Hotel Agnello d’Oro. Genova. Northern Italy.
30th of January 1960.
Dear Mum and dad,
As you see, I am finally on the road again, this time heading for Paris.
I finally made the break from Perugia on Tuesday morning after several tries — I began to feel like Nelly Melba with her succession of farewells all over again.
I had my last dinner with Avvocato and Ada on Sunday at midday, then another final one at Tito’s that evening, and the one that actually proved to be the very last one was at a restaurant in town the next night.
I was leaving with lots of mixed feelings, but amongst them the immediate excitement of finally having the chance to explore Florence.
Its real name is Firenze — I still don’t understand why it has to be changed in the English language.
I arrived there in the afternoon and settled in at the youth hostel and made an early start the next morning exploring the Renaissance galleries.
There was a tremendous amount to be seen from an artistic point of view. Practically every little church etc contains something by Michelangelo or some equally notable artist, so, with such a short time to spare, I had to confine myself to the big galleries and I began with the extraordinary Uffizi Gallery with its 42 rooms.
It rivals the Vatican Museum as the most significant art collection in Italy, and probably the Western world as well.
Its long spacious corridors run parallel to the Arno River. It was a great place to start, wandering through each of the large rooms, which display all the most gifted artists and collections, and covering works right through from the 12th to the 17th century.
This made it possible to follow a time-line that demonstrated the influence of one great artist on to the next.
It was Leonardo’s great paintings of the Madonna and Child that influenced Raphael to paint his most famous Madonna of the Goldfish.
There was also the beautiful ‘Mother and Child and two angels’ painted by friar Filippo Lippi.
The story goes that his model was a beautiful nun, who was also his lover and mother of his two children. They eventually renounced one another and returned to the religious life. (I love the gossipy bits- I hope they waited till the kids had grown up!).
Filippo Lippi was Sandro Botticelli’s teacher – the one who painted two of the most famous works in the gallery — the Birth of Venus and La Primavera (Spring).
There was also a Caravaggio room — a painter I knew next to nothing about – I found his paintings really impressive. They are deeply realistic, done in powerful colours and with a strong sense of common humanity in the characters he depicted.
He found most of his models in the taverns and on the streets of Naples.
He was an intense and unconventional man — quite a rebel, and his unconventional work changed the course of European art in the 17th century.
His most famous painting in the gallery was Bacchus, the god of wine. Hanging beside his works were also those of Artemisia Gentileschi, which were also very powerful.
She is the most famous of the women who painted at this time, and it was exciting to see her wonderful work, though it seems to get little attention in a mans world, which is probably no surprise!
Almost all of the great buildings are in the area of the Piazza della Signoria — a magnificent square in the very heart of the city – it is a vibrant, bustling centre of political life,
surrounded by open-air cafes and superb ristoranti, and is something of an outdoor gallery in itself.
An identical copy of Michelangelo’s great sculpture of David, the one who fought Goliath, dominates it!
The original, all 4 metres of it, is safely out of the weather in a special room of its own in the Palazzo Vecchio nearby.
The Palazzo is also a superb building. It was the seat of local government, which flourished while the Medici family ruled much of Tuscany in the 1500s.
We know them as a notorious lot, and at the same time were responsible for encouraging the extraordinary growth of culture and the arts during that period
It was good to have seen Urbino beforehand and understand first-hand the connections and the rivalries between these two great cities.
Next to the Palazzo in the piazza is a beautiful Campanile or bellower, which provides a breathtaking view of the city if you have the strength to climb the 400 steps to the top!
Which I managed to do!
Probably the most popular of all these great buildings is the Duomo — the Cathedral of Santa Maria of the Flowers.
It is a huge Gothic church, built of green/pink/white marble and was built in the 14th century.
It has magnificent bronze doors and a beautiful baptistery. Even its dome is declared a masterpiece.
Everyone also loves the Ponte Vecchio. I ‘ve never seen anything quite like it.
It stretches across the Arno River near the city center and was built about the same time as the Duomo,
It the last remaining bridge – the rest were destroyed in World War II.
I loved wandering through it. It is covered in, and is lined with exotic shops, most of them selling superb gold and silver jewellery.
Well, that’s it for Florence for the time being. It demands that I return sometime!
I left late in the day heading for Pisa, about an hour’s journey west towards the sea.
I couldn’t very well leave Italy without seeing that leaning Tower!
I spent the night in a rather grim youth hostel. Though I really shouldn’t be complaining at all about youth hostels. They have made it possible for me to travel all over Europe at minimum expense and are a great invention.
I believe they were started by a German man late in the 19th century, continuing to spread through many countries ever since.
I began exploring as early as I could the next morning. Pisa turns out to be a very much bigger city than I imagined.
It too is in Tuscany on the River Arno, close to where it runs into the sea.
The Medici clan set up a fine palace there as well, in the 15th century, and also an important university even earlier than that.
I learned that Pisa has been an important maritime port since ancient times, as far back as the Etruscans, and was later a Roman port in the time of the Emperor Augustus.
Even then, ships were able to sail up the Arno River. They came from every direction.
Over the centuries it has provided northern Italy with links across to Corsica, Sardinia, southern France and Spain.
It has lots of historic churches, but the one everyone recognizes is the magnificent great
cathedral complex, consisting of the Duomo, the separate Baptistery, the famous Tower, and also a monumental cemetery.
They stand together in a very large open space – the Piazza del Duomo.
Together they create a splendid panorama, all being built in white marble, which reflects the light from the sun, and you can watch it changing colour depending on the time of the day.
I witnessed this both early in the morning and towards sunset before I left.
My trusty guidebook tells me that defeating the Saracens, no doubt in crusading times, raised the gold needed to finance it. I think it could be called looting!
Mediaeval walls frame the whole vast Piazza.
It was all constructed on unstable sands, hence the leaning Tower, but even the baptistery has always tilted a little, and building adjustments have had to be made right from the beginning, and from time to time up to the present day.
I suppose you could say that the silver lining these days is that it brings millions of tourists to marvel at it!
The Duomo and the baptistery each have beautiful interiors. The Duomo is especially famous for its elaborately carved pulpit, which really is very impressive and is also considered a masterpiece.
In the baptistery of St John, there is a splendid white marble font in the centre which really stands out.
The famous bell tower would be worth seeing even if it didn’t lean!
It stands 60 metres high and contains seven main bells, each of them caste to sound a note of the musical scale.
I think it is also worth mentioning that one of its most famous citizens was Galileo Galilei.
It is recorded that he showed the planets that he had discovered through his famous telescope to the grand Duke of Tuscany.
And of course we have all been taught about his great discoveries and the price he paid for some of them.
Next, I took the train on to Genoa, taking me ever closer to the French/Italian border.
When I arrived at the huge railway station, Mr. Carmine from the Catholic Relief Service office was there to meet me at the station. I had been able to contact him earlier.
He then arranged for a hotel room for me near the station, insisting that the youth hostel was too far away from it, and I gratefully agreed.
I spent the evening watching a film in a nearby cinema, and did a little bit of writing as well before settling down for a good night’s sleep.
This morning I was fortunate to be taken on a tour by car to see some of the general sights of the city.
It is a very attractive and prosperous place, and it is Italy’s most important port.
It is closed in entirely by the combination of a beautiful ring of mountains and the sea, and therefore has apparently always been well protected from wars and invasions – except of course from the last one!
It has a beautiful harbour known as the Porto Vecchio, – the Old Port – and a spectacular lighthouse has been built on one side of it. which is called the Laterna.
This is built with masonry with one square tower capped with a terrace, standing on top of a similar but slightly smaller tower, with another terrace, with the lighthouse itself on top of that! A three tiered lighthouse, if you can imagine it! A bit like building blocks!
The Piazza de Ferrari is the main square in the heart of the city and is known for its beautiful fountain. The buildings surrounding it are a mixture of old and new.
As Genoa is very much a financial and business center, much like Milano,
– The stock exchange and the bank of Italy are there as well as the Palace of the Doges, also a very fine theatre, and of course, a museum and cultural centre.
Tonight I will finally be taking the all-night train to Paris, expecting to arrive there at 9 AM in the morning.
I plan to enrol at the Alliance Francaise School of Languages straight away, and study there for the next couple of months.
The main challenge will be to find lodgings, but I have a few addresses, so I am not too worried.
I shall write again and as soon as I am settled, and can provide you with a new address.
Until then, please continue to rely on my faithful old bank in London.
By the way, they have sent me word, dated January 14, that the Christmas parcel has finally arrived and that they will hold it there until hearing from me again. – Can’t wait!
I do hope Mum that you and Janet enjoyed and profited from the Sydney holiday, and that you are all well!
Wish me well in Paris. I am feeling very excited the closer I get!
Lots of love to everyone.
Hotel de l’Etoile d’Or
Rue Abbe Gregoire. Paris February 4, 1960.
Well here I am actually in Paris. It is such a relief to finally arrive – I will start feeling excited later!
I landed yesterday, so I will take a breather and take time to write a quick account of what has been happening since I left Perugia, before setting out to find some accommodation.
When I last wrote I still had a few hours to spend wandering around Genoa, which was to have been my last little Italian sortie for the time being, but it didn’t quite work out that way!
This is what happened instead. When I finally caught the train to Paris, it was running an hour late due to confusion caused by some rail accident. We did leave at 7:30 PM and arrived at Torino — called Turin in English — at about 10.30.
I raced down to the bar at the station to buy something to eat while the couchettes were being prepared, and I was told I needn’t hurry, as the train would not be leaving for another 20 minutes.
It was only in the course of conversation that I suddenly realised that they were talking about a different train, so in a moment of panic, I grabbed the bag of buns and oranges that I had purchased, raced along the platform and jumped onto the train just as it started to move, only to discover that I had left my handbag behind on the bar counter!
I tried to get off again but it was already on its way out of the station.
I was frantic and was about to pull the emergency cord when I was told that nothing could be done except to wait till we reached the border with France.
There was no way I would be able to go any further as I no longer had a passport!
The next 40 minutes seemed like eternity, with the thought of my faithful pigskin handbag containing passport, traveller’s cheques, ticket, camera and cash sitting up on that bar at Torino station.
I got off at the next stop amidst great commotion and carrying my entire luggage.
I waited while the police telephoned the Torino stationmaster.
Miracle of miracles, he reported that the handbag was just where I left it on the counter.
So now I was conducted across the road to the town’s one and only pub, which was like one out of a Western movie set, long and wooden and rather dirty, and although it was already midnight the bar was still full of curious locals speaking a strange dialect.
Everything went silent as I was led through the bar room and up to the only spare bedroom.
I slept very restlessly, wondering if everything in the handbag would still be intact, though I thought it was promising that it sounded as if no one had touched it,
The room had a great big double bed with a very thick eiderdown, and it seemed quite clean and comfy, with just a little bit of lantern light in the room, but I still found myself shivering.
I woke the next morning to find myself in a tiny village completely surrounded by snow-capped mountains — no wonder I had been shivering!
We were just next to the French border.
I had discovered a bank note in my pocket worth about 10 shillings, and this was all I had to put towards bed and breakfast, but the owner waved my explanations and promises aside, and said that they had been happy to help me out of my predicament!
I crossed to the rail station and I negotiated with the stationmaster to pay for my train ticket when I got back to Torino.
When I got there, it took some time to get through the procedure of reclaiming my worldly goods and re-negotiating my couchette ticket, so tat I could travel overnight again to Paris.
It was a wonderful relief to find that nothing in the handbag had been touched.
I refuse to ever listen again to all those complaints about petty thievery in my beloved Italy!
One good thing that had come out of this adventure was that I now had a little time to
explore the city, which I had calculated earlier that I would not have the time to do.
It is a very large and elegant city, the capital of the Piedmont region, built along the left bank of the Po River and surrounded by the glistening, snowcapped mountains of the western Alps.
It had earlier been Italy’s first capital city back in the time when the House of Savoy, Italy’s royal family, had been in power.
Today, together with Milano and Genova, it is the industrial and commercial triangle base in Italy. And you will be interested to know, Dad that it is certainly the automotive capital of the country, as this is where the Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeos come from.
I was able to leave my luggage at the station and to explore the magnificent Main Street that runs from there, right through to the palace, with a couple of fine piazzas along the way.
The sidewalks are almost like great arcades, covered overhead and linked by wonderful shop windows on one side and supported by great, gray rounded marble pillars on the other side.
It was interesting to verify that the Italian men in this part of the country have an appearance that is much more like those of Northern Europe. One sees the round faced, be-speckled businessman, speaking with a rather clipped accent, which has lost some of the melodious rhythm of classic Italian.
They are generally more reserved – though this is a generalization, I admit — and they don’t have a lot of time for their sentimental, happy-go-lucky, time -wasting fellow countrymen down south.
I finally caught my train for Paris for the second time, after having my last Italian meal for some time to come in a little restaurant in the city.
Even though I was feeling exhausted and not a little put out by my adventure, I was kept entertained by a religious argument between two men at different tables at either side of the cafe.
One of them had aroused my curiosity earlier as he had been quietly weeping on the shoulder of his lover — she was too sympathetic and two blonde to be his wife, and as well, only he was wearing a wedding ring!
It turned out that his mother had just died, and he was feeling rather badly about things, as he didn’t believe in God! In fact, he said, he had never been fooled into believing in anything!
Not even the King, fascism, the Pope, nothing!
How the argument began, I was unable to discover, as the two men were initially strangers to one another, but it was a real treat once it started.
The one who was all in favour of ‘God, and things aren’t so bad after all’ was there with a very, very chorus-y type of girl, and the two women had to sit there silently, first with a certain amount of patience, and then obvious boredom, especially the blonde girl.
Her man stopped crying whenever he was arguing and this was depriving her of her role as comforter.
I don’t know how it all finished up, as I had to leave and make sure I caught the train this time!
Happily it was an uneventful trip and I finally arrived at 9 AM the next morning.
My Paris adventure was about to begin! Wish me luck!
To be continued!