A couple of years ago, not long after I’d had a life-changing accident that left me with extremely limited walking ability, I decided to stick my middle finger up at the world, and go on a three-stop tour of Italy, alighting at three cities that have always resonated through the romantic fibres of my hopelessly melodramatic soul. Rome, Florence, Venice. Titans of civilisation, art and culture; bricks biting deep into the past. It was, technically, a walking tour, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to manage that, but I was determined not to let a little thing like not being able to stand for more than a few minutes at a time get in the way. Cleared with the group leader, who was more than happy to let me soak up the sun in a piazza whilst they all went walking, I packed my bags and shuffled off to St. Pancras, equally excited and full of newly disabled dread.
The Might of Rome
After one night in Paris trying to cram in the Italian dictionary, we speed through the Italian countryside to Rome. Past rolling, sunburnt hills and tiny, crumbling farmhouses, a waxing moon ghosting through the afternoon sky. I’m immediately bowled over, almost literally as pedestrian crossings are merely suggestions here and a roman driver isn’t going to let a little thing like a walking aid persuade him to drive any slower, by the death-defying ballet of vehicles and resulting cacophony of horns and swearing. As I unpack, I am serenaded beneath my window by the sound of Italians nonchalantly reversing into one another. We meet for dinner in the hotel restaurant, where a man with a nose so throughly Roman he could be swung around by his ankles and used as a pickaxe attempts to poison us with undercooked veal. I keep getting terrible sensations of vertigo, swaying in my chair as though I were pitching about in the Bay of Biscay. I’m quickly reassured that it’s merely the result of shooting backwards at 300 kph all day, and not, as I first suspected, an aggressive brain tumour.
After a surprisingly deep night’s sleep, we head out into the city the next morning. Rome is drenched in pale sunlight, and I sit happily by the Trevi fountain with a strong espresso whilst the less mobility-challenged folk scurry about in alleyways full of tiny cafes and haphazard parking. A multitude of tourist and student groups with several languages between them are all trying to meet here at once and the resulting chaos provides me with an hour or so of entertainment. I soak up the sparking, sexy atmosphere; the very air here seems to vibrate, to pulse with a raw life force I have never experienced in quite the same way before or since. I fight a pressing urge to unbutton my shirt and shout ‘Quick! Somebody grope me behind a fountain! Come on, people, I can’t do everything around here!’ I refrain, partly because I do not want to frighten the modest, bespectacled Chinese teenagers earnestly sampling Gelato.
Usually, I try not to play the comparison game with other women, it’s a pointless cul-de-sac, no matter how hard-wired. In Rome, though, the women are so impossibly beautiful it’s hard not to feel as though you’ve just fallen out of a hedge even when dressed in your best. They glide about like stylish storks, easily negotiating the cobbled streets in slim heels, taking incredibly fast into chic little phones and endangering the eyesight of several passers-by with the business end of a cigarette. I discern late into the day that their contract with beauty is a Faustian one; the flawless skin and bed-tossed highlights, the firm, tanned boobs and taut buttocks, are somehow countered by the need to carry around monstrous squashy leather handbags in a variety of shades, which thankfully do not interest me. Italian men, on the other hand, look at me a bit like my maths teacher: 4/10, could try harder. The Romans are unabashedly sexed up, as lit candles blaze in every church and the Rosaries swing around their necks, it is a frank acceptance of the dual nature of ourselves, the ape and the angel, getting busy in the heaving lanes of the city, in the back seat of an anonymous cab as it hurtles past the Spanish Steps.
The next day I am determined to see as much of the city as I can, because we are going to The Forum. I haul myself around with my able-bodied peers, negotiating ancient stones with my walking aid. The Forum hits me, an out and proud history lover, right in the feels. It feels surreal, as though it is not me touching the huge, flattish, white stones where they burned the body of Julius Caesar, but someone I’m watching in a film I’ve always wanted to be cast in. I wander slowly, very slowly, past bronze temple doors now vibrant green with the patina of two thousand years, past the ruined temple of the Vestal Virgins, whose walls provide a little shady respite from the blazing midday sun. I walk the ancient streets where history I’ve only read about, trapped lifelessly between the pages, took place, every cell of me alive and awake to the marvel of following all those dead footprints winding through the very heart, the great foundations, of Rome. I stare up at the top of Palatine Hill, imaging the five storeys - five storeys! - now long gone into the dust, of Caligula’s great palace. We head to The Colosseum; still so high and imposing, a marvel of architectural cunning. If I strain my hearing I can *feel* the roar of the crowd echo off the walls, as though it were a vast stone shell with all the sounds of this shrine of death trapped within it. It’s unnerving in the extreme. I peer over into the depths of the place, the columns underneath the stage where men going to meet their violent end would have waited, and imagine being hit with that bestial wall of noise.
In the evenings, escaping the stuffiness and merry crashing sounds of my hotel room, I slowly wander the back streets, stopping off at this or that pavement cafe or restaurant, sampling pizzas and pastas and wine. I am not the world’s most delicate eater, and lost count of the times I regretted wolfing delectable balsamic vinegar and cherry tomato sauce whilst wearing a white top. By the end of two full and exhausting days, I have perfected all the basic Italian I might need, which largely consists of how to order another glass of Bianci/Rosso/Rosato.
The City of Flowers
We leave the brash, bold strumpet of Rome behind, and go to meet her quieter, sophisticated sister, Florence. Like the freshness of the earth after a sudden rainfall, her soothing, shaded streets are a gasping relief after the heat and clamour of the capital. The centre of the city is dominated by the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, usually simply known as The Duomo, a faithful masterpiece that gleams in the sunlight. Around the cathedral a continual river of people sit drinking tiny coffees, reading books and newspapers on the steps. As I walk steadily on my crutches, refreshed by the dramatic change of pace and atmosphere, I can feel the very pores of my skin opening to let the personality of the city in, a soft breath of culture and devotion.
Armed with a wrinkled tourist pamphlet, I set out on a solo expedition as the group go for a longer hike. Ambling through the cool streets, I hear a voice declaiming something passionately, well, even more passionately than usual around here. I follow the sound and find a street performer, dressed in a long red robe, with white paint upon his face and leaves woven in a crown around his head. He is Farfarello, and has a mind so remarkable that he has memorised the entirety of Dante’s great masterwork, the Divine Comedy from beginning to end, Inferno to Paradise. He comes here every day to perform of it under the stern gaze of Dante’s own stone face. The great, heavy book is propped up on a stand in front of him, and all a curious passerby need do is open it, point to a verse, and watch him reel it off from memory. I am amazed at his talent and obvious love he has for the poetry, and we talk a little after he has finished for the morning, sipping coffee and chatting about our lives. He is older than I first suspected, the greasepaint working into the lines of his face; but his eyes are intense and fiercely youthful. I get that weird fizzing feeling you experience when you meet somebody truly extraordinary, and cannot yet define how you feel about them. He packs up, hands me his card, and I wander off to find lunch with the rolling melody of his speech in my ears. I run into a protest march making its way down one of the slim streets, furious with the depravity and excesses of Berlusconi. I watch them go by with sympathy, although holding a sign that reads ‘Italy is not a Bordello!’ is, to my mind, asking for a snarkfest of hackneyed stereotypes.
Later, in my hotel room at the Santa Maria Novella Hotel - a friendly, lush place to stay with a truly amazing marble bathroom - emboldened by glasses of red wine, I pull out the crumpled card from my pocket and dial the number. He sounds surprised, but would like to meet me for a drink the following evening. I hang up and hug my pillow to my chest, saying ‘What have I done? What have I done?’ I’m a semi-crippled, socially awkward plain jane in one of the most beautiful cities on earth, and I just asked Dante on a date.
The next day we all set off for the stunning Tuscan city of Lucca, nestled behind huge, and intact, Renaissance walls, Lucca is the perfect place to explore on foot; secret little piazzas and cafes are dotted everywhere, tempting you in for just one more coffee after walking its pretty cobbled streets, searching for a glimpse of the traces of its ancient Roman amphitheatre in the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro. During lunch, a wonderfully rustic affair rich with tomatoes and marinaded meats, I feel my phone vibrate, it’s Dante, telling me he’ll meet in the Piazza de Santa Maria Novella at seven. The group, who are by now agog with the gossip and already know far too much about me thanks to my tongue-loosening 5-a-day wine habit, wish me luck. I overhear one of the ladies I haven’t really connected with muttering ‘No, this one’s definitely a man.’ and the whole table turns to look at me as I defiantly swallow an after-dinner shot of something unbelievably sweet and alcoholic. Having confirmed my reputation as the group’s resident bisexual perma-drunk, I amble to the train station with the one other mobility-challenged adventurer, who has a dodgy knee. He and his wife, from Scotland, have fast become my best new travel buddies and, having partaken liberally of the sweet wine, we all have a merry time getting lost on the way back in a giant flea market crammed with vast antique picture frames larger than me, so that I feel a little like Alice after the ‘Drink Me’ potion.
Our train rolls in at 18.30. I have precisely half an hour to look presentable and sober up. I hotfoot it, as much as one can on crutches, through the Piazza back to my room and spend a frazzled 30 minutes painting on wonky eyeliner and shouting ‘Bloody men!’ as I wrestle with top of my perfume. I needn’t have worried. We have a lovely, understated evening eating pizza, I discover that Monty Python’s Life of Brian is his favourite film, and later, when it gets cold, we sit on a chilly stone bench, locking eyes - my jade-ish green to his Mephistopheles brown - and I finally, finally get to kiss someone again for the first time since losing my ability to walk. The next morning, I wake up with the interdimensional sensation of a medium-sized hangover, and go for an early stroll. The sunlight is just turning from pale to a full-bodied gold; it plays over the rooftops and long steps pitted with a hundred thousand feet. The cafes are just beginning to open their doors, and the quiet streets, already familiar to me, are suddenly filled with a rush of scent, bitter beans and baking pastries. I sit on a low wall with a buttery, flaking croissant in one hand and an espresso in the other, silently giving thanks to some higher power for this chance to feel alive again, here, in the City of Flowers.
Walking the Labyrinth.
‘There’s nowhere like Venice.’ They kept saying to me. Even our long-suffering group leader, who makes a living walking the globe followed by a load of wide-eyed newbies like imprinting ducklings, noticeably lights up when he talks about it. ‘Nowhere in the world like it,’ he says over our hasty breakfast before catching the train. ‘You’ll see.’
We alight at the Santa Lucia station around lunchtime, and have only a short hop over the bridge to the Hotel Carlton on the banks of the Grand Canal, a wonderful, hospitable stay in an incredible location that I heartily recommend to anyone. The sun twinkles off the busy water, alive with the chugging of the vaparetta and the ponderous journey of occupied gondolas. The sharp salt sea breeze jolts me into grateful wakefulness. They were right, all of them; anyone who banged on about Venice being a jewel, a wonder, incomparable, incredible. This is the place my mother stayed when she was pregnant with me, enduring the attentions of excited Italians who would come up to her in the streets and touch her belly, exclaiming ‘Ah! Bambino!’ as delightedly as if it were their own. I was blessed by this place, by the hands of its populace, twenty years before I ever set foot here. Although the last week has cemented that idea that Italy is one of the least disabled-friendly countries I have ever seen, I am filled with quiet pride in myself. It hasn’t been easy; I’ve struggled, slipped, cried; been wheelchaired around a cathedral, cursed the train stations, but I have done it. I stand on one of Venice’s myriad bridges as the church bells chime and think, ‘Whatever else happens, whatever the doctors say, I got to do this.’
How in Gods name can you even begin to describe this city? It’s built in a lagoon, for heaven’s sake. It’s an impossible place, a faerie tale. The streets are merely thin byways alongside the canals, where you can watch the morning deliveries being made if you’re up early enough; a jam of boats filled with sacks and barrels all swerving around each other with the panache of pirates, greetings and curses flying across the water. The buildings are crumbling, little by little, into the turquoise streets slowly taking back the city. ‘See it before it sinks,’ they say, and good advice it is, too. The lanes themselves are a maze; a labyrinth leading to tiny squares and hidden restaurants, stylish little shops and churches busy at any time of day with the hum of the faithful, the smell of candle wax. We dine out in quirky little places so crowded and full of laughter and rapid chatter it’s hard not to believe that these tucked away family eateries aren’t the central hub of the city. Everyone knows everyone, and their children and their grandchildren. I am lost in bliss, walking much farther than my original expectations allowed, resting on the steps of the Rialto, or in the chapel of some obscure saint. I want to see everything, I want to drink this city in until the tides of its river roads flow smoothly in my own veins for the rest of my life.
I pay for my lengthy excursions later, in the hotel bar with ice packs around both agonised tendons. But why sit at home and suffer when I can suffer beautifully drinking Bellini’s on the Grand Canal? I wake the next morning to a text from Dante, for whom I still appear to hold a strange fascination. I sigh, devilishly attractive and interesting though he is, he comes from a country where the women are chic, demure, self-disciplined and mysterious. They do not crawl around the room at six in the morning with wine stains down their top, looking for their glasses and bra.
It’s getting to that time, that sad time we’ve been trying not to think about as we go out for our last dinner, our farewell to Italy. The Scottish couple who are now my erstwhile drinking pals (and who, by the way, are pushing 70) stay a while longer with me as the main herd head back to the hotel. We end up travelling there in a water taxi, which, although expensive, is the most amazing thing ever when you are nineteen sheets to the wind and probably when you are sober, too. Attempting to pack in the corridor the next morning is a special kind of hell and it’s only due to the muscular arms of a burly Glaswegian guest holding the edges of my case together so that I can zip the damned thing up that I make it onto the train at all. I have a few minute’s grace before we need to board, so I look out for the last time over the sparkling water, listening to bells across the city chime the hour. My legs are fiery with pain, but my heart is lifted clean away from my ribcage, free to wander this country where for me, the soul of art resides; this place of visceral, violent history; passion and invention; of gilded splendour and poor saints, forever.