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golden hooves

We’ve made it to the train to Roma. Just. It was a close run thing, and I won’t lie, I was getting mildly concerned. The ‘fast shuttle train’ from Stazione Santa Maria Novella to Stazion di Campo di Marte was running so late that some warm impatient bodies had already disembarked. So having allotted two hours for the journey, we arrived with only five minutes to spare. Admittedly, we had allowed for an essential ice-cream break (Emma chocolate/vanilla mix, me pistachio: I’d had passion fruit the night before) but I don’t think you can hold that against us.

So I’m now sat next to a freckly armed Emma, tap tapping away as she takes the opportunity for a drowsy snooze. She’s on the antihistamine after our faces, and various limbs, were ravaged by evil mosquitoes at the Santa Monaca Hostel. At one point, the bite on her arm started flashing; like a tiny little torch under her skin morse-coding that it needed to escape soon or it could be liable to explode. Not something we wanted to test out. So we made another expensive trip to the chemist. We have already invested in blister plasters, indigestion tablets (too much pasta methinks), insect bite soothing gel and headache tablets. Yep the Pharmacia’s of Italy are doing quite well out of us and our ailments so far.

Despite the proliferation of mosquitoes and the lack of water when Emma went to take a shower this morning (they worked for me, just to really be annoying), the Florence hostel was pretty good. And cheap. 17.50 euros per night and bunk-beds of proper wooden slats, instead of the sorry sunk-in-the-middle excuse for springs which we’d had in Venice. So we’ve slept pretty well.

Back in the day, the building had been a monastery and convent and they’ve left patches of the wall unplastered so you can see how characterful it must have been before they whacked out the two tier cream/bright orange paint (I still don’t understand the colour of choice: was it cheap? is it the international colour of youth hostels? is it so drunk people don’t head-butt the walls?!). Downstairs as you walk towards the communal areas, you glimpse a heavy ancient iron bell. It’s still hung over the door to the dining area, together with the stake that monks down the ages must have solemnly dong’ed to gather their brothers to eat. There’s a hatch into what is now the luggage room, which the (slightly over) friendly porter Ali informed me, was once used to serve plates of plain food through, in the dark. He told me that the whole place used to be silent, and cloaked in night all hours of the day, so those with holy souls could come and be let be.

I think Ali quite fancied his chances. Probably because I was the last one up late, blogging in the hard bench and table ‘recreation’ area (an attempt to nod a respectful cap to the previous residents perhaps?). He had worked out my name and introduced himself saying he needed to lock up. No problemo. I’m ready to go to bed anyway. My eyes are hurting and I’m wishing I had a better internal clock which would tell me when to stop my ponderings and get a good night’s kip. But then. Then he tells me something about the history and asks me if I want to see the thirteenth century church next door. Erm, yes. I’m tired, but yes I would.

He takes out a huge chinking set of keys and we go through one door into an old hall which is now used by the church scouts for their weekly activities. Then through another heavy lock into a tiny but beautiful church. The first thing my surprised eyes see is a shiny black concert piano under the alter, lid akimbo. I take a dozen steps back and lift my head back to see a faded circular fresco on the ceiling. You could almost miss it. It’s muted in the dense shadows with only half light streaming through our unlocked door. I’m not religious (and neither is Ali as he gleefully informs me) but it’s a lovely space. The silence is the comforting sort which surrounds you, womb-like from every side. It’s a privilege to experience it. He tells me that I shouldn’t let anyone know he’s shown me, as usually you have to pay. Somehow he’s holding my hand (for some stupid reason I thought he wanted to shake it, durr) and clearly is thinking that he wants to kiss me, but I manage to extricate my fingers. He tries again, with:

“You’re a nice person Dawn” (yep, thanks I know. You’d have to do better than that sunshine. And now I’m going to bed. Thank you for the view.)

“I’m tired. I really need to go to bed now. Early start in the morning!”

“You don’t look tired.”

“Oh. I am. Really really tired. Thanks for showing me this though. It’s really lovely” firmly walking back out of this old sanctuary and it’s centuries of secrets, and into the yellow light of the hostel and my single bunk bed. By myself. Thanks all the same. Can’t blame a guy for trying I guess. Somehow I thankfully manage to avoid him for the rest of our stay. The church was cool. Possibly unlike his intentions.

We went to Siena on our third day in Florence. The station for Siena, isn’t in Siena, it turns out after a long walk, multiple directions to ‘il centro’, and later-than-would-have-been-sensible consultation of the Lonely Planet. Who knew?

Emma was a little non-fussed, but with medieval ladies and knights populating the castle turrets atop every tall tall building, me and my imagination were quite enchanted. The shallow pasta bowl of Piazza del Campo sweeps down to the doors of the Torre del Mangia. We decline to climb the 500+ steps at the cost of 8 euros per piece and eat less than satisfying pizza and gelato alongside local lovers soaking up the sunshine on the pinky cobbles. I try to picture what it would be to feel and hear scores of furious hooves clattering around you as ten contrade (opposition local factions worthy of ‘Romeo & Juliet’) compete to win the silk Palio flag bearing the Siena coat of arms. They do just three circuits of the circular square. The race is over in ninety seconds but you can see the emotional investment etched into each face in every one of the race photographs you see. Best bit of the Palio?: when a rider-less horse wins, they give him or her pride of place at the Victory Banquet, and carefully manicure their hooves in congratulatory gold. I would love to be at a banquet, sat next to a horse with golden hooves!

I pause to photograph a stunning black and white print of the race, a solid brass door bell pull set in stone and some fathers-of-fathers who’s bushy eyebrows’ learn toward the others’, guarding of the city’s secrets within shop walls lined with heavy old-world keys.

It feels so timeless. Today or 1932? I don’t think it would make much difference. Apparently the walled town largely escaped untouched from World War 2’s bombings so maybe that’s where it’s charm remains. Our wanderings take us upto the Gothic Duomo, where we unsuccessfully try to capture photos of ourseves in front of it’s zebra-striped glory, before making our way to the less-obscurely situated bus stop.

When we pull back into Florence, the sun is sinking. We make it just in time to capture the sinking light stretching into the sky and out onto the River Arno. In the day it’s waters look a murky tan but at this time of night with a long exposure it’s the warmest arc of colours.

When we came as children it was in the car, and I had totally missed what we discovered on foot: Florence is defined by the Arno which slices through it’s middle, yet it’s ecclectic traits are held together by the tenuous dozen bridges which grip one bank to the other.

Our new Florentine friend Fillipo invited us out for a drink with some friends of his last night, and both he and Pietro were horrified that we might end up leaving Florence without having climbed up to Piazzala Michelangelo to admire the panoramic vista’s which greet you at the top. So we dutifully abandoned this morning’s tenuous Palazzo Pitti’s Costume Museum plan, instead happily ambling up the (possibly 1000?) steps.

“Yeah, it would have been a shame to miss this” declares Em, despite her petulant calf muscles.

I have to agree. And then one of my best friends calls me and I hear more about the new tiny edition of baby Thomas to her life. He’s a week old but I’ve only just heard that he’s arrived. I can’t think of a better place to hear all about him. Well, other than back home so I can jump into the car to go meet him of course. In lieu of that, then this view of duomo’s, spires, marble striped buildings, artfully naked statues and a winding river held together by bridges, will just about do.

Oh, and three other things about Florence. The church on Piazza Santo Spirito (our Piazza of choice for evening aperitivo) is lit up by a single upward light at night, making it look remarkably like a giant’s white and abandoned piano accordian. The Gelateria Santa Trinita (the very same from this morning’s icecream-stop) just opposite the bridge of the same name does the best passion fruit gelato you may ever have the pleasure of wrapping your greedy little tastebuds around. And the walls of the city are punctuated by heavy iron rings which we have concluded – on no solid factual basis – must have been used to tie horses bridles to, once upon an olden-world time. Ooh, and someone with a fetish for embellishing street signs has a really good sense of humour.

Okay. Four things. Indulge me. I’m on a train to Rome.


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