Monday, October 31, 2016

Under the Tuscan Sun

As awful a traveller as I am in the air, I can't really claim to be all that much better on land since severe carsickness assails my battered senses the moment I'm dragged away from the driver's seat. So it's only fair to say that despite the beautiful, sweeping landscapes provided by the famed hills and vales of Tuscany, I found myself resolutely shutting my eyes as much as possible.

Moreover the famed hills and vales didn't prove at all conducive to the civil engineering of straight, perfectly smooth highways which is how I found myself desperately groggy as we found ourselves jolted on a bus all the way through the winding, undulating roads of rural Tuscany.

Maybe I was meant to ride on horseback!

Nevertheless - which speaks very much for the phenomenal vistas provided - I would still recommend getting on that rattling bus.

Though perhaps with a little less consumption of the Chianti.

Which was unfortunately inevitable with a tour around the region since the world famous vineyards abound in this very area. So despite booking a day trip to Siena and San Gimignano, somehow a brief detour to the vineyards had to be slotted in for the shameless lushes. Being less than a noted connoisseur of wine, obviously it was a horrifying experience to have endless glasses of wine pressed into my shaky hands for a review.

Happily by the time we made it to San Gimignano, the groggy effects of my incipient alcoholism had started wearing off; otherwise I would undoubtedly have clumsily tumbled down the steep steps heading up to the hilly fortress town. The added prize of the best gelato ever at the main piazza turned out to be the ideal panacea for my subsiding headache. Built on a precarious ridge of a hill, the soaring towers of San Gimignano served as the perfect introduction to the walled hill towns of Tuscany - and certainly explained the amazing glutes much prized by the Italian artists.

All that endless hiking up and down certainly helped!

Far larger than most of the smaller hill towns and on thankfully far more manageable terrain, Siena certainly caught my eye with its medieval splendour spread around the peculiarly shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. Quaint stores peddling souvenirs from pottery to sweetmeats proliferate in the town centre; one of the reasons I found Siena absolutely charming and worthy of a second visit! Unfortunately there was barely any time to haggle a decent bargain since the tour bus kept hankering to leave before dark.

Fortunately I managed to snag some panforte and a couple of terracotta plates to add to my stash before hopping into the bus. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Breakfast with Vasari

Certainly a sight better than the unappetizing thought of Tea with Mussolini.

Which is how we ended up one early morning wandering around the beautifully frescoed courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio in wait. Rather than labour through endless hikes through the bewildering maze of a medieval fortress-palace, I thought it would be easier to avail ourselves of the modern facilities at hand. And who else better to show us around than the famous architect Giorgio Vasari instead?

Or rather a terribly well-versed impersonator.

Though it would be quite impossible to convince him otherwise since Vasari was obviously a dedicated method actor. Marvelling over the newfangled contraptions around our necks and our palms - what we now call cameras and cellphones, he welcomed us magnanimously into the forbidding fortress-palace of his gracious benefactors, the Medicis.

Undoubtedly one of the leading families of the Renaissance, the Medici family was a wealthy banking family that consolidated and wielded great political and social influence from the 15th to 18th centuries, initially beginning Florence and then expanding to rule Tuscany in time. One of the greatest legacies of the illustrious family is their patronage of arts, education, and architecture which gave us such legends as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

Vasari was quick to lend praise to his masters for having such great foresight to support these artists. Even quicker to apologize for his inadequate skills in refurbishing the Palazzo Vecchio from a medieval fortress to an enchanting palazzo suitable for his newly ennobled masters, the Medicis. The hours went by quickly as we were introduced to the various Italian art treasures in the palazzo, and later the Uffizi gallery, from the magnificent sculptures to the awe-inspiring paintings.

Wow, that guy's kinda hot. 

Though of course I've always been more enamoured with marble statues. Perhaps it's the swarthy, virile Italian men that the artists all drew inspiration from but somehow the male statues generally had the most shockingly enviable glutes. Perfectly spherical, thickly muscled, amazingly smooth and as tantalizingly mouthwatering as any that walked the cobbled streets of Florence. Certainly lends credence to the idea that Florence had been a beguiling hotbed of homosexuality during the Renaissance.

But that wasn't all that drew my gaze as I kept looking up to the ceilings where the decorative painters of the Renaissance had conspired to produce something quite uniquely Italian.

That had come to be known, surprisingly enough, as grotesques.

Something we were later tempted to try for ourselves though our poor attempts at making our own decorative frescoes would have been scoffed at by the scrupulous Vasari himself! Turns out it isn't that easy painting hastily with a brush as the lime plaster concoction sets!

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

A Room with A View

Perhaps we skip the harrowing journey that I endured as we made our way through several hundreds of kilometres to our destination.

Never a great traveller as I have reiterated before but I've yet to medicate myself in fear of appearing before the approaching immigrations officer as inebriated, incoherent or worse, insensible. Add that to a dizzying train journey from the sadly blighted environs of Bologna to our final destination of Florence - and you can imagine me desperately stumbling out from the Santa Maria Novella Station seeking salvation on the steady, thankfully unmoving ground.

Despite emerging from the dullness of the station into a dismal, unprepossessing section of the city, the late afternoon sun was already painting the staid brownstones of Florence in vivid reds and yellows. Balm enough to force my throbbing headache into a retreat - and more than enough for me to seek out the surprisingly friendly tourist information office. 

Directions were given and soon we had our bags, our maps and our taxi driver. Unquestionably an unforgettable taxi ride from the station as we - seemingly purposefully - were driven past the many sights and attractions of the city from the dazzling Duomo to the sombre Palazzo Vecchio on our way to the hotel on the other side of town. Interesting vignettes of life on the streets gave us a tantalizing preview of what was to come with backpackers huddled together in the endless queues up the Campanile to several teenagers slurping their gelato in the brisk autumn breeze. 

Presumably not everyone's quite as impressed with the view but I certainly was!

Whatever aches and pains that ailed me during the interminable flight were forgotten when I caught sight of the unmistakable beauty of David perched on the Piazzale Michaelangelo high above the city. 

Certainly would be hard to beat all the amazing displays we'd seen but our room managed to amaze us with one more view. Raising our heads to the ceiling, we found an amusingly aged fresco of flora and fauna right above the beds. 

It was enough to make me drop my bags and insist on rushing out to take in the sights again. 

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Scandal of Ankles

I would readily admit that it has been a while since I was in school. So much so that when I drive past a secondary school and see the odd surprisingly virile, hot-looking kadult in their whites and greens, I have to forcibly remind myself that they are generally young enough to be my biological offspring. Relative infants really! That's really how long it has been.

Easy enough to separate the men from the boys back when I was in school. Ordinarily the lower secondary juveniles wore olive green shorts while the older boys had longer slacks. Almost a point of pride for us all when we mark the simple transition from boyhood to manhood with the simple sartorial switch.

At least in my all boys' school.

We're no longer kids, man!

Well, that's how I remember it to a certain extent. These days however, with the corrupting conservatism creeping across the country, even the younger kids are shamefully starting to cover up. Not only are the junior schoolboys starting to wear slacks in primary school, apparently their previously short shirt sleeves are growing progressively longer as well.

Talk about highly impractical in our sweltering tropical weather.

Vague signs of the incipient religious extremism in our country rankles of course so I initially ranted about it to my friend Shameless Shalom before she decided to point out something.

Shalom : I hear you. 
Paul : Yes? And you agree? 
Shalom : Yes, I do. There's a creeping conservatism for sure - but I've never seen you in shorts!
Paul : Of course I do! I wore them back in lower secondary. 
Shalom : I find this hard to believe. 
Paul : I do wear them!
Shalom : I don't even think you have ankles.
Paul : Like what?!
Shalom : Well I've never seen them!

Really. Apparently in my modest bid to raise the bar for sartorial flair here, that has led to my friends assuming I don't have knees and ankles under my perfectly creased slacks.