Before i Forget : Simon Jones's blog

November 2009

Photography and TravelThursday, November 12th, 2009, (5:06 pm)

Never one to pass up the opportunity to travel I took up an invitation to travel to Florence in Italy to accompany a friend who was making a brief business trip there. While he went about his work I explored the city, sampling the food, the culture, and art, and the pure magic that makes Italy uniquely romantic to anyone who loves to travel.


Whether its the fashion, the food, the architecture, or the art, there’s just something seductive about Italy. Just being there made me wish I could speak Italian in the near musical tones that spring from the tongue in a burst of rolling R’s and words that always seem to end with an I.

As our taxi driver zipped his way through the busy streets of Florence teeming with mopeds and tourists, I looked out of the window grinning like a cheshire cat and brimming with the excitement of a child about to be let loose to explore the setting of a new adventure. I had just two days and I wasn’t going to waste a moment.

At the hotel, situated next to the Arno river, I didn’t waste a moment inspecting the room than instead made an immediate escape as my friend James prepared for his conference ahead. Equipped with nothing but the pointing gesture of the concierge at the hotel’s reception, I ventured out onto the streets that have hardly changed since The Renaissance. I didn’t want a map, I wanted to find my own way and allow the city to surprise me.


Just a moment from the hotel was the famous landmark, the Ponte Vecchio, a narrow cobbled bridge lined with shops and merchants. Hidden away above the shops is a private walkway which forms part of the Vasari Corridor that was built in 1548 for the Grand Duke of Tuscany. At over a mile long the Vasari Corridor connects the Palazzo Vecchio (Florence’s town hall) to the Palazzo Pitti via the Uffizi Gallery, which is one of the oldest art galleries in the world.

As I wandered across the bridge I imagined what it would be like to have walked across in its early days. Back then butchers and fishmongers occupied the shops and stands and the air would have been thick with pungent smells that mingled with the sound of their noisy haggling and general traffic of the time. Today the only smells present are the occasional waft of perfume from well dressed women who float between the jewel filled shop windows like clouds in a summer sky.


Walking toward the Piazza della Signoria (or Signoria Square if you want to use it’s less enticing name) I stopped to buy fresh roasted chestnuts from a man who was roasting them beside the road. When I was a child we would eat roasted chestnuts when my family went to firework displays on Guy Fawkes Night. With my hands clasped around the pack of hot chestnuts I turned the corner and found myself in the company of giants; the Piazza della Signoria.

Surrounded by statues and sculptures I just stopped in my tracks and turned around slowly taking in this explosion of classical art. Perseus towered above me triumphantly holding up the severed head of the Medusa, while Hercules was overpowering Cacus close by at the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio.

I walked a few steps and stood in front of Michelangelo’s David amid a sea of Japanese tourists posing for photographs while making V signs and smiling. I’ll confess that as incredible as the art is, I was giving more than a passing thought about the curious fact that Japanese tourists always make V signs when they pose for group photos.

I looked back at David and wondered what he would have to say about all this if he were somehow granted the ability to talk. I suspect the first words out of his marble mouth would be to demand some clothes. After all, the poor guy has been standing there naked for more than five hundred years being scrutinized by Kings, Queens, traveling gentry and now hoards of camera clicking Japanese tourists making V signs as they pose at his feet.


Not far from the Towering statues was the building I was most excited about seeing; The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. The Cathedral of Florence with its famous dome. Standing in the company of the Battistero di San Giovanni and Giotto’s Campanile it’s location is truly awesome.

For quite a few minutes I just stood there and gazed at the Cathedral examining its intricate and beautiful facade. The sculptured walls reminded me of temples I had seen in India, towering monuments to God and man.


Circling the great Cathedral I craned my head back to try and take in this magnificent and inspiring building which was built nearly six hundred years ago. The dome, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, is recognised as a work of architectural and engineering brilliance. Indeed, many of its design secrets were not learned for another four hundred years, and to this day it remains the largest masonry dome ever constructed.

Inside Brunelleschi's domeAs impressive as the dome is from the outside the best way to appreciate it is by going into the Cathedral and climbing the steps inside the walls of the drum to get to the base of the dome.

This is not a climb for the faint hearted, the stairs are perilously steep in places, and with few windows to offer a glimpse of light, the confined dark space can feel very claustrophobic indeed. However, an opportunity to make this climb is one that should not be missed because the reward is well worth the exertion.

As I walked through the passageway door onto the narrow balcony at the base of the dome I was awestruck by the mosaic that decorated the walls above me. It was unlike anything I have ever seen before. The richly detailed painting of epic proportions stopped me in my tracks. If I were to see nothing else on this brief trip to Florence, seeing this alone would have made the journey worthwhile.


Started in 1568 by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari the mosaic is a depiction of The Last Judgement and is simply an incredible wonder to see. I was the only person in the dome and I stood there marveling the 38,750 ft² artwork that engulfed me and seemed more like a performance rather than a static work of art.

Perhaps its because I have never been surrounded by a painting in this way before, but the characters of the work seemed almost lifelike to me. As ludicrous as it might be, it actually took me a few moments to register the boundary between the painted balcony at the top of the dome and the real one above that.

I attempted to capture something of the absorbing and sometimes harrowing nature of this artwork. But as I took the photographs I knew that the ancient brush strokes of Vasari and Zuccari would get the better of my modern camera which stood little chance of communicating the experience of this captivating mosaic.


A further climb up yet more enclosed and dimly lit stairwells took me to the very top of the dome and out into the open air. From here you are presented with a spectacular Tuscan view across Florence. There are only a few cities in the world that have remained relatively unchanged for five hundred years, but this is one of them. From this vantage point that you can truly appreciate the breadth of history that stretches before you in a vista awash with a dazzling array of classical landmarks.

As the sun began to set I watched the clouds change color and blur into the falling night like shades of a watercolor painting. Church bells rang out from all directions as the city below began to shine in the familiar orange glow of street lights. Five hundred years ago seeing Florence from this height would have been a thrilling experience, and today it has lost none of that power.


Upon leaving the cathedral I decided to indulge myself in some gelato (Italian ice cream) from a little place near the Duomo. Having only discovered the joy of gelato in Croatia, less than a month before, I couldn’t claim to be a connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination. However, despite not really being a fan of ice cream, I have found a new sinful pleasure in gelato.

At Gelateria Grom near the Duomo the colorful selection of flavors makes it hard for me to make a decision. Frutti di bosco, Menta, Mandorla, Lampone, Amarena, Cioccolato, and so many others. I pick two flavors in a chocolate and nut covered cone then wander out into the night enjoying the eruptive flavors. I don’t know what the best ice cream in the world tastes like, but surely this can’t be far from that?


Later on I met up with James and a few of his colleagues at an ancient villa located on the hill of Settignano. We stood around chatting, sipping red wine and eating hors d’oeuvres served on large silver trays by waiters in white jackets.

Eventually we returned to the city and made our way to a small bar that James knew from his previous trips here. The Shot Cafe on Via Dei Pucci is small but clearly popular nightspot where the music was loud and the drinks were often on fire. It was as good a place as any to drink unusual potions and bring the long day to a suitable fade-to-black kind of end.


The next day the skies were bright and the sun brought out the terracotta colors of the buildings as I strolled out of the hotel and along the Arno river. For quite some time I simply sauntered along soaking up the feel of Florence, enjoying the Tuscan morning.

Florence has as much to offer in shopping as it does in art and culture. Though in this setting so steeped in history the items behind the glass of shop windows can easily take on the feel of museum pieces, preserved and displayed to show the culture of the time. Motionless mannequins in expensive designer clothes stand like statues glorifying the here and now. It was, in some ways, an oddly surreal experience looking at shops in this way, viewing them as windows to the world we know today, rather than simply shop displays trying to entice us to part with our money.


I had stopped for lunch at a small pizzeria on a side street close the the Piazza della Repubblica. I could have sampled many of the delicious looking pizza’s on offer and given more time I would have, but I wanted to immerse myself in this beautiful city as much as I could and time was at a premium.

Winding my way through the streets I visited the Palazzo Strozzi (Strozzi Palace), the Basilica di Santa Croce, which is another spectacular church, and the The Santa Croce Museum. As the daylight began to fade I climbed the 414 steps of Giotto’s Campanile where I was rewarded with a fantastic sunset view of the city and Brunelleschi’s dome. I finished my day in the old leather market perusing the various stalls selling everything from clothing to books, and art to eyewear.

James Carroll & Simon JonesSo what better way to leave this classical Italian city than a black tie gala dinner. James had invited me to join him at the event which had been organised by the conference he was attending.

As it was Italy I had decided to ‘go rogue’ and wear a silver-white bow tie and black shirt rather than the more traditional black tie and white shirt. I rarely wear suits and had actually had to buy one specifically for this event. But it was fun to dress up and even more so because I was in Italy.

So when the long night drew to a close I suggested to James that we walk through the city to our hotel, if for no other reason than to just soak up what we could of this magnificent place. And wouldn’t you know it, as we made our way through the little cobbled streets we happened upon somewhere selling gelato. Perfect!

Virtual travel : Florence, Italy
Free audio guides to Florence
Video : Florence in a nutshell
Video : Kevin McCloud’s visit to Brunelleschi’s dome

Photography and TravelSunday, November 1st, 2009, (8:28 pm)

Following my friend Becky’s unexpected deportation from the UK, the pair of us were making an unscheduled return to Croatia just three days after returning from our trip to the countries beautiful Istrian Peninsula. Under angry black clouds and bombarded by high winds and heavy rain we found ourselves in the city of Zadar

Zadar, Croatia

Almost anywhere can look good under clear blue skies, but only truly beautiful places remain so in any weather.

Simon Jones is dead!Rain can quickly wash away the appeal of a city as stone buildings transform into ominous tomb stone colored giants with people pushing their way past one another like Orwellian drones.

Perhaps in brighter weather Zadar might have been a more alluring location, but under slate colored skies the city had the charm of a disgruntled traffic warden and as much beauty as nuclear power station.

Old town Zadar is, according to one travel website, “enchantingly Romanesque.” However, if the cities beauty was measured on a scale of pop stars then Zadar would be somewhere in the region of Tina Turner and Keith Richards.

The city is by the Adriactic Sea and while that helps its mixture of old and new architecture is more of a catastrophic collision than a cultural cocktail. In British terms Zadar is Croatia’s Dagenham or Coventry.

Zadar, Croatia

However, despite the dismal weather Becky and I were determined to make the most of this unscheduled return to Croatia, and under the circumstances I think we did just that. It wasn’t the relaxing indulgence that Rovinj was, but nonetheless we did get to have a few laughs along the way. In the end though, even with a promise of better weather, I can’t see Zadar appearing on our future travel itineraries anytime soon.

Lonely Planet on Zadar
Farewell to Montalbano
The Yarls Wood redemption
Visiting Croatia