Dan Brown's Italy - A blockbuster trip through Venice and Florence
Our reporter uses a hit novel as her guidebook to two of Italy's most beautiful and cultured cities, Venice and Florence.
A truly great author knows how to set the scene.
It's hard to think of Ulysses without thinking of Dublin's Fair City, for example, or to read Raymond Chandler's gritty noirs without imagining pre-war Los Angeles. In many ways, the location is as integral a part of a novel as its characters.
Dan Brown may not be Joyce, or Chandler, but the same goes for his books.
Settings are key to plots; his hero Robert Langdon wouldn't be able to solve the riddles set forth if it wasn't for the architecture of Paris and London in The Da Vinci Code (2003), for instance, while Rome's sculptures and fountains are central to Angels and Demons (2000).
When these blockbuster novels were adapted for the big screen, the locations became even more significant - the visual arts contributing wholly to the feel and mood of the screenplays. Remember Tom Hanks as the intrepid symbologist running around Vatican City and Piazza Navona? Or flitting among European cathedrals hunting for the truth in Ron Howard's 2006 and 2009 movies?
Well, now Inferno (2013), the latest Brown adaptation, is set to be released in Irish cinemas. Most of the action in Inferno, named after the first part of Dante's Commedia, takes place in two of Italy's most vibrant and charming cities, Venice and Florence. So, what's a bibliophile movie buff with wanderlust to do but take advantage of cheap European flights and an efficient Italian rail system, and fit both locations in to a minibreak crammed with history, culture, food and wine?
My father is Italian, but my fiancé Joe had never been to the motherland. As a Brown fan, this seemed like the perfect excuse to visit Italy together.
Inferno begins with Langdon waking up with no memory in Florence, but in possession of a cylinder bearing a biohazard symbol. He soon realises his life is at risk and flees, finding out that he's not even safe in the American consulate.
With the help of Dr Sienna Brooks (played by Oscar nominee, Felicity Huffman), he opens the container and finds a version of Botticelli's Map of Hell that sends him on a quest to regain his memory. He soon discovers that Dante's poem seems to be a prophecy about a new plague that will devastate humanity, and must visit some of the cities' ancient buildings and artefacts to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Still with me? Sure, it's quite the undertaking for your average academic (not to mention reader), but hey, this is Dan Brown we're talking about. Plus, it makes for a hell of a tourist trail.
Joe and I turned the narrative on its head by arriving in Venice first, simply due to logistics. When you arrive at Marco Polo airport you have several options to get to the centre of Venice, but all involve water. The water bus is the pocket-friendly option, but we were feeling flash and took a water taxi like Langdon and Brooks do in the book - there's something very cinematic about entering an old, sinking city that's achingly beautiful in a slick speed boat. It'll set you back €110, but the boats fit up to five people and I'd actually recommend it far more than a slow, touristy gondola ride.
I'd visited Venice a decade earlier while inter-railing, but to save money had stayed on the mainland in a campsite. This time I was excited to stay on the main island of San Marco, home to the Piazza of the same name that plays a big part in Brown's novel.
Our hotel wasn't far from the famous Rialto Bridge, sadly now covered for the most part by a large billboard and construction hoarding. It's the scene of a turning point for Langdon's novel and while I won't ruin it for you, it involves the history of the famous Plague masks you'll notice dotted around the city (and on sale in every gift shop).
We headed straight for the famous Piazza to see some of the buildings Langdon talks of - the Basilica with its four horses, the Doge Palace and the Bridge of Sighs. The architecture alone would blow your socks off on sight, but having an awareness of the history, the intricacies and the theories surrounding the buildings from the novel adds another level to the traditional tourist experience.
Venice is a city for walking, so bring comfy shoes. We combed the twisting, winding streets, eating gelato, oohing and aahing and stopping for coffee every now and then. Strolling from San Marco to the neighbouring island of San Polo over the Rialto Bridge brought us to an altogether less touristy part of the city. There, we sat on a residential square in Santa Croce called Al Prosecco, sampling several different types of the Italian fizzy wine and nibbling olives (alprosecco.com).
After two nights wandering around Venice and soaking up the romantic atmosphere, we caught a water taxi to the city's main train station, Santa Lucia, and hopped on the high-speed train to Florence, the capital of Tuscany. Less than two hours later, we had the famous Duomo by Brunelleschi in our sights, another key location in Langdon's quest.
An homage to Renaissance art and architecture, Florence was at the centre of Europe in terms of trade and finance in medieval times, and went through several periods of political turmoil and revolt. It's another place best seen on foot, so we dropped off our bags and headed straight to the Duomo for a closer view. It's one of those buildings that's even more stupendous in real life, with mind-blowing detail that's been lovingly maintained. Giotto's Campanile beside it is a similar treat.
Only a few minutes' walk away, you'll find the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's city hall. It's an integral part of Inferno, where Langdon begins to fully piece the mystery of the novel together. Judging by the trailer, there's lots of digital trickery at work in the film, especially in the Salone dei Cinquecento, an incredibly grand room filled with works of art by Giorgio Vasari, which if Langdon is to be believed, hold some secrets of their own.
This building is where all the action takes place - it's here that Langdon and Brooks piece together Medici's clues to secret walkways and passages to escape their pursuers. They visit the famous Hall of Maps and find the secret door behind Armenia, and they even get to run through Vasari's corridor, a bridge above the heads of the Florentines that runs from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti nearby, something that tourists sadly can't recreate. It's also here that you can see Dante's death mask, another key item in Brown's work that's quite incredible to behold in reality - mainly because of how small his face was.
In fact, there are few Florentine tourist attractions that aren't present in Inferno - the Boboli Garden, the Ponte Vecchio and the Baptistery beside the Duomo all feature. Don't think the city is a living museum, however - it also has some very hip elements. For starters, there's the famous Mercato Centrale (mercatocentrale.it/en), a must-visit for foodies. Here you can eat and drink local delicacies, as well as purchase ingredients, flowers and Italian staples to take away or bring home with you. We whiled away an incredibly pleasant afternoon tasting pasta and cured meats while soaking up the ambience.
We also popped over to the vicinity of Santo Spirito, a short walk across the Ponte Vecchio from the tourist hotspots. Off the beaten track, full of locals walking their dogs or out for an evening bite, it's got a small strip of authentic bars and restaurants - I'd recommend stopping off at each one of them for an Aperol Spritz or a Chianti, although perhaps not all in one night.
Our trip came to an end with a bus ride from Florence to Pisa Airport (the city doesn't have its own international terminal). Next trip? We'll be visiting Rome armed with Angels and Demons.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies direct from Dublin to Venice daily, while Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to and from Pisa four times a week in October. Trenitalia.com is the place to book train tickets. Inferno is in cinemas from October 14.
Go for a hotel on the Grand Canal. Prices vary massively in Venice, and it’s true that sometimes these hotels on the canal can flood, but the Carlton is particularly special as it has a rooftop terrace with fabulous views. Prices from €280 per room including breakfast in October. See carltongrandcanal.com
Located not far from the Ponte Vecchio and across from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Hotel Degli Orafi (above; hoteldegliorafi.it) won’t break the bank. It’s got frescos on the walls where you’ll eat a free breakfast, and a roof terrace, too. Prices start from around €269 per night.
For more on Italy see italia.it.