I’ve been spending a lot of time this past week in Florence. Italy. Not because I actually went there, at least not lately, but because I’ve been reading a wonderful, life-affirming, poetic, gentle, quirky, memorable book, set mostly in Florence. A book that I could not put down, but which I did put down frequently to go do other things because I could not bear to finish it. Seriously. I could not bear to be done with this book. So I put it down, walked away, to do real life stuff. And then later walked back again, to Florence, with a fresh cup of tea in hand to pick up the tale where I had left off. For me this week all roads lead to Florence. Over and over again.

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On the road in Italy 2018.

I started Sarah Winman’s book Still Life over tea and toast one morning. Feet up, in my sunroom, I read of two English spinsters in 1944, “somewhere in the Tuscan hills… eating a late lunch on the terrace of a modest albergo. A beautiful summer’s day, if only you could forget there was a war on.” Two spinsters celebrating “the Allied advance with large glasses of Chianti.”

Two sentences in I was hooked. Spinsters, Italy, the last days of World War II. And a page or so later when I was slightly annoyed at one spinster and entranced and intrigued by the other, I read this: “She blushed and would blame it on the shift to evening light, on the effect of the wine and the grappa and the cigarettes, but in her heart, in the unseen, most guarded part of her, a memory undid her, slowly-very slowly- like a zip.” Oh my. I was captivated and a bit undone myself.

War memorial in Norcia, 2018

Sarah Winman’s book is one I will not soon forget. If I ever do. I’ve been to Florence. Once. And I so wish I could have dived into her book and seen Florence again, arm in arm with her characters. Among them Ulysses, former soldier and globe-maker. Benefactor of a bequest born of a fateful meeting between a despairing Florentine and a kindly young English soldier in 1944, Ulysses is able to leave post-WWII London, where he is not so much recovering from his war experiences as he is lingering in a kind of stasis, and move to Florence to begin life again. Told in a kind of parallel to Ulysses’ story is that of Evelyn Skinner, Englishwoman, spinster and art historian, lover of Florence, whose random meeting with Ulysses on the road outside of Florence in 1944 changes both their lives.

How amazing to be able to wander the streets of that ancient city with Ulysses, and Evelyn, and their friends and loved-ones, in 1901, in 1944, and 1979… and all the decades in between. To be able to watch as they move through their lives encountering joy and pain, love and disappointment, and tragedy. As they, and Florence, and the world get on with life.

And you know, I kind of did just that. Because this week, as I’ve said, all roads lead to Florence for me. Even as I walked the trail, did laundry, chatted with friends and family, and celebrated my birthday, I knew that later I’d end up, for at least part of every day, tea cup in hand, in Florence.

The Ponte Vecchio, in Florence 2018.
In Florence 2018.

I also spent a ton of time this past week reading about Florence. Following up on what I learned in Winman’s novel about the art and the history of Florence. Looking at photographs, my own and ones I found online. Thinking about life and travel. And art. And how much I don’t know, and how much I wish I knew.

I even went back and read a little of Dante’s Inferno last encountered sometime in the seventies. Because in the novel when Ulysses and Evelyn first meet she says “fate is a gift. According to Dante anyhow.” Reading Still Life, I came to believe in fate as I watched Ulysses’ and Evelyn’s paths swerve towards each other and away again over the years. Even when all roads lead to Florence for them both, they wander the streets of the same city, never quite meeting up. Until of course they do. Of course they do. It’s fate.

And just now I was telling Hubby how this afternoon, when I was reading about Dante, I’d confused Ravenna, where Dante died, with Ravello which we visited when we were on the Amalfi Coast in 2018. Until I looked them both up on a map. And Hubby said, “Ah yes. Ravenna. We drove near there when we were driving from Venice to Florence. Remember?” He said he’d thought about stopping there because of the ancient mosaics on its buildings. But we had a reservation in Florence and were a bit pressed for time. I guess fate had other plans for us than Ravenna.

Grambologna’s Rape of the Sabines in the Loggia Dei Lanzi, Florence

So, yeah, fate is an important theme in Winman’s novel. Along with friendship, love, identity, sacrifice, and the importance of art and history. That sentence makes it sound like a pedantic book when it’s anything but pedantic. Sarah Winman is a masterful storyteller, her characters come alive. And she is also a wonderful writer. Her style is beautiful and poetic, at times funny, evocative, and profane in the same sentence. You have to love a writer who can do that.

Like all the best books by the most talented writers (like Kate Atkinson, Penelope Lively, Anita Brookner et al) Still Life leaves us with certain passages rolling around in our head, passages we want to remember, maybe even learn to live by. Like this one: “There are moments in life so monumental and still that the memory can never be retrieved without a catch to the throat or an interruption to the beat of the heart. Can never be retrieved without the rumbling disquiet of how close that moment came to not having happened at all.” How could we read that and not stop to think, “what if I had?” or “what if I hadn’t?” Think about the choices we ourselves made, and the choices we came close to NOT making in our lives.

An iconic moment for me in Rome, 2018.

All the characters in Winman’s novel love Florence. It defines some of them. For them all roads must lead to Florence.

But I have to confess, I did not love Florence when we visited there in 2018. I could see it was beautiful and historic, filled with art and history. But it didn’t touch me like some of the other places we visited on that trip.

Vieste 2018

Places like Vieste. Where Hubby and I spent a rather idyllic evening.

Vieste 2018

We wandered up stone staircases, peering down alleyways, and into church doors. Noticing the play of the evening light on old stone. Until we happened upon a restaurant halfway down a narrow set of stairs, with tables set along the side of a building. There we watched a few local residents clatter down the stairs on their way home from work. A woman carrying groceries in a cloth bag stopped to chat to another woman who was leaning over a balcony above her, pulling in laundry from a small clothesline that ran parallel to the building.

We listened to the music that drifted out from the inside of the restaurant. We ate pasta and drank red wine. Maybe it was Chianti like Evelyn and her friend drink at the beginning of Still Life. But unlike Evelyn and her friend, we were not toasting the end of the war, even though a few days later we would visit Ortona where my stepfather fought in WWII. According to friends who have also visited, Vieste has little to recommend it compared with Florence, but we cherish the memory of our one evening there.

Vieste 2018.

Maybe Florence was too much for us to take in. Too much muchness, as a friend once quipped. We walked the old city in the late mornings and afternoons when the streets were heaving with tourists. When the crowds made it impossible to stop and look up at what was around us.

We did not stay in the old centre of the city. But on the outskirts in a wonderful old B&B with stone floors and antiques. As a result we hopped a bus back there in the late afternoon, glad to be out of the melee, stopping for wine and groceries on the way because we could make our own dinner if we wished, and sit in the big old refectory kitchen or on the terrace to eat. So we missed strolling the Florentine piazzas in the evening, looking for a likely spot to stop for a glass of wine and dinner. We missed sitting in a cafe over morning coffee before the bus tours descended upon the city. We missed seeing the old city in repose. Maybe that’s why Florence did not speak to me as it spoke to the characters in Sarah Winman’s book.

Sunrise in Urbino 2018

I should say that I understand why the characters in Still Life love Florence so much. It’s not just because of the art and the history of the city, but because of what it represents to them. Because of what they know of the Florentine story, the tragedy, and the courage of its people. And how Florence allowed each of them to find something of value in themselves and for themselves.

How wonderful it must have been to travel to Florence, or anywhere really, back in the day. And stay for a month. To venture out each morning to look at this gallery and that fresoe, then have lunch. To sit reading quietly over after-lunch coffee, deciding what treasures one will seek out the next day. Then after a nap and a bath, to wander in quiet piazzas, before deciding about dinner. That sounds idyllic to me.

Parts of our Italian trip were idyllic, even if Florence wasn’t. Eating a truffle feast at a country house outside of Urbino and watching the sunrise over the hills of Umbria from our room the next morning. Walking the empty streets along the canals of Murano under a full moon. Eating seriously good pizza three nights running at a small restaurant in San Lazzaro high above the Amalfi Coast. The bottle of homemade red wine given to us as a goodbye gift by our hosts in San Lazzaro, and which we drank on the rooftop terrace of our hotel in Rome.

And bells. Everywhere bells. I became rather obsessed with the bells on that trip. I have recordings of bells in Venice, and Murano, and Amalfi… and in Florence. The morning we checked out of our B&B in Florence, I opened our window and recorded these bells.

So, that’s it for me tonight my friends. I have waffled on long enough. I hope you read Sarah Winman’s book Still Life. As you may have guessed, I highly recommend it.

And if you have a hankering to read my travel posts from our trip to Italy in 2018, you can read them here and here. And here is a post I wrote when we came home from Italy, about our ideas around travel planning in general. Please note, for some reason the photos in the older posts do not show up unless you click on the photo description.

P.S. The link to Sarah Winman’s book is an affiliate link. If you make a purchase after clicking my link, I will earn a small commission which helps to pay for the blog.

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49 thoughts on “All Roads Lead to Florence”

  1. I loved Still Life SO much! Such a life-affirming book on so many levels and with such delightful characters. And yes, now I want to visit Florence again.

  2. I remember you telling us about the lovely little restaurant in Vieste & it stayed in my mind . We began travelling abroad in 1970 . My parents ( & once me as a little one ) visited ‘The Continent ‘ by motorbike , in the 30s & 40s . Their tales of camping in France , Italy & Germany inspired Max & I to head off in our early twenties. Some places they loved were already changed by more affordable tourism but we learnt to seek out the Viestes rather than the Florences . As you say the ‘biggies’ are best between the day visitors . An excellent travel writer died just this week age 90 , Dervla Murphy . An Irish woman , she didn’t start travelling until she was 30 after caring for her elderly parents . She famously set off cycling to India & Pakistan with very little money , a gun & a change of underwear . What a woman . She advised travellers to find out where everyone said was the best place to visit then head in the opposite direction . Still good advice for those brave enough .

    1. I saw an article about Dervla Murphy. I must see if I can find her books. I love vintage travel writing. Before we went to Italy, Frances sent me Diana Athill’s A Florence Diary written about her journey there when she was young and I loved it.

    2. when I was in college, I spent a semester in Nepal, and before I left the States I read Dervla’s book about her travels there. she’s someone I would have loved to meet.

      Sue, I hope you’ll give Florence another chance! I, too, was underwhelmed on my first visit, finding it too touristy and not at all what I expected. on subsequent visits, though, I was drawn into her spell.

  3. Oh I love the sound of this book and I’m going to buy it. Also do you still have that top you were wearing while astride the motorcycle? I really like it.

  4. I hope you had a really pleasant birthday Sue. Finally able to get out a bit more and enjoy a few celebratory moments. Your wonderful descriptions of your travels take me right along with you and in some instances I can almost feel the atmosphere in your words. I am not one for the large crowded areas either, and prefer to take some time to absorb the feel of the place and make memories instead of a whirlwind tour just touching on the spots you wish you could spend some time. Your pictures are fascinating and perfect.
    After a disastrous experience at Toronto airport last week, I am holding back on more travel plans for a bit. Hours in lines and holding areas does not start a vacation off well.
    I hope you are recovered from the derecho of last weekend, still know of folks who are without power and not able to go home at this late date and lost both cars.

    1. I did have a good birthday, thanks, Diane. I have heard tales of Canadian airports lately… too few staff I heard. All that waiting would definitely take the edge off a vacation.

  5. You write beautifully, I look forward to your posts. I enjoy reading books about NYC. Brings back wonderful memories of when I went to college and lived in the city.

  6. Hi Sue,
    Whew! What a review. I want to read this book right away.
    I visited Florence long ago. Similar to what you said, it wasn’t the most magical experience I had in Italy. However, I liked Florence. We stayed on the outskirts of the city and took a bus into the city in the morning. I liked our little room in an outbuilding of a bed and breakfast. It seemed like a nicely converted garden shed. The gardens were dormant in early spring, but we had the nicest moments having orange juice and Campari at a little table in the garden each evening.
    I loved the buildings and the art in Florence. We had a short stay and I would love to go back.
    I will have a virtual visit via Still Life.
    Thanks.

  7. I bought this when Frances recommended it, but haven’t leapt in, so thanks for the reminder. Now that travel is done for another month, I will take a virtual trip to Florence!

    I hope you had a splendid birthday. We celebrated my husband’s last week with a dinner after our arrival into Santiago de Compostela – it was fun to have friends with us to raise a glass. An extra day in Santiago led to lots of alley wanderings like yours in Vieste – sublime.

  8. Thank you for the recommendation-this book looks like those I love. I’ve bought it through your link,at least I think so-on my first click it was written “it is not available for you”and than, when I clicked the second time on the title,I was allowed to buy.
    I remember your Italian trip posts very vividly.
    I love Florence very much, but you are right,one has to avoid tourists. First time I was there only for a day on a trip to Rome,Naples and Capri,long time ago (but I remember visiting Uffizi,David and all the usual suspects :)). The second time, we were staying like 100-200 m from Piazza Della Signoria,for 4-5 days and it was wonderful,early morning coffees or late afternoon Aperols, without tourists, just lovely,I’ve made all reservations and trip planning myself(Uffizzi again+ slowly enjoying the city again). I’ve visited Florence for the third time with my friends and was very disappointed-it was with travel agency and we were staying more than 30 km from the centre, so we missed the best moments (and it was raining dogs and cats,I’ve ruined my leather jacket completely although I ‘ve had protection coat and an umbrella)
    Now I have armchair travel and books. Looking forward to the new one
    Ravenna is one of my favourite italian towns,it is amazing and completely different
    Dottoressa

    1. I think you would love this book so much, Dottoressa. I’m kind of sad we didn’t go to Ravenna. I looked up photos of it after Stu and I talked and it looks wonderful.

  9. Ahhh yes, Florence, what a delight…everything you talked about, and all your pics, and of course the magnificent David. Pics of him were not allowed at the time, a week after we got home, they changed the rule. Darn!
    And I actually BOUGHT a leather jacket while there, it still smells so good.

  10. I’m reading this in Florence- at last, after two postponements! We are staying in an apartment two minutes from the Duomo and don’t care about crowds and heat, we’re just so happy to feel alive again – and to eat lovely pizza and drink aperol spritz and Italy again at last!

  11. I’ve been on a waiting list for Sarah Winman’s book for a little while now … I’m not sure if you or one of your readers mentioned it previously, or if I possibly came across it on Frances’ blog. In any case, I’m glad to hear that it will have been worth the wait when it’s my turn to read it!

    I’m currently reading Ann Patchett’s recently published book of essays, These Precious Days, and am enjoying it as much as I did her previous memoir, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I am predominantly a fiction reader, but Patchett’s non-fiction grabs me just as much her excellent novels.

  12. Sue, I hope that you had a lovely birthday and are looking forward to the coming year.
    I am looking forward to travelling again, though I may wait to fly until the kerfuffle at the airports have subsided. In the meantime, I will enjoy reading Still Life, which I have On Hold at the library. It sounds like my kind of book!
    I must say, I didn’t enjoy the crowds in the Big Three of Italy. But the small towns, the villa where we stayed in Tuscany, were charming. One of my favourite memories was watching the sun come up, turning all beneath it to a rich gold, one magical morning in Tuscany. We loved, too, sitting on the balcony with a lovely glass of wine in the evenings – heavenly.

    1. The sitting and sipping in the evening is my favourite part. In our Urbino B&B we had a small private terrace, and even though it was cool and we were starving and anxious to go for dinner, we still sat and had a glass of wine looking out over the hills. It was as Hubby says “called for.”

  13. The day I spent in Florence was cold and rainy and my attire not appropriate to the weather, which left me with not so fond memories. And, the crowds! That is the problem with going to all the “must see places” everyone else is there, too. I think you’re right, Sue. One needs to go to the smaller towns to experience the real Italy. Or venture out in the early morning hours before the crowds. We did just that in Prague, so we could enjoy the beautiful city.
    I’ll be on the lookout for Still Life. Thank you for the recommendation.

    1. Yes… we took too many elbows to the head in Florence as tour groups muscled by to keep up with their flag waving guides. Better to stay in small places or to stay right downtown and be able to walk about before and after the crowds, I think.

  14. thank you for the book recommendation which i am about to order from the library. also a big thank you for bringing back some of my own magical Italian memories. Its my favourite country and I am blessed to have been there many times. I understand that feeling of wanting to read a book but not read it because I dont want to finish..

  15. Happy belated birthday Sue! When I saw the title ‘Still Life’ I thought I had read it but then your description sounded nothing like the book I read. It turns out it is also the title of one of Louise Penny’s novels. I will have to check out the one from Sarah Winman. We were also in Florence in 2018 and as I am a ‘city girl’ I loved the vibe. I came home with a beautiful pair of red leather gloves from a lovely little shop there. We had been in Milan which was wonderful then took the train to Florence where we spent four days. From there, we stayed in a Vila in Tuscany and visited some very picturesque villages. Great memories. Currently watching ‘Searching for Italy’ with Stanley Tucci’ and really enjoying the second season.

    1. Yes… Louise Penny has a book with the same title. I noticed that too. We loved both seasons of Stanley Tucci. We were watching that when I was reading Still Life… lots of Italy for me that week. 🙂

  16. Hi Sue, late to the party here but agree entirely on so much that has been said. I think there is a reason to visit big cities (Florence, Rome, Paris, London, NY, etc) but it’s easy to be overwhelmed. I always seem to prefer smaller towns or villages.
    I’ve visited Florence twice and was disappointed that I didn’t fall in love with it and I just couldn’t feel the love. It’s something you just can’t force.
    It might have had something to do with people telling me that I’d love Florence (or Barcelona). I hate being told I will love something!🤭

  17. I just finished Still Life and I felt the same way! After I finished it I returned to it, re-reading bits and pieces until I felt obliged to return it, a bit overdue, to my library and give others the pleasure of reading it.

    I visited Florence in early November when there were few crowds and I quite loved it. I so look forward to a time when my husband and I will feel good about travel again. We’d like to return to Italy and explore some of the smaller towns which we didn’t do on our first trip there.

    1. Maybe next time we will travel later in the fall. We were in Italy in late September until late October, but our guide in Rome said that October is still high season. So we learned a lesson.

  18. We first went to Florence 34 years ago and I loved the artwork at the Ufizzi and churches. I’d had an enthusiastic art history instructor in college some 18 years earlier and I never forgot the art. I’m sure it was crowded but we didn’t care, we saw everything we could and I loved seeing the frescos in the priests’ cells and the Anunciation at the top of the stars took my breath away. We didn’t enjoy Rome much because it was expensive and we couldn’t afford a nice place and couldn’t afford a nice meal. However, they were in the process of cleaning the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and we saw it with half of it cleaned. What difference. And the Pieta brought me to tears.
    But Venice was a revelation and truly magical. It was so quiet in Venice, no cars, and we would wake up to sound of people walking to work through our open windows.We must have gone in April or May. We took our children 14 years later and still enjoyed it. But on our last trip we were to embark on a cruise from Venice and the hotels were so expensive and I decided I didn’t need to go to Venice a third time. We rented a car and went to the Veneto and Dolomites instead. An Italian family told us to go to Belluno because that’s where the Italians go. I’d never heard of it. We stayed in the countryside outside Belluno in the hills in an exquisite inn. We went to Padua, Verona, saw Palladian villas, hit the Prosecco trail, learned about grappa, and visited tiny villages without the big crowds. And got lost a couple of times. Wonderful.
    If we go back to Italy I would like to go Lake Como and the Amalfi coast.

    1. I must say we did it not enjoy the Uffizi much. The art was amazing but meant little to us and the crowds kept pushing us faster that we really wanted to go. We had thought about taking a guided tour but opted instead for a walking tour of the city which was a good choice. Venice was wonderful too, but very crowded. We stayed on the island of Murano which was much less expensive. Our hotel looked over a canal and our room had a balcony which was wonderful. Plus the evenings were really quiet. And it was kind of magical walking home after dinner. We too loved the mountains, staying in a couple of small towns in the Appenines.

  19. The one and only time I visited Florence I was on a spring break trip from the University of Copenhagen, where I spent a semester, way back in the early 70″s. There were no crowds, I had such an amazing time visiting the art I had studied back in the US. I remember one painting my Massaccio, The Tribute Money, the art history professor spend a period discussing it, when I found the painting in Florence it was a fresco on the upper wall, in the corner, up by the ceiling, out of the way in a little church. The time in Florence was so amazing I’m afraid to go back and have all those remarkable memories ruined. We also toured Rome and Venice, and I must say Venice, without crowds, more than 40 years ago, was beautiful, elegant, and enchanting.

  20. I can’t thank you enough for recommeding Still Life. At a little more than half way into the book, I’m starting to dread finishing it. I want to live in this book forever!

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