Friday, December 31, 2021

Looking Back on Tuscany, 2021


Well, this blog is called "Beautiful Florence -- Tuscan Living, from Rosanna's perspective," so as an end of the year post, I will concentrate on memories from this year in Tuscany.

These recollections began in July, as the first half of the year Tuscany was either in the "red" or "orange" zone.  Designed to contain COVID contagions, residents were not allowed to travel outside their town or city of residence, except for work, health or emergency reasons.  Now, as a journalist with a press pass, I could have faked it, but chose not to.  Hence, apart from press conferences in Prato and Montalcino in June, my first trip for pleasure was in July.  Robert Shackelford invited me on a Harding school trip to the Casentino.

Casentino is an area of wooded hills and mountains, interspersed with a lush valley and scattered hamlets.  It is also the source of the Arno River, and is also known for its authentic medieval castles. 

The photo above is of Romena Castle, built on its present site in 1152 atop a previous fortification from 1008 A.D.   Dante Alighieri was a guest at this castle, which belonged in the Guidi counts, and cites a village in the immediate surroundings in the Divine Comedy's Inferno.  Unlike Inferno (or: Hell), it was a cool place on a hot summer's day.  The castle can be visited from April 1 to October 31 for the modest price of €3.  Obviously the owner, Niccolò Goretti de' Flamini is not interested in exploiting history for $$$ unlike Disney World.

My next trip, this time for a week in early September, was to Seccheto on the island of Elba.  A small village on the sea situated between Cavoli and Fetovaia, it has been my vacation retreat for over 20 years.  This year I was able to go a little later than usual as interns were not arriving in the office until at least mid-September due to the chaos generated by COVID.

To say I was bone tired when I arrived would be about right.  I revived on the shore of the sea.

Now, this looks like an ad for Acqua dell'Elba cologne but I actually took the photo with my I phone.

I stayed seven nights, two of which were paid by the Italian government under the bonus vacanza program as a compensation to hotel owners and clients whose earnings took a nosedive thanks to the pandemic.  The entire bill, after the deduction, taking into account a hearty breakfast, a full Italian dinner (mainly fish) was around €550.  This included a patio outside the room with a lounger, a table and chairs (useful at lunchtime) and a drying rack.  It also comprised a beach umbrella, which I promptly went down and planted on the shore just before breakfast.

The lone open white beach umbrella and orange chair is mine.  Now you know why I was able to get the beautiful picture of the transparent water.

As the autumn was incredibly mild, and I was inspired to go the beach again, this time in Castiglioncello. which is closer to Florence, because of a bad fall.

I slipped over the edge of a stone sidewalk on my bad knee (injured in a 2008 fall), came down on that knee and my lower back went smack against the stone curb in Florence's historical center.  OUCH! 

This happened outside the pharmacy across from the "Straw Market" under the Loggia del Mercato Nuovo.  The market is best know for its "Porcellino" statue (which is actually a wild boar, not a pig), that one rubs for good luck and to return to Florence.  Here, my manicured hand on the bronze snout is posing for photographer Andrea Pistolesi.

While the Porcellino surveyed my fall, unmoved, I was in pain.  This propelled me to Castiglioncello to dive into 62°- 60° Fahrenheit degree water (freezing by Italian standards, but not by the standards of beaches I've frequented on Long Island, Massachusetts and certainly not Maine, the absolute coldest) to relieve the pain.  I went twice, on the 16th and the 30th of October!  I was desperate, but it turned out to be a blessing as you can see below.  And, yes, it was warm enough that my bathing suit dried in the soft sun light.

Wearing rubber sandals because of the rocky bottom -- a must in Castiglioncello -- according to my doctor, upon contact with the crystal water my system went into thermal shock.  I'm not kidding -- that's what he said.  I like to think he meant that it was like applying an ice pack (although it wasn't that cold) to the injury.  So much for pharmaceuticals, which I don't take (except when absolutely necessary). Cold water did the trick: the dip instantly alleviated the pain, especially the first time. 

The only other persons in the water was a man in wet suit and a grandfather and his grandson, swimming like fish.

Now, my 2021 adventures in Tuscany were not limited to the sea.  In early November, the weather still beautiful, thanks to my friend Helen Burroughs, we spent a day in Chianti.

We began by driving around the gorgeous countryside, filled with fall colors, around Lamole.
The we headed for lunch in a quintessential Tuscan hill town (or in this case, village): Montefioralle, above Greve.  Tiny, hard to find parking, but wonderfully and authentically medieval as you can see by the photo below.
As my dear high school friend Angie would say, "this is Tuscany."

Montefioralle happens to be designated as one of the 308 loveliest villages in Italy.  Who wouldn't like to live here?  The places is so so small that only 79 residents call it home, and two of them are sitting outside their home on a bench as you can see.

It was time for lunch, and we discovered "Alberto's Home Restaurant."  I am not joking, there is an Alberto, resident no. 3 of Montefioralle.  He and his partner (#4 but not introduced to us although she was the server) prepare lunch in their kitchen and bring it out to guests on their patio.
Meet owner and chef Alberto.

Now, who wouldn't be happy in such a setting?
And the food!  Genuine Tuscan country food.  The menu, a surprise, that is just brought to us without choice, consisted of a wooden platter of tasty Chianti cold cuts, sweet pepper spread and homemade bread, creamy pumpkin soup with strips of crunchy bacon and croutons, and local wine in a flask made down the road
(as you can see):

followed by a terracotta dish filled with Tuscan white beans in a sauce flavored by tomatoes, topped with sausages and sage, with bread in a basket.  Homemade almond biscotti and Vin Santo dessert wine came next, and the meal ended with espresso coffee.  The actual stovetop pot arrived along with milk, sugar and an enamel espresso cup.

The entire tab came to €25 per person (and there was not even a service charge!).  Truth in advertising: a home restaurant indeed, but outside only (perfect for COVID times) with an incredible vista.

As I wrote in my intro to this blog, which I opened 10 years ago (!) in 2011, after a trip to St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands, where my heart sister, Mary Louise has a vacation home, this was my intention in starting Beautiful Florence.

This is from my intro to the blog, which you can also access by clicking the book on the home page:

"Back in the ‘80s, in the sunlight, the soul of Florence—which was the soul of humanity as expressed through the Renaissance—was completely visible.  

     At that time, as an artisan friend Agostino Dessi said, “Firenze era la più bella città del mondo” (Florence was the most beautiful city in the world).  Sadly, over the past decades, with its adaptation to mass tourism, the soul of Florence is less apparent.  Rain or shine,  Beautiful Florence does exist, and you can still find it—I am here to help you look.

       I will also help you discover the Tuscan soul in the countryside, cities, villages and coast, where it still strongly evident."

The last line, especially in this difficult moment of the pandemic, is what inspired me to look back
 on times in Tuscany 2021.  Hopefully, beautiful Tuscany will be safer to visit thanks to new rules and regulations to fight the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant which will go into effect in 
10 days time.

While experiencing change, Tuscany is unchanging as you can see from the view of the Chianti countryside from "Alberto's Home Restaurant" in Montefioralle, a hill town, which, despite my work, was somewhere I had never been to before in Tuscany.

Isn't that something?  One of the many reasons I fell in love with region is that in some places, as in the view of the hills above, the landscape (minus the olive trees) is reminiscent of the Hudson Valley, where I grew up.

This moment, too, will pass.  And Tuscany will be waiting for us.

                                                      -- reporting live from Beautiful Florence


Saturday, December 25, 2021

Looking Back on 2021 in Florence Through Street Art


It's the Christmas season in Florence: one that is the usual shiny and bright, mirrored by the installation and decorations above on via Tornabuoni.  After six months of Covid restrictions (December 2020 - May 2021), for the holidays the city was luminous, basking in light.  The atmosphere was positive -- that is, until the Omicron variant hit Italy 
this week.

Yet, the month had started out so well.  Tuscans flocked in ever-increasing numbers for the booster shot, but also flocked at markets, holiday events, Christmas villages and shopping.  On December 8, Patrick Zaki, an Egyptian college student at the University of Bologna, was finally freed from pre-trial detention in Cairo on trumped-up charges of subversion (i.e. freedom of thought) thanks to support by the international community and especially in Italy.

Readers of Beautiful Florence may remember that, reported in last December's Christmas blog, I came across a cardboard cutout Nativity scene at Villa Arrivabene created by Gruppo Donatello artists.   As you can see below, "Freedom for Patrick Zaky" (sic) is written on the T-shirt of the activist, with the depiction inspired by Amnesty International's poster.  

So, hope was in the air.  There was even hope for Dante Alighieri, who was finally freed from endless commemorative events, including historic exhibitions -- ostensibly designed to honor the poet and author of the Divine Comedy.  In many, if not all cases, the program was meant to attract the public and sell tickets.  Florence at a certain point even asked once more for Dante's remains back from Ravenna, where he died in exile.  Ravenna, of course, refused, much as city fathers had in 1519, when a Tuscan delegation arrived to take what was left of Alighieri back to Florence.  They found an empty sarcophagus thanks to the prompt intervention of Franciscan fathers, who had temporarily moved his bones.

Unlike what is depicted in the above piece of Florence street art, Dante was never arrested.  He chose exile as an alternative to being burnt at the stake in Florence, a punishment for being on the wrong side of the political fence.

So, until the next anniversary at least, Dante is a free citizen again.

A modern-day Dante, if not in literature but equally as influential as an environmental activist is 
Greta Thunberg, honored in Florence in 2021 as a Superwoman winking at the skeptical.  The sticker reads "the time is now! -- put your heart into it."  It, being of course, the cause to halt and even reverse climate change.

Set in a secluded spot in downtown Florence, the work is framed almost in the manner of medieval street tabernacles (still visible today) where citizens would stop, pause, and pray.  Greta herself would surely approve that the work -- seemingly a modern day fresco -- is brushed by oxygen-creating nature, 
the branch of an olive tree.

With over 50,000 new Covid cases reported in Italy on December 25 -- an all time record but with 
fewer hospitalizations and deaths that period of the pandemic before the vaccine -- the times suddenly look uncertain again.  What will the future hold?

Times are such that one may be tempted to put a life jacket around one's heart, like this piece of street art near my office, on via Verdi.  The street leads to the piazza and church Santa Croce (which also contains an empty sarcophagus and monument to Dante Alighieri, waiting for the day (over Ravenna's dead body), that the poet's remains return to Florence.  For the record, the stone sign is used to disaster -- it was nearly submerged by the waters of the great flood of Florence in 1966, when the Arno burst its banks, reaching a level of 21 ft (6.7 meters) in the historical city center.

One can also turn to history for solace. This is a fact that I discovered when researching a current mega-project spanning WWII to the pandemic in Florence. As it noted, the retreating Germans blew up every single bridge except Ponte Vecchio in and around Florence in the summer of 1944 to slow 
the Allies' advance and liberation of Tuscany.

Or so it is believed.  Actually, there is another (tiny) bridge that the Germans did not manage to destroy.  It is located in Mantignano, an old neighborhood just past Isolotto on Florence's left bank facing Ponte all'Indiano on the other side of the Arno.  Known locally as the "Ponte dei Cazzotti" (the bridge of blows, thanks to memorable fistfights, the diminutive span over the Greve river was heroically defended by partisan resistance fighters and saved.  When the soldiers of the U.S. 442nd Infantry Regiment -- a segregated and highly decorated unit comprised entirely of volunteer second generation Japanese Americans, many of whose parents were in internment camps in the U.S. for the duration of the war -- arrived, 
to create the first known graffiti in the Florence metropolitan area, still visible today.

Reputedly familiar with the 1943 Cary Grant film, "Destination Tokyo," the soldiers left their mark on the "Ponte dei Cazzotti":  Los Angeles City Limits, then underneath (partially hidden by plastic), 
Aug. '44, and to the left, their I.D:
the 442nd Regimental Combat Team (of the Infantry).

While the bridge is closed, the writing is visible to this day.  I took this photo with my I phone (as all others in this blog post), in November 2021.

Exile, war, flood -- Florence has seen it all and survived to eventually prosper 
in the brutal ups and downs 
of the cycle of life.

While the pandemic resembles a roller coaster, we can take solace in the fact that feelings as well as the physical world have survived.  Like this tower, the Torre di Pagliazzi
in via Sant'Elisabetta in the old city center of Florence, on the right of the below photo.

It was constructed between the 6th and 7th centuries A.D. on the ruins of a preexisting Roman building, either by the Longobards, a Germanic tribe, or Byzantine invaders, all of whom had dominions in modern-day Italy during that period.  Look at that stone work -- now that is patience.  

Patience enough to withstand the trials of time -- 13 centuries worth!  

Featuring a holiday glow, the tower and the adjacent building now hosts a luxury hotel 
and two-star Michelin restaurant.

We, too, shall overcome this challenging moment.

                           -- Reporting live from Beautiful Florence