Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Art, Sea and a Train Strike

   Castiglioncello, a charming seaside resort, home to Tuscan Impressionist (Macchiaiolo) art patrons and artists during the second half of the 19th century, traditionally hosts a summer art show regarding the movement.  This year Elke and I were invited to a press conference on the Tommasi cousins, post-Macchiaioli painters who were strongly influenced
 and inspired by the style. 

       There happened to be a train strike on the day, Friday, July 22.  There was shuttle service to and from Castiglioncello for journalists but we wished to remain after the press lunch in order to spend a couple hours on the beach.

     The shuttle service was at the end of track 16 at Florence's Santa Maria Novella train station, so I arrived early to make inquiries about coming back on a train during the strike (sciopero).

      Unable to find the information office, I asked two Trenitalia conductors, immediately identifiable by their uniforms.  In a strong Roman accent, they admitted to being out-of-towners and unfamiliar with the local lay of the land.  The Roman train employees, however, were kind enough to share a secret (at least it was still a secret to me, even after 25 years in Italy).

      Certain trains are "guaranteed," they said, just look for the G on the official timetable listing.  I looked and they were right--but no guaranteed trains were stopping that day in Castiglioncello.

  I went to a newsstand where a tourist was perusing an official timetable, kindly lent by the kiosk's young employee.  After he finished, I asked to see it as well, and noticed there were a few "guaranteed" trains leaving in the early evening from Pisa and Livorno.  "We just have to find out how to get there from Castiglioncello," I thought.

The show in a neo-Gothic castle with park in Castiglioncello was beautiful (watch for a complete commentary to follow shortly in a separate post).

I went to a Castiglioncello newsstand, where I was told that there was bus service to Livorno and that we needed to buy tickets at the tabacchi (see Pino's Stamp).  There, I also purchased the fat train time table that I had flipped through in Florence for 2 euro, a bargain!  I noticed there was a guaranteed train leaving Livorno at 7:05 pm.  We were assured by the lady at the tabacchi that taking the 6:08 bus to Livorno would only take a half an hour, plenty of time.

Well, the bus took nearly 50 minutes and the final stop was Piazza Grande, not even the Station!  Elke and I ran towards a parked taxi, but the car was empty, where was the driver?  Luckily, Elke saw a # 2 bus with the final destination Stazione, and we jumped on it, arriving however at 7:10 at destination, just missing the guaranteed train.  Oh my God!

Outwardly calm, Elke went over to the station monitor where we saw many trains were either canceled or had more than an hour's delay BUT there was one guaranteed train to Florence departing a little after 8 pm.  So we went to get something to eat in one of Tuscany's darkest and most unattractive train stations--it resembled a relic of industrial archeology.  As we listened to annoucements of more train delays, the guaranteed train arriving from Piombino en route to Florence pulled into the station on time.  A miracle!

In the second column to the left, on the bottom, looking closely, a G in a box is visible.
Well, although we had stamped our tickets. of course no conductor came to check--they were all on strike too.  At every station, the train sat for an extra 5-10 minutes in protest, and I prayed that it would start moving again.  Photographer Elke and I were thankful to arrive in Florence four hours after departing Castiglioncello in what normally would have been a 2 hr. and 20 minute journey.  This was the first time I had ever ventured out during a train strike, it had gone relatively well and I learned something!
Look for the upcoming post on the Tommasi show.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Florence Straw Hat

      When I first started working as a professional journalist in Florence in the 1980s, for several years my office was a room in my home outside Porta Romana.  As most of my reporting was in the city center, before the era of café lunches, as I walked around, I was forced to take the bus home for lunch and to rely on the rest rooms of friends employed in downtown offices.
Young and carefree, I didn't mind.

     During those years I was asked to start Florence's first newspaper in English, Florenscape, which, due to popular request, was later transformed in a magazine as the precursor the of present Vista, Florence & Tuscany.  Photographer Andrea Pistolesi and I did an article on the "Florence Straw Hat,"  a craft which originated at Signa (province of Florence) in the 1700s.  It was there that a cottage industry started where women at home began to braid straw, creating a fashion classic.

       Andrea and I found a shop on via della Vigna Nuova which still carried hand-braided Florence straw hats, Paoli (now closed).  Upon assignment's end, Sig.ra Paoli gave me an authentic Florence straw hat.  When I finally opened an office between the Cathedral and Santa Croce, I symbolically found a place to "hang my hat,"  where it remains to the day.

    Again during that period, I reported on the performance of the operetta Florence Straw Hat, music by Nino Rota, at the Fiesole Summer Festival, although I actually did not attend the performance.  Several days ago, I finally saw it at the Teatro Comunale, Florence's Opera House (last performance tonight).

       At the press conference, I discovered that there is a Florence Straw Hat Consortium, a group of firms in and around Signa that still produce hand-crafted straw hats to this day.  The Consortium donated the hats used in the performance and set up an historical exhibition in the theater's foyer.

Scheduled in tribute to Nino Rota, Oscar winner for the movie score of The Godfather Part II as well as the composer of numerous other movies scores, many of which were commissioned by Federico Fellini, Florence Straw Hat on stage at the Comunale was a sheer delight to watch.

       The operetta was performed and staged by the promising young talents of 
Maggioformazione, the theater school.

After enjoying the beautiful production, there was a surprise waiting for the audience back outside in the theater's foyer.  For this special occasion, the craftsmen working for firms belonging to the Consortium created the world's largest Florence Straw Hat.

I don't know if anyone has yet notified
the Guinness Book of Records.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Allons Enfants de la Patrie....

  As editor and publisher of Tuscany's English-language magazine Vista. Florence & Tuscany, I, along with the office staff, were invited to join in the festivities of Bastille Day.  It was celebrated by the local French community in Florence at a cocktail party on July 13, the evening before
 the actual French national holiday on July 14.  

The setting for the party was Villa Finaly, located above New York University's Villa la Pietra on via Bolognese.  Photographer Elke, Natalia, and myself caught bus 25 barely in time to make the party from Piazza San Marco.  As the bus climbed the hill north of downtown Florence, we entered into an area of historic villas, private and public, with a birds-eye view of the city.  We arrived at Villa Finaly and discovered that it hosts 
the University of Paris, which attracts research scholars.

To get to the reception outside we walked through this beautiful building,  Out on the lawn, Villa Finaly's director Francoise Levert, gave a speech of welcome, first in French, then in Italian.  She was followed by Honorary French Consul Anita Dolfus, who explained, again first in French, then in Italian, that Florence's French Institute on Borgognissanti was established over 100 years ago as the oldest French cultural institution outside France.  She spoke of the Institute's notable French library, language classes, annual French film festival and piano festival as well as the new premises of the French International School in Florence.  She also revealed that she would be leaving her post in Florence and returning to France.  Is that why the resident French community (and us) were celebrating Bastille Day a day early?  We were never to find out...

     Levert's and Dolfus's speeches were followed by a heartfelt rendition of the French national anthem 
by a French chorus...

...and a rousing performance of the Italian national anthem Fratelli d'Italia by a local Florentine chorus,
La Marinella.

This, of course, was followed by a reception featuring French food and wine, 
with the accent on quiches, cheese and fruit. 

I don't know if the pink champagne that I sipped was donated by Frenchwoman Annie Feolde (in attendance) of the Enoteca Pinchiorri, but some of the bottles were.

Francoise Levert was a gracious hostess, chatting amiably in French with French residents of Florence, whom she seemed to know well.  After all she arrived at the Villa Finaly close to 10 years ago, revealing for the occasion, that, like Anita Dolfus, she too would be leaving Florence.

Viva la France!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Hot Night, A Cool Dance Performance

     There was not a breath of fresh air on a hot summer's night in downtown Florence.  With no fountain like the Trevi in Rome to jump into when driven by desperation from the heat, residents not on vacation as well as tourists needed entertainment.  Maybe that's why the performance by the Rome Ballet in the courtyard of the Bargello museum was completely sold out, leaving standing room only.

     The event was part of the 22th annual Florence Dance Festival, which is under the guidance of artistic directors Keith Ferrone, an American, and his wife, Marga Nativa, former prima ballerina at Florence's Teatro Comunale.  Every summer, the couple are committed to showcasing contemporary dance in this Renaissance city by inviting visiting companies from all over the world.

Photographer Elke and I enjoyed the athletic grace of dancers interpreting Schubert's Ave Maria.  Right before the intermission was a contemporary Tango Suite, also featuring male dancers in red high heel shoes.  As the dancers were constantly moving, they were difficult to photograph.

      The Bargello has a unique history that many locals are not even aware of.  Despite its fortified and austere look, the medieval building is home to a superb collection of sculptures from the Florentine Renaissance.  The 13th century building primarily acted the city’s town hall and palace for the Florence’s Magistrate.  However, the city’s prison was also located here and executions took place in the center of the courtyard for 500 years.  In 1865, the building was converted to Italy’s first national museum and boasts works from Michelangelo, Giambologna, Donatello, Cellini and terracotte by della Robbia.

 The audience enjoyed the performance, fascinated by the muscular acrobatics of the dancers.  Through the camera lens, Elke noted the stage make-up and wondered how it remained intact without melting in the heat.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Little Bit of America in Florence

      In this land of two-hour (even three-hour) lunch breaks, what's a body to do when faced with a deadline?  Angela, Tara and myself were busy working on an upcoming issue of Vista, Florence & Tuscany, with no time to go out in a non-take-out culture.
What to do?

      I suddenly remembered that one of my favorite Florentine cafés, Café Deluxée had just started a take out establishment in a new separate location, offering some of Deluxée's most requested items:  bagel sandwiches, hamburgers and salads for both lunch and dinner.  We decided to try this avant-garde (for Florence) service, calling Il Panino Tondo at 055/535.85.85.  Owner Samuele answered, and I placed an order for two bacon, egg and cheese bagel sandwiches and another bagel sandwich with smoked swordfish and shredded zucchini.

      Punctually, at 12:45 pm, a delivery woman arrived at our office on Borgo degli Albizi, bearing a thermal bag. 

     She took out a bag of still warm bagel sandwiches which tasted right out of the oven.

"The bagel is incredible," said Tara.  "I especially like the barbeque sauce.  Take-out food in America never tastes this good."

Looking at the flyer that I took the number from to call, we discovered that most of the orders are placed online.

The only thing that would be needed is an English translation.....

Monday, July 4, 2011

Colle Val d'Elsa: A Real Town, A Fake Festival

    The light in Colle Val d'Elsa on July 2 was nearly the same as on December 18, when photographer Marco Giacomelli and I were snowed in when covering this Tuscan town for an upcoming issue of Vista, Florence & Tuscany.  What were Elke and I doing here months later?  At the Montelupo ceramics festival (see June 27 post), a random basket weaver told us about a
 "Renaissance Festival."

    I called my contact in Colle, who answered despite the fact he was on vacation.  Mr. Rabazzi gave me a person to talk to regarding a "Renaissance Festival," which he said was run by a company which organizes medieval events throughout Tuscany.  "We stipulated that it should be 'Renaissance'," he said.

     When Elke and I arrived, we took a shuttle bus to up historic Colle (which means hill in Italian) and enjoyed the beautiful views from the town, which, apart from a few Renaissance buildings, is basically medieval in architecture.  Why, then, was the name of the event changed?  We were never to find out...

      Despite the advertising posters, Elke and I soon realized that this was a mock-up of a medieval event in an actual medieval town.  Luckily we had press passes, otherwise admission was 9 euro per adult (children free).

        Colle Val d'Elsa was the authentic medieval stage, a perfect movie set for  amateur actors and actresses walking around in period costume.  The admission including entrance to a market featuring stands selling products medieval and not.

       We saw a man forging and asked him if he was a blacksmith.  He replied, Ci prova, faccio finta ("I am trying my best, this is make believe.")

      We found the basket weaver we had met in Montelupo, still demonstrating his craft and selling his baskets, although this time he was wearing medieval costume.    Born in Sicily, Giorgio Lasalla moved to this Tuscan town as a child, where he learned the craft of basket weaving.

      Colle Val d'Elsa is actually world renowned for its handcrafted crystal, and we found an outdoor demonstration, which is usually scheduled on the first Sunday of the month.

    We went to the Archeological Museum, which displayed reproductions of Etruscan funeral urns found in Florence, as well as fragments of locally found pottery more than 2,000 years old.

      The museum could definitely use an update;  its most impressive feature was the view out the window....

     We quickly walked through the nearby Civic Museum.  Apart from a painting of the Deposition, a Pietà by Rodolfo Ghirlandaio, I liked an unusually tender portrayal of the Madonna and Child, painted in the early Renaissance (1430), using realism in the context of then-outdated Gothic style
 by Ventura di Moro.

     Back outside, past some "medieval" pilgrims, we started walking down from Colle, leaving the historic town behind us.

    Near the gate, we stopped for something to drink at a café and found that bartender dressed to play the part.

      Photographer Marco Giacomelli and I made many interesting discoveries in Colle Val d'Elsa this past December (to be published this Christmas in Vista). so my advice is to definitely visit (SITA bus from the Florence train station), but not during the
 'Renaissance' festival.