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My own Italian version of “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” by Michael Howe

At the end of our last lesson for the first term, the class was “canvassed” for articles on holiday experiences in Italy.

My first thought was to say no.

My second thought was to “practise” my written Italian but, on reflection, I have neither the necessary language skills to express myself fully nor do I have the time.

My third thought was of the usual travel blurbs, either gushing “testimonials” or a long list of, “I went here”, “I went there”. Europe or Italy in three and a half days!

view from Hotel terrace

view from Hotel terrace

Putting these thoughts aside I decided to just write, so here is something to ponder. A few weeks in one place? Let’s pick Florence.  How about avoiding  expensive hotels, airbnb [ yes I checked! No capitals at all!]  and other such websites. For a more Italian experience find a small family run  hotel, say two star, near the centre of town and less than ten minutes stroll to the Duomo.

I have yet to work out the exact make up of the family!!! The “Papa” was obvious as he was in charge during the day. But the 24 hour reception evidenced an extended family of sons, cousins and nephews, especially for the graveyard shifts, which they obviously shared on a rota basis for a couple of nights at a time.

The 24 hour reception desk was essential for me as I arrived about 1 am. As the hotel has the top floors  of a six or eight storey building the first task was to find the call button for reception to buzz me in! A torch would have been useful. The second was fitting myself [small] and a suitcase [ also small] into the coffin sized lift. I never used the lift again until I left. The exercise was useful. Like a lot of older buildings close to the city centre, the lift was a later upgrade and went into the only space available, the original stair well. The 24 hour reception was also very useful, in that tea, tissanes and various coffees could be had, yes, you guessed, 24 hours a day. No problem!  The bar was never closed either, -bonus!

Breakfast could be taken inside or on the roof top terrace, and yes, you could see the Duomo and the Tuscan Hills. Breakfast was a great improvement on the “ normal” continental fare. A machine allowed you to press a button and squeeze one orange at a time for fresh juice. Cereals, fruit, yoghurt, boiled eggs, varied cold cuts, various breads, croissants and local “sweet” breads and muffin like cakes provided a good start to the day. Coffees were to order, your choice.

Although the “family” seemed to speak about 4 or 5 languages between them, after the middle of the night check in, I declined to speak English and in this, the “family” humoured me. The everyday chatter was good practice. Repetition, repetition and even more repetition.

What do you do for a few weeks in Florence? Well, I avoided the Duomo, Uffizi and other such places as this was August and peak tourist season! How about walking , exploring and trying to blend in?

How about a local bus ride to some of the small towns around Florence such as Fiesole?

Listen for the sound of music…avoid the buskers but head into the churches which have varied recitals….no charge but a donation does not go amiss. The Italian equivalent of a pub crawl is to do the rounds of the Enotecas, which are fundamentally wine bars of greatly varied sizes, style and cost but which offer wine tastings and quite often local foods such as cheeses and pancetta in tapas style portions.

The Enotecas vary greatly, some offer only very high end wines, so ensure you know what you are drinking and paying! They do, however, offer easy access to good knowledge of all

Large enoteca in the suburbs

Large enoteca in the suburbs

Italian wines and  local produce and an easy way to sample a wide variety of regional wines without a lot of travelling.

If possible follow the golden rules, never eat or drink where the clientele are obviously tourists or speak English, or where there is an English menu  and ALWAYS, at least one street back from the main road, thoroughfare or square. Two or three back is better. This way you get to mix with the locals. Lunchtime in Florence can be fun. Pick a place with no tourists, these are fairly small and usually not on the main streets. The locals have a quick lunch here, there are free “snacks”, such as crisps and nuts on the counter or on the small  150mm to 200mm wide shelves around the perimeter, just wide enough for a small plate and a wine glass. Oh and except for two very small tables it is standing only.  The first problem to overcome is to convince the locals that you actually intend to have lunch  here and have not wandered in by accident. For this you need, lots of “scusis”, lots of “grazies”, a big smile, and a steady progression though a crowd initially reluctant to accept your passage.

With practice, shrugs of the shoulders and quizzical expressions serve both to convey a sense of purpose and belonging and to “ease” people out of the way. Remember to keep chanting the “scusis” and “grazies”. The best tactic is to buy the food first at the separate counter, as who wants to spill a Chianto Classico? . Then head for the bar.  It’s usually not possible to reach the bar, as the earlybirds have claimed it to eat and drink, but now that your purpose is known, it is easy to catch the barman’s eye and order your tipple. Sometimes the money and wine needs to be passed on via intermediaries. To be honest and with deference to Eleanora  and Verona, it is not all that hard to be immersed in the local scene. Why does Tim Parks make such a big fuss of it?  Maybe writers and academics like to make things appear difficult or maybe Mancunians find everything to be difficult for them?

A day trip to Portofino is a worthwhile experience. The seafood is good but the

Portofino

Portofino

boulder“beach” needs some Queensland sand!!

Early on a Sunday, walk up to the Forte di Belvedere when it is quiet and before it gets too hot [ August remember?] There are usually some forms of art exhibitions in the fort, the views of Florence are good but the coffee is even better! The nearby Giardino di Boboli is a good way to return back down to Florence.Fort Belvedere view on the way

Fort Belvedere entrance

For those of you who must absolutely see everything, Florence is a good base, in May preferably, to explore the Tuscan countryside  when it is a vibrant spring green and before the tourist hordes descend .  Pisa, Sienna, San Grimignano, Lucca and Monteriggioni are

Cinque Terra

Cinque Terra

all easily visited. Why not try the Cinque Terra? It is a 12 or 14 hour day from Florence but the coach, hiking, train and boat journey is well worth it. Lunch perched high above the Ligurian Sea is not too shabby either. Ravenna by train for an overnight stay to see the Roman and Byzantine mosaics is also an option. If you go to Ravenna do not forget to visit the tomb of Dante, after all he is the “father” of today’s Italian language.

Florence is a delightful city BUT for me the hotel and the “family” made my stay there. Can you find your own Italian version of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel? This comparison came to mind as I watched the film on the way back to Australia