Florence and Arezzo
September 2018
More photos here


Tuesday 4th September
This trip is primarily to join Jane's friends who are renting a villa called the Vigna San Giuseppe, which is very near the town (and railway station) of Subbiano and not far from Arezzo. I've only been to Arezzo briefly so it's a draw for me, and an excuse to read up on Piero della Francesca, whose frescoes in Arezzo are a highlight of the Piero Trail. But travelling to Tuscany and not spending a few days in Florence too is an emotional impossibility.
Our intended train from Balham getting cancelled, we took a different route, via Clapham Junction instead of East Croydon, and got to Gatwick even earlier than intended. Automated check-in was a breeze, ditto security. Our British Airways flight was actually a PrivatAir flight. They seem to be Swiss and provided in-flight meals - a sandwich with a small Toblerone. But expecting BA's M&S shop option we'd prepared ourselves with Pret baguettes. We landed at Pisa a few minutes early, our bags were on the carousel even before we could answer the call of nature, and there was no queue for train tickets. Amazeballs indeed! The Pisamover got us to Pisa Centrale swiftly and we waited only about twenty minutes for the the Florence train. Time which passed quickly, swapping reminiscences with a couple on the platform with ties to Haggerston (where I was born) and Tooting every bit as strong as ours. Thereby proving what they say about the world and its smallness.
Check-in at the Hotel Berchielli was swift and smooth, with our rooms' windows on the top floor on the corner facing the small piazza and the narrow road. It had forgotten that as the hotel doesn't have kettles in the rooms I'd need to bring my semi-legal water heater thingy, bought in Venice many years ago, and never thought to see on sale again. But there's one of those hardware shops that stock everything opposite the hotel, and I got one there.
After a wander to check that all was well and familiar we made for our fave Grotta di Leo. I had the same as on the first night of our last trip here, in October 2016 - for starter the lovely Pappa al Pomodoro - tomato soup thickened with bread, with onion and garlic - then a Cipolla pizza.
The first gelato (from the place on the corner of Piazza Santa Maria Novella) was cinnamon and lemon. Gelati were consumed on a stone bench in the piazza, to the regular accompaniment of what sounded like an aviary descending into madness, which was either art or a bird scaring idea. We needed an early night after that.

Wednesday 5th September
A good quiet night, with gentle wake-up church bells, and a good breakfast to set us up for some early church action. Firstly to Sant'Ambrogio, where the Rosselli fresco has seen restoration lately, and where Jane had not been before. Then a stout walk east through some real-Florence streets, under an overpass and a railway line, to San Salvi. The cenacolo in the ex-refectory is so good, and so free of charge, and the rest of the stuff on display in other rooms and corridors is also well worth it. The church was as closed as ever, but an open door to the side did get us into the cloister - a sweet but overgrown and unkempt example. On the way back we stopped off at Ruth's Kosher veggie, near Sant'Ambrogio, for a fine falafel lunch, and swung back to the hotel via the Gelateria dei Neri, from which I had the dark chocolate orange and vanilla and Jane frutti di bosco and fior di latte. The walk back unfortunately takes one along the road where people join long queues to eat bits of dead cow
s and pigs, but into every life...
Our evening stroll was over to the Oltrano. In the big piazza in front of San Frediano an enormous supper was being set up (see right) and in the one in front of SM della Carita were preparations for a jazz festival. There seems to be enough global misery without jazz festivals happening, but into every life... After a sit in Piazza Santo Spirito we made our way back to the Grotta di Leo for some pasta this time, with a pistachio and lemon gelato after, sat listening to the recording of birds in distress again, with a good busker fighting manfully against it with a version of The Beatles' Blackbird.

Thursday 6th September
To Santa Maria Novella today, for some website updating, but mainly for enjoyment. The best news is that the big cloister is now open
daily (see below right) after many years when you had to be a policeman to see it. There's another cloister open at the end of the museum rooms, but it's just a little one for sitting in while you wait for someone using the toilets. The museum still has the Uccello frescoes from the Green Cloister on display, as a solution to enable them to be put back seems still unfound. In the church three side altars in the nave are being restored, with their paintings hung on the scaffolding put over them, which is a new solution on me. And there is a sudden display of some panels found behind a side altar in 1853, but only now brought out. As we were leaving we asked a guide about the nasty screeching bird recording and he told that it was to keep huge flocks of starlings away, as they roost in the trees, cover the paving in crap, and kill the trees. Fair enough. Down to Mama's Bakery for bagels, pear juice, and a takeaway apple muffin.

This evening's stroll was northerly to the San Lorenzo Market, involving some light book shopping and some looking for, and finding, a shop selling nice little paper-covered boxes, as the old favourite one in the Oltrano with the dusty stock in the window, is no more. Back to the usual for pizzas, sitting in the usual piazza after with a pineapple and stracciatella gelato. Only the busker was different, playing the banjo this time, including Duelling Banjos, of course.

Friday 7th September
This morning Jane went to the Novocento gallery and I went to Santa Croce. Reports of scaffolding in front of the Giotto chapels turned out to be s
ix free-standing columns of scaffolding in the south transept supporting a platform at ceiling level for 'structural work'. I got this information after quizzing an attendant who initially said 'is not possible', presumably thinking I was asking to go up it! All the chapels in the transept are accessible, although the Bardi has some scaff around work on the window, but this means that the altarpiece has been moved out and closer appreciation is possible. Verily every cloud...
Much Vasari-related work going on: his Last Supper from the Murate convent has just been restored, after being damaged in the 1966 flood, and now hangs in the refectory here - a space which also contains fresco fragments from the works he destroyed when he rebuild the interior of Santa Croce. And his altarpiece Christ Meeting Veronica on the Way to Calvary, on the altar to the left of the Michelangelo monument, is also being restored, with work due to finish in October. This is being done in a large fenced off area in front of said altar and monument, but the fence is low, so you can see the work in progress.

Also the small Ancient Cloister is now accessible down a staircase in the sacristy corridor (passing some unlabeled art) and through a door to the right of the Pazzi Chapel, and is now a free WiFi area, with USB charging too. I then reconvened with Jane for a repeat of yesterday's bagel lunch.
Up to SS
. Annunziata in the evening, which seems to have never-ending services, but which no longer has scaffolding in its fresco-filled atrium. The piazza out front
now comes equipped with two large sweet stalls and a van selling tripe. No surprises in our evening meal choices, but I did have peach sorbet with my cinnamon gelato. Watching small children play football, listening to scary bird-scaring recordings, watching the Asian guys shoot their illuminated helicopter thingies into the sky, that no one ever seems to buy... all part of a routine with only one night left to run.

Saturday 8th September
This morning I discovered that the hotel does wholemeal (integrale) croissants. So I had to have two, with honey. We loved the new Duomo museum last time, so we went back to love it again. There's so much stuff, and it's mostly unmissable. I concentrated more on the sculpture this time as I know I neglect it. But the big draw this time was the Giotto Madonna and Child panel, on loan from the (always closed) Museo Diocesano, and recently put on display in the last room on the top floor. It's worth a look, but I'm not sure I'd bet anything on it actually being by Giotto. We almost missed it as the third floor, and the roof terrace with the spectacular views of the cupola, is only accessible up the main stairs that wind around the lift, not the iron stairs in the ticket-hall light-well. On our way back to the hotel we found a forno which did a mozzarella and tomato panino using wholemeal (integrale) bread. It was well tasty, and made integrale the word of the day. A
Pan di Ramarino, a Florentine Easter bun flavoured with rosemary, was also bought and enjoyed.
Our evening began functionally - finding the optician where we'd seen the attractive Florence-scene specs cases, buying same, and getting our train tickets for tomorrow. But crossing the Arno for a last walk in the Oltrano things took an almost miraculous turn, with unexpected access to a former complex hitherto locked up, where I got to photograph its church and its handsome ginger cat. Later Santa Monica's door was unusually open too, and another handy photo-op ensued. We celebrated with absolutely no change to our evening eating regime, and I had a coconut and mango gelato.

The things I liked about the Hotel Berchielli
The room: woody, big enough, quiet, nice view, sunshine in the morning, unobtrusive AC, good double-glazing, and no nasty or bland art.
The breakfast: good coffee and orange juice, wholemeal croissants and tasty pastries.

But: Worst WiFi ever - practically unusable.

Sunday 9th
After some last-minute stress-making plan-scrambling regarding our journey to the
aforementioned villa near Subbiano, the Vigna San Giuseppe, we ended up back with the original plan. That the connecting train from Arezzo to Subbiano is a bus on Sunday, and that it leaves hourly at exactly the same time as the train from Florence gets in, did not help.

Relaxed packing and a trouble-free check out was followed by a last
walk past S.M.Novella. The controversial new security gates at S.M.Novella Station caused us no difficulty and the 11.13 (to Roma) was waiting to be sat on.
We were thankfully met at Arezzo station by (the other) Jane and Rod in the hire car, we were whisked to the villa, which is all dirt approach road, brickiness, spectacular views (right is the view from the window of my room), and rooms with dried flowers, framed flower prints, mismatched old wooden furniture and ill-fitting doors. Lovely! And good strong WiFi. Hallelujah! And fresh bread and herby cheese and Pringles and sweet plums and moist polenta cake for lunch, and a lie down.

Monday 10th September

A visit to Arezzo this morning, but on the 10.40 train, so a bit of a late start in church-visiting terms, but we found San Francesco in no time and had no waiting or crowds to contend with, getting to see Piero's True Cross frescoes, which I liked but didn't love. But I did love the many good works in fresco by Spinello Aretino. We paid to also visit the fashion exhibition in the underchurch, not because of my interest in frocks, of course, but the space itself is disappointing - not the rough and Romanesque treat you might imagine, but all smooth and baroque-ceilinged. We got a good local guidebook to Arezzo in the church shop, and three foldy-outy laminated thingies for Arezzo, Cortona and Sansepulcro that are called Guidorama and are surprisingly comprehensive and readable. The tourist office offered nothing better. Mozza-tom panini time was spent in a local place, which ran a lunch-time buffet, with the option of bunging your selection in a public microwave. Amongst the children of the buffet customers was a little girl wearing a t-shirt with the word PAIN in large multi-coloured letters. Odd.
Lunch was followed by a walk in the park which had panoramic views, an exuberant 1920s monument to Petrarch, and a kiosk that sold gelato. Santa Maria della Pieve we found open, and to be a Romanesque treat. Shame the Pietro Lorenzetti altarpiece was just a photo, though, the original being away in restauro. San Michele's Neri di Bicci high altar panel was present and admirable, though, and the church interior is full of dark-stone charm. Our train back to Subbiano was all plastic and modern, where the morning's train in had been all old and wood-panelled. Neither were speedy.
Tonight's meal at the villa was created by Helen to celebrate Jewish New year, so the symbolic delights included a chick pea risotto, peppers stuffed with mushrooms and honeyed baked apples with pomegranate seeds.

Tuesday 11th September
Today a stop-at-villa day was decided on, so after a shower and a slow start I went for a walk up into the hills. A very rocky path through oak forests to begin with, with only the buzzing insects and large dark butterflies for entertainment. Then things opened out a bit bit, and a large ruined farmhouse appeared, but it had returned to nature to such an extent that I'd have needed a machete to get through the brambles leading to the temptingly open front door. Further on I reached an actual road, but walking down it I came to the edge of Capolona, and even heard voices! Fearing sudden contact with human beings, I headed back the way I came. On the way back I noticed the pile of moss-covered stones, pictured right, the loan remnants of...something. Lunch was bread, cheese, tomatoes, olives, crisps and a peach, followed by a snooze. Followed by lying around and reading, and helping Rod with the evening Coop shop.

Wednesday 12th September
After a couple of pre-packed integrale croissants and bi
o pear jam, both bought yesterday evening, Jane's friend Jane drove us to see more Piero. To Monterchi first to see the Madonna del Parto, now on display in a museum space specially designed to suck all the authenticity and mystery out of the experience, with white walls, empty spaces and the fresco covered in a glass box on the wall. There where very few people visiting, just one family, but the beeping and clicking of mobiles were still much in evidence. Truly an unspiritual experience.
On to Sansepulcro, where after a mozza/tom bruschetti lunch we made for the Museo Civico, with a brief cool off in the Duomo, admiring the many alabaster windows, including the fine big rose one (see right). We were heading for the Museo Civico to see the Piero Misericordia polyptych and the Resurrection fresco, neither of which are behind glass and both of which were superior experiences, with useful accompanying video panels. The other works on display were moderately interesting, and the family with the father with the bleeping mobile seemed to have followed us from Monterchi. The ticket for the museum is actually a pass that gets you one reduced-price visit to each of eleven more local attractions (including the Madonna del Parto museum in Monterchi and The Aboca
, Sansepulcro's museum of herbalism) for which the time limit for use is...eternity! On the way back the satnav took us a pretty and mountainous way with hairpin bends and many very fine views.

Thursday 13th September
The weather today became cloudy and comfortably cool, after the around 30 temperatures of late. As part of a day staying local, we had an explore of Subbiano and it's old town, on the Arno, which had some crumbling interesting bits - including an old mill (see above right) and a tower(see right) - lots of rubbish and waste ground patches, and very many cats, a couple of them exceptionally sociable. Then the trudge back up the hill for an early lunch of bread, mozzarella, knobbly tomatoes, black pepper and Sicilian lemon crisps and some very sweet little wild strawberries. And some general relaxing.

In the evening we were prepared a meal by the villa's owners
- Giuditta and her mum lead the small team, and it was excellent. Mixed little bruschetti were followed by lasagne, baccala (a cod thing - I just had the veggies) and deserts. The latter were slices of birthday cake, made with chestnut flour and budino (a creme-caramel type thing), with a home-made choc-chip cookie.
Vin santo and cantucci finished us off, as it were.

Friday 14th September
A casual and unhurried last morning of breakfast and packing, before Jane and Rod ran us to Arezzo Station - the rest where going home tomorrow. The ticket machine kept refusing us any of the through trains we tried to book, so we bought tickets to Florence, and then got tickets on to Pisa Centrale there, despite the machine refusing all credit cards - it took folding money, luckily. Arriving at Pisa and shuttling to the airport was all good. No queue at bag drop, swift security and passport, but then all expectations were confounded - there's a new terminal (25) off of the usual small international hall, and it's all cool and white and full of seats. For veterans of the Pisa Airport experience this is very good news indeed.
A blissfully fuss-free journey home, but boy did it feel cold!


Holiday Reading

I got in the mood by catching up on Marco Vichi's most recent in his Bordelli series, but for a deeper Tuscan dip I read...

The Last Supper by Rachel Cusk
This year's appearance of the third in her justly-renowned trilogy (Outline, Transit and Kudos) got me reading and enjoying Outline, at last, and so I was well primed for more. The Last Supper is the story of her family's uprooting to go and live in Tuscany for a few months. They settle near Arezzo, and the book's bones are the people that they need and meet, and the variety of their relationships. Later they travel south, where it's hotter and there are more tourists to wonder about. But fleshing out the sharp observations is a considerable amount of art history. Piero della Francesca, Cimabue, Saint Francis and Assisi and Raphael are amongst the subjects of chapters, and the author's takes on these standbys are mostly fresh and conception-broadening. Add to this her admirable way with the description of landscape and interiors and you've got...a treat. The strange final episode, though, does make one wonder if some parts of the trip might have been imagined.

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