How long does one need to visit a city? Two days? Four days? A week? Can you ever truly know a city? ‘When a man is tired of London he is tired of life.’ The immortal words of Samuel Johnson were full of the promise of endless interest in the city. And perhaps it is true. Though most visitors arrive, spend a few days, and then claim to have ‘done’ or ‘seen’ London. But perhaps they are right. To fully know an important city is nigh on impossible.
One month and one week of filming in Italy was not enough time to ever truly know anywhere - every day a new town, a new village, a new landscape. Fleeting moments of understanding and exposure. A shot glass of flavour where I would have preferred a pint. But that was the nature of the job. And to relax? More travelling.
‘Maybe it would be better not to see Rome than spend just a day?’ Said the director, beaten and beleaguered by so many days of driving.
And maybe he had a point. To flirt with the idea of the city or hold off and wait until it could be ‘done’ properly. It was a dilemma. But not for me. I would rather dip my toes in if I could than ignore the river all together.
Three rest days. Three cities. Three flying visits.
To visit Florence in a day might seem a ludicrous proposition. To see it in half a day, madness. I incurred wrath from my colleagues as I expressed a marked indifference to visiting the great galleries there. Yes, there is a David and of course I’d be delighted to see a Botticelli, but there was no time. To waste limited hours or good weather indoors is something that I neither like nor understand. I visit places to see the places, not to spend time in a museum reading information or learning things I could have read in a book or online. Apart from the great galleries and museums of the world - Hermitage, Natural History Museum, Louvre, Prado - I rarely head inside.
Florence first arrived as a panorama and a view. Its details fuzzied by distance, it seemed a pretty line of tiled roofs relaxing by the emerald Arno so busied with bridges. Then turrets and spires and domes prodding a fluffy sky and stretching back to an arm of green hills. Hiding away in a backstreet on the far side of the river, away from the tourist hordes, a restaurant. We gleefully wasted two hours eating: a gargantuan sharing platter of cold meats, pates, sauces, cheeses and salads; a slow-cooked duck ragu; white wine and then tiramisu.
Then to the centre. Handsome but underwhelming. For a city so often heralded as one of the most beautiful in the world I expected more. After Bath, Saint Petersburg, San Sebastian, Santiago de Compostela, Porto, and so many European treasures perhaps I had become hard to impress. Attractive yes, but marred by the abundance of tourist-pandering shops and stalls. A thin film of artificiality and tackiness was coating the detail.
The river was fine and its sheer sides added a charming Italianate air with their pretty windows and pastel colours. And then the ponte vecchio: a shame if there ever was one. Gorgeous from afar, fascinating in concept, and tragic up close. This shop-covered medieval bridge must have once rung with the sounds of local businesses and artisans peddling their wares. Nowadays every shop sells jewellery from glittering windows. The soul has fled.
Disappointment lingered in the mouth through more fine streets full of chain stores, street-sellers and hawkers offering selfie sticks. Any negative energy was finally dispelled with the arrival of the cathedral. Never before had my eyes landed on such a building. An architectural punch in the gut that left me winded. Bilbao’s Guggenheim, Saint Petersburg’s riverfront reflected in the Neva, the Palace of Westminster, even the chateaux of the Loire at times have left me near speechless or verging on some childish brink of insanity. Nothing can prepare one for the cathedral of Florence. Every inch of the marble facade, every grand flank of the nave, and all the inches up the campanile are decorated. Arches, windows, statues and frescoes all coloured in soft green, bone white and salmon pink. Emilio de Fabris, the great show off. So clean and so perfect it appears a painting not a building. Then Bruelleschi’s dome, grand and tiled and terracotta, sitting atop and capping the Gothic wonderland without the slightest hint of subtlety. If one thing redeemed Florence it was that building. Santa Maria del Fiore hauled the city out of its acceptable prettiness and tourist smotherings to become a place I will visit again. Next time to head inside.
The Eternal City was never going to be conquered in a day so at the beginning I didn’t even try. A Friday night was spent absorbing some of the colours and bohemian stylings of the charming Trastevere area and the following morning was passed on a food tour through the unattractive but fascinating working-class neighbourhood of Testaccio. Under a generous sunny sky I ate a cornetto, a chocolate tiramisu cup, pizza, cold cuts and cheese, bruschetta, caprese, canoli, a suppli, pasta and gelato. Though I had planned on merely wandering, the pressure of Rome got to me and come the early hours of the afternoon I felt I needed to walk.
Rome is a city whose history is layered and whose monuments are falling over themselves. Again there would be no time to enter, but Rome is that magical thing: an open air museum. The Palatine Hill, the Circus Maximus and its ghosts of chariots. Then the great theatre of bloodletting and Roman entertainment the Colosseum: so known yet so impressive. Hawkers everywhere and tourists. But space. Out on a limb the great Flavian monster begins the mess of history that makes Rome that most unique of places.
Both mesmerising and disorientating the area from then on is a succession of the ancient and sublime: the Roman skeletons of the Forum hold court over a vast array of separate government and public buildings now in impressive tatters side by side churches and basilicas from various later centuries 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th. Pretenders to the throne of history. Then, to top off all the bombast is the absurd and wildly entertaining memorial palace to that unifying king Emanuele II.
Apart from that perfectly-preserved, yet perfectly over-peopled, Pantheon, the Romans then graciously give way to the more familiar European winding cobble streets of Sant’Eustachio and Ponte neighbourhoods. Here I feel at home. Winding alleys, tucked away coffee shops and bars, hidden churches and that always pleasing experience of bursting out into a grand piazza unannounced.
The sun starts to dip. Time still enough if my legs carry me quick. A bridge spanning the Tevere showing the glowing muscles of the Castel Sant’Angelo. On, on to that most silly of countries, that most ridiculous centre of the wrong kind of might, The Vatican City. A space so large and empty inside that its beauty stuns you into a stupor, not spiritual in any way, but impressive and maybe terrifying. Gold and high arches, statues and vastness. An architectural ode to one of the world’s greatest powers.
Rome. Indescribable but as a walkthrough catalogue of history and beauty. Again, I will be back.
Emilia-Romagna is that part of Italy where all the famous foods live. Parma ham, Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, and, perhaps most ubiquitous of all, Bolognese sauce. It is that part of Italy that is more deserving of fame. Indeed, most could not point it out on a map. A thick wedge of a region that stretches from the east coast almost to the west and bearing the names of cities famous but not legendary: Modena, Ferrara, Parma, Reggio-Emilia and Bologna.
The sky was heavy and grey that day in Bologna and threw down drops at intervals. Light had been sucked away yet the bright and colourful walls still did their best to look appealing. The city is orange, brown and yellow. A warren of ancient streets that seem to have been forgotten by time and yet hide boutiques and shops curl away from the base of the two leaning towers. 97m up one surveys the city; an overblown Lucca - tiles and churches and towers and close by hills. Then rain.
To find food the city was traversed via its infinite porticos, brick humps bouncing their way throughout the centre. ‘You can cross Bologna without ever getting wet’ said a friend once. In the restaurant there was only one thing to be ordered: lasagne alla bolognese. The legendary slow-cooked meat, vegetable and tomato sauce that is served with a variety of pastas but never spaghetti.
The world now grim and grey there was time enough to scatter ourselves amid the raindrops and run to the unattractive bulk of the cathedral and pretend we could see the medieval buildings in the Piazza Maggiore under the construction work. Without umbrellas the only option was to hurry through the gleaming lanes and escape the endearing city of arches.
The briefest of visits to a pleasant huddle of history badly treated by the skies. I probably won’t return, yet were I passing under a blue sky I may well run back to those porticos and scale that tower again.