John Walsh: Tales Of The City

'There's a limit to the number of days you can lunch al fresco on melon with slightly-too-stiff ham'
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The Independent Online

How did you enjoy the trip to Tuscany? Fun was it? Or perhaps you went a bit wild and tried Umbria this time around, or even Le Marche? There's no point in pretending you went anywhere but the centre of Italy this year, because I've just come back and I could hardly move for Independente-reading, well-heeled English couples and their adorably confident, art-appreciating children, milling about the supermercado, applying wasp-sting cream to their tortured legs and being carved up on the Florence-Pisa-Livorno dual carriageway (known to all as the Fee-Pee-Lee) by sneering Romans and Neapolitans anxious to get home for some inventive bribery and corruption of their local football team.

Years after John Mortimer invented the term "Chiantishire" to describe the area of the Italian countryside that has been comprehensively hijacked by British vacationers as though it were a Home County (only with hotter sun and cooler motorbikes), the place seems more popular than ever with the London media classes. And yet it's changed a lot since I first started going there, 20 years ago. A whole new modern Tuscan culture, mired in tourism, seems to have taken over.

So for those of you still about to visit the place this month, here's a few frequently asked questions that may make your stay more enjoyable.

What is the Incredibly Annoying Monday Rule?

It's something that doesn't get the tiniest mention in most guide books, but can ruin your stay. Say you've taken the train from south Tuscany to Florence, and decide to ring up and pre-book tickets to the Uffizi Gallery. The lady on the end of the phone laughs, mockingly. "But surely you know, signore, that everything shuts on Mondays...." Well yes, I did know, as it happens, but I always bloody forget.

What are all those people doing over there, standing with arms extended, as if in a frozen balletic entrechat?

You are in the Field of Miracles, or Campo dei Miracoli, in Pisa. Over there is the Leaning Tower. These people are tourists, posing hilariously for photographs that will catch them apparently in the act of pushing over the tower or trying to hold it up. Each is convinced he or she is the first ever to think of this clever special effect.

Why is the food so crap?

The food is not actually crap at all, not the raw materials, but you have probably had too many home-prepared meals. There's a limit to the number of days you can lunch al fresco on melon with slightly-too-stiff ham or mozzarella with slightly-too-hard tomato. So you visit the local restaurants in your neighbouring village, only to find that the tortellini in the tortellini in brodo is the same stuff you buy in Sainsbury's, and the veal steak is merely a thin strip of leather swimming in oil.

Most local restaurants in Tuscany serve terrible food, which is why they bung you a gratis bottle of Amaro at the end of the meal as a prize for staying the course. But you must persevere, until you discover the wonderful Osteria al Giardino in Montalcino, where they do an astounding duck breast in truffle cream sauce, and you start enthusing all over again about the wonders of cucina rustica...

Why are there pictures of willies on so many postcards?

It's Michelangelo's David's willy, dummy. The most famous carved figure in Italy does admittedly sport a rather modest-seeming membrum virile; but the Italians decided long ago not to be embarrassed by it but to make a big post-modernist joke of it, knowing that British tourists wouldn't be able to resist.

Is that the original David sculpture in the Palazzo Vecchio, being photographed by all the tourists?

Let me ask you something - if they won't let you take flash photographs inside any duomo or basilica, for fear of ruining the delicate paintings and artworks within, then what are the chances that they're going to leave a priceless statue out in the sun and rain, to have its face and its private bits painted blue by disaffected ragazzi every weekend?

Are the Tuscans embarrassed by their reputation for cruelty, what with the Borgias, etc?

Not all that embarrassed. In Siena they've opened a Museum of Torture, full of the tableaux of racking, flaying, impaling and dismembering people the Tuscans didn't like in days of yore. You can buy much of the equipment in the market place, if you don't fancy bringing home just some Limoncello.

Why are so many women in this cathedral wearing those hideously unflattering blue net poncho things?

Because the Church authorities frown on girls sporting naked shoulders in the house of God. Actually, these days they cover lady tourists up for any reason they like - cleavages, meaty arms, out-of-fashion pashminas, failure to wear Dolce e Gabbana, you name it....

Should I try to speak Italian?

Don't try too hard. A female member of our party visited the butcher's and explained in dumb-show how she wanted the pork wrapped around sausage meat and then itself wrapped in bacon and tied up with string. He complied and dinner that evening was delicious.

Two nights later, the village turned out for a dance under the stars. My friend danced with her husband and waltzed past the butcher, who was dancing with his wife. As the dance ended, my friend told his wife, in frightfully English tones, "I met your, um, mari? no, your husband, lei uomo, on Wednesday, um, Mercoledi. And I must say the porco was fabuloso. A great success." It was later explained that the word porco is often used as an expletive. What she said was, "The fuck-me was fabulous."