Nicky Swallow

Nicky Swallow

Thu 09 Dec 2010 1:00 AM


A musician at heart becomes a travel writer


 A few years after Nicky Swallow was born in London, her family moved to Belfast, Northern Ireland. She grew up there, but then returned to England to study music and the viola at Wells Cathedral School, a boarding school in Somerset, England, specializing in music. For three years, she studied music composition, instrumental performance and music history at the University of York from which she received a bachelor’s degree in music.


Eventually, she moved back to London to work on an orchestral studies diploma for a year. During that time, she auditioned for the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. She had visited Florence a few times on vacation, and thought it would be a wonderful experience to come here for three months to play for the orchestra.


In 1981, Nicky moved to Florence, winning a short-term contract after her first, and only, audition. Shortly after her arrival in Florence, the contract was then extended to a couple of years, and when that contract expired, she continued working with the Maggio Musicale on short-term contracts for a few more years, all the while, learning new repertoire and performing a mix of concerts, opera and ballet.


Although her work with the orchestra was drying up, her desire to stay in Florence was not. She worked a variety of odd jobs to support herself, teaching English, cooking and cleaning houses. One day, Nicky met a woman from Prato who played with an early music group that was looking for musicians. Nicky, who had always had an interest in early repertoire and authentic instrument performance, began to freelance with early music groups, performing around Europe. For almost seven years, she worked as a freelance musician, but ultimately she quit because she wasn’t spending much time in Florence.


Around the same time, one of Nicky’s cousins in London, who was editing a hotel guide, asked her if she could do a few hotel inspections: stay in hotels and write reviews about them. One of the editors of the hotel guide who also worked for Time Out approached Nicky about fact checking Time Out’s first travel guide for Tuscany and Florence. Besides fact-checking, she also wrote some of the material about the restaurants and hotels. Based on her work, she was asked to become the consultant editor of the Time Out Florence & Tuscany guide.


When Condé Nast Traveller UK asked her to become its correspondent for Florence, Nicky began writing articles for that publication. Over the years, she has written many other guides for Florence, Tuscany, Milan, and Cape Town with other publishers. Her latest travel guide is Frommer’s Naples and the Amalfi Coast: Day by Day. Besides writing travel guides, she is also a regular contributor for Firenze-Made in Tuscany, a quarterly bilingual magazine published in Florence and is the travel expert in Florence for the SimonSeeks website.


Despite her successful freelance writing career, Nicky’s passion for music has not waned. In fact, she is doing what she had always dreamed of doing with her music degree: managing a music festival. She manages the annual Incontri in Terra di Siena music festival, which is held during the last 10 days of July. A roster of international musicians comes to perform chamber music, early music and jazz at Iris Origo’s villa, La Foce (see TF 57).


When Nicky arrived in Florence almost 30 years ago, she never dreamed that her life would take such twists and turns. Not only is she a musician, but she has also become a travel writer and a music administrator. One thing, however, has not changed: the area in which she lives, the Santo Spirito neighborhood. Once she discovered the sense of community there and recognized that it is still one of the few true neighborhoods left in the city, she decided never to leave. Opportunities may continue to arise for Nicky, she says, but she doubts that they will lure her away from the city, much less the neighborhood where she has found her true home.


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