Wednesday, February 17, 2010

"Remember Montaperti!" (Part 2)

A couple of days later the three of us got on a bus and trundled through the Tuscan countryside to San Gimignano, a smaller version of Siena - another mediaevel fortress city perched on a hill. San Gim is famous for half a dozen or so square towers that poke out of various of its buildings without any rational explanation. It's like the builders just said 'Hey, Tony, we've got nothing on today, let's build a fuckin' tower on top of, er, that joint over there.' Whatever the case, they're pretty impressive, as is the entire city.

We walked through its ancient gates, and a wide, straight boulevarde climbed up and up the hill, lined with shops and markets, all adorned with flags and inexplicable figurines and knick-knacks. It was glorious and vibrant, and hundreds of people were walking along, everyone (including me) with the most delicious gelato in the world stuffed in their mouths.

I jumped into an internet cafe and hooked up with a few friends around the world, just in the interests of gloating, of course, while the girls haunted frock shops and the like. We re-assembled in the main square an hour or so later, where it seemed the annual festival of the pig was going on. Whole hoggies were roasting on several spits, and for the princely sum of two Euros I was handed an enormous, crusty bread-roll filled with the most succulent meat I've ever tasted. It was heaven on a stick, and without any guilt at all I went back for seconds. 

San Gim is a really pretty spot, and as we walked along the twisting, steep slopes of the Via Santo Stefano, I had the uncanny feeling of walking in the footsteps of romance personified. It was romantic; it was a place in which to love, and fall in love. It spoke of the history, and the ghosts, of lovers, this place, and I was calmly content. I like it when a new place brings old, close, and comfortable feelings to the surface. It's happened a few times before, but this felt special, and I was content. Ok, you can stop laughing now, but I was in love with the whole thing.

Fortunately, the T.P. brought me back to earth, complaining that I had once again got us horribly lost, and we had to get back on the bus by 3.45, so could I please get my head out of the clouds and concentrate on finding civilization again? We made it back to the bus depot in time, and I dozed away the return to Siena thinking happy thoughts. 

Finally, it was time to leave Siena. We had a day in Florence booked, and I was keen to get there, because all of my life I have wanted to see Michelangelo's David in the flesh, and Florence is where he lives.

Florence is a city without parallel - it is unfathomably eclectic, with a prepossessing mixture of all of the elements that make a city alluring. Picture this: Florence's vast, opulent and somewhat spooky Duomo sits comfortably amid a bustling, modern raft of tack. Shitty tourist restaurants and gift shops crowd it on all sides, forcing the traveller to think of this, the second-greatest Catholic cathedral in the world, as nothing but an attractor of filthy lucre. Which, when you think about the ultimate raison d'etre of Catholicism, strikes not one note of discord.

The Duomo itself simply reeks of exploitation and repression. I don't know why, but all of the great cathedrals of Europe I visited had exactly the same effect on me. Of course, I am awed by their majesty, their opulence, their mystery and their intricacy. There is no doubt that they display craftsmanship that is the pinnacle of architectural art. But, within their walls, is an ugliness which is inescapable. In Siena, for instance, exquisite sculptures by the world's greatest, Bernini, are overlooked by a parade of busts of one hundred and thirty popes, sternly overseeing the gullibility of worshipping peasants. The entire atmosphere in these houses of blood is the atmosphere of a psychological repression that left me in no doubt as to the origins of Fascism. We got out quickly - David was waiting.

We sauntered down from the Duomo to the Galleria dell'Academia, where David had been enthralling people for centuries. And, for fuck's sake-  it was closed! 'Pissed off' is not the term to describe my mood at that moment. I'd travelled half-way around the world, only to find that the Florentine Pogens had decided, for some inexplicable (but probably Catholic) reason, to close the gallery on Mondays. As I howled in rage and disbelief, banging my fists on the doors, the T.P. tried to comfort me, saying 'Stop whingeing, you idiot. You're attracting odd looks from the passers-by.' She's so understanding, my wife.

We made our way, me shrieking at the stupidity of all things Italian, to the Piazza della Signoria, where David's replica stood, amongst other gems of Renaissance sculpture. Somewhat calmed, my spirits began to rise. Here were sculptures by Ammannati, Donatello, Bandinelli, and the exquisite Rape of the Sabine Women by Giambologna. The whole place, overlooked by the fabulous Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's famous city hall, was wondrous. This was Italy, this was culture, for real.

It was time to go to Germany. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Remember Montaperti!" (Part 1)

We got out of Venice after a few days, and by then my pessimism about the place had evaporated somewhat, after being treated to a night at the opera and some wonderful, simply magnificent museums of art. (I'm still not keen on its cops, though.)

The T.P. was excited to be on our way to Siena to meet her sister Narelle, whom she hadn't seen for a couple of years. Narelle is a dramatic soprano who lives in Germany and can sing a bit (not really - there is still some dispute in the family over whether it was she who shattered every bit of glassware in her parents' house at the age of thirteen.... or whether it was her mother hahaha - sorry, mother-in-law in-joke).

From Florence, we boarded a rattle-trap old train that reminded me of the state of the art of the Australian rail system (in Germany a couple of weeks later I had cause to wonder at the stupidity, carelessness and sheer blundering incompetence of our political masters down under, as I rode in a sumptuous express at 250 kilometres per hour, whisper quiet and vibration-free), and pulled into Siena a couple of hours later. We walked through the gates of the old city, high on the hill, and my jaw hit the ground.

Anything one can say about Siena is an understatement. It is grand, on a scale of grandness that 
invites comparisons to other cities in the same way you might compare the intellects of Richard Dawkins and Kent Hovind. It is architecture on acid - three- and four-story stone buildings of exquisite design crowd narrow, zig-zagging cobbled streets. Gigantic, elaborate timber doors open onto dim courtyards, where water can be heard trickling into sculpted ponds. These are the residences built from about the eleventh century onwards - the houses of the nobles, and it seems that almost every citizen of Siena in those times must have been a noble, because there is virtually not one house that is not ravishing in its grandiosity and architectural brilliance.

Our room at the penzione was on the fourth floor. As usual, I dragged two heavily-laden packs - realising, at last, that the T.P.'s shopping exploits in Venice had been designed with one sole purpose: to induce a giant myocardial infarction in me - up a ridiculously narrow staircase, alighting on the top landing to see Narelle and my assassin in a cheery embrace. I hugged Narelle - it had been about fifteen years since I'd seen her - and collapsed on a lounge demanding beer, pronto. There was none.

Like every other place in Siena, our quarters were - literally - a work of art. Frescoes of saints and angels adorned the bedroom ceilings, and the shutters opened onto a panorama of utter gorgeousness. I dived into a shower recess built by a sadistic midget, and with many contortions managed to wash off the accumulated sweat from our ten-mile hike up the mountain weighed down with the contents of the Venetian Treasury.

Narelle, who was familiar with Siena, and who also speaks a fairly good brand of Italian, was the perfect guide. We wandered down the street, around a few corners, and my jaw, which was still flapping noisily against my chest, shot arrow-like to the street. We had reached the Piazza del Campo.

If there is a better-realised city square in the world I want to see it now. The Campo is as splendid an urban space as you could wish for, and to think it was pretty-much complete by the thirteenth century. Paved in red brick, its seashell shape is dominated by the Torre del Mangia, a tower that reaches majestically to the sky. Great mansions circumnavigate this vast, open and airy space. Hundreds of people were just sitting around it, at tables outside the myriad of restaurants at street level, or just plonked on the brick paving itself, eating gelati or pizza and drinking wine and beer. It was coming on evening, and the deepening sky contrasted with the reds and creams of the buildings in a sight I won't forget in a hurry. It was spectacular (and that's just another understatement.)

We ate pizza and drank beer, and I suddenly realised that the square, although populated by plenty of tourists, was also the haunt of the locals themselves. And why wouldn't you come here of an evening if you lived in town? It was cool and inviting - everything you needed was within thirty seconds' walk, and the sights and sounds of musicians playing, dancers twirling, and people just generally having a pleasant time made you want to stay well into the night. I'm not a city person, but I could live here, I thought. be continued