50 Yards of Florence;

The medieval lanes and streets and alleys provide welcome breaks of shade from the heat and the sun, and occasionally from the crocodile lines of tourist groups faithfully following their guides.  But you tire easily for you are not so young now, the back hurts a bit, the legs ache,  the sun is hot, you need to pause, to sit down, recover a little and you look for a pavement bar or café. But they can be intimidating these Italian bars and cafés,  and you pass that one and avoid this one and then you come across a rough looking bar in a little rough looking space, a small scruffy square; there is graffiti on the walls and a few battered tables and chairs clustered outside the very ordinary and un-prepossessing door of the bar “Mingo”  There is a van, and a motor cycle lazily  parked across the small square but it becomes, for the tired intimidated hot uncomfortable you, a little oasis, and you slump into one of the battered chairs at one of the battered tables.

Florence square

A Screengrab from Google Earth showing the scruffy square at Piazza San Marinio

A beer, a cold Italian Moretti beer.  And you relax, stretch, calm down, cool down, revive, become human again. Begin to look about you.

You are in the Piazza San Marino on the narrow non-descript  Via dei Magazzini as it opens into the scruffy square and forms a junction with the Via Dante Alighieri.  At number 2 Via dei Magazzini there is a municipal office or yard of some kind, almost adjacent to the square and the bar.  my Italian is poor, the sign suggests the office of urbanisation?  This must make café Mingo a worker’s bar for it has none of the pretensions to being one of the touristy places that abound in Florence.   Number 1 Via Maggazini, next to the run down municipal offices of urbanisation, is a tall building of rough stone.  It is a tower!  A Florentine tower, a 1000-year-old tower, there is a sign upon it, something about it belonging, I think, to the Garibaldi society or the Garibaldi association, is that something to do with united biscuits?

You are intrigued now, relaxed and intrigued.  The tower is closed up, its tall forbidding doors, brown and studded, faded by the weather and the sun.  Occasionally a crocodile of tourists stops, and the guide tells them something of the tower, two minutes and on they go.  I can’t hear what they say for nowadays the crocodile tourists have small receivers around their necks and an earphone, the guide talks softly into her microphone and only the crocodile tourists can hear.   It is the 11th century Torre della Castagna, (Tower of the Chestnuts) , once the  stronghold of the Baccadiferro family at a time when Florence was ruled by gangs and clans and was far more dangerous and lethal than the wild west ever was.

Directly across, from the tower, on the opposite side of the scruffy square, a small private chapel, an oratory.   The crocodiles don’t point their trailing charges at it or even seem to notice it but there are one or two visitors who enter, sometimes a couple, often alone.

beer glassAnother beer, a cold Italian Moretti, served as they always do in Europe, in a wonderful glass, a goblet, a chalice, it works so well in the warmth of the Italian sun, or the Belgium architecture or the French café.  In England, and in Ireland we take our beer in plain pints, in Europe, in a painted goblet.

There is a parked motorcycle, the city is full of them, a Lambretta type, parked across the tables at the top of the square by the Via Dante Alighieri, immediately outside the chapel or oratory.   Two local Florentine municipal carabinieri (vigili urban) march purposefully into the square.   They wear helmets, like a London policeman’s helmet,f;premce [p;oce,am 2 but in white, of plastic or perhaps Bakelite, they look odd, a little comical, white Sam brown belts, cool Florentine white leather satchels, pistols in white holsters, they surround the motorcycle in officious determination and write on notebooks taken from the white leather satchels, noting the number, looking for tax discs, take photographs.   A man in the bar talks to them, agitated, agitated Italian, he goes off to fetch the owner and another man, leaning, relaxed from an upper window on the via Dante Alighieri begins to shout at the officers, good-humouredly, perhaps telling them to do something useful, as natives do, in all the cities of all the world.  They take an enormous amount of time securing their prey, a young lady turns up, it is her machine, she opens the panniers, looking for documents, she is distressed, they chastise her, she cannot find the documents, , they are insistent, a ticket is given, everyone shrugs and off they go these white-helmeted carabinieri, in their comical white hats. Looking for more Lambrettas,

In the chapel, the small oratory opposite the tower.  it is dark and cool, it takes a while to adjust from the bright shade of the square.   It is quite beautiful. It is the 15th Century Oratory of the Buonomini of San Marinoalms 1

The Buonomini,  in medieval times, gave alms and comfort to those in the city who fell upon hard times, the walls have a series of ten wonderful frescos, bright as the day they were painted,  showing the noble fraternity of the Buonomini distributing alms to the poor, visiting the sick, burying the dead, performing the Christian works of Corporal mercy:   It is religious, but not spiritual, it is the charitable works of the Lord, it is the salvation army, the good Samaritans.

You have stumbled across, in this scruffy square, with its battered tables and graffiti, a little treasure of Florence.   A 1000-year-old tower and now a 15th-century oratory with frescos by Florentine masters, and no ques, and no crocodiles of tourists.

Refreshed, you follow the via Dante Alighieri for a few yards, no more, and there is the house of Dante.  He knew these streets, he walked here, you are walking in the footsteps of Dante, in his very neighborhood, he would have known the scruffy square where you had taken the Italian beer.

A gallery, in a charming old building, with great studded doors and wooden shutters, of contemporary art.   It is small, and it is free and there are no long crocodiles waiting to get in.

You continue along the via Dante Alighieri  and there is a door, no more than 40 yards from the scruffy square, a large tall open door and sign upon the steps, a cardboard sign inviting you in to see the “produce of our monastery” and inside, in  a little cubbyhole of a space a nun presides over the jars of honey, the bottles of wine, the rosaries and the small sacred figures of those who lived with Christ.   The Chianti of the monastery is €7 for a bottle and you cannot resist, God bless the monks.   Music is playing on a small CD player.  It is the music of the monastery, the chanting of Vespers by the nuns and the monks.  The nun sees you admiring the sound.

“You can come to Vespers,” she says, “and hear us sing”.

It is late now, almost 6pm and Vespers will begin on the hour of six.   You are in the Bardia Fiorentina, a church and abbey, once owned by the Benedictines but now the place of worship for the Fraternita’ di Gerusalemme, or the Fraternity of Jerusalem    It is quiet, there are no crocodiles, there is a small pleasant courtyard and a great church, dating from 978.

So, you go to Vespers, the sunset service..  In the Bardia Fiorentina.  It is dark, lit by candlelight, there is hardly anyone there, a congregation of ten or twelve, in this massive, soaring Italian Romanesque interior, a great Byzantine cross hangs over the altar, it’s gold leaf picking up the reflecting candlelight.  And gathered before the altar rails are the nuns.

They are robed in full-length white cloaks, kneeling before their god.  There are monks too, across the aisle, again all in white, before the altar rails. And there are priests.  There is incense, swung by a monk from a golden thurible on a heavy chain; and an organ is playing.


The singing is so sweet, so wonderful, so soaring, so respectful.  In Italian.   Dante, in his day, would have heard the Mass and the vespers being sung here.  It is his neighborhood and has been sung here in this church since medieval times.  It is said that it was here he first saw Beatrice. He would have heard it in Latin and how his heart would soar to hear it now, in the Italian, the language of his poetry, the language he gave to Italy.

The nuns are like ghostly sculptures, singing softly in their long white robes

vespers 4

You are not a man of God, but few would fail to be moved by this.  It is the essence of medieval Florence

It is over, and you emerge from the cool darkness of the church.

You have traveled not more than fifty yards since you sat in the battered seats of the bar Mingo in the scruffy Piazza San Marino.    You have been to the Duma, to the grave of Michelangelo in the church of Santa Croce, to the Uffizi, following the tourist crocodiles around Giotto and Botticelli and Raphael; to Tuscan vineyards and to the Etruscan heights of Firenze, but that 50 yards of Florence that you stumbled across, by accident,  that, non-descript fifty medieval yards, that  is what will remain with you, when you leave this gorgeous medieval city and get back to the plain pints of Ireland and the  cold climes of Northern Europe.



Sky Q Box review.

The Sky Q box has, in the trade press, received some very favourable reviews, rave reviews even, But me, I’m just a user of the product, not too technically savvy and never before have I reviewed a bit of technology, although I like a gadget as much as the next bloke. But I don’t and won’t take sky’s shilling, and they don’t advertise on my humble blog, so therefore this review is real, for the Sky Q box, contrary to the trade press reviews in publications that rely heavily on sky advertising, is a pretty poor product. In fact its rubbish.

It is designed to replace the Sky + box and it is perhaps as as well to begin this review by reminding us all of just how good was the Sky + box. Sky has hundreds of channels and a multitude of multi-channel products that you can buy. Scrolling through all those channels looking for the programme you want would be tedious and would produce a very unsatisfactory viewing experience. So they invented the rather fabulous favorites button. On a radio you might well call it a pre-select button. You could chose up to a dozen or so favorite programmes and save them to the little yellow favorites button. Once saved you could flip through your favorites at will, backwards and forwards, up and down, they were always there for you. A wonderful feature, a complete treasure of viewing convenience. It also enabled you to switch between channels with the utmost ease, so if you were watching the History Channel you could quickly switch to the Sports channel and check the score on the match and switch back again in a couple of seconds.
The Sky + box would also record programmes. Another wonderful feature and I, as I am sure many others, often wondered why radio manufacturers hadn’t taken up such a feature so that you could record and pre-record favorite programmes on the radio. Anyway the record feature had a couple of drawbacks. Firstly the storage for recordings was fairly limited and secondly you could not watch one programme and record more than two others at the same time. It was to address these limitations, amongst others,  that they came up with the Q box.
The Q box will allow you to record up to four programmes while watching a fifth programme. And the storage has been beefed up to 1000 hours which, by any measure, is pretty assume.
It is important to note that the Q box does not improve the quality of the picture on the screen. That remains the same HD high quality, unaffected by the new style box.
But. And it’s a very fucking big but, Sky have abandoned the favorites or pre-select function of the old Sky + box!! It is frankly unbelievable that they should do such a thing.
Now you have to scroll through a fairly complex menu of hundreds of programmes to find the one you want. You can’t save the chosen channel to favorites or to a pre-select function. So every time you switch on you have to go through the same menu of sculling channels. Nor can you flick between the channel you are watching and some other channel, for example, for a quick look at the soccer match to check the scores, or perhaps a flick over during advertising to check the news headlines. Well, actually you can, but to do so involves engaging the complex menu and sculling your way backwards and forwards whereas on the Sky + box it merely involved a couple of hits on the yellow button.
It might be difficult to explain. If it was a telephone system, then it would be like one of those corporate answering services. “If want news select 1, if you want documentaries select 2; if you want children’s programmes select 3; if you want movies select 4 etc etc.
So you select movies and press 4. Another menu appears: if you want drama select 1; if you want children’s, select 2, I you want romance select 3; if you want comedy select 4.
And you have to go through this every single fucking time you switch on.
Sky, obviously think such telephone menus are wonderful and have imported the idea into the new Q Box.
I cannot tell you adequately how much this endless sculling through menus reduces the Sky viewing experience. Of course if you knew the channel numbers of your favorite programmes you could just key the number in. But who the fuck knows a dozen numbers, or possibly 500 numbers. You would need a board set up beside the TV with your favorite numbers on it so you could remember them, each time you wanted to watch them, key them in. Now, that is a real advance in technology is it not?
So you watch less of Sky. And you question whether the subscription to Sky is worth the money anymore. And you start looking at the alternatives to Sky and you say fuck you Sky, if you put such a rubbish backward stepping product on the market then why should I bother.
It’s a bit like a buying a new car with all the latest gadgetry on board; sat-nav, heated seats, electronically adjustable seats, self-parking, video cameras front and rear, head up displays on the windscreen, enormous boot and storage space, warning signals for tires and lights, voice controlled central air conditioning, blue tooth super store systems, automatic boot opening and closing sensors and all the rest of the wonders of new cars, but without a fucking steering wheel!
You know they should take out 1 in ten of Sky’s engineering department, and 1 in ten of their sales department and have them shot for putting such a poor product on the market. In fact if the did that it would make a good documentary for the Sky History channel. Trouble is if you wanted to watch it on the Sky Q box you have difficulty finding it.
Oh I know it’s a trite complaint given what is going on in the world. Famine in Africa, incoherence in America, disintegration in Europe and on the Archers, they can’t even muster a cricket team. And here I am complaining about how to select a TV channel. But so be it. It needs to be said. The Q box without a favorites or pre-select function is a piece of junk.