Lucca: it’s always the quiet ones

Some Italian cities manage to be what I think of as Goldilocks cities; big enough to be a living place of activity, bustle and plenty to see, small enough that everywhere is a relatively short walk, and the worst excesses of mass tourism are kept at bay. Typically these cities will not contain Top 10 artistic blockbusters to compare with Michelangelo’s David, but they will be elegant, quite genteel, have a centro storico that is both well-preserved and chiefly pedestrianised, an understated charm, and a good-life ambiance that replaces the desperate rush of major cities with tranquility. Simply spend some time there, and the place will begin to work its magic; as you adjust to the pace of life, you can feel your body and spirit start to relax. After Siena and Florence, Lucca felt like a luxurious Sunday morning of a city, and it was the feel of the city, rather than any box office masterpieces, that won me over to it.

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Florence II: The Pimping of Venus

This is Part II: containing the Uffizi, Brancacci, Ognissanti, Santa Maria Novella, and San Marco. Part I, with Orsanmichele, San Miniato al Monte, Santa Croce, La Specola and Santa Trinita is here.

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Florence I: Red Meat

On our last night in Florence, we decided to splash out by booking a good trattoria and ordering the signature dish of the city; the bistecca alla fiorentina, a huge slab of beefsteak on the bone, cooked very rare. It is expensive, and priced by the kilogram. When we asked for it, the waiter said the smallest piece going that night was 1.2kg. A few minutes later, a mountain of steak was set down before us. Cooked to the brink of charcoal on the outside and scarcely at all on the inside, it was rich, juicy, well-seasoned, full of flavour and quite hard work; they talk about rare meat being pink on the inside but this was the purple of the Fiorentina football shirt. You have to apply some elbow grease to cut through the tendons and chew the meat, yet it is soft and slides gently down the throat. Our tactic was to dive in without abandon in the hope that most of the steak would be eaten by the time the message that we were full got from our stomachs to our brains. The mood of decadence was heightened by the fact that house wine was only sold by the litre, meaning that I put away a bottle of wine at the same time and left the place punchdrunk. The richness and the excess and the struggle to take it all in seemed to sum up the experience of visiting Florence.

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Siena: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso

With so much of the core of Italian cities preceding the creation of Italy by several centuries, it is perhaps inevitable that for all their cosmetic similarities, every one has a rather unique look and feel. Siena, however, perennially identified as the archetypal Gothic city, still struck me as a particularly singular place. Plague and foreign invasion meant that an important capital city of 100,000 was reduced within a few years to an insignificant market town of 8,000, giving the city the San Gimignano effect a thousandfold. Walk in from the bus terminus and you will begin to sense it right away; spend any length of time in the town and you will probably come to think that the unusual layout of the town, as much as the Assassin’s Creed look of the buildings, marks Siena out as extraordinary. Think of the famous, distinctively shell-shaped Piazza del Campo as a spider, and the rest of Siena is its web. The streets shoot out in rays from this magnificent centre, and it feels as if the whole of Siena consists of horseshoe-shaped corsos reflecting the shape of the Campo, like outward ripples; a sort of Gothic Amsterdam. The streets incline slightly downhill towards the Campo and if you go for an aimless stroll you will inevitably gravitate there as if the town were a giant pinball board (with the Campo’s tourist-trap pavement cafés perhaps acting as the flippers sending you rushing back out). Because of this, Siena might just have been the perfect place for us to endure a Dantean odyssey and be taught a salutary lesson…

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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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