Letters from Florence to her mother in 1920 by Margaret Varley
Florence - October the 15th 1920
My own dear Mother,
We really had a wonderful journey considering how crowded the trains were - we were fortunate in getting good seats all the way - and the lovely day were well worth the nights in the trains. As I told you once we got our luggage over the Gare de Lyons - we chummed up with Canon Cropper and his wife, he was going out for six months to be the English chaplain in Rome - and as they knew very little French Varley was able to help them a bit and we arranged that they should mind our luggage with theirs and we would go out and explore to find a reasonable restaurant and then having had out meal take our turn at luggage minding while they went and had theirs.
We found such a nice place quite simple - tables right out on the pavement but everything so clean and nice and there we had the most delicious dinner I have ever tasted for many a long day for under 3/-.
When our friends returned as pleased with their dinner as we had been we made our way to our train and settled down for the night. We had only sitting room but being vis-a-vis we were able to stretch our legs across and get some sleep. Just as day was dawning we reached Frasne on the Swiss frontier and all had to turn out to show passports. Fortunately it was a delicious morning - still starlight but not cold and the whiff of sweet air was very nice after the stuffy carriages - our fellow travellers were all French and did not love French air. Here we must have waited the best part of an hour for it was quite daylight when we left and we saw the lights appearing in the little picturesque red roofed houses and the sunset smell of burning wood came floating on the air and made one think how lovely a cup of tea would be. But also no such joy was to be ours for many a long hour yet. After almost an hour we got back on the train and went along for a few miles more to Vallorbe the scenery changing completely from the well cultivated fields and gardens of France to the woods and mountains. It was really like the hills of Scotland. The only thing that reminded you, you were abroad were the great moraines left by the glaciers streams of rounded boulders lying across the valleys and the snow props which were all along the line to protect it from snow drifts strong fences of wood shaped barriers.
After crawling along very slowly for about an hour we came to Vallorbe and here though our seats had been booked right through to Trisuli we were suddenly made to turn everything out of our carriage and the train was entirely changed. Here we had to go into a long customs shed and were kept waiting ages, whilst first French officials check our baggage and then Swiss ones. And then once more passports had to be inspected had it been cold or wet it would have been miserable but as it was a nice morning it did not matter much and after about an hour a train drew into the station and we were told we could take out seats. We got very comfortable ones and settled down. But such a scene of angry commotion took place among irate French and Italians who could not get the seats they wanted. It was quite amusing to listen to them and see the efforts of the officials to get them settled. However at last we got off about 8 a.m. and Varley and I sat down to breakfast of sandwiches, apples and barley water (a poor substitute for tea). Every moment we were getting more among the mountains the sun was shining brightly, a lovely blue sky and for hours we skirted the most lovely valleys, clung on to the sides of mountains covered with the most gorgeous autumn tints I have ever seen. The trees seem to turn blood red and bright yellow, as well as brown and the softer tints and when one saw these colouring against the back grounds of dark pines and firs, intersected with snow. White cascades dashing down brown shiny rocks and sometimes great grey rocks sticking out then among all this lovely colouring up the hillsides were dotted the white house with the beautiful old red tiled roofs over hanging eaves and the green shutters. It made a lovely picture in the morning sunshine. As we got nearer to Lausanne we began to notice the vineyards. I was so surprised to find the vines are only about 3 ft. high. Rows and rows of them in every conceivable spot, little patches here and there up the hillsides and later on we saw a whole mountain sides terraced with them. Here too we began to see the special railway trucks constructed for carrying the wine, two huge barrels with a little covered seat on top reached by a ladder for a guard to sit.
About 9:30 we reached Lausanne and to our great joy our carriage was attached to a Restaurant car and at last I was able to get a cup of tea - but as Swiss exchange is so much against us, we had to give 2/= for just the tea only. Still it was delicious and so cleanly served it was worth it. Then we had a lovely time, first skirting the shores of the lake, passing the castle of Chillon, the towns of Montreux, Bevy and best of all getting our first view of the snow clad mountains and for hours we just hung out of the carriage window (which were about 3 times as large as ours in England) getting baked and sunburnt in the hot sunshine, first round the Lake and then along the Rhone valley. Also noticing the many strange sights, the cows and goats with their bells tinkling as they moved, herded either by bare legged little children about 5 or six or old grannies who had their knitting with them. One great feature that has struck us very much is the very small way in everything seems to be done with two or three cows, or goats, or sheep, and just a wee little patch of corn. A few vines, some vegetable, and in almost every patch huge red or orange gourds. Tiny carts with little loads of wood, evidently every man more or less looking after his own family. None of the large farms or big flocks we see in England. But it was a lovely and never to be forgotten day’s journey and we only wished we had you all.
Florence - October the 16th 1920
My own dear Mother,
I think in my last letter I took you as far as the entrance to the Simplon Tunnel when we got to Brig. We waited about an hour and once more had to show our passports before we left Swiss territory and then we were told we should have to go through that and the tiresome Customs business again when we got through to the Italian side of the tunnel - but to our great joy while we were in the tunnel (which takes 20 minutes to go through) the Italian official came round and collected all our passports and presently two or three gorgeous police officials arrived to inspect our “petit baggage”. We were very thankful to have this done in the carriage and not have to turn out again.
At Brig an electric engine was put on our train, to pull it through the Simplon and the various other tunnels we had to pass through to get to the other side of the mountain range, to avoid the smoke. When we got through and past Domodossola the frontier town of Italy, the scenery altered, no more snow-clad mountains, but wooded heights in many which nestled very, very quaint little houses sometimes singly, sometimes in groups coloured dirty white, or grey or yellow with old tiled roofs either of orange or red tiles, of lichen covered slabs of grey stone, each house with wise overhanging eaves and nearly everyone with a wide balcony on the 2nd storey. The outsides of the cottages and balconies were almost covered with bunches of herbs and haricots and maize cobs ripening, these latter looked most picturesque as they are bright orange in colour. In some cottage balconies you would see a branch of thorn hanging up with figs drying one each spike and most of them had two or three immense gourds or tomatoes.
Each little house seemed to have a vine clad porch. And it was curious to notice how much higher the vines grew directly we crossed into Italy. Here they are all trained on sticks and poles about 6 feet from the ground. The trains seem so slow after England and are constantly stopped by some excitable official rushing out and waving their hands and talking volubly.
We very soon came down a picturesque gorge and across a river to the head of Lago Maggiore. By this time it was getting quite towards evening so the Lake die not appear its wonderful vivid blue, but it was wonderfully still and peaceful and most picturesque did the Isla Bella the beautiful island appear with its picturesque villas or palaces and flowers. Here we began to notice quite a change in the plants and shrubs. Oleanders with their deep pink blossoms grew as tall as our hawthorns and lilacs. While the magnolias were quite big trees and just now they are laden down with the most lovely golden and red fruit something the shape of a huge pine cone. There are all sorts of English flowers in bloom, geraniums, roses, chrysanthemums, Michaelmas daises dahlias, and mixed up with these lemons and oranges. All sorts of palms, glorious “morning glory” a brilliant blue flower like a convolvulus. Great bunches of pale blue plumbago. Huge clumps of heliotrope, etc. etc. Italy has had months of terrible drought but just a couple of weeks before we came they had some very heavy rain and everything has just burst into life and the growth is almost incredible. Fancy vegetable marrow seeds planted a month ago now full grown plants supplying the table with little marrows.
We skirted the shores of the Lake for a considerable distance and at last we could see out no longer, so we tried to rest as well as we could in our crowded carriage until we reached Trisuli here we found a train for Florence waiting so we determined to go straight on in it and not wait to get any food. We still had some left. We heard after we got to Florence that while we were passing through Milan a revolution was going on!! But all we noticed was that it was the quietest most peaceful looking city we had seen!!! Strikes and “revolutions” here are almost comic, for instance on the afternoon of our arrival we had to go down to get our “Permesso di soggiorno” from the police and we wanted to get a train. Ruby asked the group of police men who were at the door when the next train was due. “O” they said, “don’t you know there is a two hours train strike on. They have struck in sympathy with the Russian Bolsheviks.” The police seemed to think it was a great joke and indeed the train men did too. They were all sitting in the cafes chatting and laughing and drinking coffee. There were plenty of traps for hire so everyone used these until 5 p.m. when the trains began calmly running again. Almost every day we hear of something like this.
Yesterday butchers struck but there were plenty of fowls and all sorts of good things to be had, so nobody minded in the very least. They seem to have no power of organising anything on a large scale here, so that very little inconvenience is felt at their little explosions.
Well just to finish up about our journey. We arrived about 2 hours late in Florence, just as the sun had risen and it was a lovely summer morning and when we got to the station entrance there stood Ruby and Camilla and soon we got into and train and were on our way to Il Frullino.
Florence - October the 18th 1920
My own dear Mother,
I think perhaps you will like in this letter to hear a few of our first general impressions of Florence. Well first of all Florence grows on you, everyday it seems to grow more and more beautiful. The streets are rather narrow with very tall houses on each side which makes them very cool. The pathway is very narrow, barely room enough for one person to walk along. The streets are paved with big flat paving stones. There is not the very faintest attempt to control the traffic in any way and as everyone walks in the street and trams, and motor cars and quaint old country carts, and “carroza” drivers by wild and excited ‘jaroups’ vociferating at one in an unknown tongue. It is most bewildering and one feels one will never get through safely and yet somehow accidents seem few and far between. A most picturesque feature of the streets are the bridges, or rather covered passages leading across the streets, very high up thus these bridge ways are generally coloured deep olive and have roof tiles of deep orange and red tiles and look very pretty against the background of an intensely blue sky. Nearly all the houses have wide over hanging eaves and in many cases the beams of these are most beautifully carved.
The houses are very tall and consist of a great many floors which are let in flats, these vary very much in value the first floor being the most expensive. Some of the houses are only occupied by one family but these are to be found more on the outskirts of town. It amused us to see women leaning out of their windows and lowering a basket for bread, vegetable, or letters from the postman. The hall doors are very large and massive more like church doors with tremendously strong iron bolts and bars. While all the ground floor windows are as closely barred as a prison. This is necessary here to prevent robbers breaking it and of course a relic of still more troublous times when every house had to be a fort. Many of the older houses have a square tower, to which the only means of access was a ladder, to this the family would fly when their enemies came and pulling up the ladder would be safe to look down on their foes and throw down huge stones, &c. The tower in this house has only had quite temporary staircase up to it, obviously added at a much later date.
It is the custom here to challenge you before opening the gate. Ruby’s maid is never allowed to open the high gates without saying “Who is there?” in Italian of course. Another thing that strikes you very much are the tiny little shops, we are told that the reason is the Italians hate to be under anyone, a man prefers the tiniest shop in which he can be his own master. Last night we came home after dark and we noticed that many of the shops which had only tiny windows were really the cellars of these big houses and went a very long way back just like caves and most picturesque.
Most of the lower and middle class women go about without hats, and almost every one of them dressed in very plain black dresses, but there hair is always beautifully done and I have never seen one woman rich or poor with her hair the least bit untidy. Black silk or velvet seems to the their favourite dress for holidays and on a market day you will see the country girls and women with a picturesque brightly coloured scarf thrown round their shoulders.
You will want to know what the house we are living is like - Il Frulliuio - outside a square white building with a lovely tiled roof over hanging eaves and a square tower at the top. When you come in at the great iron studded door with its immense bolts - you find yourself in a little vestibule with a very high arched stone roof and just opposite you another door of glass leading into the open courtyard which is in the centre of the house. There is no paper on any of the walls and it strikes one as curious to see stone doorways and fire places. At first the walls strike you as very bare and the rooms on the ground floor as a bit gloomy as the windows are very high up in the walls, and you have to go up two or three steps to reach them and then only can just reach to the bottom of them just to open and shut them. Of course outside every window are the green wooden shutters which are kept tightly closed when there is the least bit of sunshine, in order to exclude the flies, this too gives rather the impression of gloom, but you soon get accustomed to it and the almost church-like atmosphere is most restful.
Ruby’s house is all furnished in beautiful old style and you feel as if you were living in a rich monastery in the middle ages. Her dining room is most beautifully furnished in old venetian red plush and carved oak and looks magnificent.
Florence - October the 21st 1920
My own dear Mother,
I must try to describe the rest of the house to you as I said it is built round a small square courtyard in one corner of which is a quaint looking stone well with a picturesque tiled roof (see photo). There are only two floors with no passages or corridors each rooms leads out of the other and on the top floor there is a balcony running round the courtyard so that if you want to pass from one bedroom to another you can do so by going out on the balcony. The drawing room lies to the left and is exceeding old and quaint in its architecture, very lofty with a vaulted roof. Windows high up in the walls, each reached by three stairs and the quaintest old Tuscan fireplace, which really consist of an enormous hearthstone very thick and covered by a huge hood-like structure to carry off the smoke. These are of stone and should have the family crest carved on their front surface; this Ruby hopes to get done later. Then on the right hand side of the fireplace is a curious niche which is also a distinctive feature of old XIVth century reception rooms. There is a large stone very like the front of a communion table let into the wall above the middle of which is a little stone alcove which contains a basin of water and often a little tap of water coming out of an ornamental head. The doorways are all of stone and the arches of the roof spring from stone bases beautifully carved. All these downstairs rooms give you the impression of a church or Monastery.
Ruby has furnished her drawing room with beautiful Persian carpets of the softest blue, with blue velvet curtains and touches of the pale soft blue among the old carved walnut furniture and pewter ornaments. Sometimes after dinner we sit in here by the big log fire and the room most beautifully lit up by most quaint and artistic lamps and candelabra. Passing through the drawing room you go into the lounge, all furnished with quaint oak chairs and rugs and tables and curious old books lying about bound in parchment and all kinds of quaint leather and looking out from a niche in the wall there is the handsome face of our own dear Father (how he would have enjoyed and appreciated this place). Through this room you pass into the library which is still older and quainter looking and also entirely furnished in the old style. A door leads out of this into a little vestibule where Ruby has some lovely old copper jars &c. and from this a stone staircase leads upstairs about half way up you come to a little door leading to the bathroom, which is of stone and in one corner of which stands a huge copper cylinder over a fire place which are burnt wooden logs. I cannot describe the luxury or quaintness of going into this quaint stone cell-like place. Seeing the huge cylinder glowing in one corner while the sweet scent of the burning wood perfumes the air; and, any amount of boiling water can be had in a huge and beautiful bath.
Well to continue our way upstairs the rooms open right and left of the stairs and as below lead one into another and also open on to the balcony. First then on the left you come to a huge room which she uses as a sort of work and store room. All furnished with old oak cupboards and tables. The floors of all the rooms both upstairs and down are of red tiles. Very highly polished, passing through this room you come to a magnificent room running the whole length of one side of the house, which is ruby’s bedroom, one end a small room has been boarded off with a partition which is used as a cosy study and work room for Ruby and Giovanni.
I have been busy helping her to make curtains &c. for this room, while Varley and she upholstered an armchair for it. The prevailing tone is green with some lovely old church embroideries &c. on cushions and covers. Ruby’s bedroom is all very quaint old oak carved, and with its seven windows all looking over the glorious mountain views is really beautiful.
Beyond you pass through into the Loggia, this is such a feature of Florentine houses that I must try to describe it to you. It is really an open room sometimes with a roof and pillars only, and sometimes also glass doors which can be closed in winter, as is the case in this house. In country villas the Loggia are usually on the 2nd floor, but sometimes on the ground floor.
Florence - October the 22nd 1920
My own dear Mother,
In Florence itself the houses are very high and the streets very narrow and often at the very top one sees a beautiful Loggia full of the choicest flowers growing and Ruby says it is quite usual at the top of a most squalid staircase to find a palatial flat opening on to one of these exquisite Loggia with superb views right over the tops of the houses. There is no smoke in Florence and one can only see the tiny chimney pots attached to the wood stoves by peering very closely indeed at the roof of a house.
The main business of the house is done by either charcoal or gas, consequently there is no smoke or dirt and ones clothes keep so much cleaner than in England.
But to return to my description of this house passing through the Loggia you come to Camilla’s room which is also very large and through that you reach ours. We have the most lovely view, looking out right over Florence. I must try to describe to you what Florence looks like. Well first all you must realise that it is built in a cup-like valley, encircled by hills covered with soft grey green olive-yards, with here and there stately palms shooting up their feathery plumes or sombre cypress trees. These hills which almost entirely surround the city are usually surmounted by a church or monastery and are dotted with quaint bright looking villas which peep out of gardens of orange and lemon trees brightened with great blue masses of plumbago or morning glory. Beyond these hills stretching away as far as the eye can reach are the grand dark blue mountain ranges of the Apennines and there in the centre of the cup lies Florence.
The houses, bright white with soft tints of colour, irregular, picturesque, various, with roofs of every possible elevation. The great point being apparently that no two should be on the same level, their outlines broken with Loggia’s, balconies, projecting lines, quaint cupolas and spires. Among these spring up soft masses of green, for even in the heart of the city one finds many gardens, and right in the very centre brooding over it all, the great dome of the Duomo, with the slender stately Campanile and the tall flower-like tower of the Palazzo Vecchio and the quaintest of all old bridges the Ponte Vecchio struggling across the Arno with its burden of tiny shops on its back. While as your eye follows down the silver thread you can see the graceful lines of the Ponte Trinita as it flings its graceful curves across the stream.
It is wonderful how the past seems to linger in every street and twice in Florence. This strikes the stranger more than anything else. Even the very paving stones in many of the streets still are the old polygonal ones introduce in the 13th century from Milan. Every line, every gable, every tower, has some story of the past connected with it. In the winding dusky irregular streets there still pass you men in medieval garb if exactly the same type as Dante, Cellini or Boutella. And as you go through the streets you see at every step some colour of a fresco on a wall, some quaint curve of a bas-relief on a lintel, some vista in a palace court, some dusky interior of a smith’s forge, some lovely trees of fruit and herbs, or some gigantic heap of blossoms being borne aloft on men’s shoulders for some church festivity. At every step something that has beauty or charms, some faint sweet odour of the past on some beautiful vivid glowing hue of the present. And what is to me an endless source of charm and delight, the deep pure blue of the Italian sky against the wide eaves. It matters not where you lift your eyes that beauty if always there and in many of the principal streets you can see at the end the lovely vista of the dark blue hills and nearer olive yards against this heavenly sky.
We went across the Ponte Vecchio the other day into a charming old spot which will ever linger in my mind as a bit of old Florence, an irregular little square, surrounded by high houses, quaint little line of shops. A tiny kid hanging up in one, piled up batons and rings of golden brown rolls of bread, in another a quaint country barrow-like cart laden with grapes and tomatoes and green vegetables. An old potters store full of the quaintest flasks and jars and bowls and then in one corner an old twisting shadowy street way, paved with the quaint old many sided stones and climbing sheer up the face of the hill almost like a ladder, on each side were the quaintest dusky caverns in one of which sat an old shoe maker so far removed from the present busy bustling age that you could well have pictured to yourself Savonarola coming in to him to get his sandals repaired. One would never tire of wandering about among these places and just letting the peace and tranquillity and that extraordinary spirit of religiousness which seems to pervade every corner of Florence sink deep into your soul.