Oxfordshire Mind’s Physical Activity Team are offering a weekly ‘virtual walk’ this week the team are walking around a fictional Italian City.
Ciao, walkers! Thank you for joining me today for a picturesque early morning stroll through this hidden gem of a Northern Italian city.
I can’t reveal the name of the place where we find ourselves today, because if it were widely known, it would surely become one of the most visited tourist destinations in all Italy. This city has everything: historical architecture, a rich and vibrant food culture, a picturesque setting in the foothills of the Apennine mountains. Yet somehow it’s managed to avoid being overwhelmed by crowds of visitors. That’s how the locals like it, so let’s keep it to ourselves, and enjoy the fact that we are the only tourists here on this beautiful morning.
The city perches atop a high hill, a spot chosen in medieval times for its commanding view of the countryside. Most of the original walls are still standing today, and it still is an impressive sight from a distance, the cluster of sandy-coloured buildings perched on their lofty vantage point, with the river winding in a big, lazy loop at their feet.
We’re starting our walk in the centre of the old town. The church bells are just beginning to toll as we stroll through the winding cobbled streets, admiring the way the early morning sun strikes the sides of the buildings, and breathing in the smell of fresh bread wafting from the bakeries.
Our first stop, of course, must be to get our morning espresso in one of the little caffes or bars that line our route. A bell dings as we duck inside the little shop, which is already thronged with locals downing shots of hot, rich coffee on their feet. Take away coffee just isn’t a thing in Italy- instead you pop into your local espresso place on your way into work and drink it standing up. We push our way to the front of the crowd to make our order. What would you like? An espresso is traditional, but a cappuccino is also an option, and if you want to have one today I’d order it now. They’re very much considered a breakfast in and of themselves in Italy, you see, and you’re not supposed to drink them after 10am. If you order it at dinner tonight, the waiter will give you a very funny look.
Whatever you choose, let’s stop and soak up the atmosphere as we drink our coffee. The tinkling of cups being stacked, the hissing of jets of steam from the machine, the clatter of fresh beans being poured out, it all combines with the hum of the chatter in the musical local dialect to create a sort of intensely Italian soundtrack. You get a great view of the street through those huge, sparklingly clean windows, and there’s no better place to watch the world go by. As we watch, a woman chugs by on a bright scarlet moped, and an elegantly dressed man walks a poodle down the other side of the street as if he were striding down a runway.
Suitably reinvigorated, we head back outside and continue our journey. Above our heads are rows and rows of little wrought iron balconies, decorated with brightly painted wooden shutters and windowboxes full of flowers. Later in the day, the old grandmothers will be sitting out on those balconies, talking softly and watching the street below.
We come out into the town square, where there is a large open-air market. This is where the locals do most of their shopping – why would you bother with a supermarket, when the produce here is so fresh and a fraction of the price? A sensory feast greets you as you wander around the covered stalls- stacks of mushrooms, so fresh that the earth still clings to them; huge wheels of cheese cut open to reveal their beautiful, crumbling texture; haunches of prosciutto with their long strips of white fat and translucent, rosy flesh. The tomatoes are so round and juicy that it’s almost impossible not to reach out and squeeze them, the basil so fragrant that it seems a crime not to bring your nose close and inhale deeply – but try not to, if you can, because the stallholders won’t thank you for touching their produce.
They’ll be happy to give you a taste of anything though, and talk with you for hours about the best way to prepare your purchase. You may be surprised to discover that the humble vegetable which you hold in your hand is the finest example of its kind in Italy, perhaps even the world– the stallholder knows, you see, he’s tested all of them. And do you know what? When you get it home and taste it, you might just decide that he was telling the truth.
The renaissance cathedral- known locally simply as il Duomo- dominates the other end of the town square. After the hustle and bustle of the market, let’s ascend the steps and duck inside for a bit of peace and quiet. It’s restful to stroll through the cool, dim interior, faintly scented with incense, silent apart from the echoing of your footsteps on the stone floor. Take a seat on one of the well-worn wooden pews and let your eye wander over all the beauty before you- the frescos, the statutes, the flickering candles. Eventually your eye will be drawn upward to the dome with its painting of the Last Judgement. Locals will swear that Michelangelo himself came up from Florence to paint that ceiling, although the art experts deny it. Whoever it was who created it, it’s an awe-inspiring sight – you could spend hours picking out all the tiny little figures, executed in exquisite detail above your head.
It’s probably time for lunch soon, but before we leave, we have one final stop to make. Follow me across the cathedral to the little doorway next to the sign marked torre- ‘tower’. On the other side a spiral staircase winds upwards. We start to climb, round and round and round again, until we start to feel a little dizzy, and you’re convinced we must have been going for at least an hour. By now your legs are aching and your breath is starting to come in sharp bursts, but keep going. Just a little bit further. I promise it’s worth it.
One last turn, and finally we come out onto the top of the tower. Once your eyes adjust to the sudden burst of sunlight, you can see why I brought you up here. Look at that view. The city is spread out beneath our feet, and beyond it the silvery glint of the river, the green rolling hills and the purple smudges of the mountains. What better spot to finish our walk for the day? Let’s pause here for a little while, just to take it all in, before we head back down the steps.
The bells are just starting to toll for midday as we reach the bottom of the tower, signalling the end of our walk. I hope you’ve enjoyed getting to know this beautiful city with me this morning. Ci vediamo presto, walkers! See you next week.