October 30, 2015 § 3 Comments
Whenever I told anyone I was going to Poland for my summer holiday, I tended to get two reactions: people who had been told me that I’d made an excellent choice, that Kraków was lovely, etc.; people who hadn’t would give me an odd look and say dubiously, ‘oh, that’s… brave/adventurous/different.’ (I guess the image of it as a grey, joyless Communist hellhole is more persistent than I thought.) But nearly everyone, regardless of whether they’d visited or not, inevitably had the same question: are you going to visit Auschwitz?
My answer was a defiant, resounding no. For three reasons, the chief being that I’m a great big coward. The other two being that a. I’ve heard from everyone I know who has visited that it irrevocably colours the rest of your trip, and I didn’t want this to be the case on my first visit to Poland and b. I was travelling alone. I couldn’t imagine enduring that visit without having someone to talk to about it afterwards. Or a shoulder to cry on.
(Even if I had wanted to go, the numerous tour operators dotted around Kraków advertising trips to Auschwitz and to the Wieliczka Salt Mine as if the two were somehow equivalent chilled me to the bone.)
The compromise was that I would visit the old Jewish neighbourhood, Kazimierz, and Oskar Schindler’s factory across the river in Podgorze, which has recently been turned into a museum. So the morning of my second day in Kraków, I set out.
Kazimierz was once an island surrounded by an arm of the Vistula and, although it was filled in in the nineteenth century, it still feels rather separate from the old city. It’s mid-morning by the time I turn off the main boulevard into Kazimierz and the streets are already suntraps, baking in heat that promises to get worse. There are few other pedestrians apart from tourists; anyone with any sense who isn’t at work is hanging out in one of the scores of cafés.
Kazimierz is beautiful in a humbler way than the fairy-tale Stare Miasto: unmistakably old, battered by time, scorched by sun. Most of the buildings lining the main thoroughfares now contain trendy cafés and shops. If you didn’t know better, you’d never guess that this was once one of the biggest Jewish neighbourhoods in Poland. You could easily be in Hackney or Brooklyn or – perhaps the most pertinent comparison – the Marais.
My first stop, after an hour or so of aimless flânerie, is the Old Synagogue, which is now a museum, no longer used for worship. The exhibits chart the history of Kazimierz and of Kraków’s Jewish community up until the Second World War. Many of them – prayer books, candlesticks, Torah crowns – have a tragically cobbled-together feel, and the wall texts make no bones about that – they’re what was left after the destruction.
By the time I emerge, it’s later than I thought, so I head straight over the river to Podgorze, past buildings and courtyards that feature, according to my guidebook, in Schindler’s List – I wouldn’t have known otherwise, as I’ve never seen it. (My parents deemed me too young to see it when it came out [I was fourteen; were they being overprotective? Answers on a postcard…], and for some reason or another, I’ve never got round to watching it since.)
Apart from the green banks of the river and the splendid rusty towers of a new museum dedicated to the avant-garde director Tadeusz Kantor, Podgorze looks drab and anonymous; it could be a gradually gentrifying working-class industrial suburb anywhere in Europe. There’s no sign that it once contained the ghetto in which the Nazis imprisoned the Jews of Kazimierz on the way to the labour camp of Plaszów or worse – apart from a square now dedicated to ‘the martyrs of the ghetto’, its vast expanse scattered with sculptures of outsize overturned chairs, symbolic of the plunder and destruction of the Jews’ possessions.
Schindler’s factory is down a couple of back streets and under a railroad bridge. It still looks like, well, a factory (although it now also has a contemporary art museum as a neighbour). I’ll admit to no small amount of trepidation as I go in, flash my ICOM card at the ticket desk, and enter the museum.
I didn’t take any photos inside. There are no signs forbidding it, but I couldn’t bring myself to – neither, it seems, could any of my fellow visitors (this might be the only museum on earth immune to the plague of selfies). What I can say is that it is one of the most compelling and thoughtfully curated museums I have ever visited. It plunges you into the darkness and horror of the Nazi occupation, the ghetto and Plaszów without ever straying toward the cheap and sensationalistic. I am, at many points, really glad I didn’t go to Auschwitz: this is about all I can take.
Wisely, perhaps, the museum saves the few points of light in the darkness for the end – the stories of the citizens of Kraków who risked their lives to protect the Jews. Schindler takes pride of place for obvious reasons, and they’ve recreated his office down to the last detail, but there’s little insight into what made this man, who was no saint in either public or private life and, by all accounts, as venal as they came, put his business and life on the line to rescue more than a thousand Jews. Perhaps no one will ever really know.
By the time I emerge, nearly three hours later, into the sun, I feel battered, numb. I walk back along the river to Kazimierz in a daze. The iced coffee I order in a café beside the Little Father Bernard footbridge suddenly seems obscenely luxurious.
There are still several synagogues to visit. Like the Old Synagogue, most of them are no longer in use. The High Synagogue is now a cultural centre with an excellent bookshop on the ground floor. The Remu’h Synagogue used to be the second largest and second most splendid after the Old, but it is now a sad ruin – supposedly currently under restoration, but the ladders, scaffolding and plastic sheeting look as if they haven’t been touched in a while.
I end up going to a turn around the cemetery instead. It’s quiet and only slightly overgrown, most of the thin upright stones so worn by weather and time they’re illegible. There’s a memorial made of broken stones set into one of the walls. How many more broken stones do they represent?
The last synagogue on my list is the Isaac Synagogue. I am not sure I can face another ruin or empty shell, but I press on. As I round the corner, I notice groups of young Hassidim heading in the same direction, and I realise I’ve been seeing small knots of them all around Kazimierz today. When I ask the man at the front desk for a ticket, he shakes his head.
‘You can’t come in now. There’s a service.’
I glance through the open door into the sanctuary and see a sea of black coats and hats, hear the muted buzz of conversation: the service hasn’t started yet, they must be waiting for the rabbi. Any disappointment I might have felt melts away. It’s still being used! After everything I’ve seen today, this feels like a victory. Small, but no less real.
My last stop is the New Cemetery, which came into use at the turn of the century when the Remu’h cemetery reached capacity, cut off from Kazimierz by railroad tracks. A graveyard might seem an odd place to go for solace on a day like this, but that is exactly what it proves to be. As I wander along under heavy green shadows, eyes skimming the headstones, I notice something unexpected and cheering.
A remarkable number of death dates are post-1945.
The worshippers in the Isaac Synagogue might be recent arrivals to Kraków. The cemetery seems to offer proof that Kraków’s Jewish community was never completely obliterated.
I walk back to Kazimierz and the restaurants ringing the main square are setting up for the evening. I can’t help thinking of the wry but rather accurate joke that all Jewish holidays can be summed up in the following three sentences:
They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.
It doesn’t sound like bad advice right now. I choose a restaurant called the Klezmer Hois, go in and order chłodnik and herring, Lithuanian style. Halfway through the first course a klezmer band starts its set. Many of the melodies are familiar from my childhood, but now a particular quality of the music strikes me as never before: at its most wildly joyous, it still sounds mournful; at its most sorrowful, it still contains the germ of a dance.
I walk back to the Old Town and out of a Kazimierz that is coming back to life – and perhaps never entirely died – past another synagogue recently brought back into use, my head still wrapped in the bitter-sweetness of the music.
October 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
As foundation legends go, Kraków has one of the best: it’s said to be built on the back of a dragon. The dragon’s lair was conveniently located in a cave at the foot of the Wawel Hill, which happened to have been an ideal location for building a castle, and the rest is history.
So – yes, after some frustration and unexpected obstacles, I finally made it to Kraków at the end of August. It was a city I’d wanted to visit for years, given an extra layer of meaning because the trip represented the first time I’d ever visited a country from which my family originally came (one of my paternal great-grandfathers was born and raised in Radom, although he left as a young man and I very much doubt I have any relations left there).
Unfortunately, Polish ancestry doesn’t guarantee any facility with the language and my initial encounter with it was… humbling, to say the least. It is a beautiful, melodious language but for someone whose experience of foreign tongues falls neatly into Romance and Germanic, there’s precious little familiar ground. And that’s without reckoning with all those terrifying, endless rows of consonants. I once heard a humorous explanation of why Welsh and Hawaiian are the way they are: a migrating tribe before the dawn of time had to bail out their boats in the middle of an Atlantic storm, and all the consonants fell out and floated to Wales, with the vowels washing up in Hawaii. I suspect something similar happened on the Baltic… all the consonants ended up in Poland, the vowels, in Finland.
Thankfully, Kraków is a tremendously hospitable city, whether or not you can speak the language, and my shoddy Polish proved no obstacle at all to enjoying it.
The Rynek Glowny (main market square) and the Wawel Hill (site of the castle and cathedral) are without a doubt the most recognisable, best known and most heavily touristed places in Kraków. I’m not really sure the world needs more photos of them. But like virtually every visitor to Kraków, I fell prey to their beauty and couldn’t stop snapping…
Adam Mickiewicz never visited Kraków (poor man!) but he ended up with the best spot in town – in front of the Sukiennice (Cloth Hall), facing the Mariacki Church. On second thought, it might not be the best. He may be beloved of Poles and Pan Tadeusz is on school syllabi the length of the land, but unfortunately his statue is also beloved of pigeons…
The upper terrace of the Sukiennice offers the best views of the Rynek – much better than you’ll get on the ground. But as well as looking down, you’d do well to look up.
These grotesques are the work of Santi Gucci, one of a number of Italian artists and architects who worked in Kraków during the Renaissance. They ornament the entire perimetre of the Sukiennice’s roof, no two alike.
Speaking of Italy, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were there… but no, that’s the inner courtyard of Wawel Castle. Designed by Italian architects, but adapted to the Polish climate – hence the height of the upper storey and the pitch of the roof, which you’d never come across in Tuscany.
I have to admit to preferring the cathedral, though. (But all I came away with was exterior shots – no photography permitted inside, which was infuriating as the interior contains sculpture by Veit Stoss and windows by several Polish Symbolists – of the latter, more in a future post.)
There’s one charming detail on the exterior that I couldn’t resist, though: the gutter spouts are all shaped like dragon’s heads.
Wherever you go in Kraków, you’re never far from a dragon.
September 5, 2015 § 4 Comments
Remember when I shot a roll of black & white film at St Dunstan in the East back in February and said I’d go back in the summer and do it again in colour?
Chose promise, chose due.*
I made it back a few weeks ago, while I was on holiday and had the luxury of going in the middle of a hot, sunny weekday… this time with my first ever roll of Lomochrome Purple. Here are the results.
*A promise is a debt.
(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, Lomochrome Purple 100-400 film, standard lens)
August 21, 2015 § 3 Comments
In my tour of my previous homes in London last year, I left one out: the first. The student house in Bloomsbury where I passed the first six months of what I had no inkling at the time would turn out to be a sojourn in London that, although somewhat broken up by moves to France and the States, has now passed the ten-year mark.
I left it out for a very simple reason – it’s hard to go home again if you’ve never actually left. In contrast to Harringay, Stoke Newington and Highbury, Bloomsbury has never ceased to be part of the tapestry that makes up my London. Although I was only ever a student at UCL for six months, it’s a rare fortnight that I don’t end up in Bloomsbury at least once, whether to visit a museum or a library, spend longer than I planned browsing in a bookshop (especially if it’s the London Review Bookshop, which would definitely make my list of the Ten Most Dangerous Bookshops in London… hmm, maybe that’s for a future post), or go to the cinema. I pass my old house all the time and give it a fond glance every time I do, but this familiarity means it lacks the unsettling charge of any of my other old haunts.
However, this year I thought was a fitting one for a return, if only because it marks fifteen years since I first landed in London. I had originally intended to go for my psychogeographical wander on 5 January, which was the actual anniversary, but because I’d had to postpone my holiday trip to the States by a week because, thanks to the negligence of some low-level civil servant, I hadn’t received my renewed visa in time (thanks a lot, Home Office!) I found myself still in sunny California on that day (don’t get me wrong, there are worse places to be). I then thought about doing it in June, which was the month I left, but I couldn’t remember the exact date and I didn’t want to commemorate what had been a wrenchingly sad occasion (I’d stayed up the better part of the night before I left in floods of tears; a tad melodramatic, yes, but at that point I thought I would never see London again).
So, in the end, I settled on a random Sunday in August with no particular significance. Such is life…
My first glimpse of London (not counting Heathrow and the stretch of dreary suburbia along the Piccadilly line between it and Hammersmith) was the bottom of Tottenham Court Road just outside the Tube station, so I decide to recreate my first day in London by starting there.
Of all points on the path to my old house, this end of Tottenham Court Road has undergone the most radical changes; less jarring to me because they’ve occurred under my eyes over a number of years, but if I truly had been away for fifteen years and was only seeing it afresh for the first time, I’d be shocked.
The old Tottenham Court Road station was one of the grottier Underground stations (though I had no way of knowing this that first day, having nothing to compare it to – in any case, the Chicago subway was hundreds of times nastier, so it looked palatial to me), but I distinctly remember that when it spat me out onto the pavement – grubby and horribly jet-lagged after my first transatlantic flight, dragging what felt like all my earthly possessions in two suitcases and a messenger bag like a particularly overloaded snail, but so abuzz with joyful anticipation that my very nerve endings were alight – that grotty, noisy, traffic-choked intersection with its unglamorous shops and smoke-blackened facades looked like paradise. On the northwest corner there was a Virgin Megastore (long gone), on the southeast corner a skyscraper that looked like a cheese grater on Miracle-Grow (a skyscraper in London? I was confused; I thought they were a uniquely American phenomenon), on the southwest corner a tourist-fleecing greasy spoon called Dionysus at which I ate the worst fish and chips of my life that first evening, and beyond that, the legendary Astoria.
Now all of that is gone (well, not the skyscraper, although it’s covered in scaffolding), ploughed under by Crossrail. The new station entrance is slick and spacious, which can only be a good thing, but I can’t help mourning the passing of the Astoria (though not Dionysus). I recently came across an article in Time Out on the twenty-eight signs that you’re a true Londoner and number six was ‘You direct people using buildings that no longer exist as landmarks. “Oh it’s straight past the Swiss Centre, left at the end and then right at Astoria. You’re welcome!”’ Guilty, guilty!
As I stride past the Dominion Theatre (which had Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake when I first arrived but now has Michael Flatley’s latest extravaganza, talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous) I can’t help seeing my twenty-year-old self tagging along beside me – exhausted, bedraggled, weighed down by luggage, naïve and shy, gawking at everything in sight, clad in head-to-toe Old Navy, which was more or less the official uniform at my university. (I returned from my two terms at UCL with a handful of dresses and skirts and a pair of pretty sandals – the first to grace my wardrobe in years – and the most frequent comment back in St Louis was ‘Ooh, you look so European now.’ It was never clear whether this was meant as a compliment or a criticism.)
How I’ve changed – outwardly, inwardly. The naïveté and shyness have gradually given way to confidence and comfort in my own skin; the terrible clothes to something that better reflects who I am. Today I’m wearing oxblood Bolongaro Trevor jeans. Fifteen years ago there was very little red in my wardrobe; now it’s one of the dominant hues. It’s a colour that exudes confidence, but you have to be confident to begin with to pull off wearing it.
Great Russell Street, in stark contrast, looks much the same as today as it did back then. The artists’ supplier, L. Cornelissen & Son, is still there and the window display looks as marvellously, defiantly old-fashioned as ever (mahl sticks, no less!). The restaurants and hotels and newsagents, too, all more or less unchanged.
Bloomsbury Street, too, has changed very little. Not so Bedford Square, but in this case the change is decidedly for the better: fifteen years ago it was the eye of a whirlpool of traffic; about ten years ago it was redone to make it more pedestrian-friendly.
Bedford Square exerted a strange fascination on me back then. That beautiful oasis of green and sylvan quiet in the midst of a severe grey Georgian square – but encircled by an impenetrable fence of iron palings that had been there so long that some of the larger trees at the perimeter had actually grown around them. I ached to get in there and revel in the green silence. One of my UCL friends was exceptionally tall and I hit upon the clever plan of getting him to hoist me over the fence on his shoulders; ‘all right,’ he said, clearly amused when I explained it to him, ‘how are you planning on getting out again?’ As I didn’t know anyone with a key and I didn’t really want my time in London to end with me in jail for attempted lock-picking and trespass, I had to abandon my plans. Instead I imagined the garden tended by a brother of Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant who had the reverse problem (he wanted to let children in to play, but couldn’t; it was eternally spring in his garden while it was winter outside) and wrote a poem about it which was very, very bad indeed, so I won’t subject anyone to it by posting it here.
Gower Street – my street – starts just the other side of Bedford Square. Almost every other building has a blue plaque on it, and the first one I saw denoted the house in which the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded in 1848. I was dumbstruck the first time I saw it. Some of my favourite artists (indeed, partly responsible for my ultimately deciding to desert English for art history) had actually gathered here, in this unassuming house that looked no different from its neighbours, to throw down a gauntlet to the establishment! The irony was that, back in 2000, said house was occupied by the London Computer Centre, something which I imagine would have had all the artists (and probably John Everett Millais’s father, whose house it was) turning in their graves. Today it’s empty, between owners. I hold out the vague (and probably vain) hope that the next tenant is one somewhat more congenial to the memory of the prior occupants.
Little else has changed in Gower Street. Most of the houses on the east side of the street are still occupied by various departments of UCL or other colleges of the University of London (the Art Deco façade of RADA is still my favourite). The Totalitarian Deco monstrosity that is Senate House (Orwell’s model for the Ministry of Truth in 1984, and it’s obvious why) still looms at the end of Keppel Street. (It remains my least favourite academic library in London, one I tend to view as a last resort.)
The mansion block in Ridgmount Gardens in which I used to fantasise about living someday is still there – although I suspect the price of a flat in there now hovers around a million. Oh well, it’s nice to dream…
The neo-Gothic fantasy that is Waterstones still holds court over Torrington Place. When I first arrived in London, it had only just become a Waterstones and most of the price stickers still said ‘Dillons’. Waterstones/Dillons was a two-minute walk from my house. This was dangerous in the extreme – not only for my bank balance but also for the sheer number of hours I could happily while away there when I should have been working on an essay. I blame it for at least a couple of the all-nighters I pulled.
I have the same attitude to bookshops in London as James Joyce had to pubs in Dublin (‘good puzzle would be cross Dublin without passing a pub’ – the solution being to stop into every one on one’s route) so I pop in for old times’ sake and come out feeling quite sad. The place is a mess. Whole sections are empty, or very sparse. It looks as if it’s in the midst of a transitional period, and I can only hope it comes out the other side looking more like its old self.
The building opposite Waterstones used to be the Engineering School lecture theatre, which I got to know very well not for engineering reasons, but because that happened to be where the University College Opera rehearsed. I was part of it (student chorus, professional soloists and conductor, revivals of obscure operas) and had the time of my life. The production we put on that year was that star in the European operatic firmament, an early 20th-century verismo opera called The Jewels of the Madonna which is seldom performed (and notorious) because, among other reasons, the third act features an on-stage orgy. Yes, you read that right.
UCL has undergone a massive programme of new building and general spiffing up in the last decade and a half, so the old lecture theatre is no more. The new Engineering School is smart and state-of-the-art but I can’t help feeling a twinge of nostalgia for the ramshackle old one.
Around the corner is Foster Court, still home of the English department, scarcely changed (at least on the outside) from my time there. It’s shut (Sunday out of term-time, what did I expect?) but its walls hold a lot of happy memories. Seminars on the contemporary Scottish novel (which I signed up for because I couldn’t get over the fact that we got to read Trainspotting – for class!) led by a young postdoc whose soft-spoken diffidence clashed hilariously with the gusto with which she quoted profanity-riddled passages of Irvine Welsh and James Kelman. Seminars on Jane Austen led by the wonderful John Mullan (of whose stature I had no idea at the time, silly me). Tutorials – tough, bracing, always fascinating – with my tutor, the marvellously and aptly-named Alison Light. (She’s retired now and writing full-time, which is a loss for UCL but a gain for the rest of the world.)
And finally, on to my old house.
It looks more or less exactly as it did when I lived there; my room faces onto the street but the curtains are drawn. Not that there’d be much to see right now, as it’s probably empty, waiting its next set of occupants. (One of the previous ones after my time there was, by spooky coincidence, one of my cousins.) The interior wouldn’t have won any design awards – it looked as if it hadn’t been redecorated since the Second World War (literally – there were even chips of blackout paint still clinging stubbornly to the windows, if you looked close enough). And yet of all the student accommodation I lived in as an undergraduate, I was by far the happiest there. I’d shared the room with an English and dance major from Emory who, on paper, I should not have got on with at all (socially confident, loud, bit of a pothead) but she ended up being the best college roommate I ever had. We tolerated each others’ differences with respect and humour, lent each other books, shared trips to the theatre and made the rounds of most of the cheap curry houses in Drummond Street. We lost touch after we left London, but I recently looked her up and was thrilled to see that, in spite of fierce parental opposition (which was why she was studying English as well as dance) she’s built a successful career as a dancer and choreographer.
I’m almost at the end of my wanderings. I put my head into the main quad of UCL and make a quick detour to the other side of Tottenham Court Road to see if the newsagent where I bought many a late-night Cadbury bar to help power me through an essay is still there (it is!) before ambling back past my old house.
It is an unwritten rule that any psychogeographical exploration of one’s past should end with coffee and cake, and this is where one of the more welcome changes in Bloomsbury becomes apparent. Back when I first lived there, there was a conspicuous lack of cafés. All right, that’s not strictly true – there were a handful of cafés in that peculiarly English mould with cold cases full of sandwich fixings and a few rickety tables and chairs, where you could count on a decent pot of tea but you’d only order coffee if you were feeling adventurous (read: foolhardy). It was a bit of a jolt coming from St Louis, where a lot of my social life was conducted in coffeehouses, partly because I was underage but mostly because my friends and I just liked them. In London I was suddenly old enough to enter a pub, and I ended up spending a lot of time in them with my opera friends, but I couldn’t help longing for good coffee. At the time, the only place nearby that offered something resembling it was the Caffe Nero in Tottenham Court Road (now one of four or five).
Now Store Street boasts not one but three excellent cafés. After a bit of debate, I choose Store Street Espresso and I’m not disappointed. (But, reader, do not abandon common sense like I did and order a matcha cookie along with your cold-brew coffee. The cookie is delicious. So is the coffee. Together, it’s a recipe for an almighty headache.)
I kept a journal during that first six months (which now makes excruciating reading) and as I head back toward Tottenham Court Road station, my brain rattling with the caffeine overdose, one sentence I wrote that first night comes back to me: ‘Every paving stone here is fascinating.’ (I’m not sure, but I think I might possibly have underlined most of the words.) Coming ‘home’ has been salutary, and not only because, unlike the other three of my former London homes, Bloomsbury’s memories are of almost pure happiness. It’s also reminded me to pay more attention to what has now become ordinary and everyday. To not take for granted what a continually surprising and wondrous place I live in.
I might not be that unworldly and easily impressed twenty-year-old anymore. But I haven’t entirely lost my sense of wonder. I hope I never will.
August 13, 2015 § 6 Comments
Well, it’s finally happened.
I have become one of those obsessives who stalks eBay in search of expired film. There are currently a couple of rolls of twelve-year-old Fuji Velvia slide film in the door of my fridge, keeping the eggs and a knob of ginger company while they wait to be taken out for a spin.
I used the first roll on a trip to Broadway Market, not coincidentally the first place I tried out my then-new Diana three years ago. But Broadway Market and my camera don’t seem to be the best of pals. The first time I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and the film was too fast for my taste (and therefore grainy… REALLY grainy. That was the first and last time I used 800). This time I shot the whole roll and then, as I was putting the camera back in its case, realised I’d had it on the wrong aperture setting the entire time. But there was nothing for it but to get the film developed and see what would happen.
Most of the shots, predictably, are too dark. But there were a few worth saving…
I’m not discouraged; I’ll go back and try again. Third time lucky…?
(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, Fuji Velvia 50 slide film (cross-processed), standard lens)
July 31, 2015 § 2 Comments
A few photos from the evening before my madcap Five-Church Dash…
June 23, 2015 § 3 Comments
I didn’t end up going to Krakow last week after all. (Don’t worry, things worked out for the best – I’ll be going in August, on holiday [which also means several days’ hiking in the Tatras] rather than for work, which I think is a better result!) However, I can’t complain too much as instead, I ended up going to… Florence.
My first – and only previous – trip to Florence was fifteen years ago, part of my first travels around the Continent. I adored every minute of my stay but never made it back again (studies and work kept pulling me to France and Belgium; holidays, for whatever reason, never involved Italy). So when I had the chance for a two-day work trip to Florence, I was determined to make the most of it.
That first visit, as was the case with every other city I visited on that trip, was a breathless dash from museum to monument to museum; I was only twenty, hardly travelled, and fuelled as much by fear that it would be my one and only chance to see each city I passed through as I was by sheer passion for them. When I looked back over all I had packed into four days it made my head spin. The Uffizi, the Bargello, the Accademia, the Duomo (and its museum), the Baptistry, the Palazzo Medici, San Lorenzo, San Miniato, the Palazzo Pitti (and the Boboli Gardens), not to mention a daytrip to Siena… I thought, at the time, that I’d done it all. At least, the most important bits.
Of course, in the intervening years I realised there actually was quite a lot I missed. Mostly churches, as it turned out. And so, despite my determination to take things a little easier this time, yesterday turned into something rather extraordinary… a Five-Church Dash.
1. Santa Croce
Santa Croce is the obvious starting point – it’s a five-minute walk from my hotel and opens the earliest of the churches on my list. Unfortunately I can’t stand far enough back to gawk properly at the west front because the piazza is filled with bleachers (for the annual game of calcio storico, which I have never heard of before but later learn is like a cross between football and bare-knuckle boxing – no thanks!) but I like what I see – in fact I’m going to say something utterly sacrilegious: I prefer it to the Duomo. But the facade does little to prepare for the wonders inside…
Santa Croce is, among other things, Florence’s answer to the Pantheon – the burial place of the great and the good. Galileo, Dante, Michelangelo… the last of whom is the only one to really have a tomb worthy of him (designed by Vasari, no less). (Dante’s tomb is a hideous monstrosity that I will not dignify with photography. Grrr.) But I didn’t go there to look at tombs… I’m there for the frescoes:
It’s not all about frescoes, of course – there’s the Pazzi Chapel, too.
There was more as well – two cloisters, the sacristy, further chapels, a museum… don’t believe the signs at the ticket desk that say the visit takes 30-40 minutes. I was there for an hour and a half… and could happily have stayed longer if I hadn’t had to go off and do a bit of work.
2. The Brancacci Chapel – Santa Maria del Carmine
Santa Maria del Carmine’s not much to look at. Partly because the facade was never finished (it’s raw brick to this day), partly because a fire ripped through it in the late 18th century and destroyed most of the interior. However – by some miracle, no doubt – the best bit survived. The Brancacci Chapel.
The frescoes were started by Masolino and Masaccio, finished by Filippino Lippi. The former had loomed large in my college Intro to Art History textbook and I had mourned the missed chance to see them on that first trip; the latter I knew nothing about and were a complete revelation…
I end up staying in the chapel for an hour. Excessive, maybe, just going by its diminutive scale, but I had to wait fifteen years to see it.
3. Santa Maria Novella
It’s 3 pm when I finally emerge from Sta Maria del Carmine, and the next church on my list, Ognissanti, doesn’t reopen until 4. What am I going to do with the hour in between? I could have a gelato (and I do, from the Gelateria La Carraia, which I can heartily recommend), but it’s certainly not going to take an hour to eat.
Santa Maria Novella isn’t too far from Ognissanti, though, and although I’m pretty sure I saw it on my first trip it wouldn’t hurt to have a wander past. But when I get there, I’m suddenly seized by doubt. It actually doesn’t look that familiar. Did I really visit it, or did I confuse it with the many, many other churches I tore through? Well, I’ve got time and thanks to my ICOM membership the ticket’s free, so no harm done in having a look round, right?
The second I step through the door, I’m glad for my moment of uncertainty. The Crucifixion by Masaccio certainly looks familiar, but I realise that’s only because I’ve seen so many photos of it. The rest of the church is new to me. And glorious.
But one of the best, by an artist I’m much less familiar with, is hiding in the chapter house:
I stumble, blinking, out of Sta Maria Novella; it’s just after 4 pm and Ognissanti should be open now.
It’s a handsome church, much smaller than any of the above, but it apparently contains frescoes by Ghirlandaio and Botticelli. Sadly, ‘apparently’ turns out to be the key word. The Botticelli fresco, which depicts St Augustine, is down for conservation and has been replaced by a photographic facsimile. The Ghirlandaio frescoes are… well, okay, but the ones in Sta Maria Novella are a hard act to follow:
I’m being unfair to Ghirlandaio, of course. His best work is a Last Supper in the refectory… which is closed. As is a chapel dedicated to St Francis, which is roped off but affords tantalising and frustrating glimpses of more frescoes. One to return to…
5. Santissima Annunziata
I’m starting to question the wisdom of trying to fit five churches into a single day. It’s late in the day, the heat is stifling, my feet are starting to ache, and SS Annunziata is quite a distance (well, at least for Florence) from Ognissanti. But… it is also full of frescoes. With a difference. Mannerist frescoes. And anyone who knows me knows that I have a serious soft spot for Florentine Mannerism. Le beau est toujours bizarre... (I’ve no idea if Baudelaire had Rosso, Pontormo et al. in mind when he wrote that, but I like to think he did.)
So I bravely trudge north, pushing through the crowds around the Duomo and heaving a sigh of relief when I reach less touristed streets. SS Annunziata faces onto a quiet square whose slightly worn beauty is all the easier to appreciate for the near-total emptiness – people are outnumbered by birds.
Unfortunately, as soon as I cross the threshold I run smack into scaffolding. The cloister, which is where most of the best frescoes are, is entirely covered up. Restoration works, it appears. I press on, hoping things will improve in the nave, but no such luck. The church itself is one of those heavy, oppressive Baroque affairs, all dark stone, gilding and overblown carving, that must once have been loved because there are so many of its type in Italy; it’s so poorly lit that it’s all but impossible to make out any frescoes in the chapels. I’m about to throw up my hands in despair when I see a door leading outside – presumably to another cloister.
No more joy there. There’s a single, recently restored fresco by Andrea del Sarto above the door:
There are further frescoes in the lunettes on the other side of the courtyard. Naturally, they’re all roped off:
I leave feeling rather downhearted, but once I’ve sat down and caught my breath in the piazza, I realise this is a good thing, for two reasons:
-I have probably narrowly avoided Stendhal Syndrome. Hot and tired? Yes. Dizzy, lightheaded, suffering heart palpitations brought on by aesthetic overload? No. (Although it will probably take a while for all the day’s impressions to filter through, and I’m sure my dreams will be filled with frescoes tonight. And I’m also sure it has something to do with the fact that a single glass of wine with dinner makes me surprisingly tipsy…)
-I have an excellent reason to come back!
Dashing around five churches in a single day probably (okay, make that definitely) isn’t the most relaxing way to see Florence. But getting to see a much less touristy side of the city, through a very different lens, is an experience I can recommend to anyone.
Just bring comfortable shoes. And lots of loose change for gelato. You’ll need it.