By Katrina Simpson
I have a sepia photograph of my mother and her friend standing in front of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It is a wonderfully evocative image from another place and time. My mother, Marjorie, just twenty-one years old, was on her first holiday abroad. She told me about her trip:
It was Christmas 1962 when I went to Florence. I met my friend Elena in a YWCA hostel in London’s Great Russell Street. Elena’s father was Welsh and her mother was a beautiful dark-haired Italian lady who had remarried to an Italian banker. I travelled to Livorno where they lived. It was my first ever flight and I was terrified when we flew over the Alps and the plane appeared to somersault! I remember that I wore a multi-coloured dress and a mottled red coat with a grey faux fur collar and white shoes. I took a Christmas cake with me. The Italians called it ‘La Dolce.’ We visited Pisa. I was impressed by the tower as it was so unusual. The day we chose to go to Florence all the beautiful buildings and bridges were shrouded in fog.
In April of this year I followed in my mother’s footsteps and stayed in the beautiful town of Florence on the banks of the River Arno in Northern Italy. Walking through Florence is like walking through an open air art gallery. The architecture of the city centre has changed little since its Renaissance heyday, and around each corner one comes across works of art by the masters, such as Michelangelo’s statue of David. On the far side of the river, one can walk up a winding set of steps leading to the San Michelangelo Pizzale where one can watch the sun set over Florence. Scattered throughout the city are many charming little shops filled with bright, vibrant Tuscan ceramics. The streets resound with the enchanting sound of the bells of the Palazzio Vechio. The beautiful Boboli Gardens are filled with fantastic statuery – some of it many hundreds of years old – portraying nymphs and gods, satyrs and heroes. Walking through these magical gardens, I peered over a wall to what looked like a palace, but in fact it was a magnificent orangery filled with sweet-smelling citrus trees, warming in the sun through the open shutters of the windows.
Florence is a treat for the senses, not least the sense of taste. Charming restaurants serve any type of pasta one could imagine; spaghetti, gnocchi, ravioli, tagliatelle, penne, tortellini… At the Mercato Centrale one can buy a dizzying array of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, every pasta you could ever imagine, as well as truffles, mushrooms, cheeses, wines, pastries, sauces – all fresh and delicious. For the “World’s Best Ice-Cream” (that’s official, they were the Winners of the Gelato World Championship 2016!) one has to leave Florence and visit the nearby medieval town of San Gimignano. I tried a mouthwatering concoction of orange, vanilla and chocolate and can confirm that it was the most wonderful ice-cream that I have ever tasted. There is, however, more to San Gimignano than the ice-cream. This picturesque town with its winding cobbled streets is a treasure trove of history and romance.
One of the highlights of our visit was a wine tasting experience in the Chianti region. We drove out of Florence in the sunshine, through olive groves and cypress covered hillsides, to a family run vineyard where the air was rich with the aroma of warm grapes and fine wines. There we were given a tour of the vineyards before having a three course meal with six wine tasters. On the same day we visited Pisa with its famous leaning tower and the historical town of Siena, famous for the annual Palio horserace.
Whilst in Florence I had the pleasure of visiting an elegant cafe with a view of the Duomo (the magnificent Renaissance cathedral). I sat for a while with a cup of tea and a wonderful book called “Death in Florence” by Marco Vechi. Vechi’s Inspector Bordelli books are set in 1960s Florence and the surrounding countryside and are translated from the Italian. They portray a Florence that is sometimes melancholy, sometimes warm and languous. His writing is whimsical, nostalgic, tender and philosophical, even when his stories feature dark and sordid subject matters. They evoke for me the now-vanished Florence that my mother experienced over half a century ago.
Katrina Simpson is a writer, teacher and vintage lover from England. She is fascinated by the period from the roaring twenties to the swinging sixties, especially the stories of inspirational women from that time. She loves old Hollywood, murder mysteries and travel.