Italy May 2022

We hadn’t planned on going back to Venice, but who could resist the lure of the Venice Biennale Arts Festival? We’re so glad that we decided to revisit this city, as we liked it even more this time, perhaps because there weren’t any cruise ships or huge groups of tourists. We stayed in an apartment in an area where some locals still lived and only 5 minutes’ walk from the Biennale entrance, in the Arsenale area not far from the Naval Academy.

Sue got into the mood of being a local, leaning out to hang the washing out of the window.

We settled in and did what you do in Venice – walk, walk, walk and get lost! But it’s so beautiful you don’t really care; you just drink in the sights. We took a day to just enjoy the city before we braved the Biennale.

The Biennale is a multi-disciplinary arts festival encompassing music, architecture, film and the visual arts. We started our artsfest with an evening of chamber music in a beautiful old church – Telemann, Pachelbell (not Cannon in D!) and all four movements of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’. It was wonderful and just an hour in length, a perfect aperitif! We then wandered into the back streets and found a delightful taverna for dinner. On the way home Michael met some sailors from the Academy, all dressed up for a night on the town.

The Venice Biennale began in 1895 and 2022 is the 59th festival, with the theme “Milk of Dreams” that includes three sub-themes. We both agreed that some of the artists’ explanations of the way their work related to the theme were obviously the result of a very long lunch or seriously good drugs! The best works spoke to the themes directly and needed little explanation.

The Biennale has three sections, with a prize for each section:

1)The open competition, where exhibitors are chosen by a committee, similar to the Archibald Prize in Australia.

2)The National competition, where each country chooses their own artist to exhibit. They also build and maintain their own permanent pavilion. Developing countries that can’t afford this, often hire a ‘shop-front’ and become a ‘collateral event’.

3)The ‘collateral events’ are often hosted by galleries, but are sometimes put on by individual artists at their own cost.

While the artworks are not for sale since 1968, many buyers, collectors and gallery owners attend to inform their future purchases and make alliances with artists.

2022 saw a record number of female artists entered, and the Open and National prizes were both won by black women.

We were both blown away by the scope and the quality of the artworks. The first day we spent at the huge Arsenale site, mostly taken up with competition entries and only a few National galleries.  If there was a trend, we would say that textiles and texture- weaving, beading, and embroidery was very noticeable. There was also a lot of use of soil, seaweed and other natural and found items.

Every room had 2 or 3 dark zones for showing film. The most disturbing was one called “Dog Show” and was humans dressed up as dogs and putting on a dog show. One had its tail cut off (docked) and a big furry tail wound through the viewing room and out the door. It was haunting.

The best national entry in Sue’s opinion was the French. It was a mix of media, with a film about the life and dreams of the artist as an activist, and used archived film as well as painted/assembled sets that you walked through, that were used in the film. It was wonderful and spoke very directly to the Biennale theme.

Australia’s entry was by Marco Fusinato, called ‘Desastres’ and was a series of single-note sounds that accompanied a fast-changing black and white reel of images of bushfires, floods, endangered species etc. Very predictable, boring and very disappointing. As was the Australian Pavilion itself. On the outside it was a series of charcoal grey slabs of metal. Was it meant to represent Australia as a resource-rich nation?

While Sue was spending time looking at some of the collateral events, Michael went to the huge Naval History Museum in the Arsenale area. It traced Italian naval history for hundreds of years.

From Venice we caught a water bus to the station and then a train to Florence. The waterbus drivers meet their timetables by banging into the wharves and revving the hell out of the engines. Hold on, everyone! Italian trains are clean and fast, but so high! There are three steep narrow steps to drag your bag up and then there’s usually nowhere to put it. We do so miss our camping car, where you have everything with you and the worst thing is setting up the outdoor furniture.

Florence was quite hot and absolutely packed with tourists. American tourists are out in full force and seem to feel very comfortable without masks. We stayed in the Santa Croce area, just steps from the church square, a fabulous place for a late afternoon Aperol. Our AirBnB in Florence was very disappointing, so we spent little time there and ate out a lot. Just as well Florence is such a magnificent place to linger outdoors.

There is so much to see in Florence and you only need to walk to do it! The beautiful buildings and sculptures are everywhere, so it’s like a giant gallery or museum. We spent a few days wandering around admiring the Palazzo Vecchio, the Ponte Vecchio and of course the magnificent Duomo with its baptistry and Belfry. We also loved all the street art and statuary.

We checked out the covered market and succumbed to the lure of the gorgeous, butter-soft leather jackets. However, we won’t get to really appreciate them for another 6 months – we hope to be appreciating the European summer, instead.

We were amazed by the popularity of charcuterie in Florence. We know its trendy everywhere, but we’ve never seen people lining up from 10:00am and needing three security guards to control the crowds before. Absolutely huge pieces of bread stuffed with meat is not our thing. We preferred the local specialty of beefsteak Florentine, charcoal grilled. We found a wonderful restaurant that not only did terrific Beef Florentine with grilled veg and potatoes – they were also masters of lamb chops. We went back several times.

Of course, Sue visited the Uffizi – how could she not? With a pre-purchased, timed ticket there was no wait, and the crowds were manageable. The art of the Renaissance is magical, and this collection includes famous works by Raphael, Titian, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and many more. However, it doesn’t matter how much you love art, after a while you can get tired of the religious themes of the artworks, or as our friend Karen from Paris said – “yet another Mary and Jesus picture”. Much of the artwork was distinctly violent, such as the works of Caravaggio and the incredible ‘Judith slaying Holdofernes’, a quite grizzly beheading and a lesson to men everywhere!

After we’d done everything outside to our satisfaction, we decided it was time to explore in more depth inside, so we took a tour of the inside of the Duomo. It was not as ornate as the wonderful pink, green and white marble of the outside but the dome was amazing, especially if you consider it would be as large as a football field if flattened out.

It’s quite the opposite for the church of Santa Croce, which is more restrained on the outside but very opulent within.

Inside are the important tombs – 242 of them! – of such luminaries as Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo and even Marconi, who discovered radio. Most of the tombs are set into the marbled floor and were in the church because there were no consecrated cemeteries at that time. Adding to the magnificence are all the well-preserved frescoes on the walls. The cloisters and smaller chapels are very serene and elegant.

We toured the inside of the Palazzo Vecchio, which has always been the seat of government since 1298, and still is. The Hall of 500 is a magnificent painted chamber, so imposing that it’s hard to move on. The walls are painted with battle scenes and there is a lot of gilt. The rest of the rooms were private suites and also quite opulent.

One day Sue crossed the river and climbed up the very steep hill, past the house of Galileo (and past where our friend Jeff Wait used to live) to the gardens and Villa Bardini. It was a beautiful escape from the noise and bustle of Florence and had magnificent views of the city.

 

After a week of full-on sight-seeing in Florence, and with another week to look forward to in Rome, we knew we needed a break. Our brains and senses were on overload. We decided to hire a car and booked a villa in Chianti. What an inspired decision! We stayed near Tavarnelle Val de Pesa, which is smack-dab in the heart of the Chianti region. The villa had huge rooms, a pool, stunning views over the vineyards and was a working winery, so there was plenty of bottles available when we needed to top up. It even had a charcoal BBQ! Michael made a friend of the local butcher and did a brilliant job of cooking the local specialty, Florentine Steaks (similar to a Tomahawk).

Most days we went out in the mornings to explore the local area. We started with Greve-in- Chianti, a busy little working town that has a lovely, vibrant market square. We meandered the narrow, winding roads of the region at our own pace. The years of driving a camping car in Europe have made us more comfortable than we were last time we were in Italy, because the roads are just as challenging but the swear words were a lot less! Our host said that May is the best time to visit Tuscany because it’s still green, the flowers are all in bloom and the roads aren’t crowded – we must agree and loved the poppies and irises growing on the roadsides. After busy mornings as tourists, it was so relaxing to return to the villa to lie in the sun and have a swim.

We booked in for a guided tour and lunch at Castello Verrazzano. The borders of this castello haven’t changed for over 1000 years. It is the birthplace of Giovanni da Verrazzano who discovered the bay of New York and mapped much of the east coast of USA. This is an organic subsistence community, not just a winery - although they have been making wine since 1150. It makes wine, beautiful balsamic vinegars and glazes, farms wild boar, has beehives and grows its own vegetables. The owner (Luigi Cappellini, whose family bought it in 1939) lives on site, as do many of the staff. We had a very interesting tour, followed by a wine tasting, paired with lunch. Everything that was served came from within a few km of the Castello. Michael wanted Luigi to adopt him but was only granted the status of ‘honorary nephew’.

One day we went to San Gimignano, where we hadn’t visited before. We were warned about the throngs of tourists but even though it was market day, we found a park and were able to wander around without feeling herded. We know there’s been ongoing reconstruction, but it really is amazing to see people still living and working in such an ancient and hilly place. The small local bus was working overtime going up and down the hilly town dropping the locals to the market. And of course, the walls, sixteen towers and portes provide panoramic views.

 

 

Reluctantly tearing ourselves away from the quiet and beauty of the Tuscan countryside, we returned the hire car and once again dragged our bags onto the train, this time to Rome. Our AirBnB was less than a ten-minute walk from the train station. It was Sunday, so not much was open in the local area. We set off on a brief walk to find some lunch, promising ourselves to ‘take it easy’. As if!! Three hours later we had covered a lot of ground and seen some major sites – the Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Victor Emmanuel 11 and much, much more. Eventually we ran out of puff, giving up and having a reviving Aperol Spritz before catching a taxi home.

The next day we had aching feet, so were a little more strategic. We decided we needed to figure out the public transport system so we could save our energy. It was quite easy, if a little hot and crowded.

We’ve learned to be a bit more planned, given the number of tourists around and the important things we wanted to see. Last time we visited Rome we did an audio tour of the Colosseum but had no idea what we were looking at in the Forum. This time we booked a three-hour Ancient Rome tour of the Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum. It was quite fascinating, and our guide had the wonderful ability to help you imagine the times and the lives of the various people involved – from the Vestal Virgins to the Jewish slaves and the sponsors who funded the games. It is staggering that the Colosseum was built in only 8 years, but it helps to have a workforce of 60,000 slaves.

Next, we had a ‘rest day’ when we each just did our own thing. Sue took the opportunity to see again the magnificent ‘Ecstasy of St Therese’ by Bernini. This was a seminal work, so sexually charged for the times. The funny part is the two side balcony sculptures of important nobles, that look like the old guys in the Muppets, watching her in the throes of her religious ecstasy.

We booked a ‘skip-the-line’ entrance to the Vatican Museum, which we felt we had rushed through before. The Vatican Museum is so huge and contains so many treasures that it’s quite mind-boggling. The Sistine Chapel really highlights Michelangelo’s genius. In one triangular corner panel alone, he has mastered perspective to show two rooms with a person moving between them. So brilliant! But the collection of Vatican Museum treasures as a whole is amazing, from Etruscan artifacts to contemporary masters such as Klee, Chagall et al. So many miles of passages lined with cabinets of reliquaries and religious artefacts. The gardens are magnificent too and to tour them you must book two months in advance.

After one look at the queu for St Peters we decided to resurrect an old travel habit and get up very early to see St Peter’s Basilica. It opens at 7:30am after all. The line was short, we were inside before 8:00am and there we blessedly few people. It was perfect for gazing in awe at Michelangelo’s beautiful Pieta, which he carved when he was only 25 years old. It gave us the shivers it was so beautiful and to have the space and quiet to properly appreciate it was a true gift. Of course, there is also Michelangelo’s awesome painted dome and Bernini’s bronze altar shelter. From the outside, St Peter’s is a masterpiece of elegance and symmetry but from the inside it’s the sheer scale of the place that amazes you.

On another day we explored the Jewish quarter and the trendy Trastevere neighbourhood, with all its bars and restaurants. The Jewish community is meant to be the oldest in Europe because 57,000 Jewish slaves were brought to Rome to build the Colosseum. In the Jewish quarter there are brass plaques commemorating those who died in WW2, placed outside their homes. (We’ve also seen the same in Bordeaux). We lunched in the Jewish quarter, trying the traditional deep-fried artichokes and the cod-stuffed zucchini flowers. The artichokes were ordinary but the zucchini were yummy!

It was Friday afternoon, so the kids were being picked up from the Jewish school opposite the restaurant, for the Sabbath celebrations. How different and yet how similar to Sue’s school experience. The same noise of mums and dads chatting, and she even spotted a mum collecting money from the others – a fundraiser or a teacher gift perhaps? But there was a guard and barricades to keep the parents under control and classes were brought out by the teacher one at a time, youngest to eldest.

We also finally found our way to the Piazza Navonna and the Pantheon. Two thousand years old – that’s so difficult to wrap your head around!

There was a great little Italian bistro on the ground floor of our building, where we met Patricia from Melbourne who had been working there for a year. They made the best, very thin wood oven pizzas. Apparently, the secret is to add an anchovy to the tomato sauce and no yeast to the dough.

We left Rome airport, flying back to Nice. What chaos in Rome airport! After three last- minute gate changes, we left Sue’s laptop behind. Of course, it has not been recovered. After a panicked few minutes, we realised there was nothing saved that couldn’t be retrieved from the iCloud when we could eventually get a new laptop. It was 7 years old, so not even worth claiming on insurance. However, replacing it will take at least 6 weeks due to ‘supply chain issues’. Welcome to the new world order!

 

We always love returning to Nice and France, our second home now. The weather was beautiful, and the sea a stunning azure. Happy days!

Watch out for our June vagablog for photos and stories of our adventures.