Travel for mind, body and spirit: Nose The smells of Italy
In the Oltrarno area, south of the river, there's a small restaurant, the Vecchia Bettola, that you'd walk straight past in daytime, without a second glance. There are no poncy bay trees at the door, no self-referential quotes stuck up in the window. But here, you get some of the best Tuscan cooking in the city.
As soon as you enter the place, you pick up the rich, slightly earthy, almost narcotic smell of truffles, sliced extravagantly over plates of springy spaghetti, packed into little parcels of ravioli, or transmuted into airy omelettes. A plate of strong, sweet prosciutto, smelling of treacle, truffled pasta after, coffee strong enough to stand up without its cup, this is my idea of a good Italian meal.
Smells are dangerously evocative and the smells of abroad tell you almost faster than the sights that you are in a place that is different and strange. One February we left England at its bleakest moment, frozen, cheerless, monochrome, and stepped out, only a few hours later, at Faro on Portugal's southern coast, where the soft black night was heavy with the smell of mimosa. Now Portugal and mimosa are inextricably linked in my head. France, despite the efforts of the anti-smokers, is still Gauloises to me. Dominica, in the Windward Isles, is the sulphur which rises from the island's bubbling hot springs. But the sulphur is cut with draughts of datura, whose huge night-scented trumpets attract moths as big as tablecloths.
Most scent memories are cocktails rather than straight draughts. Italy isn't just truffles; it's damp plaster, too, the kind of venerable, ancient, cool smell you get when you walk into a church such as Santo Spirito in Florence. Did it already smell old when it was first built in the mid- 15th century by the Florentine architect, Filippo Brunelleschi? As you wander round the side chapels (38 of them, each decorated with extraordinary paintings), the territory is marked out by other smells hovering in the air: a whiff of warm wax from the offertory candles, a sharp flash of incense, the powerful sweetness of white lilies, the same flowers that you have just been looking at in the paintings of Verrocchio and Filippino Lippi.
The same cool smell (though without the overtones of damp) enveloped us when we walked up the steps into the vast room that does duty as reception at the Hotel Torre di Bellosguardo. This old four-square villa, dominating a hill to the southwest of the city, had been recommended by a Milanese friend who had stayed there. "In my travel guide," he said, "it was marked with two red hearts." That was the clincher as far as he was concerned.
I liked it because it was so quiet. Our bedroom was as big as the cavernous reception below, and had a high beamed ceiling. The beams were painted in faded herringbones of red, white and blue, the little cartouches in between filled with flowers, fruit and insects. When I opened my eyes each morning, the first thing I saw was a perfectly painted snail, caught for the past four centuries between a bird and a daisy on this wooden panorama.
At least half a mile seemed to separate each piece of furniture in the room: a low bed, a beaten-up but intriguing old writing desk, two chairs, a table. And a piano. In an alcove close by was a dusty pile of music for it, mostly Edwardian lieder, printed in Austria and Germany. How had they got there? The room's one outside wall was more than 4ft thick and a stone window seat was built in under the huge round-headed window. This looked out over the terraced garden and then on to a ridiculously beautiful view of Florence below. Not even that fastidious film-making duo, Merchant and Ivory, could have conjured up anything closer to the English dream of Italy.
The dreamtime tenor of the place was intensified by the fact that it seemed to be entirely empty. Not only of other guests, but of any staff either. Beds were made, but we never saw a maid. Glass doors slid open silently to let you into the hall, but there was nobody there to do the sliding. The doors worked on a sensor. On the far side of the vast reception room was a monumental conservatory, filled with the scent of orange and lemon trees ranged in huge terracotta pots down the length of the brick- floored building. Nobody ever sat in the neatly arranged cane armchairs, though there was a bright pink parrot on a perch.
At the end, a door gave on to the garden, with a tunnel roofed in wisteria disappearing to a shady courtyard beyond. Narrow terraces marked by parallel box-hedged paths fell down the side of the hill. Behind the box hedges the last flush of roses bloomed, lush sweetly scented roses, the uncompromising pink of Neapolitan ice cream. Tall white acidanthera, with leaves like gladioli and flowers like little orchids, had been flowering in pots at home before we left. Now here they were in Italy, but planted alongside oranges and olives and vines and all sorts of other plants that I hadn't a hope of growing outside.
One rainy afternoon, on impulse, we took the bus to Pistoia, just for the ride. As it drew into Pistoia's windswept piazza, an unmistakable breath of chestnut swept through the bus window. Like well-trained truffle-hounds, we leapt off, tracked down the chestnut-roaster and returned with hot chestnuts, charred to perfection, piled in roughly twisted cornets of paper.
Now chestnuts are mixed with truffles in my quintessential compound of Florentine smells: chestnuts with the aroma of new bread and wood smoke. It may not be as heady a smell as essence of truffle, but it doesn't break the bank either. Anna Pavord
Hotel Torre di Bellosguardo (0039 55 2298145, fax 0039 55 229008). Vecchia Bettola (0039 55 224158).
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