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Following E M Forster’s footsteps through Florence

It may be less comfortable than flying and it�s certainly no longer cheaper, but, for me, the night train is still the only romantic way to get to Italy. I love cracking open the supermarket prosecco in the intimate confines of the train compartment as you roll out of the S�dbahnhof, offering it around in plastic beakers to break the ice with your doubtful fellow passengers, making up your beds as the train hits the twisting valleys of southern Austria, sleeping fitfully through the darkened Friuli and then deeply through the mournful plains of the Veneto, before being spewed out, grit-eyed but euphoric, in the cold dawn expanses of Florence�s  Santa Maria Novella station.

I was not on �another holiday�, as my worried parents alleged. This was a sort of cultural pilgrimage. You see, for three centuries now at this time of year, young Britons and Americans have crossed the Alps southwards, looking for what novelist Malcolm Bradbury describes as a �magical revelation� as they found their way to �art, self-improvement, sunshine, health, romance and happiness.� Byron and Shelley wrote about the experience very grandly, Elizabeth Browning earnestly and Mark Twain with his tongue firmly in his cheek in his wonderful �Innocents Abroad�.

But one book, published exactly 100 years ago when the author was exactly my age, captured the scene just perfectly.  E.M. Forster�s magnificent ‘A Room With A View’ is a tale of self-discovery that just oozes with the splendor and passion of Florence and the rich comedy of the northern tourists that flood her. I�ve loved the book since adolescence and decided to follow in the footsteps of his heroine Miss Lucy Honeychurch and see what has changed over a full century of tourism.

The first thing we did at the station, of course, was consult the tourist handbook. The red-covered Baedeker guide, the ubiquitous tourist handbook in Forster�s day, has now been replaced by the blue-covered Lonely Planet, but as unrepentant tourists we are no less dependent on its established wisdom as were insecure trippers then.  It sent us (wisely) to the nearby Mercato Centrale, the largest covered market in Europe. After all, if you arrive in the city of culture, it�s good to start with the sort of art that everyone can understand immediately – food. Snacking directly at the counters we worked our way patiently and diligently through a bewildering maze of delicious Tuscan sausages and cheeses perched on thick unsalted bread and drizzled in cloudy olive oil.

Instinctive voyeurs, our attention was grabbed when the white-whiskered butcher, who had moments before smilingly cut us samples of sausage, suddenly, and for some unseen reason, broke out in uncontrolled rage at launched himself furiously at the throat of a rival stand-worker across the aisle. The seething butcher had to be restrained by three colleagues. With my imagination stirred by re-reading �A Room With A View� and so many lethal looking knives in plain view, I strongly feared that I was, like Lucy, to witness a Florentine murder. But thankfully the butcher�s colleagues were strong. He was held back successfully and before we left the market he was placidly cutting up sausages again.     

Suitably strengthened, we now felt ready to pack the guide book away for a while, and, as the Forster�s ridiculously pompous lady novelist Miss Lavish recommends, �simply drift� through the gray-brown streets.

It�s here more than anywhere that you regret the passing of time. Drifting is a difficult art in 2008, with the pavements so perilously narrow and the constant swarms of moped riders and impatient taxi drivers brushing so narrowly past your ankles. Even in Florence, it�s hard to find romance while walking single-file in a thick broth of diesel fumes.

We turned the corner and the romance was back. We�d entered what Forster uncharitably described as �another piazza, large and dusty, on the further side of which rose a black and white fa�ade of surpassing ugliness.� We were looking at Santa Croce basilica. My tastes may be unrefined, but I think Nicol� Mata�s massive marble fa�ade, all reflected light and gracious triangles, is far from ugly and, bizarrely, on the wide, airy square a bunch of Asian children, armed with blue plastic bats and a bright orange ball, were showcasing the very un-Italian game of cricket to a curious and enthusiastic crowd. The ability to surprise is one of the chief charms of any town.

The game brought the square alive; and as setting for a �day of sports� it was a highly appropriate choice. As well as playing the stage to the burning of heretics, the Piazza Santa Croce has, thankfully, a less macabre heritage. It is one of the acknowledged nursing grounds of the great sport the Italians lovingly call �il Calcio� and we Brits call football. In Renaissance Florence teams dressed in colored costumes were already kicking (rather solid) balls around the huge square on feast days. Their game was more organized, more colorful and more refined than its contemporary Anglo-Saxon cousin mob-football, and it was also more theatrical. Cultural anthropologists might like to think about this differing heritage when watching the elegant but dive-prone Filippo Inzaghi and the rampaging but honest Wayne Rooney nowadays. 

Miss Honeychurch was certainly right about one thing, the massive basilica, designed under the Franciscan principles of sober austerity does look rather like a `barn�. She was also right about the temperature: �She watched the tourists: their noses were as red as their Baedekers, so cold was Santa Croce.� The chill certainly gives the culture-vulture a bit of urgency in moving from one monument to the other. Unlike Lucy, we sadly didn�t have a kindly free-thinker like Mr. Emerson to point out the �fat man in blue�shooting into the sky like an air-balloon� among the Giotto frescoes in the Peruzzi chapel, but we did splash out on an audio guide. It�s an engaging companion that told us the fascinating story of why the pulpit seems to have been built without steps (it�s all to do with aristocratic rivalry over burial rights); and, unlike the forthright and intrusive Mr. Emerson, it shuts up at the press of a button.

The cold and the self-improvement of Florence�s churches are famishing in equal measure; and, when our audio guide allowed it, we went rushing out of the doors like kids let out of school and straight into a welcoming trattoria on the Via Guelfa with wooden baskets and dried herbs hanging from the ceiling. Like the novelist Miss Lavish, we had an unflagging desire for anything we though �typical�. What we got (mostly because we couldn�t understand the menu) was typical and surprising in equal measure: First we had a soup called ribollita, which means twice boiled in Italian, and is a gruel of bread and vegetables that is so thick and wholesome it could power you through any exertion (save the monstrous queue for the Uffizi Gallery). Next we had �trippa alla Fiorentina� which we perhaps should have known was cow�s stomach. Still, it was delicious and, as Forster would have us know, Italy is about shedding northern inhibitions and opening yourself up to new experiences.

Once you�ve eaten tripe and washed it down with a half-litre of house wine that you�d like to think was probably decent Chianti, there is nothing that intimidate you: not the snarling stone lion in the Loggia della Signoria, nor the blood-thirsty bronze Perseus for that matter or even Giambologna�s muscular rapist. Florence, for all it�s austere churches and history of bloodshed is a kind city dominated by its soft hills and gently gurgling river Arno.

It�s a city to sit along the Lungarno della Grazie on the parapet overlooking that river, near the site of the modest Pension Bertollini, now a posh and exclusive hotel called the Jennings-Riccioli, where Lucy stayed and fretted about the view and learned to feel and fear those feelings and finally to embrace them.

Once there at the river you should sit, ice-cream in hand and guide book firmly pecked away, and you should watch the portrait painters good-naturedly pestering the tourists, the shopkeepers gesticulating flamboyantly to one another and the haphazard rowers sculling without rhythm on the water that Lucy heard �bearing down the snows of winter into the Mediterranean.� And then you�ll know, in this great city of art, what Forster meant when he wrote:

�Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away, and the traveller who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or the corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and the women who live under it.� 

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