One was being in a mountain village sipping wine and listening to a string trio playing on an ancient terrace against a backdrop of sunshine and rolling green Tuscan hills, and if that isn’t as close to being a poser as I’ve ever been, nothing is.
The other was to walk the streets of Torino, a throbbing modern city on Festa della Republica, Italian republic day, against a background of noise, colour, exuberance and an apparent feeling of “Financial crisis? What financial crisis.”
Between these two extremes came what we call cryptically the ABC tour: another bloody cathedral. Italy has almost as many cathedrals and churches as the Uffizi gallery in Florence has religious works of art and although we naturally didn’t see all of either, at times it felt as if we had. So much so that on our last morning in Montecatini as we walked past a previously unnoticed church on our way to the station I suggested a whip round among the group for a plaque on the only one we hadn’t visited. As for religious paintings, sculptures and frescoes, along with the few inspired pieces, there are thousands upon thousands produced by earnest journeymen that merge into each other. Yes, they’re old, yes, they’re heartfelt, but that doesn’t make them good, only long-lasting. And why can’t even the best artists create a realistic child to go with the endless Madonnas?
Increasingly, until breaking free of religious surroundings into fresh air, hills or living cities, the visitor can only conclude that all that money, time and effort could have been put to better use for the population as a whole rather than for the rich and the church authorities, usually one and the same. God didn’t, and possibly doesn’t, come into it too much.
But that’s to be cynical. Although it was a first holiday in Tuscany, it was a fourth visit to Italy in the past dozen years so something must take us back. The food? Possibly. The wine? Not necessarily, I’ve never been much of a drinker. The weather? Not this time – the two hottest days were mainly spent on the train journeys home. The people? Again possibly, although not all Italians – or British tourists, of course – are friendly at all times.
Whatever the combination of reasons, they blended well enough to enjoy the most recent visit as much as the others, although I won’t go back to Florence. Too many tourists. But I would go back to vibrant Torino. And most of all I’d go back to Montecatini Alto with Tuscany spread out below and a violinist bringing tears to a glass eye in the evening sunshine. They can keep the cathedrals.