It’s been three years since I was last in Europe, a trip I wrote about at the time with no shortage of insisting that I’d be back soon. Unfortunately, that being early 2020, my optimism proved somewhat misguided. Even once able to travel again, things were so busy that it wasn’t a realistic consideration.
But a few months back my parents mentioned that they’d be going to Austria in June for work before spending some time with the family. Checking my diary, I had a two-and-a-half-week free block between commitments around the same time they’d be going, and it was too good an opportunity to pass up, coinciding my trip with other family members being in the area at the same time.
It was only once I’d already booked my flights that it occurred to me this could be the perfect chance for me to fulfil a long held if vague dream and visit Florence. It’s no secret that I’m a massive Hannibal Lecter fan (I mean, I’m writing an entire book on the subject) and Florence is a key location in the franchise; the city where Lecter hides out after his escape. At times the novel Hannibal reads almost like a vivid travelogue of the city, and both the 2001 film and the TV series depict it in ways both eerie and strikingly beautiful.
I wanted to go to Florence, I was going to be in Europe, and I was in the midst of writing a Hannibal Lecter book. It was kind of like the universe was trying to tell me something.
So I booked flights – semi inconveniently I’d arrive in Vienna, spend a night there, then go to Florence for two nights before returning to Vienna and from there head to the family home in Frankenmarkt near Salzburg. A whirlwind few days but, I figured, worth it.
I flew out from Melbourne late Saturday night. The older I’ve gotten the more I’ve started to dread long haul flights, but since I’ve taken to paying for extra legroom (I am long of shank and planes are short of space) they’ve been a little more tolerable. What was less tolerable was the child sitting next to me, who every two seconds would scream at his Mum because he had pulled out his headphones or opened the tray table or gotten bored of the movie he was watching. None of which he could apparently rectify himself. Then he started jumping on the seat, leading to me watching his newly delivered food with trepidation that proved founded when his juice ended up all over me. I did not like that child.
Anyway, I reached Doha alive if annoyed and after five hours of zombielike wandering around the airport I got on the plane to Vienna, which was thankfully free of demon children. I had to contend with the most unpleasant train conductor in history when it turned out the ticket I had paid for was not the right ticket for the train I was on (my ticket was significantly more expensive, but he somehow seemed to think I was trying to pull one over him), but soon enough I was settling into my hotel then heading out for an evening walk to stave off falling asleep until a reasonable hour.
I spent the next morning exploring and subsequently getting very lost in Vienna, before returning to the airport to fly to Florence. About five minutes after the plane took to the air it was heading down again, then it was a quick tram ride and suddenly I was standing in front of the Duomo.
Look, I’ve been to Rome and Venice. I’ve been wowed by Basilicas before. But the Duomo is just something else. I remember seeing the way it was presented in the TV show Hannibal, a famously stylised series, and thinking they’d used CGI to augment it. Not so. The gargantuan size, the intricate detail of statues in little nooks that pepper the façade, and the striking greens and ivories of the stone – the moment I saw it I had to stop and just stare. Which I’d have plenty of opportunity to do given I was staying in the same square as it.
I dropped my stuff and quickly got to exploring. Within minutes I was looking at the Palazzo Vecchio with a giddy grin, predominantly because I recognised the balcony where Hannibal hangs Rinaldo Pazzi. Naturally I had dinner in the shadow of it, before wandering the streets a little more, watching buskers and stopping for beer and basically just soaking it all up.
Jetlag being jetlag, I woke up at 5am the next day and decided this was a good opportunity to climb up to the Belvedere fort and, in true Lecter fashion, see the Duomo from it. It turned out the Belvedere was closed and you can't get much of view from outside it due to trees and walls, but given I was able to wander through more of the city and have a lovely breakfast overlooking the river, I wasn’t about to complain.
I returned to the Palazzo Vecchio after that to properly explore the interior, and man wasn’t that just the best. From Machiavelli’s office to the beyond ornate Salon of the Lilies, to the chapels and the big central hall and the terrace out the back looking over the city, I adored just working my way through it all.
The owner of my B&B had also told me about some ancient tombs I should check out, and given I love a crypt I followed his advice. Except his advice was a marking on a map and it took me a while to find what I thought I was looking for. Cue me going inside and asking how much entry was and the woman at the counter staring at me in abject confusion.
‘Are these tombs?’ I asked.
‘This is a school,’ she said.
I backed away and gave up on the tombs.
By now my legs were hurting from all the wandering, but there was still so much more I wanted to see. I washed my hands at the Porcellino Fountain (just like in the movie!). I sat beneath ancient statues in varying states of anguish and ecstasy. I stopped for espressos at cluttered cafes spilling off the footpaths. I dodged cylists and taxis and Americans on my way down to the Santa Croce church, where Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli are buried, and also where Rinaldo Pazzi made his first attempt to get Hannibal’s fingerprints by extorting a local gypsy contact of his. After that I planned to find the Palazzo Capponi, where Hannibal lives while in Florence, but after half-limping back across and down the river (like Hannibal does after being brutalised by Jack Crawford in episode 6 of season 3) I arrived only to learn that the Capponi family had a lot of Palazzos and this was not, in fact, the correct one. Turned out I’d walked past the correct one on my way there.
Back in town, I got talking to a tattoo artist and fashion designer over a beer, before having a pasta dinner and returning to the shadow of the Duomo to do some work on The Lodger, which has been causing me some trouble of late. Turns out that a pretty effective cure for writers block is sitting in one of the most beautiful cities in the world with an awe inspiring cathedral visible right behind your laptop.
I was flying out the next evening, but I still planned on making the most of my trip. I set out early that morning to find the more pertinent-to-my-purposes Palazzo Capponi, which is predominantly used as a hotel now and as such the best I could do there was stand appraisingly across from it. A coffee and a croissant later, I decided to head to the Bardini Gardens, adjacent to the Belvedere and with a view of the city below.
And damn if this wasn’t worth every cent (10 euros, would have been worth a hundred). Working my way up winding garden paths to a café that gave the most spectacular imaginable view (given the café at the top was called the Café Belvedere I have now technically seen the Duomo from the Belvedere). It was a blue skied, warm day and I sat with a drink working at The Lodger, the words just cascading out with the Florentine skyline and the lush gardens lit up in the afternoon sun to my left. I didn’t want to leave. I lingered for ages, just taking in this sprawling, magnificent city.
But I had a plane to catch, so I got some lunch and took one last walk around the Duomo, which I would have loved to see inside of but the lines literally encircle the place. Then it was back on the tram and back to Austria. This leg of the trip was capped off by a very different train conductor, who waved me on with a smile and a wink when I asked to buy a ticket from him, so I have now made peace with the profession and that has been my character arc for this trip.
Which brings me to now, aching and worn and weary but so very glad I went. I wrote, I walked, I ate, I drank and I saw some stuff I’ll never forget and hope to see again before too long. And it’s all thanks to a fictional cannibal.
Writing words about writing words.