Day Off – When the sun is shining as much as it has been this past few days, the moment when you wake up, draw the curtains and open the window to discover where exactly you are is usually the first pleasurable experience of the day. In Italy as with many countries nowadays, instead of your lungs being filled with pure fresh air, the first thing you smell is tobacco. You lean out the window to learn of the source of such pollutants and invariably see hotel staff standing outside having a cheeky wee fag. Not of course at the Four Seasons, Firenze. Almost certainly best hotel of the tour, I doubt one would ever see a member of staff chuffing away in uniform. No, this morning’s malodorous whiff was being provided by other guests.
When we arrived early Wednesday morning, it was as if a calm had descended on the touring party. Anyone who has experienced Four Seasons hospitality will understand what I’m talking about. This hotel chain is Canadian based and has 84 ultra-luxury locations around the world. We’ve stayed in a fair few of them and they are always a welcome sight in the itinerary. After yesterday’s somewhat brutish (B4) hotel critique, today’s is the polar opposite. Simply everything about this place is wonderful. An enchanted city sanctuary in the midst of Florence, where an art-filled Renaissance palazzo and conventino frame a centuries-old private park. This city is beautiful enough but to be fortunate enough to stay in this location is a true pleasure. Expensive? yes, ostentatious? possibly, but once in a while….well you only live once don’t you?
After four shows in a row, for the first time all tour, it feels like we deserve this day off and once I’d written yesterday’s post, my thought were of getting out and about in this incredible city. I think everyone in our outfit thought the same as when I went downstairs, pretty much everyone else was gathered. With camera comfortably over my shoulder we set off towards the fiume arno and the Ponte Vecchio. The impossibly narrow streets are sometimes tricky to navigate and your wits must be about you to prevent from being run over by some mad scoot-loony but once at the river the road opens out and the bridge comes into view on our right hand side.
Possibly the world’s most famous bridge; it is believed that the Ponte Vecchio was constructed during Roman times and that butchers originally occupied the shops. Since all waste has until quite recently traditionally been poured into rivers, one can only imagine the daily scene, and the colour of the water. These days the tenants are jewelers, art dealers and souvenir sellers, seeing to the needs of 1.7 million visitors every year.
The relatively recent trend of attaching padlocks to various nearby places (as seen before in GL2010 Paris diary ) is a result of mass tourism and has had a detrimental effect on the centuries-old structure as thousands of locks need to be removed periodically. The idea was possibly introduced by the padlock shop owner at the end of the bridge. It is popularly connected to the idea of love and lovers: by locking the padlock and throwing the key into the river, the lovers became eternally bonded. There is now a 50 Euro fine for anyone caught locking something to the fence.
The Basilica di Santa Croce (1294AD) is the burial place of some of the most illustrious Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Foscolo, Gentile and Rossini, thus it is known also as the Temple of the Italian Glories (Tempio dell’Itale Glorie). The Renaissance which spanned roughly the 14th to 17th centuries is believed to have originated here in Florence in the heart of Tuscany encompassing the flowering of literature, art, religion, science and politics. Many have emphasized the role played by the Medici, a banking family in patronizing and stimulating the arts. Lorenzo de Medici (1449–1492) was the catalyst for an enormous amount of arts patronage, encouraging his countryman to commission works from Florence’s leading artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo Buonarroti. The fact that most of these great men were born here and the cultural conditions of the time probably coincided to spawn this cultural rebirth of the middle ages.
After a brief stop for an immaculate cappuccino at the Piazza del Pitti we wandered on, back across the rive on the Ponte S. Trinita, through the Palazzo Strozzi and came upon the pure magnificence of the Duomo di Firenze or Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore to give it it’s proper name. The building work was begun in 1296 and only completed structurally in 1436. They really took their time over things back then. The exterior of the basilica is faced with polychrome marble panels in various shades of green and pink bordered by white and has an elaborate 19th century Gothic revival façade. The basilica is one of Italy’s largest churches, and until development of new structural materials in the modern era, the dome was the largest in the world. It remains the largest brick dome ever constructed. A few more blocks and we were in the vicinity of the hotel once more. Mike and a coup,e of others continued on in search of a light snack but I had my mind on one thing, the pool.
I’d spotted it when I looked out of my window just after we’d arrived here. I went to the room and changed into my board shorts come swimmers and headed off to the Spa. Now as gyms go, this is about as good as it gets. What a complex. The girl at the desk greeted me with a smile. I asked about the possibility of a swim in the beautiful outdoor pool. She said “I’m sorry but the pool is closed”. I asked why…”because the water is too cold”. I said but I’m used to that in England and after a brief exchange of views based on what temperature of water human beings can endure, she allowed me to proceed. One section of the pool was dedicated to a wonderful outdoor Jacuzzi which WAS open. She set it bubbling and I dove into the ice water and managed ten lengths before my body craved for a wetsuit. I climbed out of the arctic and into the tropic. Ahhhhh.
A quick tour of the rest of the complex revealed a fabulous basement changing room area and a stairway to another building which housed a two storey gym which was full of THE best machines known to mankind. All in all, the ultimate gym.
Some more hotel shots….
I never really thought much of it at the time but the automated lawn mower system is ingenious. One of the real bugbears of touring bands is that after a late hotel arrival, most guests need to sleep late and so often hotels with gardens insist on mowing the lawns at 8am! apparently the Husqvarna mowers (above) seek out their own recharging stations when the battery power drops to a certain preset level.
Later, most of us assembled in the lobby for a band dinner at the Trattoria Cammillo on Borgo S. Jacopo near the Piazza Frescobaldi, not too far from the Ponte Vecchio.
We took three cabs and were seated in the tiny family restaurant set up in 1945 as a wine shop by the current owner’s grandfather. It has over the years been transformed into a shrine of culinary research. All sorts of early seasonal products, like truffles and mushrooms, are served alongside the delicately light fried vegetables and meat so typical of the Tuscan cuisine, accompanied by a selection of fine Tuscan wines. The home made desserts are particularly good. Situated in a 15th century building, the restaurant is very popular among the Florentines.The menu was typically Florentine and just what we were looking for. Photographs rarely do justice to such a dining experience but here goes.
Beef Carpaccio, Entrecote steak, deep fried Zucchini (outstanding) and a Persimmon Tiramisu (also outstanding). After dinner we split into two groups, one of which got in taxis back to the hotel and the other walked. We retraced the route from earlier in the day. The streets seemed deserted but we looked for a bar for a nightcap.
Quite near the hotel we found a basement bar where a Beatles tribute band were sound-checking. Mike, Rich, Glenn and I had a beer and then we all headed back to the hotel where in my room Mike and Rich had a pot of PG tips and a short music session, then bed.
Show Day – Having been delivered my customary Four Seasons breakfast of Orange juice, Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, bread basked and a bonus cheese and ham platter, I decided I would leave the hot food in the warmer for later and head for the magnificent gym and spa once more. That pool experience yesterday just had to be repeated only this time I did a 25 minute treadmill session first, just to ensure the shock of the icy water was maximized. The lovely girl on the Spa reception greeted me having remembered my name from yesterday when she told me I was brave. I simply informed her that I was English and a regular dipper in the English Channel. This seemed to satisfy her. With the Jacuzzi bubbling away furiously, I dove straight into the deep end and only managed three lengths before the sight of the steam of my own personal bubble pool called me back. I was in the warmth and an involuntary broad smile came over my face. Smiling and admiring the beautifully manicured gardens with trees dropping their Autumn leaves in the last throes of Summer sunlight, I thought about how lucky a man can be. Back at the room, I tentatively retrieved the plate of Eggs Benedict from the warmer fully expecting to find rock hard eggs and stiff curly dried up salmon but I was astonished to find that the dish was still piping hot and was as if it had just been made. I was still working out the physics of that whilst I devoured the food. Utterly delicious.
Local transport had been organized as the narrow streets of Florence weren’t made for 46ft buses. We soon pulled up at the venue, the Nelson Mandela Forum. We last played here on a fleeting visit in 2005 when it was known as Palazzetto dello sport di Firenze and Palasport. Built in 1985, the venue has a capacity to hold just over 8,000 and I recall this being quite a fiery stand-up show last time. The normal pre-show routines done, I grabbed the banjo for some more hacking, popping and clawing practice. The looks I received in the dressing room suggested I might look for alternative locations so I wandered the underground backstage corridors. Everywhere I went, I was greeted with smiles but courteous suggestions that I move along. I ended up sitting in the hallway between the two band dressing rooms and it wasn’t long before Donny came out to encourage me on. Unfortunately his banjos were up on stage so there was no dueling frailing. It was soon time for vocal warm-ups and the show. What a show. Maybe it was because it’s Friday night, maybe it’s just Florence but this lot were up for a good time. We took to the stage at 9pm on the dot and the greeting we received was quite something. Overall quite a young crowd I thought, a definite blend of Dylan/Knopfler devotees. They cheered and applauded at every opportunity and during Marbletown I think there must have been ten moments when they were set off. A fantastic atmosphere and we were off all too soon. Mark then took to the stage with Bob and they rocked the house together for four songs whilst we slipped back to the hotel for an after-show drink. It wasn’t long before Mark joined us and we toasted the evening with a few suitably overpriced Four Seasons drinks. Then it was off to bed in preparation for the long day ahead tomorrow.
ps. can you spot the two deliberate photo mistakes on this page? It’s tough.