The Italian Job – Part 1

Oh, those three minutes.  Three minutes that should have been clawed back from sleep and three minutes for which I ought to have been awake.  Three minutes that would have meant we would have left the house three minutes earlier and not missed the only bastard National Express coach to Stansted from Golders Green for an hour.  Damn those National Express hussies.  Not only did we foolishly miss the 08:08, but the 08:28 bus missed us and didn’t even bother to show up, unless it was an invisible ghost bus driven by invisible people.  This meant that Mr Bluebird had to fork out £48 for a taxi to Stansted, bless ‘im.

On arrival at the airport, we do what we normally do.  He stands about outside drawing in huge lungfuls of Golden Virginia due to the two hours he is about to spend on board an aircraft, and I spend 50% of my holiday money at Accessorize.  HorridAir took off on time, with its limitless capacity to shout at you the entire time you’re on board : did I want to buy a scratchcard to help orphans? No.  Did I want to purchase a sandwich of unidentifiable meat at €7,00 a pop?  Don’t be absurd my good man, of course I don’t.  Did I want a bag of vodka?  Erm…no actually.  Yes, you did hear that right.  The sheer class of HorridAir.  They sell you spirits in little plastic bags.  These little plastic bags are designed to not open properly.  When you finally drag your teeth along the apparently “perforated” line, which appears to have been superglued together, the contents end up on your shirt.  This means you spend the rest of the day smelling like a cross between a Whitbreads pub and Katie Price on a night out.  Not a good look.  Mr Bluebird is nervous of aeroplanes and must consume a number of these teeny weeny bags of vodka to get through the short flight to Pisa.  He did buy me the worlds most expensive bag of mini Cheddars however.

On arrival at Pisa, the benefit of packing “just hand luggage” finally kicks in.  You just get to stroll out of the airport and into your holiday, without worrying around those 1970s carousel things, usually filled with small children jumping on and off them.   Many’s the time I’ve seen a far nicer suitcase than my own go past on those and thought “I think I’ll take that one, thank you, it’s far better than mine”.  But you’re not supposed to treat those carousels like a SwapShop, apparently, so I try not to steal other people’s luggage in airports.  At Pisa Airport, the skies are blue and trying to warm up, whilst we hop on the first of three trains to Siena.  We have to change at Pisa Centrale and Empoli, but that’s okay.  The journey goes without a hitch, unless you count the time the fascist Italian train police fined us €80,00 for not having our train tickets validated appropriately, which is a bit like trespassing in Italy. From Empoli to Siena, you find yourself slap-bang into E M Forster territory; great wide swathes of rolling hills, covered with small evergreen trees planted at regular intervals with an anal precision.  Throughout the holiday, the views of this part of Tuscany looked nothing so much as a series of paintings viewed from train windows and above the parapets of brick walls in hill towns.  They had this odd mistiness that makes you think you need to clean your sunglasses.  The panorama hangs in the air.  Then somewhere an Italian woman starts shouting very loudly and smacking a nearby child and you’re jolted back to reality.

Italy’s a bit like that.  Early morning church bells on a Sunday are accompanied by bad plumbing whilst next door takes a shower, and men stand in the street coughing up last night’s cigarette-tar.   The most beautiful of landscapes has the ugliest of trains.  You get high opera or Europe’s worst television and there doesn’t seem to be anything in between. Either way, the land is luxurious in its make-up but not in its manner.  Tuscany is hard-working land, where production is maximised and where the views of the sentimental middle-class English are considered a little daft.  Fruit trees, vegetables, crops and – once you get further south – wine – work hard here.  Not that we noticed all of that of course, because we were knackered and just sort of snoozed to Siena.

Being a medieval, walled city, the train station is built 2km to the south.  Which means my schoolgirl Italian had to work through all of its verb tables to get a taxi driver to understand that we wanted to go to the town. In the taxi, hairpin bends are taken with the usual offhand aplomb.  The entire city of Siena appears to have been built on a 45% angle.  Through the city walls, the taxi climbed up and up, narrowly missing killing approximately 20 pedestrians on the way.  I was so glad not to have made the decision to drive.  Only a native could do this without shitting themselves.  It’s alarming. If I had driven here, we would have been the only people to leave Siena screaming, in a car going backwards down a hill.   People OUGHT to be dying in the wheels of our taxi but they’re not.  They’re doing that thing that pigeons do, of sort of staring into the path of rapidly approaching traffic and sloppily turning away to escape at the last minute.  We keep on driving up into the city centre until WHAM.  Suddenly there’s the Piazza del Campo.

It’s an astonishing, assymetrical whack of medieval town planning, specifically designed in the 14th century to accommodate a series of overpriced gelaterias for visiting tourists.  This is not the real size obviously.  It’s actually bigger.  So big that twice a year, once in July and once in August, there are bareback horse races where riders zoom around the piazza three times in one minute.  It’s called “Il Palio” and it sounds utterly insane, but it’s so popular that you are advised to get there five hours in advance for a good view.  Siena is deeply entrenched in it’s regional pride (particularly against their traditional enemies, those dastardly Florentines), and competing groups of various city tribes are represented by different brightly coloured flags that hang down from walls in the main streets of the city.  The impact of seeing the square was, of course, undoubtedly wowzers.  From here it was a mere weave around high-bouffanted dog walkers until we got to our hotel.

On arrival at the gorgeous Palazzo Masi, we were met by the wonderful Daniela, who was full of great advice about where to eat and, perhaps more importantly, about where not to eat.  Her B&B was right off the Piazza del Campo and had a particularly good view from the toilet window.  After a wash and brush up we headed out for a splendid supper at <> which Daniela had suggested.  There’s something absurd in trying to describe great food.  It’s a sensory experience and words don’t really help, but suffice to say my husband’s Ribollita (Tuscan bread and tomato soup) followed by grilled lamb chops with lemon and garlic, and my tortelloni filled with pork and sage with a bolognese-related Tuscan sauce was so effortlessly brilliant that our stomachs wept with joy.  Loads of wine of course, and then an evening passegiata for ice cream, whereupon we saw what we thought were UFOs.

AHA.  THAT woke you up, eh?  There you were, thinking “Oh god, she’s still banging on about how the texture of the risotto brought tears to her eyes and I’m having to read this in shitty London”, and suddenly it’s all gone a bit UFO.  Bet that shocked ya, eh?  Honestly, Helena Bonham-Carter never had to put up with any of this UFO business in “A Room with a View” did she?  Just the horrid Julian Sands fopping and whimpering about like a wet blanket.  I don’t remember aliens (although Maggie Smith has goggly eyes and looks a bit like one) and I hadn’t had that much wine, so, unless I had an ice-cream overdose, I was seeing UFO-style lights moving up and over the night sky of the Piazza del Campo.

Mr Bluebird wondered if they were romantic helicopters, or perhaps speed dating for pilots, because they moved and danced around each other before passing off up into the (mothership?) sky.  Was it the Florentines?  They sure do hold a grudge, so it could be them.  But we saw they were fairly close and we followed them.  Tuscan towns are disastrously hilly.  I just hoped I wasn’t going to have some sort of random rheumatic attack there, because then I’d have to be wheeled around like an old person.  I swiftly developed Tuscan calf (more of Tuscan neck and Tuscan liver to come later in this week’s entries) as we crawled up the high cobbles to the back of the cathedral.  The lights were bigger now, and whiter.  There was a false, pale pink cardboard high arch constructed over one street, and then we turned a corner to see approximately 300 people dressed in green and orange silk flags having a light supper.  This is Tuscany, so their light supper was boar, salads, heaving bowls of spaghetti, great swathes of something involving fennel and rocket, and tables groaning with trifle.  The lights we saw were tea candles in vast white bags that were lit and sent up into the sky.   This, together with the calorific supper, was to commemorate Siena’s victory over the Florentines in 1260 at the Battle of Monteperti.  The Sienese had been under Florentine domination since 1230 when the Florentines dumped plague-infested donkey corpses and rotting faeces over their city walls.

There were songs, cheers and a gentle celebration in the traditional Italian style, in that children, adults and grandparents were all thrown in together, all wearing green and orange flags tied around their shoulders and necks.  The tourists stared agawp at this, some of which felt a bit intrusive, especially when the man next to me said in a strong Yorkshire accent “Well, it’s a bit like our warring kings of Mercia and Wessex except I think they made it up in the end, Claire!”  Slightly drunk, and full of gelato, we stared up.  The songs that were sung were mournful, as the Sienese victory was short-lived and the Florentines regained dominance soon after the Battle of Monteperti.  Around and about the celebratory dinner, small dogs were enjoying their nighttime walk, courtesy of small Italian owners, who collected their vast amount of small poos neatly in little bags whilst joining in with the singing.  An elderly, round woman shouted out of a first floor window towards her grandchildren below.  The cathedral looked like a medieval wedding cake with its soft green and baby pink shades, behind the floating tea-lights drifting slowly up in front of it into black sky, whilst at the top of the square, a small, bright turquoise van that was presumably owned by Siena’s branch of the Trotter family, drove up at great speed, parked two inches from the end of one of the dining tables and, completely dismissive of the beauty and poetry of the moment, burped diesel into everyone’s faces.  Welcome to Siena.

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