San Gimignano: Pisstaking Memories of Medieval Manhattan

Deep within the inner cloisters of the Rockafeller Monastery, Don Draper and Roger Sterling furrow their brows and put their brains to work, as they attempt to formulate their order’s position on the Arian heresy. Was Christ entirely divine, entirely human, or somewhere in between? Just around the corner, crowds are gathering in the Madison Square market; Neil Simon and Billy Joel have written a new mystery play about the crucifixion, and it receives its premiere tonight in a production by the Stonemason’s Guild. Podesta Clinton says a short prayer before heading into the Palazzo Pubblico to face the city council; her rival faction have demanded that she walk across twenty yards of glowing hot coals tonight, that the city may find out whether God is on her side. Outside the city walls in the tiny hamlet of Williamsburg, Lena Dunham fretfully waits out the long hours in her convent cell. The mother superior has placed her in solitary confinement for inappropriately touching a new novice sister. Still, she is better off than her friends Marnie, Jessa and Shoshana, who were all married off to cloth merchants, sent away to cope with the biting winters of Antwerp, and died in their mid-teens during childbirth. Such is daily life in San Gimignano, the Medieval Manhattan.

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Pisa: Man’s Search for Leaning

And so to Italy, for a ridiculous third time this year (I might as well get it the obsession out of my system now, anyone paid in sterling won’t be able to afford it for much longer). Travelling around so many Italian cities, where the churches are often the only sights to be seen, I have ended up acquiring a real taste for the art, and felt the need to revisit the undisputed capital of the renaissance, Florence, which I had only been to years ago when I was young and unschooled; hence a tour of Tuscany. I didn’t know a lot about Pisa, beyond knowing that it shares a river with Florence and a vague recollection that it was an early maritime republic, but it houses Tuscany’s major airport; we were flying in and out of here and it seemed sensible to take a quick look around the city before dashing off. What we found was one of the great architectural set pieces of Italy, quite self-contained and sat apart from the rest of a lively young city; both are worth your while.

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Lago di Como & Monza: Lakes & Pains

Whilst staying in Bergamo, I thought I should take a look at some other places in Lombardy, to get more of a grasp on the region. In the City, Lombard St leads to the Bank of England and attests to their having got around. The image I had of Lombards was one of industrious, sober and particularly go-getter Italians; the distant origins of the original Lombards are more Germanic than Roman (although the centuries, as well as the internal migration of the jobs market, will have blurred the boundaries considerably). So, where else to go? The other local towns at the top of my wish list (Mantua, Cremona) are not particularly close to Bergamo. There are plenty of important cities, and most of them have an important antique church at their heart, but many of them sounded slightly sad for a summer holiday; working towns that are resolutely industrial or, what is worse, deindustrialised. All roads lead to Milan, with its iconic Duomo, Leonardo’s Last Supper and all that is bustling, metropolitan and chic, but seeing Milan on a day trip sounded like a folly on a par with trying to see all of London in one afternoon. There are, of course, the Great Lakes, and whilst I expected these to be saturated with mass tourism, moneyed Russians tucking into freshly caught rainbow trout and coach trip folks paying through the nose for defrosted pizza, the good thing about arriving with low expectations is the increased likelihood of their being exceeded…

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Bergamo: Have Your Polenta and Eat It

In the aftermath of a vote that saw the English give their capital city a bloody nose for hogging the benefits of globalisation, and for spending far more time in Paris or Amsterdam than we do in Birmingham or York, what better way to react than by swapping the 1950s for the 1450s and running off to the place I spend 50 weeks of the year dreaming about? It being the height of summer, we settled on Bergamo as the place in Italy that would give us the best chance of not boiling to death; it is around an hour north of Milan, and the last major city before the Alps. As Italy’s economic engine and the most prosperous of the twenty regions, Lombardy is a hugely important part of Italy and yet this was my first visit; ancient old cities and picturesque landscapes are comparatively thin on the ground, and Bergamo is something of a rarity in giving good value for both.

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Urbino: The One-Eyed Man is King

That the British are world leaders at painful longing for things which never actually existed can be evidenced by the evergreen popularity of King Arthur, the scourge of the Romans and leader of a fabulous court at Camelot. Merlin, Morgan Le Fay, the island of Avalon, the Knights of the Round Table; because this stuff never existed, it can represent anything that you want it to. Mythology tells us how we would like to see ourselves. Urbino would be a sort of Italian Camelot, were it not for the difference that it was a real city, run by a real man, that can still be visited today and still looks remarkably similar to how it would have appeared in its semi-mythical heyday. 

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Ascoli Piceno: Old Marble Giants

To get to Ascoli Piceno, you have to really, really want to see Ascoli Piceno. By public transport it’s an awfully long trek from any airports, and it’s in a fairly secluded spot within Italy that entails a significant detour from any of the well-worn routes. Yet its history is very old and very proud; Roman Asculum was the capital of Picenum (after the Piceni, contemporaries to the Etruscans and Sabines whose town is much older than Rome). Emperor Augustus boasted that he found a city of brick and left a city of marble, and quite a lot of the marble came from around here; so much of Ascoli’s city centre still consists of this luminous, ethereal white stone and at night-time the effect is dramatic. Perhaps because it was a sleepy outpost of the undynamic papacy for so long, its links to the classical world are as palpable as anywhere in Italy. Wander the oldest quarter and you will find streets named after Apollo and Pompeii, while the streets themselves do not follow the medieval norm of snaking, twisting alleys; the town has never deviated from the grid street pattern laid out by SPQR. Today Ascoli Piceno is a low-key, provincial town with a fairly small centre, but one that had fascinated this Italoholic for long enough that I was finally roused into making the journey and seeing for myself. I am happy to report that the effort was well rewarded.

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Pt. III: The Stones of Paris

Sometimes you don’t realise the value of a place until it comes under threat. Paris is handy for Londoners and I’ve nipped over on the train a few times, but never thought of it as one of the places closest to my heart. I may have considered it a little too like London; important as the former capital of a huge empire but expensive, crowded, and rushed in a way that leaves its inhabitants irritable, and such a magnet for mass tourism that Venice seems unspoilt by comparison. The other main Eurostar option is Brussels, a rather strange city and gateway to the lovely old towns of Flanders, and I got to thinking of myself as more of a Belgian type. Then came November 13th, when men from the ghettoes of Brussels rained down terror upon Paris, presumably chosen because the republic is secular, so many of its great men were at odds with monotheism, and the Parisians were only ones to put their money where their mouths were and print Mohammed cartoons. Suddenly Paris was a symbol of free speech and European civilisation. I turned up at work the next morning and in hurt, fury, and an impotent wish to show love to our French regulars, I printed out a huge French flag and made a display of Voltaire, Flaubert, Zola, Queneau, Houellebecq et leurs amis. Aux armes, citoyens!

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