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Monday 30 December

0630, woke up on my own — unpleasant dreams, although not nightmares, in part about some rich American woman who owned some medieval sculpture, and her pretentious family and her divorces etc. —

Stefano's still sleeping. He took no alarm clock and is relying on me this morning to wake us up at a suitable time: he has a business meeting, apparently brief, in Empoli this morning at 9. The plan currently is for him to drop me off in Empoli and I'll visit the town, then to go have lunch with his folks in S. Miniato, then only he knows. [. . .]


0735. I've had a very nice hot shower in the bathroom down the hall, brushed my teeth, shaved in the shower with no shaving foam (Stefano said no need to bring mine, he'd bring his, then forgot to), and am dressed in my grey tropical wool trousers that James so kindly hemmed up for me for this trip, and a white shirt in case we do go for lunch at his folks — at this point, I'd lay odds we won't do that either — but anyhow I've dressed as well as I could. Sneakers — I don't own any other shoes — but maybe I'll buy shoes in Empoli.

Speaking of money and credit cards: at a Bancomat [Cash Station] here last night neither one of James's cards worked, both returning "wrong code". The BankAmerica one, the code is certainly right, I saw it myself on their own printed slip; the other, the one James prefers I use since it has more on it, admittedly James has forgotten the code but it was one of two and I tried both. I'm now down toº 100 ML and $120 cash, so I'll have to use my credit card everywhere; I just hope I have no problems or emergencies.

I'm now sitting at a round table with 4 small cane-back chairs a good ten feet from the large double bed where Stefano is sleeping soundly in the middle of the bed (or maybe queen-size, who knows, anyway it's quite large enough for two people to sleep without touching). At 7 I called out the time, and again at 7:30. The sun is rising, birds are even chirping, and I'm writing by natural light from the French doors leading into the garden. The room is on the ground floor of an annex, a normal-looking villa on a garden on a back street; there is a second door to the room giving onto an inside corridor leading to the bathroom; another much smaller room shares the corridor, just a large bed: Paolo wanted to put us there first last night but someone had forgotten to make the bed. It wasn't because it was a less good room, but because the heat was already on. This one did in fact take hours to heat up; it's finally OK this morning.

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The beach at Versilia.

At 8 after the last bit of diary entry I called out the time again — I was fully dressed — Stefano woke up, and I told him I was going out for a little walk, and did, coming back at 8:25; the hotel was on the via F. Donati, 36 (every villa and sign had that "F." but not one disabbreviated it, maybe no one knows)a and I walked down the street to the sea, past various villas, big square houses, most well-kept but a few quite decrepit.

The beach lay behind a barrier of bathing cabins, as far as the eye can see once you're on the beach in fact; this little sector of beach is called the Flora Ponente. The beach was understandably quite deserted, not a soul in sight. A long straight stretch much like Daytona Beach, not as wide but in the same style. The sand is a somewhat greyish white, very occasionally frosted footsteps; one small boat near the water, one pédalot near the changing cabins — Behind the beach and its front row of hotels or larger villas (not many) and the hinterland grid of tree-lined streets of villas maybe a kilometer in depth, rather high mountains rising sharply some snow-capped. I was feeling sad, unhappy, so the ten or so pictures I took will probably reflect that.

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Back to the hotel, packed up, a bit of talk with Paolo, and a stop at a caffé where I had a coffee and 2 cornetti; we hit the road at 9 o'clock on the dot, and arrived in Empoli at 10:15: the route thru a landscape totally destroyed by highways, factories, gas stations, etc. It's a great pity, since the valley must've once been very beautiful.

Stefano dropped me off at the main square of Empoli, the p.zza della Vittoria, a large 4-block square with a little park and one of those 1925-modern statues in the center, a medieval church to one side with a beautiful brick sacristy and belfry; then went to his year-end meeting at [. . .] headquarters back on the outskirts of the town, we'd passed it on the way in; with an appointment to connect again at the Bar della Vittoria on the square at 11:45 more or less.

Then So I went off armed only with my Blue Guide to Northern Italy's two small paragraphs on the city; no guide to the town seems to exist, nor map, and truly there's not much. I visited the church on the square first, nothing much except for a curious shield over the door showing a kneeling hooded penitent: the church seems to be — even within recent memory and possibly still now — the chapel of a penitential confraternity: S. Maria del Suffragio.

Then I went and found the town's main attraction, the Collegiata di Sant' Andrea; I entered by a side door, not quite realising that was the church. I was looking for, but here was this interesting church door — the inside, as usual, was totally redone at some point and is pretty ugly; but behind the main altar there's a nice triptych of the Madonna & Child with saints on either side of a gold background and I realized this was it; also a rather nice fresco in a chapel on the S side of the nave, of the beheading — or at least the stabbing thru the neck — of a female saint, with two large cows in fact taking up half the space . . . . Also a truly hideous painting in which an angel is crowning — another, framed, painting of the Virgin inset into the middle of it: I took a picture of this monstrosity.

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Empoli: piazza della Vittoria.

Out the front door into a (deserted) and charming little square with a fountain, four large recumbent lions as spouts, and a central spike of nude women almost certainly a later addition; turning around, the lovely façade of the Collegiata, Tuscan Romanesque, dark green and white stone possibly marble: my Guide said the upper part was a good 18c imitation and indeed it is, with a wonderful window with a couple more lions, really very nice. The attached cloister, tiny, not so much a cloister as a 2‑story arcaded courtyard housing a museum, closed today Monday, but I could see some nice porcelain plaques.

Back to the p.zza della Vittoria then realised I had enough time to try the chiesa di S. Stefano, which my guide said was often closed but had good frescoes. It was. A side door, ajar, led into another cloister, but within 30 seconds I was chased out by someone cleaning the church — the outside of the church has an interesting wooden door of 1493 "signed" by the man who commissioned it — "CHRISTOPHORUS something FECIT FIERI" — and an interesting small stone plaque bearing an inscription dated 1745 forbidding ball playing of several kinds rather legalistically enumerated, in Italian, anywhere near the monastery of S. Stefano subject to fines and even prison sentences.

Back again to the p.zza at 11:30 where I had two cappuccini and a cornetto and hung around a bit, even reading a bit of an art-and‑cuisine magazine — no Stefano. At 12:15 I left the bar and went and paced outside [. . .]

When Stefano finally of course showed up — I hopped in the car matter-of‑factly although later, after we'd had lunch with his parents, I did tell him an attenuated version, that it's one of the worst things for me, to feel abandoned —

Out of Empoli and to his folks near San Miniato, in a largish three-storey house on a hill; simple people, in the best sense of the word and by no means only (but unfortunately reflecting on my own character that too to a certain extent) the condescending use of the word. When we showed up, his mother, [. . .] years old, shortish, grey-haired and gentle-faced, put on some water to boil, then pasta — A simple meal: some very good pasta with a touch of ground beef; the secondo was less good, but fine: veal scallops in tomato sauce, with peas (possibly canned); fruit, special desserts of the Christmas season, all boxed, but one item, the spongata from Parma, was from a pastry shop: a sort of mincelike filling sandwiched between two layers of dry cake — quite good, my description is poor — the two others were ricciarelli alle mandorle, a Sienese specialty, a sort of calisson d'Aix except the almond part less sharply differentiated from the outside; and a panettone milanese, a rather light open-textured brioche with raisins: surprisingly for me not so awfully fond of raisins it was very good. Fizzy water, a tiny bit of very bad acid red wine trotted out for me despite my protests: Stefano's father doesn't drink, although his mother does some — A vin santo delle Terre Gaie, quite good; and as usual, excellent coffee —

Stefano's father is a small balding sandy-haired1 man who must've been rather handsome in his youth, a bit harder-edged than his mother, but clearly good people. [. . .]

His parents then dribbled off separately to their occupations and immediately an old family friend arrived, a woman named Emma who's known Stefano from earliest childhood — they're the same age — strikingly handsome, dark hair, olive skin and an accent I found quite difficult to understand — A few minutes chat, then she went away and we locked up and hit the road ourselves.

The trip to Grosseto started under blue skies with only slight snow visible far away, to end in 5 km of very slow going on a small road with an inch of snow occasionally being cleared by a backhoe: no snow has been seen in these parts since the early 80s other than a flurry in 1990 that didn't stick. Peculiarly, the closer we got to the sea — and the further south — the more snow there was; mind you, it's been near 0°C all day everywhere. Poor Stefano is miserable in cold weather, I mean really unhappy; he's never once been to the Alps so close to Milan, and describes his trip to Budapest last New Year, with snow all over the place, cold wet booted feet and cars spraying him with slush, as unalloyed misery, saying that he would have preferred being hit with a hammer. Under such conditions I told him he absolutely must not come to Chicago in January or February! Not until May.

Some of the scenery here and there was beautiful, but of course a lot is spoiled by the very highway we were using to get here so fast. A little group of three or four trees on the end of a low and otherwise treeless green ridge to our left; a small octagonal chapel by the side of the road next to one end of a mile-long allée of cypresses (connected with a poet named Carducci, the placename is Bolghera according to Stefano); a few fields of olive trees in the snow during the gradual descent towards Grosseto —

When we got here we wondered if we'd get a room at all, although I was reasoning people would be staying home and cancelling — anyway, there was no problem; we're right in the centro storico at the Leon d'Oro, and the room, although coolish, is not cold like in Versilia [that's the correct spelling by the way] last night. I've been writing for a good hour; Stefano has shopped and returned and read a bit, and now we're sort of half-watching the news, a good half of it about the most unusual cold, snow, etc.

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The Piazza della Vittoria in Empoli again: towards sunset, one of the fountain's lions.


Note in the Diary:

1 8.I: not true, his hair is quite grey, nor is he really balding —


Later Note for the Web:

a Francesco Donati was a 19c literary critic and poet who happened to be in Versilia in 1854 when the area was hit by a cholera epidemic. He worked hard to alleviate its effects there, and the experience led to his best-known poem, "L' Orfanella".


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Page updated: 14 Apr 13