The Great Flood – This time 1966

rome_20070128_00456.JPGLove Ones, as you know I often reflect on my “other city”. At exactly this time 42 years ago, Florence was awash in a toxic brew of water, oil and sewage. The river that runs through the heart of the city is famous for it’s bad behavior, having flooded it’s banks 56 times since 1177, 8 times with disastrous consequences, but nothing like the great flood of 1966. Even 40 years later when I was living there, it was possible to see the scars left by this disastrous event. Quite often, in the place of great works of Art, would be a sign saying “under restoration from damage caused by the Great Flood”, there were water marks clearly visible on frescoes and how could I ever forget the plaque on the side of a wall several blocks from the river bank.

180px-1966_arno_florence_flood_2008.JPGIt was over my head and it read “In 1966 l’acqua era fino a qui” (in 1966 the water was up to here). There were apparently warning signs the day before; with a third of the usual annual rain falling in just two days, but nothing that prepared the city for the fury that was about to be unleashed in the dead of the night. In the wee hours of the morning of November 4th, when water was released to relieve pressure on a nearby dam, it came barrelling down the river like a Tsunami. The city was dismembered, cut in two by the raging water, which tore through the narrow streets, flooding basements and cellars where oil tanks were stored. Florence awoke to panic: 30 had died, thousands were left homeless, many businesses were ruined and a million books and over 11,400 works of art damaged or destroyed by the lethal brew. 


In the aftermath the city was covered in a thick layer of mud and debris. I was a high school student at the time, just a few years younger than the thousands of “mud angels” who came to the city’s rescue. Reminders of the flood are everywhere, mostly in the form of vacant spots in galleries, scaffolding surrounding treasures that are still under restoration and water marks left on walls as grim reminders.  


I am a “water person” – I don’t like to be too far from the ocean.  If I can’t have the ocean, a lake or river will do.   When I lived in Florence the river Arno was a source of endless fascination. It was not pretty, a bit of a cesspool really, murky brown in color, giving off an odor reminiscent of a hockey bag; flowing gently one day and a raging torrent the next.


canottieri-firenze.jpgI was immediately curious about  the little sculls scooting up and down the river like pond spiders. What began as intrigue became a bit of an obsession and I was determined to get down to the water. I knew La Canottieri – the Florence Rowing Club was located somewhere under the Ponte Vecchio but the road ran high above the riverbank and the way down was blocked by a metal fence. I had been told that somewhere near the Uffizi museum there was a green door with a sign and when I finally found it – just the words “Canottieri Firenze” discretely chiseled into the stone of the wall, so discreetly as to be virtually invisible. The door was open so I walked in. The clubhouse had a musty old world feeling with gentlemen in navy blazers and silk cravats ordering aperitivo at the wood paneled bar with the trophies and photos of national champions, some dating back to the clubs beginnings in the early 1900’s, lining the back walls. 


I had been told they had a fitness facility and it seemed a more promising alternative to the gym near the Via Tornabouni where the wafer thin receptionist puffed on a cigarette while she gave me the tour. (!) Wandering around, I met a young American woman and she mentioned they needed extra women for their dragon boat team. I gave her my number. 


“You’ve GOT to be kidding”  my daughter wailed  when I told her my plan. “You’ll catch the plague. What if you fall in? You’ll dissolve.” I remembered she was with me when we say the rodents of pre-historic proportions scampering across the rocks that line the banks of the river. I didn’t care. It was an opportunity to join the ranks of the flotsam and jetsam who had for thousands of years, punted, paddled, floated, rowed or otherwise navigated the murky depths of the river Arno.

Mondo problemo! – I had never actually been in a dragon boat before. Oops! On the first night there was lots of kissing and ciaoing, big brawny brutes mostly, with massive shoulders, tiny waists and legs like proscuitto hams, dressed in little spandex unitards that didn’t leave much to the imagination. WooHoo! With names like Marco, Jacopo, Francesco and Alessio I figured if I just mumbled “something-o” I’d be “o”k. It was soon explained to me that they needed 20 in a boat but at least 8 had to be women for them to qualify as a mixed team. The numbers were in my favor and they seemed more than prepared to overlook my novice status not to mention that I was also about 20 years older than anyone else on the boat ! I was glad I had arranged to meet Martha earlier so she could show me the stroke.


When we finally launched the boat they sat me next to the Americana and behind Jacapo, both with an easy elegant stroke that I struggled to emulate. Many moons ago I was a competitive swimmer and still have good upper body strength and secretly thanked my friend Neil for the relentless workouts at his (non-smoking) gym. 


The dragon boat has silent strokes, no slapping, just a quiet piercing of the water. The stroke is simple and repetitive and I got in the groove. 20 powerful strokes followed by 10 of rest, uno, due, tre, quarto, all in unison, twenty bodies moving as one (well almost). The captain was yelling instructions in Italian and I didn’t understand a word, just the rhythmic stroke in the water, following the leader completely lost in thought. I thought I made out the word “stronso” (shithead) a couple of times and wondered if it was directed at me. No matter, it was exhilarating so I forged ahead. I realized after a while that I was almost in a trance, a profound state of endorphin induced well-being.


The spell was broken when a big gob of Arno-water splashed onto my face, into my mouth and trickled down the back of my throat. I was obliged to swallow rather than appear unladylike and spit on my first night so I made a note to self “learn to paddle with mouth closed in future”. 


arno.jpgDusk had settled on the river in a smoky haze. We were paddling into the sunset which at first nestled on top of the Ponte Vecchio then descended into the frames of its three little archways before flooding onto the river itself, changing its color to a deep and shimmering indigo. The monster rodents that had been scurrying along the banks of the river disappeared and were replaced by tiny little bats that swooped above us like swallows. The river is floodlit at night; powerful spots beamed down from the buildings above, bathe the river in light enabling us to paddle well after dusk. A lovely tranquility descended on the city. The walls lining the river continued up into the facades of the buildings along the waterfront where the twinkling lights were beginning to turn on.



 It was magical – physically exhilarating, emotionally uplifting and breathtakingly beautiful. 

Life lived To The Max!


If you are interested in a “pleasurable” read on the great flood of ’66 check out “The Sixteen Pleasures” by Robert Hellenga. Touted by some as “as close to perfection as a novel gets” the book is set in Florence immediately after the flood and the heroine is one of the “mud angles”, a book restorer from the U.S. The “16 pleasures” of the title allude to a naughty medieval manuscript (the property of an order of nuns) which has been damaged in the flood, a pornographic volume disguised as a prayer book. While trying to assist the Abbess find a suitable buyer for the “hot” property our heroine cannot resist re-enacting some of the pleasures with her Italian lover. WooHoo!  

5 Responses

  1. RuthJones Says:

    what a fabulous adventure Peg. You never cease to amaze me with your quest for uber-experiences. Dusk on the Arno, the image stays with me, see you tonight…love, Ruth

  2. Neil Says:

    I take exception to the poke at hockey players and their “equipment”. It was a lovely trip down memory lane. I will never forget Florence.

  3. Virginia Leeming Says:

    You always, without fail, leave me laughing. Yes, note to self – keep mouth closed. xoxo

  4. Cesar Moves Says:

    This Blog reminds me the reason I like bloging so much, the interaction is very important with readers and you guys have it right. Looks great too, will be back for more posts, David the mover.

  5. Jenny R. Says:

    I was reading over your site and like what I saw. I just wanted to say keep up the good work.

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