Blessed to be a witness

Friday, 14th October

Tuscan dawns

I had no idea how long it would take to drive from the Borgo to Tuscany. The answer is A Very Long Time. We were on the road for more than seven hours. Two old friends, one a cousin of the bride with whom I shared a flat in Hong Kong, and one an old college friend, set off with us in dizzy hungover moods, north to Florence, and then beyond to Lucca and Barga, where we were renting a cottage (because we "need a holiday", as a friend scornfully suggested by email).

The final leg of the journey was up some very steep and winding hill roads, in the dark, into the Garfagnana mountains. Insane Italian drivers fulfilled their stereotype by overtaking on blind corners, and managing to cram three lanes into two. I have no idea how such a sophisticated country could foster such amazingly reckless drivers, whose style reminds me of the Vietnamese.

After a few wrong turns and false starts we finally made it to the cottage, a beautiful converted outhouse belonging to M's friend's mother, and though we couldn't find the key for about an hour, eventually made it inside and relaxed. It's the most kitted out holiday rental I've ever seen, presumably because the owners use it themselves, so I used the very well equipped kitchen to make a lasagne, which tasted amazing though I do say so myself, presumably because of the freshness of the ingredients, which we'd picked up in a supermarket on the way.

That night the jetlag was at me again - exacerbated by the previous three days' partying, and so after less than four hours' sleep I was wide awake again and despite feeling rotten, was privileged enough to see the dawn break over the mountains and hills and the beautiful town of Barga.

The next few days were spent relaxing and recovering from everything. We walked the steep mediæval streets of Barga, and the next night, sealed in the perfect darkness and total silence of a shuttered Italian stone building on a Tuscan hill, managed to sleep for twelve hours. We spent an afternoon in the amazingly beautiful walled town of Lucca, particularly impressed by the Piazza del Anfiteatro, which is built on the site, to the shape and dimensions, of the old Roman amphitheatre.

Alas the next night the insomnia kicked in again and I managed only three hours' sleep, and watched another dawn come up over the hills. Despite feeling more miserable and exhausted than I have done for a long time, I forced myself to join my friends to visit the nearby town of Castelnuovo, where the echoing streets and the street market, and the slight mountain chill in the air, and the smell of woodsmoke reminded me, to my surprise, of Tibet, or Nepal. I remained awake until nightfall and managed a good nine-hour sleep the next night.

Five days of heady mountain nothingness, sadly, folded into each other, and before we knew it, it was time to leave. We drove back to Rome, much more swiftly and successfully than before, and my friend managed to negotiate the vicious Roman traffic and get us straight to our hotel. We spent an evening in various piazzas, me so exhausted that I literally couldn't keep my eyes open, and so said goodbye to our friends, who returned the hire car early the next morning, and retired.

We had a day to kill before our flight left at ten (thanks, Ryanair: we had booked it for 4 in the afternoon), and there's no better place to kill time than Rome. Even the mundane is magical: I was struck by the dappled light on the shimmering vine leaves of a gazebo of a café in which we took coffee; in few other capital cities would there be a small delight like that in the centre of town, but here it wasn't even noticed.

At the Forum I walked the streets of the ancient city, marvelling not only at the vastness and sophistication of the place - imagining the effect this must have on the Celtic tribal leaders who were captured and brought back; like bringing a Tibetan from Rongbuk to New York - but at the way in which our age arrogantly assumes that our distant ancestors were technologically impaired. These people had hot and cold running water and underfloor heating. The Colliseum and the huge fora should be expected. What also amazes me, though, is that so much is still upright after two thousand years.

Then a Ryanair-style melée for a coach, and another at the airport to check in, and then an uneventful flight back to London, where we just managed to get the last train out. Tomorrow we will wake up in London, and it really will be all over.

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