Why is it that the British love Italy, especially Tuscany, so much? Is it that the Italians appear, on the surface at least, so different to us – so much more openly emotional and less straight-laced? Whatever the reason, for centuries now the British have been flocking to and falling in love with Italy, and I am not in the slightest bit ashamed to say I am one of them.
I’d been to Italy once before – to Chiavari, on the Ligurian coast, for a triathlon training week. We had cycled up into the hills, cycled to Portofino and, most notably, arisen early every morning to go swimming (there was at least one day when I didn’t). I had always wanted to go back again and I also have a long-held ambition of learning Italian (on my bucket list is the desire to do another degree, French and Italian joint honours). This ambition started at University when I had done Italian at evening classes for a bit and been offered a month’s funded placement in Perugia to learn Italian, that for one reason and another never transpired. Having been intermittently learning Italian by CD in the car, now seemed the time to do something about it instead of just dreaming about it. So I went along to Cafe Lingo at Tullie House and was recommended a particular Italian teacher Patrizia Guasti, a.k.a. Italy Uncovered.
As luck would have it, when I emailed her to ask which classes she taught and what level I might be, she suggested I go to Italy for a week to have lessons out there with her. Perfect – and the itinerary of trips she proposed looked great too.
So September 12th saw me at Leeds-Bradford airport waiting for a flight to Pisa and feeling a bit nervous. Part of me wondered what on earth I was doing – leaving the kids for a week; flying off on my own to meet complete strangers; spending money I didn’t really have. The other part of me was excited.
Arriving in Italy
I was seated next to a Doctor on the aeroplane, who was flying out with his wife to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary and her 50th birthday. We got chatting, discussing the world which was lying below us like a map, and where hardly a cloud obscured the view of the English Channel, Lake Geneva, the Alps… On landing my excitement rose. There was that Mediterranean feel around us, which I haven’t experienced for several years, but which I love: the heat, the sun, the cicadas, the smell, the colours.
I was staying at Isola, which is on the plain between Pisa and Florence, not far off the ‘Fi-Pi-Li’ auroroute. One of the first things we did was visit the supermarket at Empoli, a modern and typically bland structure, but somehow Mediterranean supermarkets always manage to be better than those at home. Do the French and Italians really have better food or do we just think they do? It certainly always seems to taste better, but then wine often tastes better in its country of origin than at home – how many times have you bought a bottle you liked abroad, only to be really disappointed in it at home?
Lessons began the following morning and the pattern for most of the week was set with a 3-3.5 hour lesson each morning followed by a trip out somewhere for the afternoon and evening. Having originally thought that I was being a bit extravagant splashing out on this holiday, I rapidly realised that I had got a real bargain. How many holidays offer you accommodation, 1:1 or 1:2 language lessons, trips out and about and a knowledgeable local ‘tour guide’? I felt like a privileged guest rather than a holiday maker.
The nearest medieval town was San Miniato, so that was where we headed on the Tuesday afternoon. There’s a lift from the car park up to the Old Town, and we then climbed up the steps of a tower to look at the view. This is where the Slow Food Movement started but also I loved the sculptured head with the coin for transporting you across the Styx in the afterlife, and the plaque mounted on the tower which states that the children believed that the only hope for life was in love (la sola speranza della vita resta l’amore).
Paragliding and Lucca
Wednesday was my birthday and after the morning’s lesson we headed off, with my teacher’s 80-year-old father, to go paragliding in the hills just outside Lucca. I hadn’t paraglided since I was in New Zealand in 1994 but I remembered loving it, so I hoped I would this time too. As we climbed higher and higher into the hills I wondered whether this was something I really wanted to do: it looked like a long way down. As I held on to the parachute prior to take off the wind grabbed it and nearly lifted me, which made me realise how strong it was. As soon as we took off I loved the whole sensation; when the instructor did some acrobatic spins I felt the g-force but had a broad grin on my face. It was expensive, but definitely something I want to do more of!
Lucca had a festival on which meant a lot of market stalls selling rubbish (and some selling decent stuff), but we found our way through the crowds to arrive in the main square of the old town. It was gorgeous. The old walls still exist, with a wide walkway on top which was being used in the evening sunlight for walking, running or just sauntering, and the main square isn’t actually a square but an oval shape. It was built on the old Roman amphitheatre and so is, not surprisingly, called La Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. As it was still warm and sunny we sat in a cafe and watched the world going by.
Village, town, city
If I had thought Lucca was lovely, I was about to have my mind blown away. The following day, Thursday, there was no lesson but instead we set out in the morning to travel to Certaldo. We walked towards the Palazzo Pretorio and as we got nearer could hear singing. It was only recorded, but added atmosphere to an already atmospheric building, with its contrasting accommodation of a women’s prison with no light, court rooms and then rooms for the wealthy, and then modern artworks alongside all the history. Boccaccio died in this village, where you can visit his house; pilgrims walking from Canterbury to Rome still pass through.
From Certaldo we progressed to Monteriggioni, stopping outside the town to get a photo of its perfect ancient walls and then having lunch and admiring more views once we were inside. It’s one of the locations for a video game, Assassin’s Creed, and whilst I couldn’t find anything for Alex in the shop, I bought a green wood bow and arrow set for Edward. It really was how you might imagine, or draw, a medieval town.
The next stop was in Siena. We parked in the more modern part of the city and walked through the city walls into the old centre. Here cars seemed to be limited as cyclists and pedestrians meandered up the middle of the streets, moving to one side when a motor vehicle could be heard. The streets were old and narrow, the buildings seeming high because of the limited width. Colourful flags hung from some; and round every corner, as with so much, it seems, of Italy, something beautiful would be seen.
We rounded a corner and there, suddenly, was the gorgeous Duomo, its facade like a wedding cake and its black and white marble stunning in the sun. To the rear, at the top of the steps which drop down to the Piazza del Campo, a violinist was playing. I did the tour of the roof space, gaining a bird’s eye view of the highly decorated floor of the Duomo, and we then went up the tower which forms part of the originally proposed extension to the Duomo, which was never completed. Wandering around Siena was fantastic, with a ‘wow’ factor at every corner. Small wonder that I took loads of photos, and that we all voted to go back there again for dinner a couple of days later.
Florence in the rain
The following day the two of us who were students were sent off by train from Empoli to Florence, to fend for ourselves and with a list of items we had to find, ideally by asking directions in Italian. We were so proud of ourselves when we got it right and Italians spoke back to us in Italian! In one shop I managed to explain what I needed in terms of a t-shirt for my son; we found the lucky pig; and we sheltered from the suddenly torrential rain in a ridiculously expensive cafe.
The day after we headed in a southerly direction again, this time visiting San Gimignano en route to Siena. More towers to climb, more fantastic views to admire, more ice cream to eat: my appetite has been whetted to learn far more about the history of this area as well as about the regional foods.
On the final day the lesson started later than normal and we then went out into the hills of chianti country for a wine-tasting. This wasn’t like wine tastings I have been to at home, where you get a small taster glass of lots of wines; here it was a generous measure of the vineyard’s rose, red and superior red wine and then the vin santo, all accompanied by local food. The proprietess explained the entire wine-making process to us in detail in Italian, which was great: I didn’t understand it all by any means but understood enough to appreciate how much I had learnt in a week. And a couple of glasses of wine gave me the confidence to speak more Italian as well!
We then returned to have dinner at the restaurant we had gone to on my first day, before packing for return flights the following morning. I hadn’t seen the leaning tower of Pisa, been in the Uffizi, or visited the thermal baths to the south of Siena… but I had seen so much and could have spent many more hours sitting sipping espressos and wine in Piazzas and watching the world going by.
It’s a stunning country with beauty around every corner, a musical language and delicious food and drink, as well as a warmer climate than the UK. Small wonder so many of us fall in love with it and contemplate living there. I hope one day – before too long – I’ll return.