Tag Archives: walking

Notes from Florence


I was in a tiny cafe in one of the arched stone niches housing the many tiny shops that surround San Lorenzo in the middle of Florence. Or Firenze. I was drinking coffee, eating a warm muffin and writing in a plain notebook with a black pen.*

Florence is beautiful, a little severe and mostly very elegant in a self-conscious sort of way. Like so many medieval towns, it seems to be made for getting creatively lost in. The streets are narrow and shadowed by the cliff-like facades of the many palazzos. The roads tend to weave and intersect sinuously rather than the jumble and tangle of Nice’s old city or the pre-Great Fire City of London (I remember it well).

It’s warm here, almost muggy, in fact. But the natives are swaddled in scarves and puffa jackets and I feel quite the barbarian Northerner.

I’ve visited a big city library, cunningly distributed over three floors of a rambling palazzo centred on a damp green courtyard filled with weathered sculptures and an old tall ash. Modernist doors and gates merge into the worn stones and yellow plaster seamlessly. On the wide roof terrace that occupies the whole right side of the building, students and workers are sitting out doors, reading, talking and smoking. Florence is a university town and a European University at that and the library corridors and hallways are full of many languages besides Italian.

The  Ponto Vecchio, an ancient Bridge linking the east and west halves of the city, is a bit more flash  than the elegant Renaissance matron the rest of the city ostensibly offers.  The bridge itself is like a medieval shopping mall built across a river, though instead of the original butchers, the modern day occupants of the shops and stalls sell gold and coral trinkets. One shop has probably denuded an entire barrier reef of red coral. Three tall archways in the centre provide spectacular views of the densely built-up river banks and of the River Arno, in full flood and brown with sediment washed down from the mountains. It’s crowded and full of courting couples asking you to take their picture. The city council might want to consider polite signs suggesting the Italian equivalent of “Get a room.”

A monastery, 800 years of crumbling accretion, has been reduced to a dark, lofty chapel attended by four worshippers and a lone Dominican nun. It is a Baroque space but the austere, Italian kind of Baroque depending on well timed, tasteful flourishes rather than to the garish architectural wedding cake the term evokes in English. Or do I mean its Classical and Classically beautiful?

The streets are crowded with school children, shoppers and bicycles and there are streets upon streets full of bookshops. I have yet to see a MacDonalds. This is a literate society that knows how to eat.

There are policemens with guns. This always makes a Brit jump.

I tried to visit the Uffizi but the staff are on strike. In fact, all the museums are shut due to strike action so after I finish my coffee I walk some more.

I am in Italy, off the map, off the Net and alone for two hours and I love it.

The palazzo – them again – may present a stern face to the world but each one is built slightly differently, reflecting hundreds of years of palace dwellers and changing fashions in palaces. It could be the details of the windows, the shading of the plaster on the facade, the size and pitch of the eaves or the coats of arms discreetly embedded here and there. They are coloured for August, not for the grey muddled sky of today. Huge arches open into their depths like massive caves. I claim the privilege of the ignorant tourist and wander into a few. I find myself in banks, more libraries, residences and building sites. Behind the facades, there are gardens and jumbles of improvised buildings, terraces and roof gardens, and yet more improvising. It looks like the underside of Florence has been a work-in-progress for eight hundred years. It’s where people actually live. The other main buildings are churches. Church and monastery building was a kind of competitive sport in medieval times.

Women police officers in long black coats and white helmets shaped like old-fashioned firemen’s helmets. Newspaper stands, a square full of scooters. Streets of shoemakers, leather shops and toy shops signalled by Pinocchio and (in one case) a full-sized wooden model of a motorcycle. The narrow side streets are packed with artisans, tiny boutiques, carpenters and paper makers.

No-one rocks white dreads and piercings like an Italian girl in green shot-silk leggings.

I get lost, resort to Google Maps and find my way back to our hotel, eight guest rooms on the first floor of a 19th century office block. The staircases seem to float in mid-air from the side-on perspective of the next flight down. It’s homely and welcoming, barring the enormous ceilings, plaster mouldings and massively dignified furniture of dark wood. I text supermum and tell her I want us to live here. She agrees. This is probably impractical for the the school run.

Today, I’ve been working and this evening, Italian colleagues will take us to dinner.

Tomorrow, I’m back in London.

I do so love an adventure.

*You’re right. I probably was feeling very pleased with myself. Well, that doesn’t happen very often.

A nod from an old God

Early on the second full day of the walk across Hadrian’s Wall, I passed the Temple of Mithras near Carrawburgh fort.

It’s now nothing but an outline of ruined walls and a cast of the surviving cult altar stone at the north end of the temple. A wire fence entered through a stile surrounds it and a sheep had managed to wriggle its way inside and get trapped. The sheep baaed and ran to the other end of the enclosure, keeping the temple between me and it. I ignored it. I stood in front of the altar and wondered about the men who’d worshipped here back in the third century. They would have been soldiers – Mithras was a soldier’s God – and far from home. Hadrian’s Wall was mostly garrisoned by auxiliaries from other provinces such as Gaul or Frisia (now part of the present-day Netherlands) so the weather wouldn’t have been too much of a shock. But the land, even at this end of the Wall, would have been bleak enough in summer and relentlessly harsh in winter. The heat and smokiness of the small, crowded space (temples to Mithras were built as if underground without windows) would surely have been comforting compared to the bleak moorland surrounding the immediate settlement.

The Temple of Mithras at Carrawburgh

Shot by nickbarlow and sourced on Flickr under CC. Cheers!

As to the beliefs that comforted them, we simply don’t know. Early twentieth century theories that related Mithras to Iranian cults and centred on the idea of the slaying of a bull have been displaced by a more cosmic vision of a god who journeys through each constellation of the cosmos yet lives outside of the ultimate boundaries of the universe as set by the ancients – beyond the heavenly sphere where the stars and planets are set. Scholars, of course, differ as to the details.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s marvellous Eagle of the Ninth evokes the force and meaning of the religion for a soldier quite convincingly. She clearly draws (she was writing in the 1950s) on what are now taken to be discredited ideas but the sheer beauty that religion can evoke in the most brutish of lives is wonderfully suggested.

But beyond that, we don’t know. Mithras was a mystery religion and its mysteries died out unrecorded other than through the slurs of contemporary Christian writers or the observations of the likes of Plato and Plutarch.

Eli and Jo, two other Hadrian’s Walk-ers, arrived at the temple and worried about the sheep. It was certainly unhappy but someone needed to keep the stile open to let it out and it was determined to keep well away from the worryingly eccentric looking humans besieging it. We gave up trying to persuade it. It was a wide enclosure with plenty of grass and a farmer would be along in due course.

I stayed for a few minutes longer. Finally, I added a small coin to those left in a hollow in the altar. I bowed my head and clapped softly, Shinto style, in memory of what had been the tutelary spirit of the place and walked on.

My knee was already hurting as I trudged away from the fort, over a stile and up the next hill (and there were a lot of hills, even at this point). Going down was worse. A little while later, Sherri and Steve lent me a handful of Ibuprofen. Walking next to the wall, looking along the length of the valum and the remains as they rose towards the real heights of the wall (tomorrow’s walk!) the sun came out. Simultaneously, the ache in my knee subsided in a gentle wave of glowing warmth. It was probably the Ibuprofen kicking in but it could have been a nod from an old god.

Hadrian's Wall near Carrawburgh

Off my iPhone

Hadrian’s Walk 5: Basically…

This is all I have to say. There are probably quite a few pictures like this.

Hadrian’s Walk #4: Friday Miscellany

(I’ll plug in more links to these posts when I get home – bit tricky on an iPhone!)
I’m tired. The muscles around the back of my neck ache and my calves are twanging like overwound guitar strings. We’re staying in a hostel owned by the local landlord who prices little extras like breakfast and tea the way you’d expect dry-land piranhas to if they owned pubs. This is comparative to other bunk barns and hostels, of course. It feels a bit like Yojimbo (or A Fistful Of Dollars) except there isn’t another Big Family at the other end of the village. There isn’t even another end.

Meanwhile, Phill is wandering around the hostel in bare feet looking very spaced out and I’ve resorted to mint tea with nettles (you’d think I’d have seen enough nettles by now). Keith and Clare are looking for Ibuprofen. I refer them to Ed. Ed is the Man, the Supplier, the possessor of the right stuff. He has a 500 pill carton of CostCo ibuprofen. Like so much of the world, many of us are grateful for American Drugs.
Meanwhile, I’ve progressed from “too shy to talk to Jo Beaufois” to “wearing an item of her clothing next to my skin”. Oh alright. She’s lent me a knee bandage.

Last night I sat up and played Chase The Ace, drank mead and got rather tipsy with a crowd of people – Ian, Oli, Jo, Ellie, the Other Ian and more. Some of you have impressively inventive foul mouths, people. With all this and the tent business, all I need to is start smoking again and I’d be back in scouts.

In other news, I found out from Martin what it is to be an Irishman dealing with the Dutch healthcare system (like the nurse who apparently confiscated his camera at the birth of his daughter and gave it back full of birth pictures). I lent Helen a bunch of Compeed blister patches (Compeed is the highest denomination street currency around these parts), got to be Alan Rickman in a Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves remake filmed by Rich and read 200 pages of The Eagle Of The Ninth.

Everyone is up and moving around the Hostel now. Everyone is at ease with everyone else as far as I can see. Those of us who are in more pain than others are supported. We share little things while maintaining our own space.

Today, we walk as far as Carlisle. Tomorrow, we do the last stretch, to the North Sea. Then our temporary little community dissolves. I’ll miss them.

The Walk is in aid of the Joseph Salmon Trust. There’s still time to donate!

Hadrian’s Walk #3 “Injury Time”

Today was a tough day. 18 miles, hundreds of stiles and a bloody great hill to drag oneself up as a piece die resistance. And then you realise the Bunkhouse is still a mile away.

I’ll mention that the scenery was surprizingly lovely, that I bravely faced down a prone cow who looked a bit tasty and that we saw our first bit of real, authentic wall.

I tramped through the afternoon with Ed Lamaze. We were both in pain from different uncooperative body parts but having Ed – a laidback fellow blogger formerly of Louisana – certainly made a tricky part of the walk for me a positive pleasure. I’m afraid I interrogated him in great depth about his home and adoptive state and he was goodhumouredly patient for the three hours we spent trekking towards the farm we were staying at.

Now on to the trivial stuff. Injuries spotted today included:
A nasty bit of tendonitis in Rajov’s foot. He also asked Dan if he had a piece of snot in his moustache.
Ed’s cracked skin on his feet. They held up but he hobbled the last few yards and fell asleep as soon as he’d claimed a bunk. He can’t stand the National either but I’ve decided to forgive him.
Justin’s blisters. The Americans are suffering.
Craig’s strained glute which migrated to his calf over the course of the day.
My own dodgy knee which kicked off at the site of the first of an insane number stiles. It was like an obstacle course for a couple of miles.
More blisters for Virginia’s Stephen and Sherry*.
Bad knees for Oya, the mysteriously named Dutch women.
A bad back for Mushy (I have no idea who Mushy is. Sorry, Mushy.)
Devastated dignity for Phil. I’ve never seen chair legs go flying in four different directions before, leaving Phil dumped square on the floor looking bemused at the injustice of the universe. Bet the chair felt worse, though.

The accomodation today is a kind of dress rehearsal for the night under canvas tomorrow.(“It’ll be nice when it’s finished!”). Ed and I got here just in time to claim the last two bottom bunks. The last arrivals are making do with a motley collection of fold-down camp beds. There is, however, a television and the Netherlands versus Uraguay. I am hiding at the other end of the room. The French flag is still a bit puzzling, though. The electricity cuts out periodically but the food (chili con carne, rice and chips with am array of cold salads) was very welcome. I’m going to keep my headphones on and read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim untill the batteries go flat then try and go to sleep.**

*You’re probably wondering how come I’m suddenly remembering all these names. Well, Les has given me a list with everyone’s emergency contacts, just in case. And where I can’t work it out, I’m making it up.
**And I slept. Ish. Now writing, tweeting and updating post in the Posh kitchen so as not to wake any of 15 sleeping, snoring, farting men in the POW style bunk room. The crew in the shared B’nB rooms at the farm have even got am indoor toilet! Wussy bastards.