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Travel: Italy's Hidden Secrets
The city is after all a museum in itself. A tribute to the lofty human spirit. It’s natural that all of us feel the goosebums
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In my head, there’s a certain certitude about Florence: this is where I have lived at some point, in some life. The certitude is entirely without reason. Yes, I know the city well, even intimately now. But have always just been a visitor to it.
Perhaps every visitor feels the same. As they take in the magnificence of the piazzas and the palazzos. The city is after all a museum in itself. A tribute to the lofty human spirit. It’s natural that all of us feel the goosebums. And yet, my connection beyond that, perhaps...
It’s dusk as we wind up the hill, on the old road to Rome. The sky is almost purple, green vineyards lay stretched out below. Some of the most famous supertuscans—those expensive wines—come from this countryside, as also Chianti classico. And we are headed to check out a wine estate with these. “Have you been here before?”ask Lisa and George excitedly, the American couple from secluded New Hampshire, who love to travel, love their wines and have now semi-adopted me on this trip.
The reason for all our collective excitements is not just the countryside, or the promised wine dinner and bistecca—the famous Florentine steak, it is the prospect of seeing the quarters where Machiavelli once lived and wrote The Prince.
“Florence is associated with the Medici. But this time, we will look for Machiavelli,” announces Anne, who is leading this Insight Vacations tour that I am a part of, along with George and Lisa. Anne loves history and Italy. Since she has stayed in this country for 20 years, she also knows a huge number of secrets that regular travellers are unlikely to stumble on to. Some, she shares with us.
Like this Machiavelli’s “farmhouse” on the Sant’ Andrea roadside. It’s now a part of the GIV wine estate, 15 km away from Florence. The farmhouse — now converted to a restaurant and hotel—was where Niccolo Machiavelli stayed when he was driven out of Florence by the return of the Medici. The desk where he wrote his most famous treatise, The Prince, still stands as do some ancient wine barrels in a cellar downstairs.
“Have you been here before?”ask Lisa and George, and I shake my head in the negative. But as we wind our way back down to Florence, the sense returns, of overwhelming familiarity. “It’s my city,” I tell them, only half in jest. And steer them away from the centre with its dominating red dome, to the less fashionable side.
Across the river, in the Oltrarno (literally, the other side) is the church of Santo Spirito, also designed by Brunelleschi, the architect of that famous red Renaissance dome. Santo Spirito is one of Florence’s lesser known churches, though the piazza in front of it has become quite the nightspot for European hipsters, students and locals. It is a neighbourhood I feel most at home in. There are no tourists, only locals doing what they do best: Just sitting on the steps of the church, sipping a glass of red or a cocktail, watching life go by.
Sometimes, aspiring local talent will perform in open air—and we see magnificent concerts for free. On other days, you may find a farmer’s market, or even a jewellery and craft market. You could strike a hard bargain like all those medieval Florentines. Or, just be content. Breathing in the past and present.
Like Florence, Venice has been a city of merchants. And it has its secrets. Beyond the Venice of San Marco and the Grand Canal, beyond its hotels and bars made famous by Hollywood and Hemingway (Bellini was an opera composer before Hemingway turned him into a drink we all know), beyond even the quieter charms of neighbourhoods such as Burano, known for their lace and cheaper retail (because the shops are owned by locals who do not have to pay astronomical rents), lies a hidden city.
There’s no use having a map of Venice. Each neighbourhood is an island that has never been mapped. Unless you were born here, be prepared to get lost. But getting lost has its own advantages. For one, you may stumble on to some of Venice’s hidden gardens. There are a few walking tours led by locals dedicated to the task of pointing these out. Anne ropes in a local expert to show us some. But if you have hours to kill and a passion for adventure, brave the callis on your own.
As a language, Venetian is quite distinct from Italian. It’s made up of sounds from all the cultures encountered by the early seafarers. Arabic is quite a component. Which is why, the Venetian “calli”is similar to “alley”. Both mean the same and come from the Arabic root word “galli”that we have in India too.
The callis take you to sudden squares with homes behind high walls. Some of these palaces had terrace gardens, cultivated on high wooden planks, where women sat to bask in the sun, colouring their head with natural dyes made of anything from saffron to henna. Venetian women were the first in the world to colour their hair, Anne tells us. They did it in the gardens.
The Church of the Madonna of the Garden is a good place to start, even if there are no remaining gardens. She after all is the patron saint of the greens. Venice once had apparently 500 secret gardens, well laid out from 1500 AD onwards. Just a few minutes away from the church is the 15th-century palace, Palazzo Contarini dal Zaffo, meant for just ladies and nuns. Once, this housed one of the biggest Renaissance gardens in the city. Some remain.
In the other direction from the church is another garden: the 18th century Palazzo Rizzo Patarol, now a hotel. There are roses and overhanging trees in what must have been a romantic setting. But romantic intrigues (the gardens were a setting for these) are incomplete without going to the island of Giudecca to the famous Hotel Cipriani, with a “garden of delights” associated with Cassanova. Today, there are some greens, more celebrity. But we are not complaining.
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