Summer 2020 is drawing to an end, kids are back at school, and people in countries north of the Mediterranean are already wondering how they will socialize outdoors as evenings are becoming too cool to sit outside. Here in Italy, the one thing we can be thankful for in this sense is that we have had an unusually hot first half of September which helped elongate a summer that got off to a rough start, but now the weather is scheduled to turn. Today I took what will likely be my last tip in the sea this year, though you never know, hot days in October have been known to happen!
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might have noticed I’ve been a little bit absent from writing posts. It’s hard to imagine what’s relevant on a travel blog right now when most of what I write about helps you plan future art-related travel or visit temporary art exhibitions. Between a lack of new shows to write about and not spending much time in downtown Florence or other art cities, I haven’t been particularly inspired to blog about those things.
On the flip side, this has been, for me and probably for many of you, the “summer of the great outdoors.” Those of us not yet comfortable with sharing indoor spaces are forced to socialize only outside and maintain social distance. At the beginning of June, I wrote about how this summer would be all about wine tourism and agrotourism, and that’s pretty much what I’ve been up to (that and staying home and working, of course, even if Instagram makes it look otherwise).
So today’s post is a personal one, about my family’s experience and plans, about how we’ve been dealing with this strange interim moment living in Italy with Covid-19 among us, but after the initial crisis. I don’t claim to speak for all expats not for all Italians. We all suffered losses of some sort in this period; now it’s time to rebuild, to move on, and to build better.
Personally, I’m feeling extremely lucky right now for so many reasons. I’ve still got a job, and my husband and I are safely working remotely. I also still have a husband, haha, and actually we’re really enjoying all this close time together despite being a couple for twenty years now. My health, after a rough spate last year, is stable so I have enough energy to go for long walks and play tennis. Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I’ve felt so healthy. This is also because I’ve developed a better work-life balance. The lockdown helped me realize that taking breaks was a matter of sanity. Turns out that my workaholic tendencies need to be balanced by other things, be it reading or exercising or socializing. Coming out of that phase, I’ve felt stronger about family, friendship and self-care, and I find that not feeling I like have to be tied to my chair in an office even when I’m not being productive is making me more creative and effective at my job, yet leaving me more time for other things.
Although I love the Renaissance city and in general the cultural life of living in an international town, I’ve always also had a more outdoorsy side too. Tommaso and I frequently escape to our little apartment in Maremma (south-western Tuscany) where there’s an unfettered view of woods in which you can walk for hours. They do say small-town living is the future. Stefano Boeri, architect of Milan’s “Bosco Verticale”, declared this to La Repubblica newspaper last April and he’s not the first, but in the post-covid era, the appeal suddenly seems greater. In our town of Sticciano, you can go out without a mask because you’re unlikely to encounter any other people. True, there are also no stores, nor much to do (residents socialize in the small piazza but there are only about twenty actual residents). If the internet were faster – the digital divide is real, people – the draw to move there would certainly be greater. We’ve been getting away on occasion to Sticciano, remote working on occasion, but we’ve also discovered a few other places where we’ve enjoyed the great outdoors this year.
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Back in May, I wrote about choosing an isolated villa in Umbria for our family’s August holiday. This proved to be an excellent decision, one taken about a month later by many other people once the borders opened up. As Northern Europeans saw that it was safe to travel to Italy thanks to very strict rules and controls, villas like the one we rented were top amongst desirable destinations while the coast was particularly packed. My brother in law and his family live in Milan with two small children; as soon as travel was permitted between Italian regions, they came to Florence and stayed the next three and a half months until school started. This was my first time spending an extended period with my nephew (age 7) and niece (age 3.5) and I discovered the pleasure of being a “zia” (aunt) who they actually call on either to play or to help them. I am now considered greatly skilled in crafts appropriate to the grade one level and have brushed off my origami ability, which turns out can occupy Leo anytime, anywhere.
We truly enjoyed our stay together at Villa Ghiandaia in a remote area of Umbria about half an hour between Lake Trasimeno one way and Umbertide the other way; we almost never left the house, since the saltwater pool was so convenient but there were also great spaces for everyone to spread out and relax either outdoors or in. Even with seven people to cook for at every meal, we traded off tasks very naturally so that nobody ever felt stressed out or overworked. And of course, staying in a gorgeous home like that and barely even needing to go to a store (we packed well), we pretty much forgot about covid and the world’s problems for a while. If I’ve always resisted the Italian tradition of closing down around Ferragosto, this year I embraced that holiday like a long lost friend from back when we were allowed to hug each other.
In the second week of September, I had to do some work for a winery client in Bolgheri, so Tommaso and I set up our home office in an apartment at Podere l’Agave, an organic farm stay in San Vincenzo just three km inland from the coast. I worked all week from a fantastic covered terrace with a view of the sea in the distance, eating every meal out there, walking from indoors to out seamlessly in a way that sadly we can’t do in Florence because the mosquitos would devour us.
Guests are permitted to pick any fruits, vegetables or herbs they find on the property, plus they serve a stellar breakfast that you can take back to your terrace and enjoy all day, so we barely needed to go out to get food. The sea air, the light, and the ability to go for a walk in nature before or after work – or even at lunch break – felt so good. I also discovered that large treehouses are conducive working environments and have a new goal to have an olive grove just so I can build one for myself. As we observed the constant flow of families arriving from Germany and beyond, we felt comforted that at least for another month or more, agriturismi like this one should have some business. I’m already looking forward to going back there during the olive harvest for a special picnic event!
As promised, this summer was also about wine and wineries. We enjoyed our annual visit to Querceto di Castellina for their vineyard dinner and stayed over in their Livia Suite. I also visited Jacopo and Mary’s vines and got to know both them and the place better, and took a ton of pictures.
We had a short stay at Roccafiore wine resort in Umbria in their simple “wine cabin” amongst the vines, and had dinner and a wine tasting at Terreno, a Swedish-owned winery in the Chianti Classico area. I didn’t make it to the outdoor films at the Medici Villa di Liliano, home of Malenchini wines, but am looking forward to attending a recital of Beethoven music there next week.
As we head into Fall and it will soon be a bit cooler in Italy’s cities, one thing to look forward to is exploring art and architecture outdoors! Florence kicked off the fall cultural season with the opening of a stellar exhibition at Forte Belvedere – giant photographs of Tuscany by Massimo Sestini (read my review).
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We also really enjoyed going to see the Aerocene experiments carried out at Manifattura Tabacchi by Palazzo Strozzi connected to the Tomas Saraceno exhibit (the show’s open until November 1, 2020). Manifattura Tabacchi, at the city’s north side, is a really cool ex-industrial space that hosts artisans and some very cool offices, has a good restaurant, and plenty of outdoor space in which they hold concerts and cultural events with excellent control of visitor flow; highly recommended for an aperitivo and to check out the contemporary feeling here.
Some would say that the whole city center is an open air museum… If you’re visiting Florence from elsewhere in Europe or just want to explore the city with new eyes, there are plenty of itineraries you could follow for a fun and learning experience while still remaining outside. For example, you could try to find all the logge in Florence, structures that are closed on one side by a building, and open on the other with columns, such as the loggia in front of Brunelleschi’s Ospedale degli Innocenti. For something more modern and off the beaten track, do like I did and scoot around in search of the many sculptures you find in Florence’s roundabouts. Or try something participatory: if you understand Italian, my friend Elena, a tour guide, has organized treasure hunts for big kids as well as other kinds of tours geared at residents.
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Museums in Florence have resumed their programming and most are fully open at this time, though with limited access and reservations required. This is a good time to visit some of the city’s smaller museums, where they only let in about 10 people per time slot and most of the time they are pretty empty. On a rainy weekend, I booked a private guided tour of the Galileo Science Museum for my nephew and we rarely encountered other people in the same room as us. I might do some other museums of this sort soon: it’s been a dog’s age since I’ve been to Museo Bardini, for example, and they just opened up an interesting temporary exhibition that juxtaposes contemporary works by Kevin Francis Gray with the historic collection.
The other thing I’ve been up to lately, if you follow my Instagram stories, is gardening, which is proving to be therapeutic, healthy and delicious. This summer we discovered a new organic farm on via Senese (at Due Strade) called OVA – Orto Verde Animali. Brainchild of a young couple with previous careers in other fields, it’s a place to buy organic vegetables but much more: a free place to walk and see their adorable animals, community garden plots you can rent, and a future cultural hub and marketplace. Seeing the potential of this project in its “seed” phase (pun intended), we’ve gotten in early and planted summer vegetables late in the season; we’re eating the first lettuces and zucchini from our garden and will soon put in the fall and winter crops. There’s such pleasure in the little miracle of food growing after you give the plants a bit of love. It’s also free physical exercise in fresh air. We’re continuing to eat more local in general after the lockdown helped us discover neighbourhood shops as well as nearby farms that deliver everything from chicken and cheese to fruits and veg.
Who knows what the Fall will bring? All I know is that my current attitude is less control and planning, definitely more carpe diem. Since lockdown ended, I’ve been outside, I’ve eaten good food, I’ve worked hard, I’ve done sports outdoors and travelled to places that are less populated. There are also things I miss (my parents in Canada, friends in the States, hugging friends, the gym, not having to worry about touching things, etc.), and there are without a doubt plenty of things to worry about in the world right now. My family’s way of coping has been to live every day to the fullest, to try to be the best and healthiest we can be while also making choices that will help our planet and our community.
I’d love to hear from you, to know how you’re coping, and to find out what you’d like to see on this blog going forth – please let me know in the comments below.