2020, the year when international travel was stopped in its tracks. Where flights were grounded, trains were stopped, boats tied up to the harbour walls. No movement, no coffee shops, no smiles – masks, hand sanitiser, quarantine and Corona were the words on everybody’s hidden lips. A year baked in fear, sensationalised by media and the mass frustration of a world’s population asking, “What is going on?”
After an extended period of lockdown in my parents beautiful home, where my family and I made the best of a kak situation. We did our best to entertain ourselves (and others), we cooked, we danced, we laughed, we argued. In most ways it was amazing to all be grown adults and getting some beautiful time together, in other ways the house was too small for 5 grown adults with strong opinions 🙂 But the majority of it was good. However, with a growing concern for the state of the economy and the overriding knowledge that my savings were being drained with no possible income at any near point, I started to touch base with my old job. With my brother’s wedding at the forefront of my plans and my mind, so many conversations had to happen, before I signed a contract and made my way to Europe. The journey itself will be a whole other blog post.
But after a gruelling trip, the lyrical sounds of the Italian enthusiasm rolling off of our taxi driver’s monologue, my heart started beating to its European rhythm and my love for Italy came racing back. With Italy slowly rearing it’s head out of an incredibly difficult lockdown, one of the worst hit European countries in the first round of lockdown, the Italians were dying to be back on their streets, to embrace, to sip coffee, to sing and to live “La Dolce Vita”.
Getting back into the swing of things at work was challenging, the restrictions enforced by Covid made things take longer and made my job a little harder. But in the back of my mind, I kept expressing gratitude- for being able to travel again, for having a job, for getting out of Cape Town at the height of the Covid Restrictions. Slowly the rules stared to slacken, slowly the Prosseco was lining up at the sunset bar spots. Summer started to settle in and the Italians started to play. To see some of my old Italian friends and hear their Covid experiences was heart breaking, times had been so tough for them, the restrictions had been brutal. There was a little more distance, a little bit of apprehension, however the joy that sparked in their eyes was beautiful to watch (even over a mask). It was a month of intense work, long hours and lots of organisation! But then, after that month, it became a waiting game. We were ready for guests and so while we waited, our hours went back to normal people’s working schedules, we finished at 5pm (most days), we had weekends off and wider Liguria became our playground.
My wonderful friend, Sarah, who is a teacher in Genoa, had a scooter, she would pick me up a couple of evenings a week from work on her scooter and we would mission to a different beach bar or mountain spot, snacking on Aperitifs and watching the sunset glow through our Aperol Spritz. A few weekends we even got to go further a field, like Cinque Terre (WITH NO TOURISTS). We were living the Italian Dream and I felt so spoilt, we had space in Italy in Summer, I think this would probably be a rare experience for any foreigner to experience.
AND THEN….AND THEN CAME FLORENCE.
FIRENZE…the city that sets my creative spirit into motion. The cobble stone streets that spiderweb themselves off the Arno River welcome the clapping heals, revel in the flip flops, long for the bicycles, never has a summer seen these streets so quiet. And so with the call out to those brave enough to answer, myself and my colleague packed our car at 4.02pm one Thursday evening and headed off down towards Tuscany, to a tiny hillside village called San Miniato. I had done a “classic Tash”, gone on to Google Maps, found the greenest area on the map between where we were and where we wanted to be, found a hotel and put the co-ordinations into GPS. Hopefully the town would satisfy our Tuscan craving.
I had been living in such an unbelievable flow, it felt like everything I was dreaming up was coming true, I had had a smile on my face since arriving in Italy and there was nothing I was asking the universe for that it was not delivering. And so, I could not contain myself when, while driving on the highway, we drove past a FIELD OF GOLD…Sunflowers stretching in every direction I could see, the horizon covered in gold. I did a classic, swerve the car off the road and Emily and I were determined to find this field, the sun was setting and these fields were glowing! We found ourselves weaving in the tiniest back streets, more and more industrial looking the more lefts and rights we took. Eventually we took a crazy chance and went down a little street, only to confront the golden field head on! With “Post Malone, Sunflower” playing, we drove straight into the field and turned the engine off. With all the excitement, we had not noticed another car in front of us. I leapt out of the car, reminding myself to take the keys out of the ignition and ran into this dream of mine. As I passed the people, whom’s car was parked in front of us, I enthusiastically gestured at the Sunflowers, telling them just how excited I was, for some reason their enthusiasm was less than a third of mine, so I ignored them and carried on. Emily and I were skipping through the fields, being towered over by these ginormous flowers. As individuals they are exquisite, but as a collective, with endless fields stretching as far as the eye can see, they are the definition of breath taking.
I bottled that feeling of Joy, it sits in my memory bank now, for whenever I need to remind myself of pure joy. I know the way my heart expanded when I stood there and saw them stretching to the sun, they are exquisite.
Funny story, when we went back to our car and realised we had parked the other car in, we also realised they were having a little quickie in the backseat before we interrupted them. No wonder their sunflower enthusiasm was not as high. Whoops.
We drove on, flying super high, making promises to come back to this field of gold with some Prosseco, only to drive through tunnels of sunflowers almost the rest of our way to San Miniato. It was amazing, I cannot believe I didn’t know this was a possibility. Sunflowers are one of my top 3 flowers (note to future husband).
When we arrived in San Miniato, the view that I had googled, was not available to us, because it was pitch black, but we navigated the tiny Italian village streets and pulled up at our little hotel. They were delighted to have us, no one else was staying there. Covid had hit this small village hard. We were the only english speaking people there, but we navigated with grace as we headed out for a celebratory drink and aperitif.
It only took 5 minutes to walk around the whole quaint city, but it was truly gorgeous. Although, I could say more about it, I have so much to say, that I am going to move on, as we did after a coffee at a great little Cafe and a run!
Our drive continued as we made our way through Tuscany, we had decided that we had to head into the heart of Tuscany to try some delicious wine and so with our lucky streak, we managed to find the incredibly well renowned Antinori wine farm, of which we stock a number of their wines on the boat that are far too expensive for me to try! So, we tried our luck and with the Covid effect, they had space for us to do a tasting. Which was pretty insane. So, we strolled in to a very empty tasting room, organically rolling into the Tuscan hills, designed so cleverly to fit perfectly into the lip of the vineyard.
We tasted and bought some pretty prolific wine, it just kept coming to the forefront of my mind how unusual this was, Tuscany, in the middle of summer, empty. No queues of tourists, no waiting lists at one of the iconic wine farms. It was a pinch-me moment, possibly even bitter-sweet.
Our roadtrip needed to continue as we had booked lunch at a very beautiful vineyard 40 minutes away, Brancaia and the rain was threatening to pull in. So with our wine packed into the car and our smiles expansive, we cued Spotify and hit the road again. Through that typical Tuscan landscape, rolling green hills, Cypress trees stretching to the clouds and the terracotta roofs deeply contrasted their surrounds.
AH and there, at Brancaia, Heaven on a plate awaited us. This was incredible, we drove for about 15 mins on dirt road winding further and further into a beautiful luscious valley, with no view of any habitation, until you go through the gates to the winery. Ah my Italian soul did pirouettes along the car park. This was too beautiful, this was not what I had expected my summer to look like!
When in Italy, all eating rules have to go out the window, you have to eat, drink and be merry. There is no point in holding back, you will miss the magic. The Italian chefs create love on a plate and my gosh, you don’t want o miss out on the kiss of any of the flavours. Smell it, look at it, taste it, relish in every part of it. Don’t miss a thing. And that is exactly what we did, indulging in cheese, pasta, wine, dessert wine…all of it! And it was beautiful, the dream Tuscan lunch, with a flirtatious waiter imparting compliments on us with every drop of wine poured. We left with a few free gifts and another delicious bottle of wine and the best Tuscan lunch in our bellies.
I am sure by now, you are aware of my debilitating fear of lightning. I have managed it over the years with Tension Release Exercises. But, I had not done that for a while. For those, who have never had a debilitating fear, mine turns me into a petrified child, where the notion of crawling into a corner and shaking is my reality. I have got so much better, but if I get caught unaware, I can sometimes regress. And unfortunately a freak lightning storm crept up on us out of nowhere. I had felt it brewing while we were having lunch, but nothing prepared me for the flash flood, the furious fork lightning and the hail rocks that felt from the sky as we tried to navigate the tiny Tuscan streets. My windscreen wipers were irrelevant and eventually, I followed suit of a number of other drivers and pulled off alongside the road, waiting out this flash storm, with Ludovico Eunadi bellowing out of the spaeakers as loud as possible, my hands shaking on the wheel.
As the sun crept out again and the sky broke into a beautiful post-storm display, the anxiety dissipated and we drove on, getting closer and closer to the city, with the Duomo and bridges visibly calling us in a while before we actually got into the city. Ah the closer we got, the more excited I got, it really is my favourite city in the world.
The lightning episodes do always make me feel exhausted and so an early night was on the cards. Florence did not agree, we went for a quick stroll down the road “just to pick up some water”. As we walked down the road, I saw a cute little bar across the way called “Symbiosis“, it really called out to me and I asked Em if we could have a quick look for an option for tomorrow’s coffee. It was so beautiful and had such a great vibe beaming off it, but as I walked past the window, I recognised someone and then slowly, the closer we got, we locked eyes and an old friend from Cape Town, Lapo was standing inside the bar with a glass of wine. At any other time, this would be a crazy coincidence, but not, during Covid times, this was fate! We could not pass up the opportunity for a glass of wine.
The wine flowed as easily as the conversation. And we could not stop it there, so Lapo, a Florentinian, himself, checked out the menu, gave it the nod of approval and we settled in to a night of delicious food, more pasta, more wine, more dessert. What a pleasure. What a beautiful moment.
And moments like this just continued. Florence was desperate to show off her good side and so every interaction was beautiful. Shop and restaurant owners were dying to impart with the best service and many gifts. I was amazed how the hospitality had not been tainted by a quiet summer. In fact they were desperate to invite guests indoors. We had moment after moment of generosity, drawing us into open doors and filling our cups!
One of the most significant moments for me, was spending the Saturday alone, I went for a long run along the Arno, taking in all my favorite sights with the sunrise shining my favourite kind of light. I like being able to see the city with the break of dawn, before it gets too busy and as it starts to wake itself up. It’s a time when there are many interesting characters out and about. But most are alone and most seem to have a purpose. I love to observe the city this way.
A beautiful coffee shop, La Menagere, is my perfect stop. The coffee shop has these huge open windows to the street and the walls are lined with flowers, the decor is eccletic and musical – a grand piano sits in the back with the promise of an exceptional pianist filling the vast space. The florist in the back is bursting at the seams with moody yet dreamy flowers and there is a gorgeous ceramic shop as you ring up your bill. The most beautiful moment for me, was when I was paying for my coffee and I looked to my left and there, standing so beautifully on display, was a collection of Kintsugi ceramics. This Japanese concept had become so significant for me in the last few months, I had been working through some stuff from my past and trying to get my heart to let some things go. Kintsugi asks the voyeur to look at the object in the entirety of its history, therefore instead of throwing away a broken ceramic bowl or mug, the artist, will fix it back together with gold. This concept had breathed a new breath into my everyday and I had actually been looking for a piece of ceramic to take home with me, to symbolise this journey I had gone on. So, I chuckled and purchased myself a glass for my morning coffee and a little bowl for my rusk. Serendipitous.
Before this blog gets too long to read to the end, I will finish off by saying that the last experience I had really cemented in for me just how lucky I was to be travelling at this time. This is my fourth time in Florence and each time, I have wanted to go to the Uffizi, but the queue has always been too long to justify for me, who likes to walk all day everyday! So, it was not lost on me, when I went online to purchase my ticket in the morning for that afternoon. It was even more incredible that when I arrived there, I waited for 2 minutes to collect my ticket and 4 minutes to get through the queue into the gallery. As an art student, I love walking through these galleries. At school we only ever saw paintings of this importance in books and so to walk through a space with Caravaggio or Leonardo Da Vinci artwork on display is like walking through a dream. The sculptures of Michaelangelo flood the halls, it brings me to tears. But then, I turned the corner and one of my favourite pieces of art, “The Birth of Venus” was unoccupied and I could stand in front of this magnificent piece of artwork alone and examine it the way we wished we could have at school. This moment was unforgettable.
And while I could keep rapping on and on about all the unbelievable experiences we had while in Florence, I guess the significance was having the city to ourselves and while, selfishly it was wonderful not to be fighting crowds, the impact of this pandemic were hard to ignore. We have a responsibility as citizens of this world to keep supporting our fellow human who have been feeding us, entertaining us, driving, flying us…