It seems that everywhere we turn now, we are seeing heartbreaking stories of refugees attempting to escape conflict and rebuild their lives somewhere else. From those who make the desperate crossing from Africa and the Middle East across the Mediterranean to others being kept in island detention centres by the Australian government, it is truly a tragedy to see people’s lives reduced to such circumstances through no fault of their own.
Recently, I found myself in a passionate debate with people who did not seem to care. Perhaps they were just frightened, or overwhelmed – but too many people I speak to appear to have lost their compassion when discussing ‘what is to be done’ about the millions of people who are seeking a place of safety.
I don’t have the answers. I’m not sure anybody has. But I do know that this is one planet, with many peoples, all who have the right to live in peace and security. I also know that the fact that I don’t have to try and find somewhere safe with my children after my home and livelihood has been destroyed by conflict is not because I am a better person than anyone else, but because I’m outrageously lucky. That’s all. I was not chosen. So, I will ALWAYS be grateful to whatever higher being it is that allowed me to be born in one of the lucky countries and remember that ‘There but for the grace of God go I’.
But I often wonder why I appear to have more empathy for refugees and asylum seekers than others in my extended family and even some of my friends. And I also wonder why others can appear to be so heartless in their condemnation of those seeking a new life.
And I wonder if it is to do with books.
I have read thousands of books in my lifetime – each and every one of them offering me an opportunity to live, for a short time, the life of another person. Sometimes that may have meant finding myself in the head of a 16-year old cheerleader at Sweet Valley High, but at other times it has found me experiencing the fear and hopelessness of a stubborn, middle-aged Kurdish man living in a refugee camp in Turkey after an earthquake has destroyed his home.
When you read novels, you realise the world is not black and white. There are characters whose motivation you don’t really understand, but because you are inside their heads, you are forced to try, flexing those empathy muscles, again and again. Every book you read makes you wonder what you would do if you were in that person’s situation. That’s just how it works.
When you read fiction about the Holocaust, you completely identify with those in the camps. When you read a novel like Alone in Berlin you appreciate that the German people were also victims. Exodus fills you with the passion of the birth of modern-day Israel, while Mornings in Jenin puts you in the shoes of the Palestinians. People and history are complicated. Novels help you make sense of it.
And there are several studies which appear to back this up.
The Guardian – Literary fiction improves empathy
Scientific American – Novel Finding:Reading literary fictions improves empathy
The Guardian – Reading fiction improves empathy, study finds
Edutopia – How reading literature cultivates empathy
Even Barack Obama puts his ‘good citizenship’ down to the empathy he has gained from reading novels.
Here are some of the novels I have read which have given me an appreciation for those who have dealt with crisis and conflict. Each and every one of them helps to build that empathy I believe is so important when trying to understand the lives of those you see in the news. There are, of course, many more, but these are some of the ones which have most affected me and I highly recommend each of them…
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Set during Nigeria’s civil war of the 1960s (recently chosen as the best book out of a decade of the women’s prize for fiction winners)
A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam – One family during the civil war which sees the birth of Bangladesh.
Gardens of Water by Alan Drew – A Kurdish family become refugees after 17,000 people are killed in Turkey’s 1999 earthquake.
Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa – The members of a Palestinian family try to rebuild their lives after they are forced off their land in 1948.
Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway – People try to go about their normal lives as their city comes under fire from snipers.
Anything by Khaled Hosseini! – Hosseini’s novels of Afghanistan such as The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns give an insight to life in that country through different eras and conflicts.
But while I am forever grateful for what I can learn from fiction, can you imagine what it would be like if you were in a refugee camp where you had no exposure to books, culture or education, year after year after year? That’s right, it’s not unusual for refugees to spend several years (sometimes decades) in camps.
Thankfully there is a fabulous organisation which is trying to address the fact that so many kids in refugee situations have no books or education. This is a brilliant idea – have a look at this video. It can explain it much better than I can.
The Ideas Box from Libraries without Borders provides hope and wonder, and puts stories into context… something every child deserves, particularly in times of hardship.
Here are some of the things inside the Ideas Box…
According to the website, refugees spend an average of 17 years in a refugee camp – this is a tool to help them rebuild themselves when they are finally able to emerge.
‘The dream is all the more important when we have lost everything…This is the first and last thing we should give to people who have lost everything.’ – Designer Philippe Starck (who helped create The Ideas Box)
If you are looking for some way of supporting refugee children, you could do worse that donate to, or sponsor an Ideas Box yourself. Perhaps it will go to the children who will one day write the novels that help us truly understand the victims of this current refugee crisis.
“Sanary says that you have to travel south by water to find answers to your dreams. He says too that you find yourself again there, but only if you get lost on the way – completely lost. Through love. Through longing. Through fear. Down south they listen to the sea in order to understand that laughing and crying sound the same, and that the soul sometimes needs to cry to be happy. ” (p79 – The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George)
Books about Paris are a dime a dozen. With absolutely no facts or figures at my fingertips – other than referring to the plethora of Paris-based flights-of-fancy listed on Packabook – I’d have to say that Paris might just be the number one location for anyone looking to write novels about ‘exotic’ locations. And hey – I’m not knocking it. I’m as big a sucker for a book about Paris as the next Packabooker. You can find more than 100 of them here if you are so inclined.
But I’m delighted to say, that despite its title, The Little Paris Bookshop is not about Paris. No Siree – I’d like to suggest it’s about something even better. It’s about a journey in a barge along the waterways of France FROM Paris all the way down to a coastal utopia in Provence. And that my dear friends, is just about my idea of literary paradise. Oh – and there’s the added bonus that the barge is full of books. Sigh…..
Nina George’s novel takes us to so many places I’m itching to visit, that I’d need a book of my own to write about them all, so I will concentrate on a few of my favourites. This is just a taster, though. You’ll need to read the novel yourself to find out all the other fantabulous potential holiday destinations.
Jean Perdu is a sad man. For 21 years he’s been wrapping his broken heart up in tissue paper after the love of his life walked out the door of his Paris apartment. And while he makes lots of other people happy with his sensitive and insightful book recommendations (he owns Lulu, a barge bookstore on the River Seine), he can hardly be said to be living anything near a full life. But then a potential love interest appears on the horizon and he receives some news which forces him to question everything he has known about the past. So he decides to unmoor himself from the present, and take himself, Lulu, and two semi-resident cats on a long journey.
The rest you will discover as Jean makes his meandering journey south, picking up some highly entertaining strays along the way, all the while pondering the important questions of life and love. There’s also a few giggles to stop it all getting TOO heavy. When people talk about novels which ‘warm the cockles of your heart’, trust me, this is one. Suitably quirky, well-developed characters, gentle humour, a warm embrace – this book has all of it. And then of course, there are the divine destinations…
“Oh, Cuisery! An avid reader will lose his heart here. The whole village is crazy about books – or crazy period – but that’s not unusual. Virtually every shop is a bookstore, a printer’s, a bookbinder’s, a publisher’s, and many of the houses are artists’ workshops. The place is buzzing with creativity and imagination.” (p193)
The book town of Cuisery – Image courtesy of Village du Livre de Cuisery
I thought this must have been a made up place, but it’s not. There really is a ‘town of books’ called Cuisery.
On the first Sunday of each month there is a book market, and the rest of the time, the town is filled with shops renowned for their rare book collections, comics, illuminated manuscripts and other such collectables. The people of Cuisery all get into short story competitions, poetry readings and literary meetings, and in the summer you can even visit a workshop where they print on a 15th century Gutenberg Press.
It seems that in the 1990s Cuisery had a chronic shop closure problem and so the locals decided to offer the empty stores to book sellers and book craftspeople. The result is this tempting little book village. They also do some heavy trade in vinyl records and have lots of summer concerts – just in case you are dragging along a partner who is more a music person than a book person (I speak from experience!) Here’s the town Facebook Page so you can keep up with all their bookish news.
“‘Bonnieux rises in a stack between the Grand Luberon and the Petit Luberon. Like a five-layered cake,’ Manon had told Perdu. ‘At the very top, the old church and the hundred-year old cedars and the most scenic cemetery in the Luberon. Down at the bottom, the wine-growers, the fruit farmers and the holiday homes. And between them three layers of houses and restaurants. All connected by steep paths and stairs, which explains why all the village girls have such gorgeous strong calves.’ She had shown Jean hers, and he had kissed them.” (p225)
Bonnieux – Image courtesy of decar66 via Flickr Creative Commons
Ah Bonnieux sounds idyllic; orchards, vineyards, 16th century houses and stunning views – I might even be tempted to bypass my low-carb diet and drop in to the town’s bakery museum when I visit.
Bonnieux is perhaps one of those places you would never come across if it wasn’t for a novel like The Little Paris Bookshop. And George makes it sounds like an ideal base for your next Provence adventure. You can even eat at the actual restaurant visited by Jean Perdu which “had a wonderful view of the valley and of a red-and-gold sunset that gave way to a clear night sky strewn with stars glistening like ice.” (p270). At time of writing Un p’tit Coin de Cuisine is Trip Advisor’s fifth favourite restaurant in Bonnieux and attracts some rave reviews, though some found the service a little slow. (But hey, who wants to rush things when you are in The Luberon!)
And when I happened across this video about Bonnieux – I’m afraid I was totally hooked. Bonnieux – here I come! Have you ever seen such a happy town?
“This charming old seafarers’ village: daylight made the colors blossom: by night it was lit by the wide starry sky, and in the evening by the soft rosy light of old-fashioned lanterns. Over there the market with its yellow-and-red awnings under lush plane trees. Around them, soothed by the sun and the sea, people reclined dreamily in their chairs at countless tables in old bars and new cafés.” (p237)
The harbour at Sanary-Sur-Mer – Image courtesy of Tobi 87 via Wikimedia Commons
But if I had to pick just one place to visit from this novel, I think it might just be Sanary-Sur-Mer. What a gorgeous place George has introduced us to with this Provencal port town; my only concern being that every man and his poodle is going to want to go there after reading this book!
Not only does Sanary have 280 days of sunshine each year and enticing beaches and vineyards just a hop, skip and jump away, it also has important literary associations.
During the 1930s, German and Austrian writers, artists and intellectuals fleeing the Nazis took refuge in Sanary. Writers such as Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Zweig were among them, while English authors including Aldous Huxley and D.H.Lawrence also based themselves along Sanary’s welcoming shores. But once World War Two was declared in 1939, the exiles were considered enemy aliens, many sent to internment camps. Later some ended up in Nazi concentration camps.
On your own visit to Sanary you can spend your days doing as the exiles did, drinking coffee in the cafes on the harbour. Or you could join a walking tour which takes you to some of the places the writers liked to hang out. You can even rest your head in the hotel that many of them stayed in before discovering their own places to rent. (It’s worth taking advice from TripAdvisor though, on which rooms to ask for).
This New York Times article has more info on Sanary’s role as a literary haven, while this blog post and this article will give you even further inspiration to visit.
You will of course need another couple of books to take with you. German-born English writer Sybille Bedford’s semi-autobiographical novel Jigsaw is part set in Sanary, while her memoir Quicksands includes further details of her time living there in the 1930s.
“The river wound its way in stately loops through woods and parks. The banks were lined with grand, rambling grounds surrounding houses that hinted at old money and family secrets.” (p87)
The Barge L’Art de Vivre – Image courtesy of Oliver Barge via Wikimedia Commons
I know, it just doesn’t seem right to visit these places in a car when the French waterways have been so temptingly revealed to us by Jean Perdu and his quirky companions. Travelling by barge allows you to meander your way through riverside back yards with a glass of wine in your hand and a straw hat perched prettily on your head rather than pelt down toll-ridden (though exceptionally well-maintained) French highways.
Fortunately there are many barges just ripe for the renting. I suspect finding a company which will follows Perdu’s exact journey might be a bit of a challenge, but you can certainly do some of your favourite parts of it. This one for example, is in Burgundy and goes to Cuisery, or you could speak to The Barge Lady who can apparently help you negotiate the multitude of barging options available so you find your ideal journey. If you come across one that follows the trail of the novel – please do let me know – how fantastic would that be?
Unfortunately I haven’t come across a floating hotel BOOK barge yet – but I think it is a business opportunity just waiting to happen! Anyone up for it?
What can I tell you? I loved this book. I loved the characters, the pace, the scenery – all of it. My only disappointment is that it was written by a woman. The male characters are so loveable that I want to believe there are male writers out there who could create them. Not this time, unfortunately. But don’t let this put you off. If you believe in love and whimsy, in friendship and new beginnings, in taking the time to breath and ingest the world around you – or even if you just enjoy the south of France – then I think you will relish it as well. Yes, it will tug on your heartstrings, yes, you will feel things all wrap up too nicely, yes, you have to have half a belief in romance and sweetness and light – but sometimes, that is exactly what I want from a novel, and The Little Paris Bookshop provides it.
P.S. This book was gifted to me by the wonderful Poppy at Little,Brown so that I could read and review it for you. I think you know me well enough to understand this would not influence my views on the book – if anything it generally makes me a little tougher! Even if Poppy is obviously a very nice person…]]>
“Closing his eyes, the misty spires of his city rise up in his mind; the red, white and green marbles of the Duomo… He takes a deep breath and, all at once, the smells of his garden and of the city overwhelm him. His sense of smell is not in his head but in his heart. And this city, this marvelous city he ran away from as a young man in pursuit of a dream, is the very city that brought the dream to him.” (The Artisan’s Star – Loc 4317)
The last time I was in Florence was while inter-railing around Europe sometime in the 1980s, living on a budget of $10 a day and sporting the far-from-chic fashion items of reliable boots and a rucksack. What a world away from the Florence we meet in Gabriella Contestabile’s novel The Artisan’s Star!
My 19-year old self would never have had the temerity to enter the perfumery owned by our protagonists, sixty-something Elio Barati and his exquisite wife Sofia, as not only would I have felt decidedly underdressed, but I would never have been able to afford the perfume anyway. I may have wandered past the large windows and gazed in at the marble counter, recessed lights and “crystal atomizers with trailing quilted pumps on mirrored trays” as I trudged to my youth hostel, but the magical world of Elio’s establishment would have been well out of my reach.
Fortunately fiction is about transporting us to times and places we do not know, and this novel takes us to the heart of Florence, where artisans such as Elio are plying their trade in a world that for the most part has moved on. Through Elio and his friends we explore the rich lives of those Florentines who continue the traditions and crafts of their forefathers. Much of the novel is about the past – Elio’s own as well as that of the city – and we are asked to decide how much it means to us; how far we will go to protect it.
Elio once had a dream, but it remained unfulfilled as a sense of duty triumphed and he took over the family perfumery. He has lived a contented life, but it is only when he approaches his more mature years, with his family following their own passions, that he once again considers fulfilling his younger ambitions.
While Gabriella Contestabile gives us many characters to enjoy in this novel – Elio, Sofia, their feisty daughter Romina, and the indomitable Marina who runs the linen shop next door – it is, as always, the character of the location we like to dwell on here at Packabook.
And in this we are blessed – the novel reveals many of Florence’s hidden corners as well as shedding new light on her more famous landmarks. And even better, Gabriella has joined us today to give us her own tips and insights into the city she clearly loves, as well as sharing some of her personal photographs.
Gabriella, what came first for you with this novel, the idea or the location?
“As they run across the street against the light, cars swerve around them but no one honks. Even the tempers of the ever-pragmatic Florentines mellow at dusk. The streetlights snap on just as they reach the stone railing along the Arno. Above them a gray sky begins to turn a faint lilac blue. Romina takes a deep breath and smiles.” (Loc 613)
Location. I’m consistently drawn to the sense of place and its influences on a character and a community, and throughout my life I’ve wanted to travel to the places I saw made real through literature. In a bookstore I’ll reach for books set in a country I’ve been to or another I’ve yet to visit. While travelling on business I’d load up on books written by local authors, sometimes in the local language to immerse myself in the day-to-day lives of the people I would be working with. I know my emotional ties to South Africa are connected to Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, that the architecture along the streets of London will remind me of Dickens and Austen, and that anything written by Marguerite Duras will deepen my understanding of the mysteries I will encounter when I finally get to Vietnam.
When a tragedy or injustice occurs in any part of the world one finds deeper truths and paths to understanding in that country’s literature. Consider the profoundly affecting works of Edwidge Danicat, Khaled Hosseini and Jhumpa Lahiri.
Tell us a little about your own relationship with Florence?
“When he was a small boy, his parents told him that all Florentine life led to and emerged from the Duomo. Florence’s streets had been arranged in the shape of a star, to protect it from invaders. All the roads led to Santa Maria del Fiore at the city’s northern center and the illustrious Duomo crowning its walls. That meant you could never get lost, no matter how far you wandered from the city’s central point. That meant too that there was always a central point drawing your heart.” (Loc 1229)
That too started with a single book. When we emigrated from Italy to New York my father gave me a copy of The Passionate Sightseer by Bernard Berenson. He told me there was nothing more important than books or more exciting than travel, and that the two in tandem would open my eyes to the world around me. I was still a child and it was the end of the McCarthy era when being Italian didn’t have the cachet it does today. In fact it was quite the opposite. We were foreign and we were different, so while I wanted more than anything to fit in, my parents held firm on preserving our Italian heritage, and that meant frequent travel to Italy and more books about Michelangelo, Artemesia Gentileschi and Da Vinci.
The first time I saw the Duomo it took my breath away and I will always remember those dazzling colored marbles from Carrara, Prato and Maremma. I devoured every book I could about Florence, the Renaissance, and the Medici. This all came together in my adult years when I worked in a family owned perfumery in Florence and years later when, while working for a fragrance company, we launched a Tuscan-inspired perfume for women. That project took me through the fields of Tuscany and into the flower fields and perfume laboratories of Grasse and started my love affair with Florence and the art of perfumery.
And, since I’m passionate about certain social issues, especially the importance of arts and humanities education, I’m drawn to this Renaissance city whose art and humanism changed the western world.
Is there a particular area of the city you’d most recommend people stay on a visit?
“Oltrarno means the other side of the Arno, which is probably why Romina chooses to live there. They all say it’s fine, a bit bohemian and the real Florence. Still, the galleries and art restorers’ shops shutter and close early, the now dark streets are often deserted. A beautiful young woman should not be making her way alone. She laughs at his concern…” (Loc 634)
During my last trip I rented an apartment on Via Romana in Oltrarno. It’s a quiet residential area where you can find unusual shops, friendly local bars and trattorie, food markets, pastry shops, butchers. After a single day it became my ‘hood’. The apartment was a fifth floor walk up with very high ceilings, and when I opened the bedroom shutters what greeted me was a terra cotta ledge and the sprawling Boboli Gardens. That single joyful gesture of pushing shutters out into the sun is what I most associate with Tuscany.
View from Gabriella’s window in Oltrarno – Image courtesy of Gabriella Contestabile
On the other side of the river, in the magnificent Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, is a quintessentially Florentine three-star hotel, the Loggiato dei Serviti. Its early Renaissance architecture directly mirrors Brunelleschi’s archetypal Ospedale degli Innocenti across the piazza. There’s a cozy breakfast room and a bar where everyone gathers for an evening aperitivo. I feel very much at home here, and when I take my early morning walk along the Via dei Servi, and look out towards the end of the street I see the luminous marble façade of the Duomo appear like a sliver of light between dark buildings on either side.
View of the Duomo from Via dei Servi – Image courtesy of Gabriella Contestabile
I’ve never stayed at Palazzo Guadagno but it’s situated in one of my favorite places to hang out, Piazza Santo Spirito. I may try it out on my next visit for a day or two. But I much prefer renting an apartment, for a more authentic experience. I feel I’ve returned home to my native country where I will speak Italian everyday, shop in the local food market, and make espresso on a stovetop.
(NOTE FROM SUZI: This article in The Guardian also has lots of ideas for Oltrarno)
Would someone visiting Via della Vigna Nuova be able to find a perfume shop like Elio’s?
“At Via della Vigna Nuova, Elio rings his bell, waves to Marina pounding a comforter inside her linen shop and admires willowy Lucilla as she wiggles out the front door of her flower shop, dragging a giant ficus tree. Minutes later he lifts the creaking gates in front of the oldest perfumery shop in Florence.” (Loc 125)
Elio’s shop is actually modelled after Profumeria Aline on via Calzaiuoli. In the mid 1980s I worked there for a short while. I’d just started a dream job, as International Training Director for Clinique Cosmetics, and part of my orientation was to work in various perfumeries in Italy and France. I was intrigued by this family-owned business that had been around since 1911, and by the concept of family businesses that spanned generations and centuries in a city with strong artisan moorings.
I loved the elegance of the space, the soft lighting, polished wood, and the crystal atomizers with their trailing pumps. The family members and their staff conducted business with uncompromising grace, and respect for client and product, as if everything one touched and described were a work of art. When you entered you felt like a special guest, and when you left like a family friend.
While there are fewer classic perfumeries than before in the city centre one can still find the characteristic erboristerie (herbalists), like the Antica Erboristeria San Simone on Via Ghibellina and Antica Erboristeria Inglese on the elegant Via Tornabuoni. To bring home olfactory memories of Florence in an exquisite fragrance diffuser check out Dr. Vranjes’ Antica Officina del Farmacista.
Towards the end of the book we are introduced to Florence’s first Museum and School of Perfumery. Is this a place people can visit?
“He would stand inside the lobby waiting for the small elevator to take him upstairs to the studio. And while he waited he would consider that soon this fifteenth-century family palazzo will be transformed into a museum and an academy to rival those in Grasse, but created with an Italian heart, vision, and style.” (Loc. 4144)
Most definitely and very soon. This academy and Museum of Scent has been a life-long dream for master perfumer Lorenzo Villoresi, whose studio is housed in the same 15th century building on Via de’ Bardi and overlooks the rooftops of Florence. It’s not only the first museum of perfumery in Italy but an interactive atelier that takes the visitor into the mysterious world of fragrance creation through a ‘hands on’ olfactory experience centre, an opulent secret garden, a research library, and a conversation salon. The plan is to engage all the senses in a childlike experience of wonder, and process those impressions via workshops, and encounters with sensory experts. Lorenzo and Ludovica Villoresi want to give a ‘location’ to this ephemeral art form and educate visitors on the sense of smell which they feel has been suppressed through modern living.
Villoresi’s Studio – Image courtesy of Gabriella Contestabile
Tell us a bit more about Oltrarno, where Romina lives? That sounds like my kind of area.
“It even keeps his blood pressure down as he checks their charge card bills: Mara Broccardi, Faliero Sarti, more potpourri from Santa Maria Novella, jewelry from Angela Caputi.
‘Oh don’t complain about that, Elio,’ Sofia quickly rejoins. ‘Her pieces are gorgeous and affordable. I go into her studio in Santo Spirito and pull out those drawers and play – you feel like a young girl at dress-up. How can a woman resist?” (Loc 3982)
Oltrarno, which means ‘the other side of the Arno’ is my preferred part of the city because of its artisan workshops and hidden piazzettas. Every small twisting street takes you off the beaten track to something unexpected. This is where I discovered Michelangelo’s wooden crucifix in the Basilica di Santo Spirito, the quirky leather boutique Monaco Metropolitano, the Café’ degli Artigiani in Piazza della Passera, and the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel.
Walk Via Santo Spirito into the San Frediano artisan district early in the morning as the artisans open their shops and the smell of espresso fills the air. I’ve stopped in to watch Angela Caputi string resin beads in her studio, and Gianni Raffaeli engrave metal plates in his print making and lithography shop.
Angela Caputi at work – Image courtesy of Gabriella Contestabile
Weave in and out of the web of streets and piazzettas to discover wood sculptors, bookbinders, silversmiths, and seamstresses. This is where you will find some truly original fashion and household items. Nothing is as you would expect, and therein lies its magic.
Continue walking toward the San Frediano gate. Stop into the Antico Setificio Fiorentino, Florence’s oldest silk milk, which houses the original loom created by Leonardo Da Vinci.
Silk woven on looms in the Antico Setificio Fiorentino – Image courtesy of Gabriella Contestabile
What about the Hemingway? Is that a real place, or a fiction fantasy for hot chocolate lovers?
“The cioccolateria Hemingway smells of cedar, burning wood, liqueurs. Soothing chatter from the tables and the bar fills the room.” (Loc 716)
Hemingway’s is real and serves delicious hot chocolate. It’s in the tiny Piazza Piatellina not far from the Brancacci Chapel in Santa Maria del Carmine. Inside you’ll find books and photos of Papa Hemingway along the walls. It’s the perfect spot to settle in with a good book after a long walk through San Frediano. Daniel Day Lewis would stop in frequently when he apprenticed at Stefano Bemer to learn shoemaking.
What are your top three things for people to do while in Florence, perhaps some of the less-publicized attractions?
” ‘Ah, the Brancacci Chapel, stellina!’ He clasps his hands. ‘Some of the finest Renaissance frescoes in Florence! And so few tourists know it!’
‘Good. Keeps them away.’ “ (Loc 689)
Have a morning cappuccino and cornetto in one of many cafes inside Piazza Santa Spirito while the farmers and antiques merchants set up their stalls, and students gather for a morning espresso. Enter the Basilica di Santo Spirito to see one of Michelangelo’s earliest sculptures, a wooden crucifix whose quiet, simple beauty will make you pause.
Walk along Via Santo Spirito, in the San Frediano section of Oltrarno, greet the artisans as they open their shops, see the game changing Masaccio, Lippi, and Masolino frescoes inside the Brancacci Chapel, then continue on towards the San Frediano gate.
Bike to Santa Croce, stop into I Mosaici di Lastrucci to see the mosaicists use 15th century techniques and tools to shape stones into visual masterpieces. Stop at Vestri for a gelato and bike to Giardino della Gherardesca.
Can you suggest a not-to-be missed cafe or restaurant?
“If someone had told him that Florence would seem fresher and more contemporary than Grasse, he would have laughed. Give me the lobby of the JK Place right now. Or the aisles of La Strozzina, or… What was it that Michele was raving about? Ristorante Ora d’Aria.” (Loc. 3519)
Il Santino, the teeniest wine bar where you can sit along the wall and order up sliced salumi, cheeses, greens, and wines from local farms and wineries. There’s a wall of eclectic picture frames across the street where the art students paint, draw or hang samples of their work.
Café Giacosa, on Via Tornabuoni or inside Palazzo Strozzi. It’s where the Negroni was invented.
Café degli Artigiani, a locals hang out in Oltrarno. I had a delicious ‘pappa al pomodoro’ here, my ‘go-to’ dish whenever I’m in Florence. Fresh tomatoes, Tuscan olive oil and bread-what else does one need? Follow with an espresso. Also nice for an early evening glass of wine or aperitivo.
Vestri for true artisanal gelato and chocolates. The family members are so passionate about chocolate they purchased a plantation in Santo Domingo.
Via del Te’, a tea house, where you can experience tea time a la fiorentina and purchase loose teas named after places in Florence.
JK Place Firenze outdoor patio in Piazza Santa Maria Novella.
And for special occasion restaurants Io Personale and Ora D’Aria,
The bar in the Gallery Hotel D’Art and Café Volume in Santo Spirito, especially in the evening. It is truly unique.
The food carts in Piazza Santa Maria Novella on weekends. Then visit the new and important Museo Novecento close by.
And somewhere for people on a budget a little less than Sofia and Elio’s?
“He clicks to a photo of Romina holding a chocolate and pistachio cone topped with panna at the door of Vestri near Santa Croce.
‘But see, Michele, Vestri stands out because they are true to their craft.’” (Loc. 4102)
The cafes and bars in the San Frediano section of Oltrarno, and the side streets leading away from the river. Around Piazza Santo Spirito, along Via Romana and Via dei Serragli and their connecting streets are numerous pizzerie, trattorie, and bars, where you will find mostly locals, or students. That means good prices.
In Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, just outside the Basilica is a tiny café bar that serves up delicious cornetti, salads, and sandwiches. There are a lot of American students and professors in Florence and you can eavesdrop on some fascinating scholarly conversations.
Around my reading spot, Piazza Torquato Tasso, are a number of truly local trattorie serving exceptional and well-priced food. Al Tranvai is one of the best. It’s so low-key and unpretentious you never want to leave.
A great way to stay on budget is to opt for the popular evening aperitivo hour vs. a full-fledged dinner. In most places like Colle Bereto outside Palazzo Strozzi you can order an aperitivo and then help yourself to a complimentary buffet of small plates; pizzas, salumi, salads, pastas, meat and fish dishes.
Stand at the bar vs. sitting at a table for your espresso. It cuts the price in half. Also, best not to have the espresso in a restaurant after your meal. You’ll pay more. Do like the Florentines, walk outside into a local bar/café and have it there, standing up.
Stay away from cafés, bars and gelaterie around popular tourist spots. And if you want true artisanal preservative-free gelato look for places that store the gelato under covered metal lids, like they do at Vestri. If you see gelato piled up high in un-natural colors – real pistachio is not lime green – walk away.
Gabriella says it’s the metal lids over the gelato which are the key! – Image courtesy of Gabriella Contestabile
In general you will find better prices in Oltrarno, and better prices all around if you visit Florence before mid-May or after October 1st. It’s less crowded then and far more enjoyable. Try to avoid Florence in summer. It’s set inside a valley so it gets unbearably hot.
It’s also important to note that in the U.S. we pay up for what the Italians consider everyday staples; a good espresso, fresh produce, unprocessed real food, olive oil. A true espresso in Florence costs half of what a mediocre version costs in an American city.
Are there any other Florence locations that you would especially recommend readers visit?
“An American tourist once told him that he and his wife would spend their mornings at the Bargello and Palazzo Strozzi, and that in the afternoons his wife would continue to visit the other museums of Florentine art: Ferragamo, Gucci, Cavalli, Patrizia Pepe. The man had it right. Art is the thread. It’s the center of that artisan’s star at the entrance to his shop.” (Loc. 4230)
Museo Marino Marini
Alinari Museum of Photography (April 2015 – closed for renovations. Check the website for updates.)
Palazzo Strozzi – especially on Thursday nights when entrance is free.
The Bargello, an often-overlooked museum that houses masterpieces by Michelangelo, Donatello, Giambologna and Della Robbia
Villa Bardini and its surrounding gardens
The Four Seasons Firenze and the Giardino della Gherardesca
The Antico Setificio Fiorentino – Florence’s oldest silk mill where you can see the loom, created by Leonardo da Vinci, and still used today
La Scuola del Cuoio, Florence’s oldest leather school
A leather artisan at La Scuola del Cuoio – Image courtesy of Gabriella Contestabile
Taddei’s leather workshop across from Dante’s House
Walk to San Miniato sul Monte
I Mosaici di Lastrucci
See how traditional mosaics are made at I Mosaici di Lastrucci – Image courtesy of Gabriella Contestabile
And what about a nice, quiet location for people to sit and read your novel?
“He rides past Santa Croce, across the Ponte all Grazie and pedals hard up hills until he arrives at Via de Bardi and the perfumery studio of Lorenzo Villoresi.” (Loc. 4142)
Piazza Torquato Tasso in San Frediano. There’s a lovely garden, a playground, and local trattorias and cafés. I can read or write there undisturbed, and take pleasure in seeing children of different ethnic origins playing soccer, expatriates on their bicycles, and families stroll arm in arm.
The stunning Bardini Gardens are quieter and less frequented than the Boboli. This part of Florence, across from the Ponte di San Niccolo’ and close to Villoresi’s studio, is an off-the-beaten track gem. The streets narrow and wind around interesting palazzi, leather and printmaking shops, tiny local bars, and you feel you are all alone in the city.
Like many cities in Italy, Florence is a mecca for tourists, but what would you most like people to take away from their own trip to Florence?
“Art is the thread. It’s the center of that artisan’s star at the entrance to his shop…Art is front and center in the heritage and daily life practices of every Florentine, from the way he buttons his blazer to the way she parks her motorino.
‘Even the way we set a table, Michele, is a work of art.’” (Loc. 4233)
I once heard the manager of Palazzo Strozzi say that one should never walk away from a work of art unchanged. Art, in all its forms, lifts us to a level of understanding more so than anything else. When we read newspapers or internet news feeds we get information. But we don’t acquire knowledge or develop compassion and understanding. That’s the space art fills. So it’s not surprising that Tuscany is considered by some to be the most open-minded and progressive province in Italy. Why would it not be? Its mind-set is grounded in a rich Renaissance tradition, in the arts and the humanities. So I hope the traveler takes back three things – the importance of art in shaping public policy, the urgency of visiting those artisan workshops before they disappear forever, and the humanizing relevance of living day-to-day life the way the Florentines do, as an art form unto itself. Pay attention to what’s around you. See, smell, taste, listen. No matter how busy you are pause to take in those sensory moments, the way Elio does in the novel. Listen more closely to the human stories unraveling around you.
I wrote The Artisan’s Star to celebrate my Italian heritage and to highlight the way art enriches and transforms our lives on so many levels, and always for the better. The Florentines, purveyors of the Renaissance, which extinguished the Dark Ages and changed the Western world, have always known this.
So, as you can see, Gabriella is more than passionate about Florence and she has provided an amazing list to take with you on your next visit.
That same passion exudes from the novel, and reading it forces you to run to your bucket list and put Florence right to the top (if it’s not there already!). I enjoyed the characters, as well as the idea that there is a need to grab hold of the present while valuing the past. If you are the kind of person who likes to find out about ancient arts and crafts through the novels you read, then you will love this book. Unfortunately, I have read a number of such novels lately (Italy particularly attracts them!) and I am a little jaded. I also felt that at times the novel became too preachy in its desire to instil in the reader the importance of supporting artisans and the traditional way of doing things. It was more than was needed.
But this is a novel which truly bring Florence, both physically and spiritually, alive. I would highly recommend it as something to read before you go or while you are there. And armed with this fantastic curated itinerary from Gabriella, you cannot possibly go wrong. I cannot wait to make sure my next trip to Florence is guided by the experiences of Elio, Sofia and Gabriella – and even though I’m someone who is not really into perfume, this novel has made the Museum of Scent a very tempting proposition.
P.S. I received a complimentary copy of The Artisan’s Star from iRead Book Tours in exchange for an honest opinion of the book. This review is part of a Book Tour around several blogs, so I highly recommend you read the views of other bloggers by following the tour schedule here – this gives you a great all-round view of the novel. There you will also find a giveaway which could see you win a copy of the book, an Amazon voucher AND a perfume sample!
If you are still hankering for more books set in Italy, you’ll find many more to choose from here! Look over to the right hand side to find those set in Florence.]]>
Last time, I mentioned I was a little enamoured of Tracy Chevalier, so I feel I should expand on that statement!
Along with many other historical fiction devotees I was enthralled by Chevalier’s most famous novel Girl With A Pearl Earring, her fictional account of the model from Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting of the same name, and I have been wanting to try more of her tales every since.
So when I found myself planning a winter jaunt to the charming seaside town of Lyme Regis in the south-west of England, I seized the opportunity to pick up a copy of Remarkable Creatures – Chevalier’s novel about one of Lyme’s most famous residents, Mary Anning.
But first a little picture of Lyme Regis beachfront to get you in the mood. We were lucky – it might have been the depths of winter, but we scored a stunning day for our visit.
Lyme Regis beachfront January 2015 – Image by Suzi Butcher
“But that is not all there is to Lyme. It is as if there are two villages side by side, connected by a small, sandy beach where the bathing machines are lined up, awaiting an influx of visitors.” (p18)
Now Lyme Regis is famous for a few things, such as its 700 year old working water mill, its picturesque harbour and the bizarre ‘sport’ of conger cuddling (you’ll have to follow the link and read about it for yourself, it’s far too complicated to explain, suffice to say it has been described as the “most fun a person could have with a dead fish”!!)
But the most celebrated aspect of this tiny seaside resort is its geology. The coastline is inundated with fossils (and no, I’m not referring to those in their autumn years who fancy a whirl along the seafront in their high-tech mobility scooters – I wouldn’t be so rude!).
Part of Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, it is not unusual, even today, to find fossils that are more than, oh you know, around 100 million years old. And amazingly, you don’t have to be an expert to head down to the beach with your trusty hammer and do a bit of fossilising for yourself – it’s open to all. There were certainly plenty of people having a go on the day we visited.
People fossiling at Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
If you look closely at this rock, you can see an impression of what I’m guessing is an ammonite fossil – not an unusual sight if you stop and have a look around. Please note: I am geologically-challenged, so if I can notice this, anyone can!
Impression of a fossil in a rock at Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
But back to Mary Anning – the feisty, tenacious, real-life heroine of Chevalier’s book.
Painting of Mary Anning – Image courtsey of Wikimedia Commons
Born in Lyme in 1799, by the time she was a teenager Mary had survived a lightning strike, grieved for her dead father – who inspired her love of fossil-hunting – and made one of the world’s most significant scientific discoveries of all time. Not bad going for a 12 year old!
Mary and her brother Joseph had always contributed to their family’s meagre income, helping their father Richard look for “curies” or fossils, and selling them to tourists from their “shop”, a humble table outside their home. But Mary was just 11 when Richard Anning died of consumption, leaving the family in debt, and she stepped up her fossiling efforts to help make ends meet. She was soon rewarded when she and Joseph unearthed the world’s first complete ichthyosaur skeleton – a dolphin-like marine reptile, the existence of which raised significant questions about the history of living things at the time. If, like me, you can’t even pronounce ichthyosaur let alone imagine one – this two minute BBC story will help!
To give you an idea of scale, these creatures grew up to nine metres in length – just the skull that Joseph and Mary found was two metres long.
Drawing of the Ichthyosaur skull found by Joseph and Mary Anning
Image courtesy of Philisophical Transactions of the Royal Society 1814 via Wikimedia Commons
Mary spent her life scouring the cliffs of Lyme Regis and went on to make other discoveries that cemented her skill in a world that had little place for her. She was an uneducated, working-class woman mixing in the middle-class, scientific world. Despite the significance of her finds, her intelligence and self-taught proficiency in palaeontology, she had to battle to receive any of the credit she deserved and was not allowed to enter the hallowed halls of the male-only Geological Society of London.
There is so much to love about this book. Anning is a fabulous character, who we meet through amateur fossil hunter Elizabeth Philpot, a London spinster who befriends the spirited Mary when she is a child. Elizabeth and Mary are outsiders, early 19th century Britain seeing little to admire in single women chiselling away at the cliffs (a dangerous pastime we discover), destroying their nails and ruining their reputations by remaining unchaperoned for hours at a time. The book charts the waters of their friendship, alongside Mary’s incredible discoveries and passion, and reveals much about the era’s class and social mores.
And by the way, Mary is said to be the inspiration for the tongue-twister ‘She sells sea-shells by the sea shore”. After reading this novel, you will realise she does quite a bit more than that!
Impressive ammonite fossil in the Lyme Regis Museum – Image by Suzi Butcher
One of the aspects of the novel I found most revealing was the attitude to science at the time. While there is a strong fascination by it, most people appeared to be terrified by any threats to their creationist beliefs. When Mary finds the ichthyosaur skeleton she calls it a ‘crocodile’, and so do most others, the possibility of it being a now extinct creature too much for most to handle. Why would God create a creature and then let it die out?
Even Elizabeth struggles with the concept.
This idea was too radical for most to contemplate. Even I, who considered myself open-minded was a little shocked to be thinking it, for it implied that God did not plan out what He would do with all the animals He created. if He was willing to sit back and let creatures die out, what did that mean for us? Were we going to die out too? Looking at that skull with its huge, ringed eyes, I felt as if I were standing on the edge of a cliff…
Lord Henley scuffed his boots on the floor.
“It’s simple, Miss Philpot. This is one of God’s early models, and He decided to give the subsequent ones smaller eyes.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Do you mean God rejected it?”
“I mean God wanted a better version – the crocodile we know now – and replaced it.”
I had never heard of such a thing. (p98-103)
Mary too tries to reconcile what she’s finding with her beliefs.
“Sir,” I said, “is this one of the creatures Noah brought on his ark?”
Mr Buckland looked startled.
“Well, now, Mary, why do you ask that?”…
“It’s snout is long and pointed like a dolphin’s, while a croc’s is blunt. And it’s got paddles instead of claws, and they’re turned outward rather than forward the way a croc’s legs are. And of course that big eye. No crocodile has eyes like that…and it made me wonder: if this ain’t a crocodile, which Noah would’ve had on the ark, then what is it? Did God make something that was on the ark we don’t know about?” (p152-153)
As you can imagine, this doesn’t endear our female fossil-hunters to the local population.
Thankfully times have changed and Lyme Regis now embraces Mary with the massive bear-hug she deserves.
“This need to put things in order led me to Richard Anning’s cellar workshop in Cockmoile Square at the bottom of the town. Square is far too grand a word for the tiny open space about the size of a good family’s drawing room…(it) was made up of shabby houses where tradesmen lived and worked…I should soon have been drawn there anyway, if only to compare my fossils to those at the table young Mary Anning tended outside the workshop.” (Elizabeth – p26)
The Lyme Regis Museum – site of Mary Anning’s home – Image by Suzi Butcher
Well, this is not the exact house (unfortunately that didn’t survive the passing of time), but the Lyme Regis Museum is built on the very spot where the house once was, in Cockmoile Square.
When in the novel Mary says her house backed onto the sea “so as soon as I could walk I’d be out there upon the rocks” (p59), she’s not kidding. The museum is extremely close to the water and it is easy to believe comments from Anning biographer Shelley Emling that “the family lived so close to the sea that the same storms that swept along the cliffs to reveal the fossils sometimes flooded the Annings’ home, on one occasion forcing them to crawl out of an upstairs bedroom window to avoid being drowned.”
The museum holds a load of stunning fossils, as well as lots of memorabilia related to the early palaeontologists. I couldn’t find the hammer that Mary’s father made for her (perhaps it was on loan to another institution), so I am looking forward to returning in 2017 when the museum hopes to have opened a planned ‘Mary Anning’ wing, which will see its Anning collection all in one place.
There is however a copy of the famous ichthyosaur skull that Joseph and Mary found, giving you an idea of just how big it was. You can see the original in the Natural History Museum in London.
And if you time it right you may be be in Lyme on a day when the museum runs one of its Mary Anning walks – I was not so lucky! Better planning required next time! You can also try Literary Lyme for Anning (and other literary) walking tours.
If you have six and a half minutes I urge you to have a look at the museum’s lovely video presented by Chevalier about the passion for fossil hunting in Lyme.
“East past the Annings’ house, at the end of Gun Cliff, the shore bends sharply to the left so the beach is out of sight of the town…Both Church Cliffs and Black Ven hold many fossils, gradually releasing them over time onto the shoreline below. That was where Mary found many of her finest specimens. It was also where we experienced some of our greatest dramas.” – Elizabeth (p38-39)
Walking out to Church Cliffs, Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
It’s amazing walking out to the beach where Mary practically spent all her waking hours, and contemplating the blind-blowing amount of history embedded in those cliffs. I have no real concept of 100 million years!
“The other Lyme, at the west end of the beach, doesn’t shut, but embraces the sea. It is dominated by the Cobb, a long grey stone wall that curves like a finger out into the water and shelters the shore, creating a tranquil harbour for the fishing boats and the trading ships that come from all over. The Cobb is several feet high, and wide enough for three to walk along arm in arm, which many visitors do, for it gives a fine view back to the town and the dramatic shoreline beyond of rolling hills and cliffs in great, grey and brown.” – Elizabeth (p19)
The Cobb, Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
I loved The Cobb!! I love that there are still places you can walk where you feel that a wrong step could send you tumbling into the sea. Your heart takes a little lurch as the waves pummel the sloping stone beneath your feet, and you imagine how many people have walked those same steps before you.
And here’s the view back to town that Elizabeth talks about.
Lyme Regis – View from the Cobb – Image by Suzi Butcher
I’m glad we get to know Mary from such a young age in Chevalier’s book, because she only lived until she was 47, dying of breast cancer in 1847. Though to be fair, it’s a miracle she didn’t die earlier, given the danger she put herself in. Collecting fossils after storms when the cliffs are at their most vulnerable to landslides (but also when they expose their greatest treasures) is a big risk, and Anning came close to losing her life in 1833 during a landslide which buried her faithful dog Tray.
After reading Remarkable Creatures I felt I knew Mary so well, I was keen to go and visit her in her final resting place at St. Michael’s church on a hill near to the sea. Her grave, where she is buried with her brother Joseph, is one of the first you see as you walk up the path approaching the building.
Grave of Joseph and Mary Anning – Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
Even after all this time, people take the time to put flowers and fossils at the base of Mary’s grave. Fabulous!
Flowers at the base of Mary Anning’s grave – Lyme Regis – Image by Suzi Butcher
Unfortunately I wasn’t aware the church had a stained glass window dedicated to Mary (and funded at least in part by members of the Geological Society) which was unveiled in 1850, so I will have to have a look at that on my next visit. Actually the Geological Society eventually made quite a few amends for their early mistreatment of her, including raising money to help with her expenses when they learned of her illness. In 2010, 163 years after her death, Anning was listed as one of the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science, and in 2014 she received perhaps one of the greatest honors of the modern age – a google doodle!
Reading Remarkable Creatures reminds you of all the people of passion who live (and have lived) in our world. Chevalier celebrates a woman who had a gift for science, and stubbornly ignored all the barriers put in her way. Lyme Regis may be famous for its fossils (so famous they shape their lamp posts like ammonites), but it is Mary (and Elizabeth) who bring it to life for me, as I embrace the sea spray on the Cobb and hear young children shriek with excitement when they too unearth a ‘curie’ on the beach. Whether you intend to visit Lyme in the next few months, or can only make the journey on the fiction train, pick up this novel for your own fossil adventure.
Lyme Regis lamp posts – Image by Suzi Butcher
After reading it, do not be surprised if you are overcome with desire to wander along the beaches of Lyme Regis yourself. And might I say, not only will you get to saunter the coast à la Mary Anning (and impress your friends with your knowledge of fossils) you will have the opportunity to buy the best value and biggest cone of hot chips from a seaside van known to man. Sorry guys – my hands were far too full to take a picture, you’ll have to take my word for it!
Lyme Regis is a four hour drive from London, but if you have the time to be exploring the countryside on a trip to the UK, then it deserves a spot on your itinerary. Here are some more things you can do (and read) while in the area.
In the meantime, get yeself a fossil hammer and I’ll see you on the beach,
P.S. Don’t forget – you can see Mary’s ichthyosaur at the National History Museum in London, while Elizabeth’s collection is at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
P.P.S. Some other books set in Lyme Regis include The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles and parts of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.
P.P.P.S I have to stop writing now. This is a very long post!]]>
It was one of those glorious Thomas Hardy “summer face and winter constitution” type days last Sunday, just begging me to get out and explore some small part of London I had never been.
So after hoisting myself off the comfort of my West London underfloor heating I braved the whims of weekend public transport to head north to a place I’ve been promising myself I’d go for, oh, I don’t know, about a thousand years – Highgate Cemetery.
Perhaps most famous for being the final resting place of legendary philosopher Karl Marx, the cemetery has a peculiar fascination for Londoners (and those tourists willing to explore beyond the more central haunts of Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square), who are attracted to the famous names buried there, as well as its eerie, and often beautiful, Gothic funerary architecture.
With London’s inner-city cemeteries in a bad state in the 1830s — overcrowded and hazardous, with bodies sometimes buried in the spaces in between houses and taverns (think decaying matter leeching into the water supply and causing disease epidemics) — the powers that be decided upon the grand plan of opening seven new cemeteries on the outskirts of London. Highgate was one of them.
The cemetery is divided into two parts. In the East, you can wander around freely after paying a small entrance fee, but in the West (the oldest part), you must take a guided tour. I loved getting all the gory stories and historical know-how from our knowledgeable guide, but it is always a little frustrating to have to limit your photo taking to snatches here and there so you can keep up with the group and to stifle your desire to wander off and do your own thing. Such exploration is strictly forbidden in this part of the cemetery on safety and conservation grounds; much of it is overgrown, crumbling, and laced with sharp spikes of ironmongery amongst the undergrowth – a fashion much favoured by Victorian grave-designers it seems.
– It’s actually really challenging to find someone specific in a cemetery such as this. There are A LOT of graves here, mostly crowded haphazardly amongst the muddy paths and undergrowth. And there’s only so long you can concentrate hard enough on reading the fading inscriptions before your eyes start glazing over with the effort. In the East cemetery you are provided with a map of sorts, but unless your grave of interest is on the actual path, you will need a fair bit of time to find it.
Take a gander at this video as world traveller Vic Stefanu walks through some the less accessible areas of the cemetery. You only need to watch the first minute or so to get the idea, though it does make strangely compelling (almost meditative) viewing if you carry on. Note that Vic is doing this on what looks like a fine and sunny day; the cold, mud and general fear of slippage during my visit made me much less inclined to explore too far off the standard routes.
– Someone lives in a glass house in the cemetery. Read more here – it’s a whole story in itself, with an amazing coincidence at the end.
– Victorian surgeon Robert Liston was known as “the fastest knife in the West End”, renowned for his ability to amputate a limb (without anaesthetic, naturally) in 28 seconds.
– In conversation, I find it almost impossible to say “Highgate Cemetery”, for some reason it always comes out as “Highgate Ceremony” – bizarre!
– The cemetery (or ceremony if you like) was originally a profit-making, commercial operation run by the London Cemetery Company. It was initially a great success, but come the end of the Victorian era people were less keen to spend big money on the business of mourning and by the 1930s it began to fall into disrepair. The company declared bankruptcy in 1960 and the gates were eventually shut. In 1975 the Friends of Highgate Cemetery came to the rescue and started the massive task of clearing the undergrowth and repairing some of the memorials. That work continues today and you don’t begrudge having to pay an entrance or guided tour fee so much when you know this is where the money goes. Read more about the history here.
– There are now around 170,000 people buried at Highgate, but amazingly you can still score a spot for yourself, as long as you have the money and you are ready to use it immediately (you have to be over 80 or terminally ill if you want to book it in advance). I haven’t been able to find a price list!
Well there are, inevitably, some literary-type resting places here. I managed to track down George Eliot, Douglas Adams and Beryl Bainbridge (photos below) and I particularly liked this gravestone by one avid reader, Jim Horn – apparently NOT a partner at Penguin, but obviously a great admirer.
And as with most things Packabook there is some fitting fiction to inspire you to visit Highgate for yourself.
Falling Angels by Tracy Chevalier (who I am a little in love with right now, of which I will write more about in a future post). Inspired by a trip to the cemetery, Chevalier began doing some volunteer work to get to know the graveyard better. She then wrote a novel set at the very end of Victorian times in which two families, with conflicting views on the new modern era, get to know each other because their loved ones are buried in adjacent graves. I enjoyed reading what she had to say about Highgate on her blog.
Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (she of The Time Traveller’s Wife fame). Niffenegger also became a volunteer tour guide at Highgate and the result was this novel built around 20-year old American twins who have inherited their aunt’s beautiful flat which overlooks the cemetery (you will see some of the stunning residences in the area yourself as you walk up the hill to the graveyard gates). But the inheritance comes with conditions, and while Aunt Elspeth may be dead, she doesn’t seem too keen to leave the women to their own devices.
There’s lots about Highgate and her volunteering exploits in this radio interview with Niffenegger, while in this video (unfortunately not brilliant quality) the two writers talk about how they met while doing their bit for the cause.
I am most pleased with myself for heading out into the cold for my short bout of Highgate hijinks and highly recommend it as an item on your London itinerary should you be visiting this fair city anytime soon. Don’t worry, there’s no rush, none of the Highgate residents are going anywhere!
I will leave you with my two favourite graves of the day…