taken a video of the view. Maybe I’m growing.
Florence looks like a favela from this height. A low-slung, sunlit, red and yellow favela. With a few medieval towers. And clocks. And Tuscan hills closing in from every side.
It is extremely humbling and melancholy.
And then hundreds of Japanese teenagers appear and start taking photographs whilst bouncing on the railings as if they aren’t about two miles up in the air. Time for dry land, I think.
Heading in the vague direction of the river (towards Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi), I see a sign pointing in the direction of ‘Casa di Dante’. Well. I follow this sign now Via Del Corso (is there one of these in every major Italian city?) until I find not the casa of Dante, but the chiesa.
This is a major event, I feel. The Church of Saint Margaret is better known as Dante’s Church, it being where he worshipped, where he married Gemma Donati, and where she is buried along with her entire family of thirteenth century Florentine nobles. I sit in a pew in the tiny church (it is so small there are only four rows) and try to get my head around the fact that this is where the creator of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno, etc, got married seven hundred years ago. It is also where he met Beatrice Portinari, who inspired his poetry.
Afterwards I go across the cobbles to his house, which is now a museum. Here is what I learn:
Dante Alighieri was born between the end of May and the end of June, 1265, to Alighiero di Bellicione and his wife Bella – a family of noble lineage, proved by its ties with other aristocratic Florentine families, including the Donatis, of which Dante’s future wife was a daughter. His great great grandfather Cacciaguida had been knighted by King Conrad II and had died in the Second Crusade in 1147.
I also infer that Dante quite liked Florence:
Where the lovely Arno flows,
There I was born and raised,
In the great city.
Since astrology was incredibly important in the thirteenth century, it was recorded that Dante was a Gemini.
His mother died when he was young, and he was brought up with an older sister, a younger brother, and a younger sister from his father’s second marriage. He was educated at home, and first met Beatrice when he was nine years old; she would later become his muse. Despite this, a contract between the Alighieri and Donati families saw him betrothed to Gemma Donati at the age of twelve.
Beatrice Portinari lived with her five sisters in Florence, close to the Alighieri house. Dante was nine when they first met; later she would appear in his Divine Comedy as Vita Nuova. ‘9’ is a number that occurs throughout Vita Nuova, symbolising a miracle. He began writing of Beatrice in terms of courtly love, in the traditional way of poetry, admiring her beauty, elegance and grace, but eventually moved away from earthly reality and began a period of deep introspection. Beatrice married Simone di Bardi and died at just 24, leading Dante into crisis and years of philosophical study.
The museum tells me that,
In the Divine Comedy, she is the vehicle of his salvation and, as the symbol of theology, guides the poet in the last part of his other worldly journey.
My humble translation of a plague on the wall, without any help from Google:
In the 8th month of 1991
In this church of 1033
Of the 8th centenary of the death
Of Beatrice Portinari
The inspiration of poet
A few more Dante facts:
Dante’s teacher was Brunetto Latini, who had translated Cicero as well as working as Florence’s ambassador in Spain under Alfonso X.
Dante was in exile from Florence between 1301 and 1311, because of fighting between opposing families in the city. Little is known about his movements during this time.
My life is crazy. I come to this conclusion not long later, whilst sat outside drinking espresso (to pep me for the Uffizi) at a cafe opposite the Ponte Vecchio.
Ponte Vecchio: a 10th century bridge, covered in tiny, brightly coloured windows, once home to greengrocers, now inhabited by goldsmiths and jewellers after an edict by the Pope. They shops are their original size, without alterations, and the doors are tiny. The bridge looks like something out of a Grimm’s fairytale. There is a gelateria at the end, and I indulge myself in a cone of stracciatella, whilst reaching the definite conclusion that I like Florence more than Rome.
Now, back down the river to the Galleria Uffizi. I’m hoping that when I come out it will be getting dark and that Ponte Vecchio will be all lit up.
Before I go into the Uffizi, I am busy taking photographs of the statues outside -Florentine luminaries including Galileo Galilee, Petrarch (of sonnet form fame), Da Vinci and of course Dante– when I am accosted by a painter who is going about his portraiture outside the ticket office. He asks where I am from, and I tell him England. His response to this is fairly unique: ‘You are of beautiful colours,’ he says. ‘Please, please let me paint you.’
The Uffizi stuffs my mind with artistic knowledge to such an extent that by the time I leave I feel like I’ve run a marathon (getting up at 4.30am is probably also a reason for this).
Afterwards I wander back to the square, thinking about Lidia’s advice that I should ‘not go out in the evening’ – mildly worrying advice, that. It is half past five but already dark (it is December), and there are lots of people around in Piazza della Signoria. I was given a leaflet for a restaurant offering pasta/ pizza, a pint and icecream for ten euros before I went in the Uffizi, so I seek it out now – I’m not hungry after the massive stracciatella, but it is in the piazza and I expect will therefore provide a good people watching/ blog writing opportunity. The streets around are all lit up with Christmas lights, and on the way I browse through a couple of vintage shops – bellissimo.
The restaurant is closed, predictably since it is only 6pm, but there is an Irish pub next door – it appears to be called, simply, Guinness.
Well, this is extremely tempting. Sider e nero, per favore?
Yes, I think so.
While I am sitting with my cider and black, writing this blog and feeling extremely content with life, the lad who gave me the ten euro pizza leaflet and then found me lurking outside his restaurant comes over for a chat. He doesn’t like Rome, he says. It is too big and confusing. All the streets are the same. He has lived in Florence for eight years, but is actually from Kosovo.
I don’t pursue this topic of conversation.
After a while, when he has informed me that ‘Guinness’ will have live music on later, he goes back to work.
There are two American girls at a table near mine. Can you guess what they are talking about?
The Wi-Fi in their hotel isn’t working. Seriously.
Also, Italians clearly do not know how to create a good cider and black, even if they are running an Irish pub. It is definitely not heavy enough on the black. I miss Wench and Meg whilst drinking this.
When I was leaving the Uffizi I was informed that the best thing to do next would be to visit the Palazzo Vecchio. It is just across the square, so I go over to check it out when my cider is finished.
It turns out the ticket office closed at 6.30pm, but part of the museum is outside and free of charge – I assume, I walked straight into it anyway. It is all statues and massive Florentine frescos. I wander back up one of the shopping streets afterwards. Something tells me that I should have a taxi number and credit on my phone if I’m going to end up at the ‘Guinness’ live music night. I deal with both these things before heading back to the restaurant, where I order pizza e funghi and swap the included icecream for wine.
I feel that various surreal things have happened to me whilst I’ve been in Italy, but this evening in Florence, I think, might rate higher than any of them on the weird-ness scale.
The pizza is good. Afterwards I watch some Italian football at ‘Guinness’ whilst talking to the Kosovan boy about Rome, about Italian language learning, about various things in this area. The live music starts. I acquire another pint. Kosovan Boy has had no one in his restaurant all night (bar me), so we carry on with our conversation, which is very interesting.
We are having a nice conversation about Florence, when Alban (or Arban, or Ahban, or something else – not going to lie; I can’t remember though cider fug) tells me that he has featured in Jersey Shore and then invites me to Kosovo to meet his father.
It turns out that he used to ‘stay with people from Jersey Shore’ and worked with ‘Mike’ in a gelateria just around the corner. Why Jersey Shore was filming in Florence I was unable to establish. But it is true. At the gelateria, there is a photograph of The Situation in the window.
We discuss this for a long time. Alban (?) shows me a video on his phone of the house he and his father have recently had built in Kosovo. I come up with the bright idea that we should exchange contact details, so that he can practice his English and vice versa my Italian, and to this end we swap email addresses. He adds his phone number and full name too. Sometime between twelve and half past I decide that now would be a good time for me to leave. Alban (?) goes to talk to someone he knows –he appears to know everyone, working next door– and out of courtesy I wait for him to come back before I disappear.
And wait. And wait. It is probably only about ten minutes, but I’m itching for bed and I really, really want to leave. And what am I waiting around for, anyway? So I go. I feel slightly bad about this (but not too bad). Honestly, I could have been waiting for half an hour, for no reason.
Back to Diane’s visit, this time part II. I believe we are up to Sunday morning.
On Sunday we get lost on the way to the market at Porta Portese, and fall off the bottom of my map. Second visit to the market, second time I’ve got lost on the way. An elderly German couple attempt to help us, and surprisingly their expressive gesturing and German directions do send us in the right direction, and we eventually reach Ponte Sisto.
Entering the market, we are again surrounded by a large number of nuns. They head to a jumble-sale like stall, where they proceed to closely inspect a pair of massive, Bridget-esque grey knickers. Diane and I are alarmed by this. Surely bartering for knickers from a bustling market stall is not the correct decorum for a shy, retiring nun? Clearly these particular nuns have rejected Sartorial for the Ecclesiastical in favour of finding a bargain. Scandalous!
Now, it becomes clear that when Laura and I visited the market a few weeks ago we didn’t do it justice. Apparently, in the limited time we had, we only skimmed the surface and hence didn’t find it that great, the first part of the market containing mostly hats, tacky jewellery, scarves and junk. Diane and I venture further in, though, and find a wealth of clothes, bags, furniture, trinkets, and bits of decor that generally represent exactly what I have been planning on filling my future house with since I was about thirteen years old. I didn’t even realise that the market extended this far back, the first time I visited it. My favourite stall sells furniture – mirrors, dressers, chests– that are printed with art by Gustave Klimt. I do love a bit of Klimt, and having decor like this in my future home has been my plan, like I said, for years (see my Lancaster campus room as an example). So, as you can imagine I am very excited. Since I am waiting to be paid I walk on, but not before checking that the stall will be there every Sunday for the foreseeable future. I will have to look into shipping costs between here and the UK, because the things on this stall are too good to forget about.
We walk into Trastevere after the market, and the restaurant where we get lunch immediately becomes one of my new favourite foody places in Rome. I have porcini mushroom and truffle fettuccini, and Diane has Tuna salad. The food is so, so good. I eat my pasta in wonderment that food can be this good. It is on a par with Sohra Margarita, possibly it is even better. I don’t ever want my fettuccini to end. Afterwards we have vanilla cream profiteroles and a pear, chocolate and cinnamon cake. Enough said.
The botanic garden is closed when we get there, which is a bit ridiculous since it is a Sunday and therefore the optimum time for a tranquil stroll through a fragrant giardino. Instead we go to Palazzo Corsini, which I first visited a few weeks ago. Diane likes a painting of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and Joseph, which I hadn’t noticed the first time I was here. The painting is understated because it is small, but the light is amazing – it looks like it has been lit from behind by a bulb. Unfortunately it isn’t one of the ‘of note’ paintings, so the details of it aren’t listed in our leaflet.
Afterwards we cross back over the river and go to the Synagogue museum – Diane has wanted to go since we walked around the ghetto on Friday. On the tour, which takes us into the Italian Synagogue, we encounter this week’s Stupid American. When the guide tells us the name of the architects, one of them has a name that sounds a bit like Armani. The Stupid American, who is wearing a kippah and is the only Jew there, raises his hand as if he is in school and asks if this was Giorgio Armani.
No, says the very patient tour guide. No, it was not Giorgio Armani who built the Synagogue. You idiot.
After the tour and the rest of the museum, it becomes clear that the staff are closing up and that it is time for us to leave. This is easier said than done, however, since there are barriers blocking every exit. We try three different ways out, get waved at by some police because we are going the wrong way, and eventually go back inside to ask. We are directed up some steps, where we are promised we will find ‘a small green gate with a bell’. Getting out of this complex seems like a massive challenge. Clearly, I observe as we finally pass through the exit gate, they just want to give us the full ghetto experience.
It is very sad times when my mother leaves in a taxi at 9.45am on Monday morning. I spend the rest of the day battling with the Alphabet House washing machine (the one at the Bellomos’ is temporarily on the blink) and reading about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ashram adventures.
I spend Tuesday afternoon planning Christmas themed activities for B&B. Our last two weeks (I can’t believe it’s only two weeks until I leave) are mainly going to consist of glittery silver snowflakes, glittery cards for their friends, and glittery Christmas stockings. Hopefully, like shrieky magpies, they will be instantly attracted to the glitter and these activities will therefore keep them entertained.
The next day is the occasion of my last ever Wednesday lunch with Ashley – a week from today, the day I am going to Florence, she is flying back to Detroit to get married. It is a nice lunch. We go to Sohra Margarita in the ghetto and get the good pasta and red wine. I will miss our Wednesday lunch club, weekly ritual that it has become.
Afterwards I go and sit upstairs in Feltrinelli, where I am delighted to find a large selection of flavoured teas in their cafe (tea geek). As I said, this is where I sit for a large proportion of the afternoon and write most of this blog post.
I’m not needed to work until 5.40pm, which leaves a great deal of time for luxurious bookshop lingering. When I do get to the Bellomos’, I spend a lovely evening creating glittery snowflake decorations with the twins. A woman called Joanna comes round, to teach Irene how to cook roast beef and cous cous. The family’s old housekeeper Maria also visits with her tiny, tiny baby, and B&B demonstrate their gymnastics for her on the living room rug, making everyone increasingly nervous about the proximity of the baby to their flailing limbs. It is all very companionable. The roast beef is a blood dripping revelation (it hasn’t moved me away from being an almost vegetarian, though) and the cous cous is a world away from the packet variety that I ate so religiously at Lancaster.
A truly devastating thing happens on Thursday, which completely ruins my plans for the next day. I hope you are ready for it, because it is a biggie.
The National Museum of Pasta is closed for renovation.
Honestly, I am so upset when I discover this. I was very much looking forward to visiting the Pasta Museum, as a break from all the antiquities and historical learning.
But alas, this information presents itself firmly from the website as I am writing a blog post about nuns and drinking sugary espresso: The National Museum of Pasta is currently closed for renovation work. A date of opening will be given in the coming months.
Not soon, then. Not in the next 18 or so days that I still have in Rome. Gutting.
Instead, I suppose I will have to use the day to visit the Capitolini Museum, and see some renaissance art. Which I suppose isn’t too bad a way to spend a Friday, although I bet I won’t be getting any free samples of agnolotti there.
So, time to catch up with the blog, whilst I’m sat upstairs in Feltrinelli’s cafe, drinking almond tea and eating biscuits (opposite the square where Caesar was killed). Seems as good a time as any.
I’ve been reading Eat, Pray, Love. It’s slightly surreal to read whilst I’m here, because of course she keeps pointing out places that I’m very familiar with. I pass through Republicca, where she has a breakdown over her ex boyfriend, almost every time I leave the hotel. Her description of getting lunch in Trastevere then crossing back over the river to Piazza Navona is something I’ve done myself multiple times. It is very bizarre. I can relate less to the India section, since whilst I was there I spent 90% of my time on a yellow bus, but it did make me start thinking about this meditation business, namely, if there are such huge swathes of the eastern world dedicated to the practice, then surely there must be something in it? It sort of made me want to visit an Ashram, but I don’t think I have the patience required or that I ever will.
The reason I’ve been reading Eat, Pray, Love is because my mother brought it with her when she came to visit, along with a coat and boots and various woollen items that will hopefully now guard me against the freddo Roman December.
Diane’s visit is my favourite thing that has happened in Rome in recent weeks. She arrives on Thursday night, after a stopover in Amsterdam, and we head for the piazza in front of the Pantheon to eat.
My mother does not enjoy the darkness of the street that leads down from Largo di Torre Argentina. ‘Come on,’ she says, as I am admiring the decor in a brightly lit shop window. ‘Let’s not hang around.’
Diane doesn’t want to linger on this quiet street because there is a group of people stood close to us, conferring in hushed voices. She is not accustomed to the kinds of people who spend their time on Roman backstreets near world renowned churches, however. We are from Huddersfield, therefore everyone is a potential assailant.
I have a quick glance over. ‘It’s a monk and a nun.’
Amazing. This sets the tone for the entire weekend.
On Friday morning we head back the same way, to visit the Pantheon in daylight. I have never noticed before, but almost every shop on the street leading down to it is in the business of priestly attire. My mother is extremely amused by this – why, we question as we peer in the window, must priests visit shops entitled such things as Sartorial for the Ecclesiastical just to pick out their socks? Or umbrellas? There is also a ‘pin-up’ priest, whose face can be found adorning tea towels, calendars and placemats. I kid you not, reader.
We visit the Pantheon, then walk on through Piazza Navona and around the surrounding streets, a lot of which I haven’t stumbled upon myself until now. We find a gelateria and get icecream that is a clear contender for the best I’ve had here so far. I get two scoops, Irish cream and biscotti, and manage to partially order it in Italian. It is working until the silly man insists on talking back to me in English. How will I learn this way??
Afterwards we head in the direction of the Spanish Steps, once again taking in the Trevi Fountain on the way, and all the time taking care to avoid killer monks and nuns. They are all over the city this weekend, even more so than normal.
We stop for a coffee and decide, since we are in Italy, to infuse it with a shot of grappa. Well. This is not advisable, I have to tell you. Grappa, it later transpires, is made from the stalks of grapes –so actually the most crap part of the grape. It is predictably gross, but I have an inability to let alcohol (or coffee) go to waste. So I drink Diane’s, too.
After our delightful lesson in why we should always stick to liqueur that we already know, I take my mother to the Jewish ghetto. It is a far, far more interesting part of the city, in my opinion, that the Spanish Steps/ designer tourist area. It is getting dark when we arrive, which is slightly scary considering what I have learnt about what happened there, but I want to find Sohra Margarita – the incredibly good Jewish restaurant that Ashley and I went to a few weeks ago. Unfortunately I have no idea where the piazza is – even though I am certain that it is really, really close.
We give up in the end and go to Campo dei Fiori, which is an excellent choice. We have cannelloni and rosemary chicken and salad and white wine, and the best part – huge, fat, salty, British pub chips. The chips are like heaven, or at the very least a little bit of Yorkshire that has somehow found its way to a blue light strewn restaurant in a flowery square in the middle of Italy. If I wasn’t sat outside under a patio heater in Rome I could be in a country pub somewhere in England, the chips were just that good.
When we get back on the bus to head home, we find that we are again surrounded by lots and lots of nuns. There is almost no room for anyone else on the bus. I briefly wonder, in my post wine state, whether they have all been on a trip to Sartorial for the Ecclesiastical for their socks.
On Saturday morning we have booked to go to Galleria Borghese. The whole visit to this, possibly the most famous of all Rome’s art galleries, is slightly tainted by over-efficiency and generic Roman arrogance. No, you cannot come in yet, go away. No, you cannot bring in your bag, get in that queue and check it in. The attendant actually points out the time on my ticket (11am) when we try to enter the lobby to wait at 10.55, and says, ‘the number is the same as in English’.
Needless to say, he is very close to getting the Huddersfield chav treatment.
The Galleria is nice, but is overshadowed by the effort it has taken to get inside, and at ten to one a tannoy blasts into the room before we have finished looking at the paintings. ‘Get the f*ck out!’ it says. ‘Now! We need you OUT so we can get the next herd of cattle in. What are you DOING? Don’t linger! You’ll hinder our profits.’
So we troop out, feeling a bit of annoyance, and also a lot of love for the British Museum (and every other museum in London and the UK) where you can just walk in and not be rushed or patronised by balding attendant men or over officious tannoy systems.
‘I don’t like being rushed,’ Diane observes as we leave. ‘You see the paintings but don’t have time to look.’ Which is exactly the problem of Galleria Borghese.
My two highlights from the Borghese collection are both statues. The first is of Pauline, sister of Napoleon, who scandalously had a semi-nude sculpture of herself made. She answered, when it was questioned why she had requested the sculpture, ‘Well, why not? It wasn’t cold; I had a fire.’
This is a fairly impressive response for the nineteenth century, I feel.
Pauline was also a patron of the arts, which I suppose she would have to be, considering her connection to this gallery.
My other highlight is Bernini’s statue of Apollo and Daphne, which depicts the moment when Apollo, in chase, reaches the latter and she begins her transformation into a laurel tree. The leaves that are coming out of the statue are very delicate; the audio guide tells me that it took almost two years for the statue to be restored to how it is now.
Afterwards we walk back up through the park, stopping at a cafe for lunch. We both get rocket and buffalo mozzarella pizza, which is extremely good, but difficult to eat. It has runny tomato sauce, and is the drippiest pizza that I have ever encountered.
Instead of getting back on the metro at Spagna we consult the map, before heading down through the beautiful hotels and shops of this area towards Via Sistina and Trinita dei Monti. I haven’t been all the way up here before, at the very top of the Spanish Steps, and there are art stalls all around. The view of the shopping area is impressive, too.
On Via del Corso we stop for another coffee, avoiding the grappa this time – instead we have espresso con amaretto, which is about a million times better, and comes with cream on top. And then I order an apple pie. Like the vaguely annoying woman in Eat, Pray, Love, I am dedicating myself to the pursuit of good food this weekend.
We had been handed a leaflet for a ‘concept market’ the day before, so we head there after the amaretto and apple pie. The leaflet says it runs from 10am to 8pm, which seems ambitious, but since we’re in the area we decide to check it out anyway. When we reach Piazza Montecitorio, however, there is no sign of it at all. We do discover some new and delightful little cobbled streets, and then to make up for the lack of market we head back to Largo Argentina and buy a hat from La Chieve, the oriental shop on the corner. It is getting dark by now, so as well as my new hat I throw on some red lippy too – voila, instant image change.
We go across the river to Trastevere, where we go into a few shops before stopping at a cafe and ordering wine, which in a delightfully continental fashion comes with crisps and nuts. It is very clear that after all today’s food we don’t need any more, so in its place we just have the wine. A couple of buskers pitch up near our table and Diane gives them a Euro. Sat outside on cobbles, drinking wine, in late November, in a new hat. And it is still ridiculously warm. Bliss.
(Just to cut back to the present, where I am sat upstairs in Feltrinelli, watching the world flitter past the window, once again full of pasta and wine. Two Americans at a table behind me are discussing the relative virtues of moving to London –it is a wonderful place for the kids to grow up, but so expensive– and on my right hand side an old man is taking notes from a heavy tome, scribbling in every free space he can find in his newspaper. This randomness is what I enjoy most about being here – today, I love Rome).
Diane has brought me an Independent –among the many things I miss are newspapers– but because of our hectic schedule I don’t get round to reading Thursday’s news until Saturday. When I do, it tells me that there is currently a resurgence in gang violence occurring in Rome, part of which is manifesting itself in the San Giovanni area. Well, San Giovanni is at the end of my street, which is slightly unnerving. Diane adds it to the list of things that she is worried about regarding Rome, which so far includes riots, floods, protests, robberies, Beige Spectres and unaccompanied overnight trips to Tuscany.
So, blog update time.
I have so far failed to make a carrot cake with Bea, which is not entirely surprising, as I am too scared to even attempt it. I’m thinking about burnt fish fingers, porridge splattered on top of the microwave, and not knowing that I was supposed to put water in condensed soup. These are just some of my previous culinary triumphs, and suitably explain why I spent most of my evenings at Lancaster eating out.
So. There will be no carrot cake.
Instead, I’ve spent the last few days finishing the Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves book, reading about the history of Rome, making headway with my Italian (it’s still poor), and co-ordinating the Katha buddy scheme. I’ve also found a hotel room for the trip I’m taking to Florence at the beginning of December, when the Bellomos are going north to visit friends. HELLO, productivity.
On Saturday evening I experience my first ever Thanksgiving, which is hosted by Agape, an NGO that Ashley has links with. We are first required to make turkeys by drawing round our hands and then adding legs and sagging neck, before sticking them on a display of turkey hands on the wall. Amazing. The Thanksgiving meal itself is a lot like a traditional Christmas dinner, but the highlight of it is the pumpkin pie – just indescribable. Afterwards we head out to the Macro Museum –all the major museums in Rome are open for free, for one night only, with live music playing. We arrive at half past twelve, and find that The Macro has electro blasting out near the terrace. Have a quick look around the museum and go up to the roof before heading to the bar. It is so, so good to be out.
In other news, we have a new housekeeper. Anna, it transpires, is going back to Georgia to potentially get married, although details of whether she actually is or not remain hazy. The new housekeeper is Filipino, and she has her first day of work on Tuesday whilst I am out getting spectacularly rained on at lunch with Ashley. Thus, I don’t meet her until the evening.
In the car on the way to pick up B&B from school, I ask Alberto whether her first day has gone well. ‘I think,’ he says, ‘she may be too small.’
I feel that something has been lost in translation here. Considering that Lidia told me she was only twenty one, I ask, ‘What, she’s too young?’
‘Yes,’ Alberto says. ‘But also too small. She can’t reach the salt.’
Tuesday evening presents this week’s Stupid American in the form of a middle aged man who is finding the hotel unsuitable due to its lack of Wi-Fi.
Like every other person who just cannot possibly be separated from their email for more than two days, he asks me how I’m on the internet. I tell him that Wi-Fi is unavailable for guests because of Italian law and owner culpability and that I can only access it because I work here, before pointing out the Mac in the corner (which costs nothing to use, I might add).
This is not sufficient, clearly, because after listening thoughtfully he walks up to Miguel behind the desk and says, ‘I wouldn’t mind if there was no phone in the room – I wouldn’t even notice. But not having the internet is like not having a bathroom.’
‘It’s like saying, sorry, no bathroom this week,’ he says.
Well... no. It isn’t really, is it?
He isn’t finished, though. ‘I’m going to ring my travel agent and ask to move to a different hotel,’ he blathers. ‘They didn’t tell me that there wouldn’t be Wi-Fi.’
In the midst of this conversation, on the other side of reception, the people with the Wakefield accents start talking very loudly about penis piercings.
On Sunday I meet Laura and we go to the market in Porta Portese. The market itself isn’t overly impressive – it’s the kind where you really have to hunt of you want to dig out the bargains amongst the crap, a lot like a British car boot sale. But Lidia has already told me that she hasn’t visited the market for ten years because it is now ‘dirty’, so I am prepared , and I do manage to track down a few things – a couple of bracelets, a red dress printed with elephants, and a used leather satchel bag that I barter down from twenty euros (a good price in the first place –leather!) to just eleven. It is my favourite purchase so far in Rome, and in the week that I’ve owned it it has hardly left my arm. It is beaut. I never thought I could develop such a strong attachment to a handbag so quickly, but there you are.
We find a cute arty cafe afterwards (love, love, love Transtevere) and have an espresso, before heading back over the river. Laura has been perfecting her British accent and she tests it out on me now – unfortunately it still sounds very much like an American being ‘British’. Sorry mate!
After she leaves I go into Feltrinelli and leave with a book called Rome Tales, which includes stories from the days of the Roman Empire and leads right up to the present day. The amount of reading I’m doing here is ridiculous. When Diane leaves after her visit next week she’s going to be laden down with books to take home. I’m currently on Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves, a study of the lives of women in classical antiquity. I picked it up last year at the Roman Baths (in Bath) when I was on the BBC placement, and I’m actually glad it has taken me a year to get round to reading it. If I read it before last year’s women’s writing module or even before I was in Rome I don’t think I would have appreciated it half as much.
Afterwards I sit in a cafe near Piazza Venezia and read the GWWS book over a Panini – and then my card gets rejected by the chip and pin machine. Aargh! I swear that was a substantial amount of money in it when I left England, and I’ve only used it in Hollister and for the Rome Tales book – so I’m fairly confused about what is going on. A slight dilemma presents itself in that I now have three euros in my purse and two weeks until payday. Eeek.
I walk home via the Colloseum and stop to read again in the park by the Domus Aurea. I feel that a lot of walking/ reading in parks will be done over the next few days.
I realise on Monday that I am rediscovering the glorious joy of wasting time whilst I’m in Rome. After three years of deadline/ exams/ lectures, by the end of my time at Lancaster I was finding it difficult, unless I was actually out and socialising, to actually relax. I was starting to think that I had forgotten how. This week, though, I am recapturing the art of the long, lazy lie-in. It is beautiful, and it means I have more energy for the twins when my working day starts at 4pm. Weirdly, my eyes look healthier.
On Monday after school we make rice crispy cakes. B&B are very excited about this, and despite half the chocolate getting consumed before it even reaches the pan the cakes come out fairly successfully. They are extremely gooey. ‘Three kilos of fat,’ Lidia says as we eat them later. I think this is a fairly accurate assessment.
I am performing the nightly battle to get B&B to brush their teeth when Alberto comes into the bathroom. ‘A fucking bird has shit on my head and on my coat,’ he says. ‘Fucking bird!’
And this is Monday.
Tuesday doesn’t start well for the Bellomos (as if being shat on by a bird wasn’t bad luck enough). At lunch I find out that Bea accidentally slammed the car door on Bene’s head as they were getting out for school. When we pick them up the lump is obvious and Bene is in a subdued mood. I don’t know what to do – I hate seeing them sad.
Since yesterday’s baking was a success, over dinner I ask whether they would like to do it again next week, and if so what different things they’d like to put in the cakes. Bene would like fragole– strawberries. Yes, excellent, strawberries we can do. White chocolate and fragola rice crispy cakes, perhaps?
And what would Bea like to put in?
She thinks for a few seconds: ‘Carrot.’
Carrot. CARROT. Whilst I applaud her healthy outlook, I don’t exactly feel that carrot goes with strawberries and chocolate, or with rice crispies.
‘A carrot cake?’ I ask, against my better judgement, because, and it may come as a shock since I am quite clearly such a domestic goddess when it comes to rice crispy cakes, I have never made a cake of the traditional variety –with butter, flour, eggs, etc.
Disgusting, I know. But I’ve never felt the overwhelming urge to domesticate myself, and if I want a cake I’ll buy one, thanks. Most of the time, this is sufficient.
Not in this case, however.
‘Yes,’ Bea says. ‘Carrot cake.’