Back in 2015, the Tuscan port city of Livorno bestowed a special honour upon me – kind of the Italian equivalent of getting the keys to the city.
I fell in love with Livorno the moment I rattled into town on my way to Rome on my little old Vespa, Sophia.
Sure, the place was a little rough around the edges, but boy, did it have brio.
I’ve made life-long friends there too – Marco and Lucilla, Filippo and Valerya – and they said I should bring my daughter along as well. It was in ‘Term Time’ but her headmaster agreed she could take a couple of days off to attend such an important ceremony.
It was my sixth or seventh visit to Livorno and, as ever, my friends insisted on us following a standard procedure. Aperitifs at Vizi e Virtù (Vices and Virtues). Dinner at Cantina Senese, preferably a bowl of cacciucco, Livorno’s legendary fish stew. And a round or two of ponce at Bar Civili.
We all had kids in tow this time so we sat at tables in the rooms to the side in Bar Civili and played cards amongst all the Livornese old-timers gathered there doing the same.
Like with every visit to Livorno, my Italian BFFs introduced me to a new side of their city. We dropped in on music club in a vaulted canal-side warehouse where Filippo’s cousin played a set with her band. We ate a slab of meat the size of a cow in a new rustic steakhouse in the old town. And we visited an art gallery set in Villa Mimbelli, the Livornese equivalent of a stately home. It had a ceramic staircase. How often do you see that?
The ceremony itself was held in Livorno’s magnificent Mercato Centrale. The 19th century building was designed by Angiolo Badaloni as a temple of iron and glass and is the second largest food market in Europe. A table was set up in one of the busy aisles, amongst the hustle and bustle of the traders. Livorno’s trendy young mayor wore a poncho and gave a speech. Photos were taken. And polite applause echoed under the high vaulted roof.
Sophia had a rare outing from Marco’s workshop, swept along to the ceremony in a van with tinted windows like a glamourous 60s movie star trying to avoid the paparazzi. Ostensibly, she was there as prop for the ceremony. But let’s be honest, she was real reason for the whole occasion.
As usual – and deservedly – she ended up getting more attention than me.
There were no keys to the city as such – ceremonial or otherwise. In Italy they just give you a bottle of extra virgin olive oil and a tour off the mayor’s office, home to some of the city’s most treasured art.
Which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is an altogether more civilised approach.