To Florence and Prato

It’s a measure of how busy and tired I’ve been this past year that I’m only just now writing up the trips that I took last year, to Prato, England and Rome. Fortunately, Christmas has given me a breathing space and I’m catching up on my belated posts.

Last year, after doing more research on Rosa and Maud Praed, I realised I needed to go back to England to look for Maud’s medical records. The European Association for the Study of Australia was holding a conference in Prato, Italy, in September. I had wanted to go to the association’s conference in France two years before but I was too broke. This time I had a bit of cash in reserve and decided to stop off on the way to England.

I caught a straightforward flight to Rome and checked into a hotel. When I woke the next morning I walked down to the Colosseum and attendant ruins. If someone had told me I’d be there again two months later, I would have laughed.

In the afternoon I wandered into Termini to catch a train to Florence. As I stood watching people using the ticket machines, trying to work out what to do, I was approached by a neatly-dressed, slightly cross-eyed young woman with blonde hair, who asked if I wanted help. ‘I need to go to Florence,’ I told her. She took me to a ticket machine and showed me how to use it. I wasn’t quite sure that what she was doing was orthodox, but she turned away when I slid my card in and put in the pin. When the machine spat out the tickets and she showed me the platform number on the screen, she said, ‘Ten euros, please.’ I felt like an idiot, I later emailed my boyfriend, who reassured me that it was par for the course to be fleeced at least once when travelling.

The last time I was at Florence train station was in 1999, when I was backpacking with friends around Europe. We’d just missed the train to Pizzo in Calabria, and it was too late to find a hotel, so we spent the night on the station’s cold floor. When we finally boarded our train the next morning, we went south through a gorgeous Tuscan sunrise of pink, layered with mist and shot through with gold. I tried to keep my eyes open to watch it, but I’d only had a few hours sleep. This time I was alert, and the view was of gorgeous, green rolling hills. I was ecstatic to be overseas again and realised how much I’d missed travelling.

In Florence, the station was crowded. I’d forgotten how many people there were in Europe. I queued in the taxi rank, and a middle-aged, balding man before asked me, ‘You are a local?’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘I’m from Australia.’

When the cab pulled up, he gestured for me to get in, and I shook my head and made for the cab coming after me. What was it with these arrogant, European men, I thought crossly, did they try it on with anyone?

My irritation subsided when I reached Ape Rosa, an 18th century villa that was located away from the centre. It was absolutely gorgeous, with high-ceilinged, airy rooms, ornate furniture and a lovely green garden.

As I signed in and was given my key, one of the owners dropped by.

‘I’m from Australia,’ I introduced myself.

‘You are the famous person?’

‘Noooo! I’m not famous. No.’

‘You have the website?’

‘Yes, I’m a writer, but I'm not famous!’

Still, she made me feel like a star. Later, she told me that Napoleon’s brother had stayed at villa, and what with the excellent coffee that was served with breakfast, I was pretty much in heaven.

There was a bus that I caught into town, which was very straightforward. My friend from England had intended to join me, but she was unwell and had to cancel. It was easy to get around the city, although in my jetlag I’d booked the wrong time slot to the Academia, where Michaelangelo’sDavid was housed. They let me in anyway, and as I stood in the queue, I watched a couple of Asian girls giggling at a nearby stall over the aprons and boxer shorts that featured David’s manhood. It was hard not to smile. I also chatted to some ladies waiting ahead of me, who were speech therapists from America.

David was quite good, but art doesn’t do a whole lot for me, despite growing up with an artist for a father. The next day I visited the Uffizi, which was also good, although these days, looking at Boticelli’s Venus doesn’t seem to be much different to looking at it on the internet. I was more impressed with frescoes stretching across the high ceilings. After that I took myself off along the river to the gardens surrounding Piazzale Michaelangelo, which had exceptional views of the city.

No overseas trip is complete without a spot of shopping if one has an addiction to frocks and the like, and the next day I caught a bus through the green hills to The Mall, a shopping outlet of designer labels which Mum had read about in the travel section of the Sydney Morning Herald. I was a bit disappointed – it was a sanitised, soulless and boxy place, but that didn’t stop me from buying some cashmere from Prada. When in Italy, after all, one must do as the Italians do.

In between my peregrinations in and around Florence, I sat before the window of my room at Ape Rosa, finishing an essay on Rosa Praed that I wasn’t able to get done before I left. I didn’t mind too much; there are worse places in which to write. That essay was published a few months ago in the Journal for the Association of Australian Studies. I also sat in the lovely, tousled gardens and read Annabel Smith’s new book, The Ark.

Then it was time for the conference, which was organised by Monash University, as it has a centre in Prato. I caught a train to the town, which was only half an hour away and checked into a hotel beside the river, just outside the city walls. The theme of the conference was ‘Encountering Australia: Transcultural Conversations’ and I spoke about the interactions between Georgiana Molloy and Noongars in south west Western Australia, as Molloy went about collecting plants. My paper has just been published in the Australasian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology (you may have to create a login to read it).

The conference dinner was at the Conservatorio San Niccolò Private Catholic School, which used to be an orphanage. I sat next to a lovely Australian woman who was doing her postdoc at Cambridge on Judith Wright and a few other poets. The next evening we did a spot of shopping and drank cocktails in the piazza, which was bliss! I think this photo sums up pretty well what I thought of Florence and Prato: