“He scarcely hesitated. He was afraid to hold back, being fearful that if he waited too long this moment might never come again—or that if it did, his courage might not match his desire for knowledge.”
‘The City and the Stars’ – Arthur C. Clarke
I use Arthur C. Clark’s description of Alvin, a resident of the billion-year-old city of Diaspar, as a form of encouragement whenever I am hesitant about embarking on new and unpredictable adventures. Some will come easy; some will bear more strain—such is life. Just as Alvin, who is possibly the very last curious man left on Earth, must venture to Lys, despite the frightening uncertainty of what he might find and in spite of the daunting probability of never returning home, so, too, must I traverse the globe one tiny step at a time. We all must, because we all owe ourselves at least that much.
Saturday, November 14, 2015 – Milan
The more I travel, one thing becomes abundantly clear: There is no dignity in rushing to the airport in the early hours of the morning to catch a 6am flight. You arrive looking terrible; everyone else looks just as bad. The sight almost makes me want to laugh, because you, me, the supermodel—looking like she just ran a marathon—and the businessman—who could pass for a tramp—we are all suffering; there is no exception.
Trains, by the way, are fantastic places for writing travel journals; actually, trains are just fantastic in general. Roaring past the Italian suburbs on the outskirts of Milan, into the countryside towards Florence, I now have time to reflect on a long day filled with cafe lattes, sandwiches, and noisy traffic.
On that note about traffic, it’s not so much the quantity of the vehicles that creates the noise, but rather the “quality” of it, for lack of a better word. For some reason or another, Italians in Milan—the fashion capital of the boot-shaped nation—seem to have an insatiable need to honk their car horns as loudly and as frequently as possible.
This begs the question: are Italians bad drivers, or are they just the most expressive and emotional people in the Mediterranean?
Having arrived at just before 8am at Milan’s Malpensa airport, the express train took us to the fog-enveloped city centre in about 45 minutes. Had it not been for the music blasting from my earphones and the train tickets to Milano Cadorna on the seat in front of me, I might have believed that were being shipped off to war.
The Italian countryside was barren…or it was filled with farmhouses, cattle, trees, and residential buildings—I honestly couldn’t tell, because heavy fog had reduced the visibility either side of the train tracks to about 40 metres. The mist persisted long after we arrived in Milan and remains even now as I write on the train to Florence.
I’ve heard much about Florence—its churches, its frescos, its marble sculptures—but none of it has helped me paint a visual picture of just what the world’s most cultural city is supposed to look like. I will find out in just under an hour, when I discover whether that which greets me is fog or sunshine.
A note about fashion in Italy: the youth dress moderately well, not dissimilar to those in Moscow or Vienna, but the older generation, the seniors and pensioners, they dress to kill.
Please, God, let me leave this life dressed like an old Italian man, otherwise I risk not being let into the pearly gates by Saint Peter.
Sunday, November 15, 2015 – Florence
Florence, beautiful Florence. How quickly you dethroned all the marvellous little cities I had been to before and appeared glowing at the top of my list of favourites.
You give Graz a run for her money, and if it weren’t for the mysterious pull of the Styrian capital, you would be queen.
It would not be an overstatement to say that Firenze is a city filled with wonder at ever turn and entertainment on every street corner. Coffee shops, pizzerias, gelaterias; bookstores, galleries, museums—what you lack in modernity, you more than make up in rich culture, which oozes from your ancient church tops and musical streets.
Your accordions, violins, cellos, and classical guitars are not lost in me; your painters, puppeteers, and street artists are not lost in me either.
I used to think the motion pictures were exaggerating when depicting the likes of Vienna and Florence with fashion-filled, slow-moving streets, which were forever accompanied by the sound of a stringed instrument. Now I know the throngs of tourists shift left and later right, and open their ears like satellites precisely for the latest guitarist who has just begun plucking his metal strings.
I am grateful for the few, rare days of sunshine during your usually chilly, capricious autumns. And thank you for Chianti, for rosso e blanco, and for all fine Tuscan wine.
Florentine artisans unite, on the cobble streets outside il Duomo and il Battistero di San Giovanni; beautiful people gather, in the winding alleys, in which the church of Dante hides; dogs of Italy step forth, on the tourist-filled vias and piazzas, where more of your kin await.
For whom do the Florentine bells toll? Its chimes rang loud and true in the mornings and evenings, signalling the start and end of another ordinary day, filled with not-so-ordinary things.
I lost count of the number of gelato ice-creams that were bought; I lost count of the slices of pizzas that were devoured. But most impressive of all, without a shudder of a doubt, is your art—your undying desire for all things beautiful, even if it means I have to struggled to pull a four-wheel suitcase down your centuries-old streets.
Michelangelo’s “David”, in the Galleria dell’Accademia, was as humbling as it was inspiring. Being given an unhindered view of possibly the world’s most famous marble sculpture is not what I expected when visiting Florence. I expected to be crowded out; I expected the giant-killer to be heavily fortified, to the point where my eyes would be rendered useless behind inches of safety glass and motion sensors. But no—there he was, in all his nakedness, candidness, and flaccid glory.
Five hundred years after “David” first took shape and began his never-ending starring contest with the Italian capital Rome, his perfect physique is still one that elicits envy from men and lust from women.
Five hundred years after the marble statue was first commissioned for the cathedral, man’s body is still yet to evolve—as is the case with our standards of beauty.
David’s veiny hands and muscular shoulders represent the very best work the Renaissance man—the polymath—had to offer. To see it “in the flesh” is simply breathtaking, and very satisfying, too.
There is too much art to take in from this city, so much so that when I visited the Uffizi Gallery, my eyes watered at the sight of more frescos. From its ceilings to its walls, the gallery embodies all that it means to be a true lover of the Renaissance, and indeed a modern-day art enthusiast.
Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” alone is reason enough for anybody to visit Florence. The first thing that came into my mind after seeing the masterpiece was, “OK. I can go home now.”
What a thing of absolute beauty.
To depict Venus—a goddess in human, mortal form—required the most beautiful, most flawless model Botticelli could find. Yet, despite all her perfection, the woman on the seashell, the object of the Hour of Springtime’s welcome, must be pale in comparison to the real deity.
I leave Florence for the first time not knowing if and when I will ever return. Perhaps that is why I chose to take with me more than 30 postcards—the most I have ever bought on a trip anywhere. (Others might call that mania.)
There is still so much more to see in this world. But before my thoughts stray from Italia, I still have the pleasure of visiting a little-known city on Italy’s east coast called Venice.
Wednesday, November 18, 2015 – Venice
There has been a noticeable police presence in Italy this week, either due to the tragic events in Paris the week before, or because, well, it’s always been like this.
I’m neither accustomed to nor comfortable with seeing armed officers patrolling the streets of tourist cities, albeit for our own safety. Arsene Wenger said that Paris, and by extension Western Europe, perhaps fell victim to the atrocious acts because it was “too tolerant”—and possibly naive. But in an ideal world, is there really such a thing as over-tolerance?
It’s gloomy in Venice, a city with more pigeons than people, but the cloudy skies and the rain just add to the atmosphere of being in a city so at one with the sea—with an elevation of exactly 1 metre.
In Caffè Florian—the oldest Venetian cafe, having been “born” in 1720–there is no wallpaper and no ceiling, at least not the conventional type. Instead, the walls are covered from corner to corner with portraits and landscapes of Italian flowers, people, and patterns. The ceiling is a collection of hexagons, triangles, and other geometrical shapes (the names of which I have long since forgotten), all with gold perimeters and all sharing at least one side with its neighbour.
The gilded interior of the cafe lights up with the yellow lamps, giving customers a properly royal sensation.
A beautiful violinist is playing classical music outside, accompanied by a pianist who looks just as graceful, despite the low temperatures and the bone-chilling wind. But I cannot hear them; I am inside the ancient cafe, on one of its velvet couches, while every manner of person apart from Venetians comes and goes.
The coffee in Caffè Florian costs four times more than in other cafes in Venice, which cost 25 per cent more than those in Florence, which cost three times more than cafes in Budapest. Now, try wrapping your head around that.
I think one or two of the Google reviews I saw, although a tad blunt, sum up the establishment quite well:
“Expensive of course, but quit bitching and enjoy the very well made food and drinks… Don’t come if you can’t afford Venetian luxury.”
“Yes, it’s expensive, but you pay for the view and the music… Just don’t eat here unless you have remortgaged.”
The second review in particular made me chuckle, especially the part about sacrificing your home for a cup of coffee.
Venice is indeed the queen of small alleyways, the likes of which I had first witnessed in Linz and Graz during my first visit to Austria. But ever since I first arrived in the city inundated by teal brackish water, I was immediately lost in its streets.
On St. Mark’s Square, surrounded on three sides by rows of three-storey baroque buildings, St. Mark’s Basilica is surprisingly quiet. It is neither extremely loud in its appearance nor overbearing in its need for attention. Interestingly, such a tourist attraction, to me, says, “Come visit if you please, but no pressure.”
The Horses of Saint Mark, also known as the Triumphal Quadriga (a Roman four-horse-drawn carriage), on the terrace of the basilica’s façade are of particular interest to me, not least because they are some of the only historical artefacts whose story I actually know.
The four bronze chariot horses, which are exact replicas of those currently conserved inside the basilica (since the 1980s), were looted from the Byzantine Empire sometime during the sack of its capital, Constantinople, by Venetian forces as part of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, and were placed on the terrace as trophies in 1254.
The collars we now see on the four horses were also not there to begin with; they were added to cover up the hideous lines on the animals’ necks, where their heads had been severed in order to provide safe and convenient transport from Constantinople to Venice. But their story doesn’t end there—not even close.
During Napoleon’s later campaign across much of Europe, he had the horses removed from St. Mark’s and fitted to the design of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (not to be confused with the Arc de Triomphe du I’Étoile, across from the Champs Élysées, which is about twice as large) in 1797—a mark of victory for the former French generalissimo.
The quadriga “returned” home to Venice in 1815, after one Captain Dumaresq, who fought with the allied forces in the Battle of Waterloo, was selected to remove the horses from the triumphal arch and deliver them once again to St. Mark’s Basilica.
The Hippodrome of Constantinople, from where the horses were originally taken, still stands today horse-less and in ruins. It currently resides as an important cultural heritage site in the Turkish city of Istanbul.
And that, for me, is quite interesting enough.
Now on the train back to Milan, to catch yet another joyous early morning flight, I have left the floating city behind. Crossing the bridge back into mainland Italy represents a welcoming threshold, across which I may find conventional public transport, on land rather than on sea.
Possibly one of the most unromantic experiences in Italy one can ask for is queuing in the rain for a “water bus” after sunset, at 5pm in 8° Celsius, windy venetian weather.
Half an hour was spent standing miserably under the crying clouds, which was followed by a stampede-fashion charge for the last remaining standing room on the ferry—Venice’s only realistic and affordable means of public transport.
It never occurred to me how restricted Venezia is because of its lack of dry land: to run a taxi service one must buy a motorboat; to become a rickshaw driver one must buy a gondola, a hat, an oar, and also learn how to sing—all in a day’s work for the handsome venetian gondoliers, who, as one would expect from any industry, work through rain and shine.
As our ferry passed Ponte di Rialto, the oldest of Venice’s four bridges spanning the Grand Canal, an air of what can only be described as relief washed over me as I closed my eyes, bid Italy arrivederci, and imagined the beautiful baroque buildings of Budapest, and my flat at the end of Hernád street with its creaky wooden floor. JSF.
A small gallery of pictures from the trip can be found here.