This one started out as trip to take photographs for a site I'd made for Laura Graham, plus a chance for us to meet and for me to
 sample the delights of one of the properties she lets and promotes on her site. And of course I couldn't go all the way to
Tuscany and not visit Florence, one of the subjects of this site but somewhere I'd not visited for more than 10 years.
So first I travelled to...


Weds 25.4 - Sun 29.4

Where Laura lives. Her site tells her story and Sinalunga's too, so I'll just say that it's as lovely a town as it looks, and that the surrounding country is full of fascination and...


I am a man you would not be wrong to call fussy, and a vegetarian. So when I say that I ate superbly during my days in Sinalunga, and that I ate mostly things which I ordinarily would not, you can appreciate my delight and surprise. Amongst the things I ate (and loved) that I would ordinarily turn my nose up at, if not make a warding-off sign-of-the-cross at, were artichokes, cold potato salad, tiramisu, cold bean salad, roasted vegetables, pecorino cheese and dessert wine. Amongst the things I do like that I sampled amongst the best I've ever tasted were: mozzarella, radishes, rocket, cherry tomatoes, bean soup and oranges. I didn't have one mediocre meal but the best were at the Osteria delle Grotte, which is just a few minutes walk from the centre of Sinalunga, and somewhere a little further out - Da Roberto in a little town called Montisi. Roberto turned out to be a helpful and charming chap, who explained carefully the Tuscan way to eat bean soup, with chunks of raw onion, eaten alternately with your spoonfuls of soup, or dunked in and eaten together. It works, I can tell you. Another surprise, courtesy of the eatery opposite the entrance to San Francesco in Arezzo, was a salad of lettuce and rocket with thin slices of pear.

But, leaving fine food and new friends behind, on Sunday it was time to catch trains to...




Sun 29.4 - Weds 2.5

Having not visited since 1994 I was ready for changes. What I was not prepared for were the crowds. As the Tuesday was the May Day public holiday most of the Italians in Italy had decided to make a weekend of it in Florence it seemed. Combine this with a lot of museums and such closing on Mondays and you get possibly the worst possible few days a person could choose for his visit. Nowhere was this more of a pain than in the queues for, and hoards inside the...

The queue for Santa Maria Novella (the facade covered in scaffolding at present) was all around the court/grave yard as I got there earlyish on Monday morning, and was halfway across the Piazza too by the time I left. It took an effort to block out the distracting crowds and the glossy little guidebook to the church helped. You can buy it in the shop in the sacristy and it's very good. It's called Santa Maria Novella and its Monumental Cloisters and it was written and revised by a pair priests, so the content is a bit more religious than usual. But as it still concentrates on the historical and artistic this extra element is interesting, and it would take a far crustier atheist than me to take any objection. I was interested to read, for example, than one of the beliefs of the Dominicans is that the flesh is not without divinity in itself, as opposed to other shades of belief which have it that the soul is divine but the body merely a shell. But this latter belief rather weakens the sacrifice Jesus made, and so the Dominicans argue otherwise, and have an even stronger than usual tendency toward crucifixions, Santa Maria Novella having three fine examples (including Masaccio's famous and spectacular red-dominated Trinity) which can all be seen from a particular spot in the nave described in the guidebook. Another highlight, which I don't remember from my early 90s visits, is the Spanish Chapel (see fresco fragment right) in the cloisters, with its complete inner covering of frescoes that glow and fascinate, the latter helped no end by the guidebook. They're by Andrea di Buonaiuto, a new name on me. The Cloister of the Dead, which I do remember, is closed for restoration though.

San Miniato on Monday was even more oppressive as it's so small and I had to give up on it, despite an organist giving us a very fine rendition of Bach's famous and stirring Toccata. San Salvatore al Monte, the church half way up the hill to San Miniato from the road, has a very plain interior, but a very visitable garden - with a fine distressed wall right- and a cute little cloister.

Apart from that I popped into a few churches on evening strolls, or on the way to somewhere else. Churches in Venice don't ever seem to be open for these impromptu evening dabbles, but I was able to do some justice to the Ognissanti, Badia Fiorentina, Santa Felicita, and Santa Trinita, amongst others, and these fresco-fixes should tide me over until I get to make a longer and more guidebook-equipped visit.



This was my first big experience of Italian trains, and I was impressed. The fares were so much cheaper than in the UK, and the timetables were reliable. My journey from Pisa airport to Sinalunga involved four trains - Pisa Airport to Pisa Central to Empoli to Sienna to Sinalunga. It took five hours, but it cost half what I paid for a half-hour journey to Stansted Airport just outside London. (Well, the difference was a bit less because I forgot to date/validate my ticket in the machine at Pisa Airport before my journey and the ticket collector fined me 5 Euros. But he could've fined me 40, he said.) The journey to Sinalunga was a long one mostly because it was, you guessed it, another public holiday. Then when it came to travelling from Sinalunga to Florence the Trenitalia website wanted me to go via Chiusi to an inconvenient mystery station in Florence, but it seemed to me that going partially back the way I came, and then going East to Florence at Empoli, would be far more sensible. But when I got to Siena I found that there was a direct train from there to Florence - even simpler. So beware the Trenitalia website is my lesson here.

My hotel
l chose the Unicorno as it was where I'd stayed before and it was conveniently positioned. My room this time suffered from the curse of all hotels' single rooms - pokey is the word, and a bit scuffed, but no problem for a few days. Except that late on my first afternoon I went back to rest after my journey and gelati and was kept sound awake by a child in the next room screaming and throwing wooden blocks around, it sounded like, and then playing door-closing and key-rattling games. In no mood for this I asked the guy on the desk if another room was available. He said that they were regrettably full, but he would ring the room. The family went just as I got back to my room, so I got my refreshing doze. Then when I went out in the evening the helpful desk clerk said I could have a different room the next day. I came back to the hotel the next afternoon and asked if I could move now, but the chap had moved me into a new room himself. He'd just swapped the chest of drawers and moved the bits on my bedside table and from the shower room. As the room was almost identical, being in the same position as the first on the floor below, it was almost uncanny entering the room. I say almost identical because the new room was subtly better - there was a table and chair as you came in the door (handy for the fast dumping of camera bag and door key), the TV was bigger, the positioning of the towel rails in the tiny shower/wc made it seem less claustrophobic, and there was an extra pillow.

I had not been in Florence more than an hour before I'd trekked over to Vivoli for my first ice cream, but it was not the best - there's nothing like a scrum of elderly Americans in lairy shorts for taking the edge off one's enjoyment of a gelati. I'd say that the best I had was from L'Angelo del Gelato, in Piazza Santa Maria Novella, not a minute's walk from my hotel and I only discovered it on my last day! I'll admit that my enthusiasm for the Angelo was due in no small part to their having my most favourite flavour I'd never had or seen in a gelateria before - cinnamon, but their quality was very high in other flavours too. Over the three days I had, from various sources, combinations of raspberry, coconut, blackberry, mango, lemon (of course) banana and fior di latte. My big mistake was choosing a too-big cup at a too-central and too-swanky gelateria...6 Euros...but it was no chore to eat it all.



I ate my first ice cream, from Vivoli, strolling around a food market in Piazza Santa Croce. Lot's of yummy stuff, but I eventually bought a chunk of marzipan panforte, which was OK, but a bit too sweet and with not enough of that almondy bitterness you'd expect from marzipan. Much more subtle was the flavour of the pastry pictured right. The tag in the shop said something about 'ricotta' and it was a nice creamy not-too-sweet thing.

The old and new
Good to find that the trad and unsmart paper shop along Borgo San Jacopo (by the south end of the Ponte Vecchio) is still open and still dusty. I bought a couple of little boxes to keep my blood-pressure tablets in - not something I'd needed on previous visits!

A new pleasure was the Alinari National Museum of Photography. Just around the corner from the Unicorno and an ideal entertainment for a rainy afternoon. Fascinating photos of people and events in Florence at the turn of the 20th Century, classic images from the whole history of photography, old and new cameras, and some shiny high-tech contraptions to look at old stereoscopic picture-pairs on, some of them pretty saucy.



Venice // Florence // London // Berlin // Trips