Magazine article The Spectator

A Tale of Three Cities

Magazine article The Spectator

A Tale of Three Cities

Article excerpt

Florence was thick with people.

There were queues for the Uffizi and the Duomo, and there seemed to be as many street cartoonists sketching flattering portraits of unattractive children as there were unattractive children to sketch. As well as fathering the Italian Renaissance, Florence also seems to be the epicentre of living statues. Living statues are -- along with clowns, Tom Cruise, and David Lynch movies -- very spooky and therefore not something you ever really wish to see on holiday.

There was an impressive living statue outside the Medici Palace masquerading as David. He was caked in body make-up the colour of Carrara marble and the crowds seemed more interested in him than in the real thing. Michelangelo doesn't feature in The Da Vinci Code and therefore his stock has fallen.

I lunched alone in the deserted Savoy hotel. According to my waiter, the chic Florentines had left the city. They'd been driven to the coast. Driven away by living statues, charcoal drawings of Tom Cruise, the heat, the dust and the crowds, as if fleeing from a mediaeval plague. After 48 hours fruitlessly trying to peer over other people's heads to look at paintings, I headed to Santa Maria Novella to catch a train to Nice.

The train to Nice from Florence is cheap.

It costs between .40 and .50 for a first-class ticket (www. raileurope. co. uk). Charmingly, the train leaves either before or after dinner.

Tuscany to the South of France is a cheaper and easier journey than Stansted to Nice.

Even though I do it every year, there is something exciting and spontaneous about taking a train cross-country. Seeing Rome, Venice, Vienna, Paris and Zurich come up on the destination board is rather thrilling. I imagine that I could be fleeing scandal, meeting a lover or spying on Nazis. It's very 1930s.

If the station induces nostalgia, the train itself is sadly lacking. Ideally there should be Hercule Poirot, a Russian countess, or an English aesthete on the train travelling with me.

Sleeping berths have given way to uncomfortable seats covered in mucus-green fabric and dried-egg-yellow tartan. The glamour has gone. Porters, steamer trunks and dining carriages have been replaced by graffiti in the loos, soggy sandwiches and no smoking signs. …

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