A slice of Parma

Parma is a temple to Italy’s three great loves, food, music and art, and they like to cycle too (even the recent African immigrants, unlike elsewhere in Italy), so what’s not to like? And any town that has a bookshop that’s been open since 1829 (Libreria Fiaccadori, Via al Duomo 8 – open seven days a week, and to midnight from June to August!) is my kind of town.

Starting with food, the Slow Food movement (now prominent worldwide) may have started in Bra, in Piedmont (and been triggered by the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome in 1986), but nowadays Parma has a fair claim to be the epicentre of the movement towards sustainable production of traditional local food and drink, thanks above all to the global fame of its ham and cheese, and the measures put in place to protect them from competition, above all from the rapacious and unscrupulous global agroindustry. I speak, of course, of prosciutto crudo di Parma (Parma ham) and Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan cheese). I won’t go into details, but in order to gain the EU’s Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (Designation of Protected Origin), producers have to follow a very specific process for sourcing and processing these foodstuffs, and can then command a premium price for them. Parma has also been designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.

A similar concept to Slow Food is Cucina Povera or Poor Cooking – not just peasant cooking (which is usually great, worldwide, except perhaps in North Korea) but a specific adaptation to the poverty of peasants in Italy in the late nineteenth century (the time of the great migration to the USA. of course) and after the two world wars – people learnt to cook with the cheapest ingredients, such as potatoes, beans and lentils, with any meat used coming from offcuts. This has now become fashionable as a way to cut excess, to get back to a simple traditional lifestyle, and simply as a healthier option.

Anyway, the best Parma ham comes from the hills to the south of the city, especially the Langhirano valley, where there are around 500 authorised producers (and a ham museum in Langhirano village), and also to the north along the River Po, where the ultra-lean culatello ham is produced. Parmesan cheese is produced on the plains north of the city, and there’s also been a large tomato-processing industry in the area since the nineteenth century. Some local dishes include tortelli d’erbetta (ravioli stuffed with ricotta cheese, nutmeg and spinach), tortellini filled with pumpkin and savoury cheese and served with a butter sauce, and torta fritta, fried dough pillows served with thin slices of Parma ham. Some dishes come with an appropriate amount of shaved Parmesan on top – do not wantonly smother your food with grated Parrmesan, that’s as dumb as drowning it in ketchup. And putting Parmesan on pizza is a crime against gastronomy. Speaking of pizza, it’s acceptable to have a beer (just one) with pizza, but otherwise you should drink wine with Italian food. Quite right too. Lambrusco is one of the local wines, and nothing like what you imagine – it’s still spritzy (but many Italian table wines actually have a bit of fizz to them, surprisingly) but the dry and semi-dry (secco and semisecco) styles go really well with local food.

It’s easy to visit producers, especially with the TastyBus Foodseeing tour or similar. I’ll say more about Italian food (and beer) below.

As for music, Parma’s main claim to fame is that Guiseppe Verdi was born nearby, and there’s an annual festival of his music in the city – but the lyric soprano Renata Tebaldi was also born nearby and studied at Parma’s conservatoire. There was a Tebaldi exhibition in the castle of Torrechiara in Langhirano, but this was replaced in 2014 by a new museum dedicated to her at the Villa Pallavicino in Busseto. The great tenor Luciano Pavarotti and the soprano Mirella Freni were both born in Modena, just down the road.

And finally (and rather lengthily) art – the Galleria Nazionale has a great collection, including a simply perfect representation of ideal beauty by Leonardo da Vinci – there’s much less Flemish and Dutch art here then in Genova and Torino, and more Gothic and Renaissance Italian art. It’s housed in the huge red-brick Palazzo della Pilota, which was remodelled internally between the 1970s and 1990s by the local architect Guido Canali – you enter through the remarkably large Teatro Farnese, built in 1619 and rebuilt in 1956 after damage in World War II, then a funky metal walkway leads backstage and across to the gallery. The earlier old masters include Daddi and Gaddi, Veneziano, Spinello Aretino and Fra Angelico (his lovely Madonna of Humility) and Giovanni di Paolo, Bici di Lorenzo and Neri de Bici; there’s an Annunciation by someone close to Botticelli, and nice pieces by Jacopo Loschi, the leading Parmesan painter of the second half of the fifteenth century, straddling the Late Gothic and the early Renaissance. After La Scapiliata, Leonardo’s lovely head of a young girl, I found that the rooms beyond in the north wing were closed except for a group visit at 5pm – I don’t know if this is a permanent arrangement. Until then, I went out past some portraits of the later Bourbon rulers of Parma to a fine Neoclassical hall (1825, with Canova’s statue of Maria Luigia of Austria (Duchess of Parma 1816-47) and a massive muscular second-century Hercules found in 1724 on the Palatine Hill in Rome) and then the galleries created by Maria Luigia to display the works of Correggio (c.1489-1534), the leading painter of the Parma School, though these are too sentimental for my taste. There’s also work by Parmigianino (Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, 1503-40), the leading early Mannerist painter (and one of the first etchers), who was as his nickname implies born in Parma. You’ll also see Agostino Carracci (brother of the better-known Anibale), who died in Parma in 1602.

Returning at 5pm, the lower part of the northwest wing houses less important fifteenth- and sixteenth-century artists from Parma and the Po area, such as Alessandro Araldi, Cristoforo Caselli, Filippo Mazzola (father of Parmigianino), Dosso Dossi and the rather twee Il Garofalo from Ferrara. Upstairs, there are works by Michelangelo Anselmi (1491-1554), who was born in Lucca only because his father was exiled from Parma, and was living here by 1520. Slightly surprisingly, there’s also a portrait of Erasmus by the studio of Holbein. Another metal walkway leads up to a former hayloft, now a great space for displaying larger paintings – there are portraits of the ruling Farnese family by Girolamo Mazzola Bedoli (c.1500-69), a Mannerist who was born and lived in Parma, marrying Parmigianino’s cousin, as well as works by Annibale Carracci (the better-known one – a small self-portrait and a big Dead Christ), Frans Pourbus the Older, Tintoretto, Palma Il Giovane, Agostino Carracci and Lambert Sustris – there must be a law that every gallery in northern Italy has exactly one work by this Venice-based Dutch painter. Don’t miss the small but very striking El Greco of Christ Healing the Blind (1573-6). Other local artists include Giovanni Battista Tinti (1558-1604) and Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647), who moved to Rome and adopted the new Baroque style.

Going down and back, there’s work by Guercino, various seventeenth-century portraits including some from the studio of van Dyck, then the usual slew of dull eighteenth-century paintings before reaching Tiepolo, Bellotto (four definitely by him plus two attributed) and Canaletto, with various views of Parma (from the 1860s) and prints from 1557 on as you head for the exit.

Parma’s second-best gallery is the Pinacoteca Stuard, in a wing of the tenth-century Benedictine nunnery of San Paolo, which has a less locally-focussed collection including works by Niccolo di Tommaso, Bicci di Lorenzo, Giovanni di Francesco (formerly attributed to Uccello), Van Eyck, a follower of Lippi, Parmigianino and Domenichino, and upstairs Lanfranco, Valerio Castello (from Genova) and a follower of Guercino. On the other side of the nunnery, you can visit the abbess’s rooms, decorated by Correggio et al in 1519 then shut up and forgotten from 1524 to 1774 – there’s a copy of the Last Supper by Alessandro Araldi, then after the chapterhouse (with good carved stalls), a room with the vault painted by Araldi and then the highlight, the Camera di San Paolo, where Correggio decorated the vault of the abbess’s private dining room to simulate a pergola with vivacious mythological frescoes that are considered one of the masterpieces of Renaissance art. The pagan subject matter seems out of place in a nunnery, but San Paolo’s convent was known for good living and lax rules. While there, it’s also worth popping into the Castello dei Burratini, a free museum of puppetry with a good video of a puppet playing the piano and puppeteers working and singing too.


In 1530-4 Correggio also painted the cupola of the duomo (cathedral), which was consecrated in about 1106, with a Gothic campanile added in 1284-94 and side chapels in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The apse was painted by Bedoli, as well as the vaults of the choir and the nave (c.1557). The interior is totally covered with frescoes, some very Mannerist in style; there are some older ones in side chapels such as the Capella del Comune. Alongside the duomo is the amazing Baptistery, a highlight of the transition from Romanesque to early Gothic architecture. It was built in 1196-1216 and decorated then with sculptures by Benedetto Antelanni and his workshop – the seemingly random sculptures in niches all around the base of the Baptistery is known as the Zooforo (or zoophorus), a series of 75 panels of symbolic and fantastical subjects. The highlight is its umbrella vault, frescoed in the 1220s with sixteen segments radiating from the keystone and six concentric horizontal bands, depicting scenes from the life of Abraham; the life of John the Baptist; Christ in Glory with the Virgin and the Baptist, prophets and kings; the Apostles and Evangelists; the celestial Jerusalem; and heaven with a red bullseye at the top representing the Empyrean.

Your ticket includes the Diocesan Museum, which is small but decent enough (with information in Italian only) – you’ll go down to the foundations of some third-century Roman walls and then see Roman coins and ceramics from the cathedral area, then carvings from the first churches, fairly simple mosaics – and thankfully no vestments, which are what I always expect to see in diocesan museums!

There’s more Correggio in the church of St John the Evangelist behind the duomo, where the cupola frescoes were painted by the man himself in 1520-24 and the nave frieze by his studio, while the Bono chapel (the fifth on the right) houses two Correggio canvases; the nave vault was painted by Anselmi (1521-3). The chancel is very Baroque, and the façade was added in 1607 and the 75m-high campanile in 1613. Finally, Pamigianino was commissioned to paint the frescoes of the cupola of Santa Maria della Steccata, built in 1521-39 – he only finished the Three Wise and Three Foolish Virgins (1526-7), high in front of the altar, which show remarkable skill in modelling.

A few thoughts about (salty and bitter) Italian food

When I travel in France or Switzerland I’m used to waking up a couple of times in the night to drink water, due to what is for me (who basically doesn’t use salt) over-salted cooking. In Italy I wake up five or six times a night, the food really is that salty. I do always claim that Italian food, especially in the south, is the world’s best food for vegetarians, but in the dark of the night it can seem like hard work. Of course, Italians also like bitter coffee (cappuccino is famously served only in the mornings, after that you have to take it strong and bitter) – happily there is an alternative, as Italy serves up the world’s best hot chocolates, some so thick you could almost stand a spoon up in the cup. (Forget about tea, they don’t have a clue.) They also have a thing about after-dinner digestivos, also known as amaro (‘bitter’), just to make the point clear.

Thankfully, there are some pleasantly light and sparkling pre-dinner drinks – the cocktail of the year seems to be the Hugo, a blend of gin, prosecco and elderflower cordial with tonic or soda water. You can also order a Black Hugo (reddish, really), with forest fruits. There are also some excessively sweet after-dinner drinks, such as moscato.

It is worth stressing that gelato is both unsalted and lower in fat than ice cream – definitely tasty and healthy, as far as pure indulgence goes. As it happens I’m writing this in Georgia, where the food is also wonderful for vegetarians (there’ll be a dish of meat, but it’s just set down on the table surrounded by wonderful salads and other vegetable dishes, and you just pick and choose what you want) – and most of the food is not particularly salty, apart from the cheese, which is … hard work.

Italian friends want me to mention that there’s been a craft beer revolution since the 1990s, but… no, I don’t think so. There are a few interesting breweries, some working closely with artisan food producers in the spirit of the Slow Food movement (see the Unionbirrai website), but basically beer remains something to be drunk with pizza, and Italian custom doesn’t really allow it to break out of that straightjacket. Having said that, it’s not just industrial yellow beer – acceptable red beers such as Moretti Rosso are widely available.

Genoa or Genova?

After a summer in which the media (the Guardian in particular – see this and this) carried regular reports on how cities like Venice (and Florence, and Barcelona, and others) were so overwhelmed by tourism that there are now anti-tourism protests and demands for local authorities to restrict tourist numbers, it seemed that I should suggest Genova as an alternative to Venice. (I prefer to use the local names, eg Genova, but it seems a bit pointless in the case of Venezia.) After all, they were the two great maritime trading republics of Renaissance Italy, and both have a wonderful legacy of art and architecture from their heydays. But in the end I have to admit that there are clear and obvious reasons why Venice is likely to receive (‘welcome’ would not be the right word) 20 million tourists this year and Genova is not. Venice is simply one of the most beautiful and magical places in the world, while Genova is a crowded workaday port where tourism is just a minor business.

While Venice was establishing colonies and trading settlements in the Adriatic and Eastern Mediterranean, Genova was doing the same, in the Black Sea and Crimea (where I came across their traces while writing my guides to Ukraine and Georgia) and also in Corsica, as mentioned here. By the mid-fourteenth century these had mostly been lost to the advancing Ottomans, and Genova’s merchants moved into banking, in particular providing the kingdom of Spain with large loans at very high interest rates, only affordable because of the flow of gold from South America. Spain gradually forced a change to longer-term loans at much lower rates, but Genova and its bankers became immensely rich and spent the wealth on art and culture, so that the period from 1560 to 1640 became known as the Genoese century.

This was when Genova’s own World Heritage Site, known as the Strade Nuove and the Palazzi dei Rolli, was created – the Strada Nouva or New Street (now Strada Garibaldi) was laid out after 1550 on the hilly edge of the then city (it has now climbed right up every available hill in the area, requiring a slightly Valparaíso-esque system of funiculars and escalators to reach them all), but the term Strade Nuove (plural) also includes Via Cairoli and Via Balbi. They were created to allow the city’s leading families to build immense new palaces – they were listed on official Rolls (Rolli) that obliged them to take turns hosting official guests to the city, rather than building an official government police. Now 42 palaces (of well over 100 in all) are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List; the tourist office organises regular tours, but the easiest and most obvious ones to visit are the three housing the city’s art galleries – get your ticket from the shop in the Palazzo Bianco then start with the Palazzo Rosso, across the road, before returning to the Palazzo Bianco and the linked Palazzo Tursi. Most of the palazzi were built by 1588, but the Rosso and Bianco were built a century later. In 1622 Rubens had published a famous and very influential book of engravings of the Palazzi di Genova, quite a feat seeing how hard it is to photograph the palazzi on this narrow street, less than 8m wide (see below).

 

The Palazzo Rosso was built for the two Brignole-Sale brothers, so it has two equally grand piani nobili or reception floors – the lower is a pure art gallery, while the upper has more of the original décor. They have some of the big names of the Italian Renaissance here – Andrea del Sarto, Bassano, Guercino, Sassoferrato, Titian, Tintoretto (circle of) and Veronese, as well as a surprisingly good portrait of a gentleman by an unknown Venetian from the end of the sixteenth century or the start of the seventeenth – scholars still have plenty of work to do. There are also, of course, various Genoese artists who weren’t bad at all, the best being Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644), as well as Bernardo Castello (1557-1629), Cesare Corte (1550-1613), and the eighteenth-century sculptors Bernardo and Francesco Schiaffino. There’s also a good crop of Flemish art, as is quite normal in Italy due to the large numbers of northern artists travelling south. Here we have a good portrait by Willem Key (1515-68), who I hadn’t come across before, an uninspiring Deposition from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden, who I usually find wonderful, plus Joos van der Cleve, Frans Pourbus, Hendrick Avercamp, Abraham Teniers, a series of the months of the year by Jan Wildens and, not exactly Flemish, a Dürer portrait of a young man. Upstairs they also have seven portraits of the Borgnone-Sale family by van Dyck, who spent the years 1621 to 1627 in Genova. Next you should take the lift to the 6th floor and go up to the rooftop viewpoint, for great photos of the city, and in particular the narrow Strada Nuova and its palaces. Then it’s down to the 4th floor to visit a couple of apartments, one with family portraits, big Chinese vases and library furniture (c.1840) by Henry Thomas Peters, and the other created in 1955 for the museum’s director, with a mix of modern (notably the fireplace) and ancient.

In the Palazzo Bianco (also built for the Brignone-Sale family) there are more paintings by Luca Cambiaso (including a self-portrait) and Veronese, plus Palma Il Giovane, Caravaggio and Simon Vouet; on the second floor the focus is on Tuscany, with a very striking Filippino Lippi (of Saints Sebastian, John the Baptist and Francis; 1503) facing the top of the stairs, and a Vasari portrait, as well as works by the three Spaniards Zurbarán, Ribera and Murillo, and more Flemish and Dutch art, including paintings by Gerard David, Jan Provoost, Joos van Cleve, Jan Matsys, Joos de Momper, Nicolaes Maes, Jan Steen and Aer van der Meer, as well as van Dyck, Rubens and Memling. There are more Genoese artists, Gioacchino Assereto (1600–49), Orazio de Ferrari (1606-57), and moving into the Baroque period Valerio Castello (1624-59), Domenico Piola (1628-1703) and his son Pablo Gerolamo Piola (1666-1724). A modern tunnel (with exhibits of textiles and stone carvings) takes you to the Palazzo Tursi via the garden, with a few remains of the church of San Francisco in Castellotto (1255-1302), burial place of the first doge of Genova, Simone Boccanegra, and of the Empress Margaret of Brabant, who died of plague here in 1311.

The Palazzo Tursi (1565-79) has a few eighteenth-century works, including by the Genoese Gregorio de Ferrari (c.1647–1726) and Alessandro Magnasco (1667-1749), plus Canova’s sculpture of the Penitent Magdalene (c.1795), which was wildly popular at the time (Stendhal called it ‘the greatest work of modern times’) but also highly controversial due to the use of a metal crucifix and, apparently, waxed hair, blurring the boundaries of art and nature. There are also exhibits of weights and measures from the fifteenth century on, medals, coins, pharmacy jars and dishes, seventeenth-century Brussels tapestries and finally the Paganini room, celebrating the first great virtuoso violinist, born in Genova in 1782 – the centrepiece is his legendary Cannone (Canon) violin, made by Guarneri in 1743.

You can also visit a couple of palaces on via Balbi, notably the Palazzo Reale (or Palazzo Stefano Balbi), which was built between 1643 and 1650 and enlarged after 1824 when became the Genova home of the House of Savoy (rulers of Piedmont, Sardinia, and from 1861 of the united Italy). It probably retains more of its original furnishings and frescoes than any other of the city’s palaces (although they could do with sprucing up), and there’s a fine art collection here too, including paintings by Bernardo Strozzi, Bassano, Tintoretto, Luca Giordano, van Dyck and Guercino, and sculptures by Filippo Parodi. Across the road, it’s worth stepping into the courtyard of the Palazzo dell’Universita, built in 1634-40 for the Jesuits, and as grand a palace as any in the city – it’s no wonder they were expelled a century later. Since 1775 it has been the seat of the city’s university, and you’re free to look in and admire the lions on Parodi’s grand staircase.

It’s not far from via Balbi to the Villa Principe, also known as the Palazzo de Andrea Doria, near the railway station on Piazza del Principe – this was begun in 1529 by Andrea Doria, the great admiral of the Habsburg Empire, who was able to walk from the port to his palace through his magnificent gardens. After extensive bomb damage during World War II (hmmm, maybe being so close to the docks wasn’t such a great idea after all) the gardens have been beautifully restored to their seventeenth-century condition, with the imposing Fountain of Neptune (1601) as their centrepiece, and can be visited without payment. The villa (which you do have to pay to visit) was decorated internally with mythological frescoes and plasterwork by Perino del Vaga (a pupil of Raphael, who later became the leading painter in Rome), as well as seventeenth-century tapestries and paintings by del Piombo, Bronzino and Piola. The Habsburg emperor Charles V was a regular guest here of Andrea Doria, and in 1877 the villa became the winter home of the composer Giuseppe Verdi.

Finally, you shouldn’t miss the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), between Piazza Matteoti and Piazza De Ferrari, not because it is old and beautiful – it was largely rebuilt in Neoclassical style after a fire in 1777 – but because it houses an excellent programme of exhibitions and events.

Between Strada Garibaldi and the old port is the old town of Genova, a maze of alleys that used to be a filthy and dangerous no-go area; now it’s seeing some gentrification and has certainly been thoroughly cleaned up. At its heart is the duomo or cathedral of San Lorenzo, begun c.1098, consecrated in 1118 and partly rebuilt after a fire in 1296. The façade was completed in 1312, in what looks to me like a Pisan Gothic style (with a fine carving of the Martyrdom of San Lorenzo above the main door dating from c.1255), but much of the Romanesque interior remains. In the north aisle, the Chapel of St John the Baptist (1492-1608) is a little Renaissance masterpiece, with a statue by Domenico Gagini and a grand baldachino (1532-41). For a Brit, one interesting sight is an unexploded 15-inch shell near the southeastern corner of the cathedral – it was fired from HMS Malaya in a raid on the docks in February 1941, but went slightly astray. Naturally the fact that it failed to explode was ascribed to the Virgin Mary.

As for other churches, San Luca was rebuilt in 1626-50 and totally covered in frescoes by Piola, and there’s a sculpture of the Immaculate Conception by Filippo Parodi on the altar. And as Baroque monstrosities go, the Basilica dell’Annunziata isn’t too bad.

None of this adds up to a fraction of what’s on view in Venezia, and Genova doesn’t have that certa qualcosa (a certain something) that makes every visitor to Europe want to visit Venice, but still, it’s worth at least a day of anyone’s time.

Some practicalities

Genova is far better than Venezia only in terms of its restaurants – there’s almost nothing left in Venice that isn’t a tourist trap, but Genova has some excellent restaurants serving authentic local food. The city is famous above all for pesto genovese, the basil and garlic paste that, with a little pasta, makes a wonderfully satisfying meal on its own, and also for foccacia, a herby flat bread like a very basic pizza, but many people come here simply to eat seafood, such as lobster with pasta or squid ink risotto. I have no personal recommendations, but friends have enjoyed Panson, San Giorgio and Il Genovino. One place that caught my eye is Tiflis, an Italian-Georgian fusion place that I shall have to try as and when I next stop over here. (I’m about to go to Georgia to research the sixth edition of my Bradt guidebook.)

The mid-station of the Zecca-Righi funicular

I stayed at the official youth hostel, in a stunning location high above the city (with parakeets flying past, just like in London); it’s clean and decent enough but maintenance is not their strong point (that’s typically Italian, however). There’s a good bus service from the Brignole railway station, but if you walk up the steps cunningly concealed behind the hostel car park and walk to the right for ten minutes you’ll come to the top station of the Zecca-Righi funicular, which runs every 15 minutes (06.40 to midnight) down to the city centre with five stops (plus two in a tunnel where the balancing car is at a stop). It’s covered by the standard €1.50 AMT ticket which gives travel for 100 minutes on buses, funiculars and elevators, and the city’s rather basic metro, which covers a 7km route largely parallel to the waterfront from the Brignole railway station, via Piazza Principe, the city’s other main station, to Brin, just northwest of the centre. Principe is the station for the Stazione Marittima, which nowadays handles cruise ships (and there are usually one or two of them docked here), but the next station west, Dinegro, is the one for the ferry port, with ships leaving frequently for Corsica, Sardinia, Morocco, Tunisia and Malta. San Giorgio, between Brignole and Principe, is the station for the tourist information office, but the sign as you leave the metro sends you in diametrically the wrong direction – it’s to the right, not the left.

A new railway line, tunnelling through the hills just inland from the coast, should open in 2021 – in addition to linking to the high-speed network to Torino, Milano and beyond, it will also carry freight from the Ligurian ports and release capacity for the development of regional passenger services. I hope the new tunnels are maintained better than those along the coast towards the French border, through which trains travel fairly fast but rather bouncily.

Pisa and Lucca

Florence is absolutely wonderful, of course, but it’s also insanely crowded, and to get a better taste of the real Tuscany you need to go somewhere a bit quieter. Pisa is also ridiculously busy by day, but less so by night, and of course it’s well worth a visit anyway. The street on the south side of the duomo, baptistery and leaning tower is now selfie avenue, and thankfully it’s now closed to motor traffic, otherwise there’d be constant accidents. I found it quite entertaining (briefly) trying to take photos of rows of people being photographed holding up some random bit of sky. The area is also busy with Africans selling watches – how do they make a living?

In fact quite a few of Pisa’s sights were closed for refurbishment, most notably the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which closed in 2014 and won’t reopen before 2018 – this houses many of the treasures of the cathedral (mostly sculptures, communion vessels and other liturgical objects); in the Camposanto the room with the paintings by the Master of the Triumph of Death was also closed. We noticed that many of the stunning carved Renaissance pulpits here and elsewhere in Tuscany were being restored – mostly hidden away behind wooden hoardings bearing images of the pulpit, but that’s a poor substitute. The museums that are open could do with improving their English translations.

The good news is that the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo (8am-1.30pm Sunday, to 7.30pm other days; €5), down by the river at Piazza San Matteo, is delightfully unvisited, an absolute haven from the bustle around the leaning tower. In a 13th-century Benedictine nunnery, it houses many treasures from the Pisa area’s churches, notably 12th- to 14th-century paintings by Lippo Memmi, Fra Angelico, Taddeo Gaddi, Gentile da Fabriano, Ghirlandaio, Masaccio and Simone Martini. There’s also a fine collection of 14th- and 15th-century Pisan sculpture, including pieces by Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni, Andrea Pisano and his son Nino, Francesco di Valdambrino, Donatello and Michelozzo, and terracottas by Andrea della Robbia.

Some practicalities – Pisa

The railway branch from Pisa station to the airport (the busiest in Tuscany) has been ripped up and is being converted into the high-tech PisaMover automatic shuttle – it closed in December 2013, supposedly for two years, but when we were there in April 2016 the new tracks had yet to be laid and re-opening had been put back to December 2016. It may be open by the time I post this but I wouldn’t bet on it. While it’s closed your PisaMover service is actually a bus shuttle from the rear of the station (a longish walk – every 10min 6am-midnight, €1.30 in advance or €2 from the driver). In any case it’s often better to take the regular Lam Rossa buses from the airport which will take you closer to where you actually want to go.

 Accommodation in Pisa

We were lucky enough to find a fabulous, spacious apartment (for six) with a garden just a stone’s throw from the leaning tower. The owner Gabriella was very helpful and it was easily accessible from the airport by bus.

The 13th-century mosaic of Christ in Majesty, San Frediano, Lucca

LUCCA

Lucca, a short hop north of Pisa, really is more peaceful, although it has treasures of its own. Its Renaissance walls (finished in 1650, too late to ever be attacked) are still intact, with a largely traffic-free centre inside them, with lots of relaxed cyclists; they now make a delightful 4km circuit on foot or bike. At the heart of the old town is the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, an oval space on the site of the Roman amphitheatre; it’s ringed by medieval houses, but at their rear you’ll see fragments of Roman stonework incorporated in the later buildings. In addition to the duomo (cathedral) there are several other Romanesque churches that are well worth lingering in – San Michele in Foro and San Frediano are particular favourites.

Diagonally opposite Puccini’s birthplace (Corte San Lorenzo 9) is the relatively new Puccini Museum (March–April & Oct-Nov 10am-6pm daily, May-Sept 10am-7pm daily, Nov-Feb Wed-Mon 10am-1pm, 3-5pm; €7). The Puccini family were the cathedral organists for at least five generations before Giacomo achieved global fame for his operas. The lesser-known composers Boccherini and Catalani were also born in Lucca.

Lucca also makes a good stop on a couple of long-distance hiking and cycling routes. It’s hoped that the Via Francigena, following the medieval pilgrim route to Rome, will rival the Camino de Santiago as a long-distance challenge. A cycle/pedestrian bridge has been built across the Serchio river on the north side of Lucca, and seems a typical European project, left half-finished for a couple of years then very underused, being of little use to anyone except the few tackling the Via Francigena. A more popular cycle route leads west from Lucca to the sea along the river, and also inland towards the 15/16th-century Villa Reale, Villa Mansi and Villa Torrigiani, set in magnificent gardens.

 Some practicalities – Lucca

The area of the current bus station, just inside the Porto Vittorio Emanuele, is rather tatty and there’s a plan to move the buses to the railway station, which would make a lot of sense. LAM buses link Lucca with Pisa and also the airport – the fare is just €3, but be aware that the last buses leave early, ie mid-evening.

The Lucchese are known for being conservative, and tight with their money, and they stick to the typically meat-heavy Tuscan diet as far as possible – a fine Sicilian restaurant was able to survive only if its menu was half Lucchese. Lots of Lucca’s cooks are in fact Sri Lankan, immigrants who started as dishwashers and worked their way up, while the African immigrants are still selling sunglasses (but unfortunately they’re learning the Tangier patter, ‘Hi, where are you from?, to draw potential buyers in). One excellent restaurant is Canuleia Trattoria (via Canuleia 14), with tables in a nice garden; it’s also worth heading a few kilometres west on the riverside cycle route for the workers’ lunch at Alla Cantina del Carignano (Via Per Sant’alessio 3680, Carignano). The best (organic) ices are at Gelateria Grim on the main street (via Fillungo 56). The ‘Chicken Bar’ (you’ll understand when you see it) on the north side of the San Michele church is one of the town’s few late-evening bars; it’s also known as Il Peschino (after an alcoholic peach drink) or the Caffé del Mercato.

Accommodation in Lucca

We stayed with friends who are now offering accommodation through AirBnB. Their lovely home has been a labour of love. Elegant, comfortable and spacious. I cannot recommend it too highly and, in particular, I loved the location – it’s hugely convenient for the town itself and for doing the circuit of the city walls on foot or by bike. If you get the chance to eat with Carol, then take it! She’s a great cook and David is an attentive host. I hope to bring my mother there next year.

Florence – museums and much more

I visit Italy several times a year, but I’m normally stopping for one night in Courmayeur while leading hikers on the Tour du Mont Blanc. In the spring of 2016, however, I did manage to spend a couple of weeks in Tuscany and Umbria – we ate and drank (it’s easily the world’s best cuisine for vegetarians, in my opinion) and stayed in nice places, but this post is mainly about art and museums, and of course Florence is the world’s capital for these, with the Uffizi housing the world’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance art. But there’s plenty of information on that in guidebooks and online.

In 2015 the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens were merged into one super-museum (with 3.4 million visitors and ticket revenue of €17.3 million per year); in 2016 the German Eike Schmidt was appointed as the first non-Italian director of the Uffizi, with a commitment to shake things up. Traditionally Italy’s leading museums were tightly controlled by the Ministry of Culture, but since the 1990s it has allowed private companies to provide various services, including putting on some temporary exhibitions, but while this did do something to open up the system’s sclerotic arteries it also introduced more conflicts of responsibility. Now the aim is to give powerful museum directors the chance to get a grip, but bureaucratic inertia and resistance are powerful. The single biggest challenge is being unable to freely recruit or dismiss staff – even persuading guards to rotate from room to room, rather than having a job for life in one favourite corner, involves tense negotiation with unions.

The Uffizi’s ticketing system is an unwieldy beast (I don’t have to tell you to book online in advance, I hope, rather than queueing for hours), but again private resellers and tour companies are keen to protect their profits from marking up the basic €8 cost.

Matteo Renzi was once mayor of Florence before becoming Prime Minster and trying to shake up the Italian state as a whole – alas, he resigned after losing a constitutional referendum in December 2016. Italian resident Tim Parks has written Italian Ways, a surprisingly fascinating account of the way the Italian railways are run, which serves as a template for Italian society as a whole.

One obvious fruit of the merger woud be to open up the the intriguing Vasari Corridor (built by Vasari in 1565), which leads at an upper level from the Uffizi, across the Ponte Vecchio, to the Pitti Palace. It houses a collection of over 700 self-portraits (by Titian, Carracci, Delacroix, Ingres, Sargent, Morandi, and more contemporary artists, as well as by female painters such as Angelica Kauffmann, Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun and the even less well-known Violante Beatrice Siries and Rosalba Carriera); only a few private tours companies currently have access it, and they are lobbying hard to keep their profitable venture for themselves. In any case it’s not the best place for paintings, due to the lack of temperature and humidity control, and Schmidt wants to move them to the main Uffizi building (where offices will be converted to galleries) and replace them with classical Greek and Roman inscriptions.

The Vasari Corridor and the Ponte Vecchio

While the Uffizi is swamped with visitors, the adjacent Bargello, renowned for its Renaissance sculpture and a great collection of Islamic art, is struggling to make people notice it; it recently merged with four smaller Florentine museums, which may either give it more visibility or dilute it. It too has a new director who has inherited a €2 million deficit and a museum without a proper catalogue database.

In more straightforwardly good news, two more of Florence’s museums, closed for many years, have reopened – the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, home to the cathedral’s greatest artworks, completed its refurbishment at the end of 2015. Housing the world’s largest collection of Florentine medieval and Renaissance sculpture, including a Michelangelo pietà, other works by Donatello, Andrea Pisano, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Luca della Robbia and almost seventy fragments from the cathedral’s lost medieval façade, it’s set to be one of the city’s unmissable sights (move over, Bargello). One €15 ticket covers the museum and all the other monuments around the duomo, such as the baptistry and campanile.

The Istituto degli Innocenti (Institute of the Innocents; daily 10am-7pm; €7), on Piazza Santissima Annunziata, was founded in 1445 as the first secular orphanage in Europe, and still works to protect children and families, with UNICEF’s research office based here. Brunelleschi’s building, one of the most important civil buildings of the Renaissance, with its two lovely cloisters, was closed from 2010 to 2016 for refurbishment. Luca della Robbia’s tondi of ceramic babies on the façade advertise the building’s purpose, and the building also houses an exceptional art collection on the first floor, including more works by Luca della Robbia plus Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Piero di Cosimo and many others.

The arcaded piazza itself is one of Florence’s more authentic and attractive. In the centre, the equestrian statue of Grand Duke Ferdinand I was Giambologna’s last work, cast from Turkish cannons captured at the battle of Lepanto. On the north side of the square, the church of the Annunciation was rebuilt by Michelozzo in the second half of the fifteenth century, but now has a heavily Baroque interior.

The Piazza Santissima Annunziata with Giambologna’s statue of Grand Duke Ferdinand I, the church of the Annunciation and Ithe Istituto degli Innocenti (right)

Also in June 2016, the historic Teatro Niccolini, the city’s oldest theatre, reopened after being closed for no less than twenty years. In other news from Florence, conservationists have finally figured out how to restore Vasari’s huge Last Supper from the Santa Croce church, badly damaged in the terrible flood of 1966; and McDonald’s is suing the city for €18m after the mayor blocked its plans for a ‘restaurant’ on the Piazza del Duomo (but one did open in December 2016 on Borgo Pio, just outside the Vatican in Rome, causing some minor scandal).

Look out for

Something to keep anyone young at heart amused, whilst seeing the sights in Florence, is spotting the plethora of defaced road signs by the French street artist Clet Abrahams.  He uses removable stickers and is tolerated, aided and abetted to various degrees by the authorities and his fans.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Some practicalities

Florence’s orange buses are changing to a red and white livery; the blue buses are for regional services out of the city. Florence is a hub of Italy’s flashy high-speed train service, but it’s worth knowing about the far cheaper regional Roma-Firenze train which runs every two hours and calls at fascinating places like Arezzo and Orvieto; this is also the easiest way to transport bikes.

We enjoyed discovering Cedrata Tassoni, a local soda drink, launched in 1956 (although the company had been selling a syrup since 1793), that’s made from the oil of the citron, similar to a lemon (originally they used Citrus Medici from the shores of Lake Garda, now it’s Citron Diamante from Calabria). It comes in a cute little bottle with a surface like citron peel and no label (all information is on the lid). Perfectly small enough to take home in your hand luggage!!

You’ll hear that the favourite Florentine sandwich (sold from stalls on city squares) is made of lampredotto, often translated as lamprey – however this is nothing to do with the parasitic fish, but is actually the fourth and final stomach of a cow. Tripe more generally is also popular here, in the form of trippa alla fiorentina – and bistecca alla fiorentina (ie steak) is even more popular. The Florentines really aren’t particularly veggie-minded.

Speaking of sandwiches, tramezzini are not triple-deckers, as some people seem to expect, just normal sandwiches, though with the crusts cut off. We ate some fantastic arancini (stuffed rice balls, coated with bread crumbs and then deep fried, usually filled with ragù, mozzarella and peas, originally from Sicily) – and then came home to find that suddenly they were everwhere in Britain, including a wedding and at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen. Definitely the flavour of the month. The best place to buy them is Ará (via degli Alfani 127, on the corner of via Ricasoli) – it has great cannoli and gelato too.

However we did also find two excellent vegetarian restaurants, notably Brac (via dei Vagellai 18), a bookshop which suggests sharing plates of pasta, salad and a sort of wrap – service is a bit random (be sure to book) but the food is fantastic. There’s also Simbiosi (via de’ Ginori 56), where I was particularly amused by the pea hummus pizza (topped with mushy peas, basically), the range of craft beers and organic wines, and indeed the hip English-speaking staff. I was curious about how the concept of ‘Zero Kilometre food’ could work in a city centre, but apparently it actually refers to a radius of 70km. Weak marketing, I feel, but the concept is great, derived from the Slow Food movement founded in northern Italy 30 years ago.

 A gourmet haven down on the border of Umbria

We stumbled across Borgo Cenaioli, an Agriturismo enterprise 15 km from Perugia, in a 16th-century hamlet of just 12 inhabitants near Lake Trasimeno. We were the only diners so had the delightful courtyard to ourselves and were offered a set menu, which was adapted for the vegetarian amongst us. It’s also possible to stay there but we didn’t see the accommodation.  A perfect spot to get off the road, relax and eat well.