Boys in navy blue blazers jostle each other outside the Marriott hotel, looks of uncertainty over what to do with so much privilege.
Metres away, skaters slam their boards into the paving slabs on College Green, while pedestrians march through the middle, determined to exert their right of way.
A small group gather on the grass, watching intently as a man gives a lesson on how to repair a bicycle puncture.
Further on, four men lounge in the shade of the cathedral, waiting for something. Close by is a tent pitched beneath a tree; the council turning a blind eye or quietly piecing together the paperwork to shift it?
On our last full day, we turned our backs on Florence and took the train to Arezzo, a city less talked about yet promising an equally grand history with Etruscan roots dating back to early BC.
We were rather unimpressed, then, to find a bland urban centre spreading out from the station, made all the more worse by pouring rain. With no other options in sight save for shopping in the highstreet stores, we made a run for a cafe, trying to find one that would fit the five of us and a pushchair. Eventually, we came across a rather unusual but immaculately done out 60’s style joint where we immersed ourselves in pastries and cappuccinos.
Once the rain had eased, we continued away from the train station and soon noticed the environment beginning to change. Unlike many cities where the landmark sights are to be found in the centre, here only those willing to climb the vertiginous streets are rewarded with the true Arezzo. The higher we climbed, the older and more majestic the buildings became. One of the more famous was the Basilica di San Francesco, where the Legend of the True Cross fresco by Piero della Francesca resides. But there was a myriad of other churches and museums at almost every turn, each with their own story to tell. Even the library was a sight in itself, with a wall of carved faces and emblems facing the street.
At the very top of the hill was a cathedral with a working clock tower and nearby, the Piazza Grande, a square surrounded by churches and towers as well as a stunning arched promenade.
But it wasn’t only the architecture that was fascinating. The shops added to the fabric of the area, with many specialist retailers such as a ‘Particularia’ store housed in a building from 900AD, which was packed with curiousities and medieval tools. There were also cave-like delicatessens full of cheeses and Italian meats and wine-tasting grottoes barely large enough for two tables.
With limited trains to take us back, we left Arezzo earlier than we would have liked and opted to go for a last supper in the nearest town to our farmstay. Considering there was only one restaurant to choose from, the decision was straightforward. The place was a traditional trattoria in every sense; analogue TV playing dubbed films in the background, paper tablecloths and hefty pizzas. Not to mention a Tuscan twist of stag’s heads decorating the walls.
Following a satisfyingly high-speed train journey from Lake Como to Florence, we begun the second part of our holiday in Italy. The first had involved the baptism of my 8 month old daughter and all the preparation, organising (and socialising!) had left us in need of a break. What better place to do it than in Tuscany!
Taking a local train out of Florence we arrived at the rural outpost of Sant’ Allero where the owner of our accommodation picked us up. A five-minute drive brought us to Agriturismo Petrognano, a converted farmhouse in the hills of Tuscany where we were to stay for the next four nights. The place was idyllic and incredibly peaceful, not least because, being out of season, we were the only guests on site. 100 hectares to ourselves not to mention a swimming pool…
The first day we spent exploring the area’s fields and olive groves, which threw up the occasional surprise such as wild roe and an extremely aggressive cockerel (!) Then we treated ourselves to a four course dinner cooked by the host, Christiano, with cold meats, a pasta dish and meat platter followed strawberries and Chantilly cream.
The next day was the main event; a visit to the city of Florence. We took the train in and set about exploring the streets. The cathedral was the principal sight as we left the station and was probably one of the most impressive buildings in the city. But with queues around the block to see inside, this was no way to spend a day and with my mums original 1960’s map as our guide, we roamed the elegant streets.
Not long afterwards, however, we fell victim to a powerful thunderstorm, which had everyone, tourists and Firenzians alike, running for the coffee shops. A large ice-cream later and a barrage of street-sellers trying to flog us cheap umbrellas, we headed for a series of steps that rose up to Piazza De Michelangelo. It turned out that not only did this bring us to an unprecedented view of Florence, but also to a great area full of restaurants and local shops virtually devoid of tourists (all too busy walking over the nearby Pontevecchio).
On top of that, the sun came out, making the climb and the view all the more worthwhile.