Sunday, June 9, 2013

I’m bound for Florence this morning, but not quite yet. My train doesn’t leave until just past noon, so there’s still time left for one last walk around the sestiere of Santa Croce before I have to say goodbye to Walter and the wonderful Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo.

There are two “unofficial,” or collateral, exhibits from the Biennale nearby, plus a separate gallery devoted to honeybees and Murano glass. I decide to visit them all.

The first involves a crane and an odd red sculpture that’s been suspended from it these past four days. I saw it when I first arrived that day on the water taxi, just to the right of the church at San Stae, and I’ve wondered about its purpose ever since.

When I enter the United Cultural Nations exhibit, a beam of light leads me down the hall of a grand palazzo towards a room filled with the sound of tribal drums. Overhead, a hole has been cut in the ceiling and there, suspended high above, the red sculpture is hovering. It’s called the “Flying Ship.” The brochure says it’s meant to “promote rethinking the relations between individuals and others” and the “spirit to reach a new destination.” For me, though, it’s simply an Aha moment. It resolves a mystery. I may not understand what it means, but at last I know what it is.

The second exhibit is sponsored by Paraguay and while a number of artists are represented, two in particular stand out. On a small computer monitor, Daniel Milessi offers an imaginative history of his country in video game format. It reminds me of the old Pac-Man consoles I used to play in pizza parlors when I was a girl, though in place of the game’s original ghosts, the enemies are invaders and the outcome is told in pixels of blood.

My favorite of the day, though, is Pedro Barrail. There is a wall in the palazzo that’s been covered with its own image, printed with a large red dot in the center and the words: YOU ARE NOT HERE, alongside the longitude and latitude measurements of the room itself. It’s clever, really, and while I may not grab the “red lifesaver and head for redemption,” as the brochure advises, I find myself staring at it in defiance. It reminds me of the hurdles I have crossed over the past two years, to say nothing of the past two months.

I AM (most decidedly) HERE.

I grab my luggage at the hotel, promise Walter I’ll be back again next time, and then sprint off to the train station. It’s just a short journey to Florence, less than two hours, but the change in scenery is striking. Here, too, I am greeted by a series of familiar associations that bring a smile to my face as they pass outside the window of the cabthe green and white façade of Santa Maria Novella, the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, and Brunelleschi‘s enormous red dome on the Duomo, which peeks out from behind nearly every street in town.

As in Venice, I’m returning to the same hotel that I booked on two previous trips to Italy. I’m a creature of habit and revisiting places gives me a sense of comfort and identity, a neighborhood to call my own. When I’m in London, I livetemporarily, at leastin South Kensington. In Paris, the 5th Arrondissement is my home. And when I’m in Florence, I stay at the Hotel Davanzati. It’s as simple as that.

It’s mid-afternoon when I climb the stairs and emerge out of the elevator into the quiet lobby. Tommaso greets me warmly from behind the reception desk and I inquire about his family, and his father Fabrizio in particular, as he encodes the key card. Before long, we’ve caught up and we’re talking about businesses and unions and Italian politics, and debating whether or not the U.S. is any less dysfunctional. It feels good to be back.

Outside, the day has turned gray and cool, and I spend the remainder of it reacquainting myself with the city. I stroll down to the Ponte Vecchio and across to the Oltrarno for some window shopping, before retracing my steps back to Via Porta Rossa for an early dinner at La Grotta Guelfa—some mixed crostini and a bowl of risotto with mushrooms.

Afterwards, I walk back to the Ponte Vecchio in the hope of finding a street musician named Claudio Spadi there. I’ve heard him play every time I’ve been to Florence, and there he is again, singing a cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” to an appreciative crowd and the setting sun.

As in Venice, some things never change, and for that I am grateful.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

I slept in so late yesterday that I barely made breakfast, and today I’ve missed it entirely. It’s after 10:30 AM and I need to make plans.

Tommaso is manning the reception desk at the Hotel Davanzati this morning, so I tell him I think I’d like to go on one of those tours of the Vasari Corridor. Does he think he can get me a last minute reservation? Of course, he can. He is a master at such things. He makes a quick phone call and finds that there’s room available in a group that leaves at 3:15 this afternoon. He prints out a confirmation page and shows me where to meet the guide on Via de’ Lamberti.

By now my stomach is growling, so I grab a late breakfast at Caffè Donnini in Piazza della Repubblica. As I scrape up the last bit of foam in my cappuccino with a spoon and pay the bill, I look at a map and settle on what to do next. I’m going to explore the Oltrarno in search of antiques and artisan workshops.

I cross the river on the Ponte Santa Trinita and continue along Via Maggio, where the store window at Giovanni Turchi’s catches my eye. There’s a lovely portrait miniature of a boy on a hobby horse. I ask to see it, and Giovanni himself—a kindly soul with frail legs and white hair—pulls it from the case. It’s probably American, he says, and I agree. He notices my accent and remarks that it would be nice to send it home where it belongs. I’d love to have it, but I glance at the price tag and know that I can’t possibly afford it. I hand it back and say I’m sorry, but Giovanni is a true Italian gentleman. He raises a hand to show that no apology is necessary and declares it “pleasure enough to see a beautiful woman” in his gallery. I just might come back later and invite Giovanni out on a dinner date, he’s just that sweet.

I wander aimlessly for a while, up one street and down the other, stopping at a neighborhood flea market in Piazza San Spirito. By early afternoon I’ve worked my way over to the Ponte Vecchio and I head back across the river in time for a quick lunch at a self-service cafeteria called Marchetti on Via dei Calzaiuoli, one the city’s main shopping streets.

I still need to find my nephew a black leather belt and the stores in Florence are overflowing with options, but most are marked “Made in Italy,” which seems tacky in English and destined for the tourist market. Feeling pressured for time, I decide to return to the Scuola del Cuoio, where I find something that’s perfect for a good price. The same young man who monogrammed my wallet yesterday is there again in the workshop. He recognizes me and greets me with a cheerful “You’re back!”

I rush to the hotel to drop off my purchase, careful not to be late for the Vasari Corridor tour. I arrive just as the guide is handing out headsets with radio receivers so that we can hear his commentary more clearly. His name is Mario and he has a thick accent and an even thicker mop of curly hair. He’s the Italian equivalent of a hippie, but he has the soul of a teacher. There are a dozen or so people on the tour and within minutes he’s learned all of our names. This impresses me at first. Hundreds of students a year pass through my classes, and I have to rely on flashcards to learn the names of even half of them by the end of term. He’s done well.

Mario begins with an introduction to medieval versus Renaissance art by pointing to the niches on the front of the Orsanmichele church across the street from the FlorenceTown tour office. We have an interesting discussion about Verrocchio’s bronze statue of “Doubting Thomas,” but from there, things quickly fall apart. We walk to the Uffizi where he spends the next hour and a half lecturing the group in a room full of paintings of the Madonna and Child. He talks obsessively about the “dropery” of the fabric and how it “devil-op-id” through the years, which has us scratching our heads, not just at the mispronunciations of drapery and developed, but at the tedium of the subject matter. I’ve been to the Uffizi before, and most us here have, so we’re eager to move on to the Vasari Corridor—after all, that is what we paid an astounding €85 to see. Still, Mario insists on quizzing us using the Socratic Method, which is when I begin to curse him for learning our names so well. “Deborah, John, Beverly, George—Come here. Which of these two paintings was first? Can you tell from the dropery?”

By the time we finally reach the entrance to the corridor, we’re running late, of course. The museum is about to close and the security guard who opens the door has a harsh word with Mario before letting us in. The guard follows us and remains disgruntled throughout, his arms crossed menacingly across his chest.

The Vasari Corrider is an enclosed passageway that was built for the Medicis in 1564, extending from the seat of government at the Palazzo Vecchio to their lavish living quarters at the Palazzo Pitti across the river. As such, it runs above the Ponte Vecchio and is nearly unnoticed by the shoppers below perusing the jewelry shops that line the bridge today.

The corridor itself is bare in its design, but it houses the world’s largest collection of artist’s self-portraits, including Old masters such as Rembrandt, Rubens, and Velazquez, but also more contemporary examples by John Singer Sargent and Marc Chagall, among many others (about 1,500 in all). On our sprint toward the Pitti Palace, we pass a wonderful work from 1790 of Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun painting at her easel with a brush in her hand. Mario doesn’t mention her at all, nor any of the female artists in the collection for that matter. He is still acting fanatically about “dropery” and he’s hell bent on pointing out the darkest and dreariest portraits on the wall. He’s far more concerned with the technique of painting than with the sitters themselves, which misses the entire point of a self-portrait, it seems to me.

Back at the Hotel Davanzati during Happy Hour, I discover that two of the couples from the tour are staying here as well, so we sit together and talk and gripe about Mario until it’s time for dinner. Tonight, Tommaso has recommended Osteria Il Porcellino, named for the statue of a wild boar that people rub on the snout when they want to return to Florence someday.

Afterwards, I see that Claudio Spadi is singing in Piazza della Repubblica, so I listen for a bit before moving on to an organ concert at Santa Maria de’ Ricci, where the proceeds are used to fund the church’s renovation. And later, I see a classical guitarist on the steps of the Mercato Nuovo. She’s playing “Con te partirò,” a phrase that means “Time to Say Goodbye.”

As I head back to the hotel under the orange glow of the street lights, I realize that I have just two nights left in Florence. The time to part will come soon enough, which is hard to bear when standing on the sidewalk in a city of endless possibilities.

I might just keep walking.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

After a less than inspiring visit to Bologna yesterday, I’m determined to do better today. Over breakfast, I unfold a map and consider my options. The Hotel Davanzati has a sister company called I Just Drive, which offers a number of small group tours. I had hoped to go on their outing to Pienza, Montalcino, and Montepulciano, but as in Venice my timing as a solo traveler is bad. No one else has booked the trip this week, so it’s understandable that it’s been cancelled. Modena could be reached by train, but Tommaso thinks it’s too far to go for the day. Ferrara is within reach, but Fabrizio wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve already been to San Gimignano, and while it’s a stunning town with soaring medieval towers, it’s too small to consider going back so soon. And tomorrow I’m heading west to Lucca and on to Pisa, so those destinations are out as well. I consider Fiesole for a moment, or maybe Pistoia, but I decide to roll the dice and lay my bet on the surest thing I know. I’m going to revisit the classic Tuscan hill town of Siena.

I went to Siena on my first trip to Italy back in 2008, but after touring the Palazzo Pubblico to see the frescoes depicting “The Allegories of Good and Bad Government,” and climbing the Torre del Mangia, I was too weary to bother with the cathedral or the baptistery or the adjacent Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. I spent the afternoon instead wandering the hilly streets in a happy stupor induced by some truly excellent food. It was a memorable day. Only later did it occur to me that I had missed the finest view of all, which is reached from the top of an unfinished wall of the Duomo, abandoned in the 14th century when the Black Plague swept through the city. My return today is all about unfinished business.

I walk to the SITA terminal near Santa Maria Novella and board a corse rapide bus that offers little in terms of scenery, but gets to Siena via the autostrada in little more than an hour. By 11:30 AM we’ve arrived at Piazza Antonio Gramsci and just as before, I follow the crowd of day trippers along Via Banchi di Sopra toward the city center and Piazza del Campo. I stand on the sloping pavement for a few minutes, soaking in the surroundings and the grandeur of the Palazzo Pubblico. There are pigeons bathing in the Fonte Gaia, children playing tag, and people lounging with their backs upon the warm bricks. It’s such a lively and pleasant place to be on a summer’s day that I’m tempted stay and eat lunch at one of the cafés that line the campo, but the meal I had here in 2008 was so exquisite that I feel obligated to find something that competes.

I pull up some TripAdvisor reviews on my iPhone—a wonder of technology that wasn’t at my fingertips the last time I was here—and opt for a table at Dolceforte. The owner, Anna, is sunny and gregarious, and justifiably proud of her food. I order a plate of wild boar ragù, and an arugula salad with walnuts, pears, and pecorino cheese, drizzled with a homemade balsamic reduction. Everything is delicious, especially the balsamic and when I tell her so, she beams.

With fuel in my stomach and energy in my legs, I decide to tackle the most trying item on my itinerary first—the narrow, corkscrew stairway that leads to the Panorama del Facciatone. Because I am determined to do things properly this time, I invest in an all-inclusive Opa Si pass for €12, then enter the Duomo museum and start climbing. There’s a waiting line to get there, but the sight of Siena at my feet more than makes up for the bottleneck. Between the height of the unfinished nave wall and the topography of the land, I am high above the fan of Piazza del Campo, as if floating on air. It would be difficult to imagine a more sublime view.

I descend the winding stairs and explore the museum itself, which has a treasure trove of medieval art, including Pisano’s original statues from the front façade of the Duomo, and Duccio’s “Maestà,” a stunning two-sided altarpiece completed in 1311. When I see the enthroned Madonna with Child, though, I can’t help but think of Mario and his “dropery.”

Once outside again, I round the corner to get a better view of the cathedral itself. It’s a lacy confection with a round window that reflects the clouds and the blue of the sky. The pink and green marble reminds me of the basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, but the Gothic spires and the gold mosaics have me thinking of Orvieto instead, which makes sense since the architects there were Sienese as well.

Inside, the nave is lined with bold striped columns of black and white stone, and the floor is paved with intricate mosaics and inlaid marble panels. There is a Nicola Pisano pulpit depicting the life of Christ that was completed in 1265, and an adjacent library that houses a collection of illuminated manuscripts with a series of stunning wall frescoes devoted to Pius II. The entire cathedral is a deeply spiritual place, and impressively intellectual as well for its place in art history, and yet somehow I can’t stop giggling at all the tourists who have been forced to wear the “cloak of shame.”

In many ways, Italy is still a conservative country, and a devoutly Catholic one, too. While in America, someone might attend mass on a Sunday morning wearing shorts and a halter top, there are standards of modesty here—shoulders at least, and often knees, must be covered. Surely, that’s not asking too much? I carry a scarf in my purse for such occasions, although today it is a looking a bit tattered and worse for wear after that wrestling match with the zipper on my purse in Bologna. But at least I come prepared. For those who don’t, there are disposable paper capes that must be worn, and they make people look positively ridiculous, as well they should. If only they could ban flip flops, too, I would be well satisfied.

Once I visit the crypt and the cool darkness of the baptistery, I’ve completed all the sites covered by my Opa Si pass, so I’m ready to wander about. I stop for some raspberry and lemon gelato at Grom, window shop for ceramics that display the coats of arms of the seventeen contrade of Siena that compete in the Palio each year, and buy a few ricciarelli cookies from Nannini to eat later.

By half past four, my legs have given out on the hilly terrain and I decide to catch the next SITA bus back to Florence. It’s been a scorching day and the slant of the afternoon sun warms the bus dangerously. By the time we reach the entrance to the city at Porta Romana, the temperature gauge on the dashboard is reading 40° Celsius, or more than 100° Fahrenheit.

Back at the hotel, I lay down to rest for a bit in my room and once again crank up the air conditioning. A while later, I come out for one final Happy Hour. As usual, there is music playing in the background, there are candles on the tables, and a dish of crostini alongside the hotel’s own Davanzati sauce. There’s a full house tonight, so I’m sitting at a table in the lobby when Tommaso comes over and sits down to join me. He leans over and peers into my glass. “What are you drinking,” he says, half curious, half amused. “Is that Coca-Cola?” Yes, I say, burying my face in my hands. With a good-natured grin, he says: “We do offer prosecco and Chianti, you know.” Will the embarrassment never end? Am I forever destined to be either pitied or scorned as “the woman who no drink wine”?

After enduring the heat on the bus, I can’t muster enough hunger to warrant going out for dinner. I grab a sandwich from the takeaway counter of a café instead and head over the Ponte Vecchio to buy a ceramic piece I saw in a shop there the other day on my morning tramp around the Oltrarno. The sign reads Sciccherie: Artigianato d’Arte Italiano. The woman behind the counter recognizes me and she introduces herself. Her name is Tiziana. She is kind and she enjoys practicing her English, which encourages us to talk. When I pick out an occupational plaque that depicts a L’INSEGNANTE, or teacher, she asks if I am buying it for myself, and I nod. At that, she wraps it carefully, first in bubble wrap, but then in paper, and ties it with a brightly colored ribbon, treating it with the care of a special present. “It is a gift you give yourself,” she says, and I like the sentiment very much.

On the walk back to the hotel, I stop and listen as Claudio Spadi sings Venderò. Tonight, Luca Sciortino has joined him and the mood on the Ponte Vecchio is as mellow as the setting sun. As I sit on the edge of the curb, I think about Tiziana and about Giovanni Turchi and the young man in the workshop of the Scuola del Cuoio, about Claudio who sings his heart out every night, and about Tommaso and Fabrizio back at the Davanzati. They’ve all been so nice. Perhaps that’s why I’ve grown fond of Florence over the years, and why I always feel wistful when it’s time to move on. It’s a strange feeling, to be so much at home in a place so far away from home, but there you have it.

When I pass the Mercato Nuovo, I make sure to drop a coin in the mouth of Il Porcellino and to rub his well-worn snout. It’s a ritual I’ve held to each trip on my final night in Florence. I suppose that means I’m a bit superstitious after all.

I know it works, though, because I always come back.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Blame it on Netflix.

Originally, I had planned to spend two full days in Florence—not nearly enough, of course, even for a return trip—but two nevertheless. Yet here I am making a hasty visit to the basilica of Santa Maria Novella before heading out of the city by bus to the tiny hill town of San Gimignano.

I’m always in pursuit of “Italy porn”—films of varying and largely irrelevant quality that feature beautiful Italian landscapes. Il Postino, A Room with a View, Cinema Paradiso, Life is Beautiful, My House in Umbria, and even the mediocre Under the Tuscan Sun and Letters to Juliet, have all made it to the top of my queue.

The movie that inspired this particular side trip was Tea with Mussolini. Released in 1999, it tells the story of a group of elderly English ladies living in Florence who help raise a young boy named Luca, whose experiences are based loosely on the life of director Franco Zeffirelli. After Mussolini declares war on Great Britain, the group is interned in San Gimignano for the duration, where they remain feisty in their protection of orphan children, dogs, and local art, even in the face of the menacing Nazis. It’s quite a sweet movie, and it has me yearning to see the famous towers of San Gimignano for myself.

The bus ride from Florence is cheap and easy, but it does require a change of line with a 35 minute wait in Poggibonsi, where the station is dull and nondescript. The entire journey takes nearly two hours, so by the time I disembark with a crowd of other tourists at 12:30 PM, I’m ready to stretch my legs.

I’m standing just outside of the old city walls, in front of a massive stone gate, charting my position on the map, when I realize how unnecessary it is. Like in Cortona, there seems to be just one major route in San Gimignano—down Via San Giovanni, through Piazza della Cisterna, and then along Via San Matteo to another gate at the north end of town. From here, I can see two of the city’s towers, rising high at the end of the long, narrow street in front of me, but it takes me ages to reach them given the magnetic pull of quaint little shops that line the way, and an enticing lane to the right that leads me out to a cluster of Tuscan farmhouses.

When I walk under the Arco dei Becci at last and into the triangular Piazza della Cisterna, past the Collegiata and the down to the church of San Agostino and back, I find that my neck is growing stiff from the constant looking up. My guidebook says that there were once 72 densely clustered towers in San Gimignano, built by wealthy families for protection during sieges. Given the city’s small size, its skyline must have resembled a medieval Manhattan.

When the town later fell under Florentine rule, most were ordered down. Just 14 towers survive in their original, uncropped state today. Even so, San Gimignano is widely known as La Cittá delle Belle Torri—the City of the Beautiful Towers—and it’s easy to see why. They are rustic, heavy and substantial, and admittedly less elegant and refined than the Torre del Mangia in nearby Siena, but they are undoubtedly beautiful.

In 1875, Gino Capponi, an Italian historian, wrote that: “No other town or castle in Tuscany retains more of the Middle Ages and was less invaded by the ages that followed; in those towers, and in the churches and in the houses of massive stone, is still something that cannot be covered up by the thin plastering of modern times; ancient memories keep their possession of it, the new life has hardly entered in.”

Today, given the complex realities of tourism, I doubt Capponi would still agree, but on a hot summer’s day such as this, it seems as though the pull of “ancient memories” and the push of “new life” from the daily influx of daytrippers has found a peaceful equilibrium.

I stop for lunch on the terrace of La Griglia Ristorante, where the views are as scrumptious as my warm plate of wild mushroom crostini, and my glass of Vernaccia, the local white wine. Afterwards, I tour the Civic Museum in the Palazzo del Popolo and then head up to the top of the attached Torre Grossa, which dates from 1298. At 177 feet, it is the tallest tower in San Gimignano and in every direction there are breathtaking views. I look down upon a sea of red tiled rooftops, and out across the lush green Val d’Elsa to the mountains of the Pistoia and the Apuan Alps.

Intent on capturing the moment, I snap away on my Nikon D5000, pausing only when the second of my 8 GB storage cards runs out of space. As I slip a third into the slot on the side of the camera, I think about the marvels of digital photography. The tiny plastic rectangle in my hand stores nearly a thousand pictures and video clips from Cortona, Arezzo, Orvieto, Florence, and San Gimignano. Later, at the click of a mouse, the things I did and places I saw will be magically reconstructed out of millions of brightly colored pixels. It’s a curious thing—the juxtaposition of ancient and modern. I cast my eyes over the medieval city of San Gimignano and hope that technology will help me to fix it in my memory.

Earlier, when wandering the streets, I overhead a woman talking to her companion about the Collegiata church in Piazza del Duomo—the one, she said, with the “bad frescoes.” Determined to judge for myself, I descend from my lofty perch and head next door. I pay the entrance fee and head for the chapel of Santa Fina, the one featured in the film Tea with Mussolini. Ghirlandaio’s work here is lovely, especially since it seems to soften the saint’s life story. The young Fina fell gravely ill at the age of 10 and spent the next 5 years slowly dying on an oak table, a purposeful choice to increase her suffering in the eyes of God. A brutal historical fact, yes, but it certainly isn’t bad art.

The next candidate is along the back wall—a cycle of frescoes by Taddeo di Bartolo that depict the Last Judgment in gruesome detail. Naturally. This time, instead of academically drawn nudes, many of the writhing bodies are ugly and bloated, held at knife point by an army of winged monsters. It is terrifying indeed, but once again, not exactly bad art.

Still curious, but not at all sure of what she meant, I move finally to Bartolo di Fredi’s frescoes from the Old Testament. Here, the scenes are rather misshapen and out of proportion. These, I am sure, are what she intended when she spoke of “bad frescoes.” But I do think she’s been a bit unfair. The work before me represents the mid-14th century. If she were here, I would say: Have a little patience, their world is on the verge of the Italian Renaissance. Linear perspective is coming soon.

I stroll down to the Rocca di Montestaffoli, a small park made from the ruins of a fortress overlooking the town, and then wander back up through the streets, past a row of modern paintings on display against an old stone wall. Next to a charming Tuscan landscape, there is an eye widened in fear, seen through a dark keyhole. A British woman in a lavender print dress and wide brimmed hat stares at it for moment, then turns to her friend and says: “That one makes me want to avert my eyes, it does.” I can’t help but laugh, because it’s true.

I’ve enjoyed my visit to this tiny town immensely, but when menacing clouds start to gather overhead, I know it’s time to leave. I queue for the 5:40 PM bus back to Florence, with the same connection through Poggibonsi, and am grateful for shelter from the storm, for just as I board the sky erupts into thunder and lightening and sheets of rain.

By the time I arrive back in Florence at the Hotel Davanzati, the storm has passed, but the lingering effect is a welcome one. The heat of the afternoon has given way to a cool night air.

I walk to Piazza della Signoria in search of music, and find people lazing about on the steps of the Loggia dei Lanzi listening to a British singer/songwriter named Ken Mercer. He’s good and I join the crowd for a while. I’m enjoying the moment, but truth be told I had hoped that in revisiting Florence I would see Claudio Spadi again, the street musician I met on the Ponte Vecchio during my first visit in the summer of 2008.

Disappointed, I head north toward Piazza della Repubblica, yet even at a distance the sound I hear is familiar. It seems like serendipity to find him here on my last night in Florence, guitar in hand, singing by the light of the carousal, and I can’t suppress a grin. On a break, he introduces himself and I take a picture, staying long into the night until he ends a set with a rousing version of Buona Notte, into which he inserts the names of the people he has met, including my own.

Sitting here under the stars, crossed legged on the pavement, I am experiencing what can only be described as l’arte di non fare niente. I must remember to tell Fabrizio in the morning. He will be proud.

Monday, June 2, 2008

I’m up early for one last breakfast on the rooftop terrace. Of my hotel’s many fine qualities, I think I like this private garden best of all. Good food, beautiful flowers, and a glorious view. What better way to start the day? But on this morning, the gray sky and light drizzle overhead seem to match my mood. I’m excited to get to Florence, but sad to be leaving Rome behind.

With luggage in hand, I take another wild taxi ride, this time to Termini station where I have a reserved seat on a 9:00 AM Eurostar train. It’s Republic Day in Italy and the streets at this hour are largely devoid of their normal rush hour traffic. It gives my driver all the more room to careen around corners at breakneck speed, as he navigates a detour away from the day’s parade route. By the time I arrive, well before departure, I feel dizzy and a little seasick.

I keep a vise-like grip on my bags until the train has left the station, then I sink back into the seat and allow the gentle rocking of the cars to soothe my head until we arrive at Santa Maria Novella on time an hour and forty minutes later.

After another short taxi ride, I’m standing on the curb at the foot of a flight of stairs that leads to a small elevator which spills out into the lobby of the Hotel Davanzati — a necessity that is far less troublesome than it sounds. In my best faltering Italian, I ask the man at the front desk if he speaks English. “No, no,” he says, shaking his head impatiently. I panic. Then his face breaks into a wide and generous grin. “Just kidding!”

This is Fabrizio and this is the moment I know beyond all doubt that I am going to love this place.

Fabrizio shows me to my room, a charming single with a view overlooking Via Porta Rossa. Afterwards, he hands me my reservations for the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia, walks me through a map highlighting all of the major attractions, circles the location of the best gelateria in town — bless his heart — and invites me to a complimentary happy hour, complete with candlelight and prosecco. Now that’s what I call service!

It’s raining steadily by now and I don’t feel much like trudging out into the wet. For an hour or so I curl up in my room and use the laptop provided to post some pictures on Flickr for friends and family back home. I’m feeling nostalgic already.

Since the Capitoline Museum had been my refuge from the weather in Rome, I decide to use the Museo dell’Opera for the same purpose here in Florence. I see some very cool wooden models for the façade of the Duomo, an unfinished Michelangelo Pietà, nearly swallowed up by an inconvenient crowd of French tourists, and finally, Ghiberti’s original bronze panels for the baptistery doors.

Having seen the genuine article, I next walk out to admire the copies that stand in their place in Piazza del Duomo. Michelangelo once called them the “Gates of Paradise,” so impressed was he in their use of linear perspective. However, when I enter the interior of the octagonal structure and my eyes feast on the lush mosaic ceiling, I don’t at first notice a benevolent Jesus with arms outstretched, or the choir of angels overhead. Instead, I fixate on a disturbing image of Satan munching on the naked torso of an unrepentant sinner. Others are meeting an equally unpleasant fate in the jaws of snakes, lizards, and giant beetles. This is, unmistakably, another variation on the punishment of the damned at “The Last Judgment.” It’s a surreal and frightening image, one that might look at home next to a painting by Salvador Dalí or Max Ernst. Remembering that ill-gotten picture of the Sistine Chapel, I cringe.

Satan and his minions notwithstanding, this is an incredible space. By now, it’s mid afternoon. The clouds are starting to break and rays of slanted sunshine are streaming through the room’s narrow windows. When the glass tiles on the ceiling capture the transient light, they shimmer and glow as if lit internally by the flames of a hundred candles.

Back in the piazza, the exterior of the adjacent cathedral dwarfs the baptistery in size and splendor, crowned as it is by Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome. But unlike its neighbor, the interior here is largely a disappointment. I find it sober and bare, as if so much money was spent on its striped veneer of white, green and pink marble that nothing was left for interior decoration. Even the 16th century frescoes that circle the dome seem like an uninspired and redundant choice. I see nude men pushed by horned creatures into the fiery pit of Hell and know that the subject is — once again — “The Last Judgment,” only this time, through repetition, it has lost the power to shock. I sigh in exasperation, convinced that this scene must have been the obsession of every Renaissance artist.

It’s four o’clock and the steadily improving weather is an encouraging sign. I do a quick comparison of the lines to climb the dome and Giotto’s belltower, and decide to go for the latter. Compared to St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, where the spiral stairs were narrow and confining, this is a relatively easy climb of 414 steps. The view from the top is a full 360 degrees overlooking a sea of red tiled roofs. Based on what I’ve seen in guidebooks, I spot San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapel to the north, the Palazzo Vecchio to the south, Santa Croce to the east, and the church of San Miniato al Monte in the far distance on a hill across the Arno.

Back on the street below, I decide, as in Vatican City, that the Herculean effort involved in such a climb is worthy of reward. I pull out Fabrizio’s map with its ink circle around the intersection of Via de Calzaiuoli and Via dei Tavolini and make a beeline for “Perché No!” Why not? That’s the literal translation of the name, but it seems a reasonable attitude to take with several hours left before dinner. The combination of peach and pear gelati I order is perfection itself, the best I have ever had.

I head back to the hotel for a rest, then to the happy hour underway in the dining room. By now I have decided to trust Fabrizio’s recommendations on all things implicitly. I would gladly eat at the local McDonald’s if he felt it worthy of culinary attention, but he directs me to Trattoria al Trebbio for dinner instead. It’s a small place, tucked into the intersection of three narrow streets near the church of Santa Maria Novella. As an antipasti, I enjoy a tasty, if somewhat monochromatic, salad of pear and pecorino cheese, and for my main course, a plate of tagliatelle with portabello mushrooms. With Fabrizio’s help in making the reservation, I have snagged the last seat on the patio and for this I am grateful.

After dinner, I stroll down to the River Arno and watch the sunset from Ponte Santa Trinità. The midday rain has given way to a glorious sky that deepens into a rich azure blue just as the sun recedes behind the horizon. At 9 PM, the street lamps lining Lungarno Acciaiuoli spring to life and I turn to see the Ponte Vecchio and its twin below reflecting into the still water. It’s a more beautiful bridge than I imagined, one that has probably changed little since the days of Vasari and the Medici, or the fictional lovers in Forster’s A Room with a View. In the book, after returning to England, George Emerson falls into a disagreement with the dreary Mr. Beebe on the subject of coincidence. “It is Fate that I am here,” persists George. “But you can call it Italy if it makes you less unhappy.” For me these past five days, fate and Italy have seemed very much entwined.

I walk along the river until I reach the bridge itself. The butchers and fishmongers of the medieval city are long gone, replaced by jewelers whose wooden doors and wrought iron hardware at the close of day resemble a row of pirates’ treasure chests. When I turn to glance up Via Porto Santa Maria I can see the top of Brunelleschi’s dome peeking out above a sea of neon signs. The sound of music, however, pulls my attention back to the bridge and to the man who stands under the center arch, guitar in hand, serenading the crowd. His name his Claudio Spadi and he is, without doubt, the most gifted street musician I have ever heard. As he transitions easily between unfamiliar Italian songs and popular American ballads, each more pleasant than the last, I can’t believe that people with far less talent win recording contracts on reality TV, while this guy sings for his supper on the Ponte Vecchio behind a sign that reads: “Be generous. Every coin is blessed… this is my job.”

Come to think of it, given the view, he may have the better deal.

As I wind my way back to the hotel, I am distracted by the roar of a very different kind of music. I follow the sound to Piazza della Signoria where I find neat rows of seated spectators and a military band playing under the loggia. It’s still Republic Day, after all, and this must be part of the local celebration. A copy of Michelangelo’s “David” stands to the left in a position that makes it seem like he is listening in rapt attention, his work of slaying giants done for the day.

As the strains of the last march leave the air, the conductor turns to the audience and his right arm snaps into an impressive salute. He gestures to the musicians, who stand in unison, red and white plumes projecting from their bicorne hats. Like the minstrel on the bridge, finding them here has been an unexpected delight.

I wonder if Maurizio has ever been to Florence?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

This morning when I open the heavy wood shutters in my room and look down on Via Porta Rossa, I can see scattered drops of rain making puddles in the street. I decide that this matters little since I plan to spend the bulk of the day in museums anyway.

After a hearty continental breakfast, I head off past the colorful leather belts and bags of the Mercato Nuovo to the Uffizi Gallery. The line at this hour is short, but I’m relieved nevertheless to have a reserved entry at 9:00 AM. I barely have time to distinguish the living statues on the street from the real ones in the niches along the square when I’m ushered into the museum.

There are four long flights of stairs to be conquered before reaching the U-shaped gallery, and as I climb, I fish my iPod out of my pocket to queue up another of Rick Steves’ Italy audio tours. By now, his corny sense of humor and persistent puns are wearing thin. After all, this is a man who in jest refers to Botticelli’s masterpiece, “The Birth of Venus,” as Venus on the half shell. But the quality of the actual commentary is quite good and as I see it, every Euro I save on official guides can be put to better use buying gelato.

When, halfway through, he quotes a poem by Michelangelo that says “souls will never ascend to heaven until the sight of beauty lifts them there,” all is forgiven. From now on, Rick can crack as many clichéd jokes as he likes. That line alone is inspiration enough. Here in the Uffizi on a Tuesday morning in June, surrounded by some of the world’s finest art, I feel about as close to heaven as I have ever been.

After buying a variety of souvenirs from the museum gift shop, I decide to drop the bag off at my hotel and stop for a quick lunch at “Caffé le Logge” along the way. From an array of freshly prepared sandwiches in the glass case, I select one with prosciutto and porcini mushrooms on focaccia bread and throw in an apple tart for good measure. As I sit inside at a small round table and eat, I watch a pair of elderly (and apparently very frugal) American ladies share a panini and cappuccino between them. When it comes time to pay the bill — which amounts to little more than five Euros — they raise their voices in protest. The price, they say, is not as advertised. In their minds, they have been cheated and they are determined to let everyone in this small shop know it.

I understand what they do not, that meals eaten sitting down, as opposed to standing at the bar, come with a small service charge, or coperto, attached. But given the vehemence of their complaint, I would rather not intervene to explain this. Coward that I am, I hang my head and pretend not to hear.

When I walk to the cashier minutes later to settle my own bill, it’s less than I expected. The manager, I think, is trying to avoid another scene. I’d like to tell him that it’s OK, that I enjoyed my meal and would like to pay for the seat I used, but he doesn’t speak English and I am at a loss in Italian. I drop a few extra coins on the table instead before I leave.

Outside it’s still spitting rain. I have a 4:00 PM reservation at the Accademia, but with several hours to spare and the Bargello museum already closed for the day, I hoist my umbrella over my head and walk to the Basilica of Santa Croce instead.

I know that much of the church’s interior is under restoration, but even so I’m unprepared for the sight of so much scaffolding. It covers nearly the entire East end of the church, including the altar and apse. At least the most notable tombs lining the nave are unobstructed by construction. I pause in front of monuments to Galileo Galilei, the mathematician and astronomer, and Niccolò Machiavelli, author of a famously shrewd treatise on power known as The Prince. But my real interest in visiting Santa Croce is to pay homage to the bones of Michelangelo Buonarroti — sculptor, painter, architect, and poet. His tomb is a beautiful fusion of all these disciplines, with a fresco above and allegorical figures below.

From here, I explore the small side chapels that flank each side of the apse, stopping first in the Bardi to admire a 13th century altarpiece depicting scenes from the life St. Francis, but longest in the Cappella Castellani to marvel at its detailed frescoes. By the time I reach the sacristy with its ancient ceiling of exposed wood beams, I’ve long forgotten about the scaffolding around the corner.

One my way out, I remember to visit the attached “Scuola del Cuoio.” It’s a famous leather school created by the Franciscan friars of Santa Croce. Their products are meticulous and handcrafted out of lambskin and other more unusual pelts, including, deer, ostrich, python and alligator. I can’t afford their handbags (or much of anything else), but I do come away with a miniature version that doubles as a keychain and change purse.

The Accademia is my last major stop of the day. As at the Uffizi, my reservation allows me to skip the queue outside, which despite the lateness of the hour runs halfway down the street. It’s an unassuming building, covered in graffiti and surrounded by tacky souvenir shops. Without the trademark crowd in front I might have unwittingly walked right by.

The star attraction here is not the picture gallery or the museum of musical instruments, but the original and unequalled masterpiece that is Michelangelo’s “David.” To get there, I walk down a long corridor, where unfinished “Prisoners” stand as stone sentries. It is a path that leads to the most recognizable sculpture in western art. The plaster cast I saw several years ago at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London cannot compare, nor can the replica I stood next to last night in Piazza della Signoria.

There are the usual signs posted in the gallery and a vigilant guard on hand, but I see several tourists seek pictures on their cell phones just the same, with David’s posterior being a particularly popular shot. As for me, I have had enough time to reconsider my rule breaking in the Sistine Chapel. My camera stays put in my bag. Although, when I buy an uninspired postcard in the lobby on the way out, the photographer in me knows I could have done better.

Back at the hotel, the sporadic rain that has fallen throughout the day has turned into a downpour. Determined to stay close by, I follow Fabrizio’s advice and have dinner at “La Bussola,” a cozy restaurant just down the street. Hungry without my usual afternoon gelato, I devour a plate of bruschetta pomodoro and a pizza made from local ingredients, including fresh pecorino cheese from Chianti and Tuscan wild boar salami.

When I have to resort to my umbrella for the short walk back, I know beyond doubt that Claudio won’t be singing on the bridge tonight, not in this weather.  Without that as an incentive to press on, I head to bed early.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The sky outside is feigning blue this morning. I want to be optimistic, I really do, but the weather report is ominous, and for that reason I mistrust my eyes. Nervous about the order of my itinerary, which today was to include a day trip to Pisa and Lucca, I decide after breakfast that it’s time to appeal to a higher power. I must ask Fabrizio.

Behind the elegant painted desk in the lobby of the Hotel Davanzati lies command central. While Fabrizio multitasks by checking a series of Italian websites on one computer screen, I wait and amuse myself by staring at the other. It’s displaying a picture of this very room. I can see the same striped drapes and Oriental rug. There is only one difference between this virtual world and the real one (aside from the perpetual threat of rain in the latter). On screen, Scooby Doo is dancing!

Chuckling, I look up in time to see Fabrizio’s face as he scans the other monitor, and it betrays a slight grimace. “Ahhh… let’s not look at that,” he says. It must be bad. Although the forecast shows no sign of improvement, my day trip can wait until tomorrow. With plenty of museums to explore here in Florence, it might as well.

The first stop on my amended route is the San Marco monastery. It is here in the 15th century that a Dominican friar known as Fra Angelico created small devotional frescoes on the otherwise stark dormitory walls, depicting scenes from the life of Jesus Christ. His most famous work, “The Annunciation,” shows a seated and demure Mary greeted by the angel Gabriel, revealing to her that she will give birth to the Son of God. This is the image at the top of the stairs, and I am able to capture it at a distance before I see the now familiar “No Photography” signs on the landing. Back goes the camera into the bag…

Up close, the scene is even more charming. Gabriel’s wings are bold in color and look as though they were constructed from the plucked feathers of a peacock. Mary’s hands are crossed at the waist as if to feel for signs of life within.

For the next hour, I follow a serpentine pattern into and out of each cell, leaving only when the rowdy passengers from a tour bus disturb the silence.

I follow Via Cavour down to San Lorenzo and roam the street market, looking for bargains on leather goods, and then drift through the Mercato Centrale to admire the produce. The Medici Chapels are here in the square, too, and I am eager to see the interior of the octagonal dome I spotted from the top of Giotto’s belltower on my first day in Florence. Alas, with a jungle of scaffolding reaching from floor to ceiling, the “Chapel of the Princes” is reminiscent of Santa Croce, but far worse since it’s stuffed into a much smaller space. The “New Sacristy,” with its sculptures by Michelangelo, is the only saving grace, enough at least to defend the cost of admission.

As the lunch hour passes, I again take stock of the weather. The sky is blue and seems determined to remain so, but I’m still not convinced. I make a return visit to “Caffé le Logge” for a sandwich and chocolate tart and eat both while walking across the Ponte Vecchio to the south bank of the Arno. I desperately want to see the city skyline from Piazzale Michelangelo and hiking there in the rain just won’t do. I decide to seize the opportunity now, before the next storm hits.

It never does. Against all odds, the day stays clear and bright, with a pleasing canopy of cumulous clouds.

I enjoy the walk along the river, but as I turn to the right and head uphill, my legs begin to burn. By the time I reach the long, steep steps that lead to square, I have to stop more than once to catch my breath.

Still, the view from the top is stunning. From a distance, the architectural details of the city melt into harmonious shades red and yellow. Like the brush strokes in an impressionist painting, the impact from afar is greater than the sum of its parts.

With the storage card on my camera much fuller than when I arrived, I lumber back down the hill in the direction of the Palazzo Pitti. Along the way, here is what I ponder:

Itineraries can be a wonderful thing, as long as they are flexible enough to allow for spontaneity. Deciding to spend the day in Florence was spontaneous, born perhaps of a perceived necessity, but it was spontaneous nevertheless. Of course, the trouble with spontaneity is that it can lead someone to do silly things.

Take this afternoon, for instance. I made a decision to visit Piazzale Michelangelo in the early afternoon to avoid rain that never came. But now I want to attend vespers at San Miniato al Monte, where the local monks sing in Gregorian chant. That has created an awkward a space of time between 2:30 and 5:30 PM. A quick look at the map suggests that my best option for filling that time is the Palazzo Pitti and the adjoining Boboli Gardens. The map, however, represents a flat, two-dimensional space. I am standing on a hill — a very large hill — and marching down it now will necessitate another climb back to the same place later. Quite dumb when you think about it, but apparently I have neither patience nor foresight.

By the time I reach the grounds of the Palazzo Pitti, I am understandably tired. I decide to see the royal apartments and then lounge in the garden for a nice, long while. But as it turns out, I can’t buy a ticket for the royal apartments alone, or for the garden alone, or for that matter, for the two of them in combination. The powers that be have decided to bundle the admission of each with a distinct array of small museums that I have no interest in or time to see. This seems to be a different, and less advantageous, arrangement than the one described in my guidebook, but there is nothing much to be done. I opt to pay ten Euros for a ticket that gives me admission to the Boboli and Bardini Gardens, as well as a costume gallery and porcelain museum.

Once I am past the ticket booth, the security desk, and a second ticket taker, I am let loose onto the grounds at last. I don’t, however, know where to go. As in most museums in Italy, the price of admission does not include a map or floor plan. And as it turns out, the garden is nestled into the same hilly landscape I just finished climbing to the east. This makes it impossible to see what’s at the top of a hill without actually going there. Random wandering seems to be the only option.

For the next hour, I give this my best shot on tired legs. I am hoping to find a beautiful flower bed or a lovely fountain with a bench nearby. But the use of the word “garden” in this context seems ill-applied. From what I can see, it appears to be a forest on a hill, much of it in a natural (read: unkempt) state. The Medici may have been great patrons of the arts. It seems they were not, however, patrons of flowers. I recall seeing a postcard for sale in the gift shop by the entrance showing a single pink rose. Now I feel like demanding its location.

There are three things of value to a tourist – time, energy, and money. To me on this particular afternoon, the Boboli Gardens offend all three. My frustration ebbs away only when I stop for a pair of pastries at the Open Bar Café on Via de’ Bardi. Oh, why is it that food is such solace for the soul?

At least after today’s marathon, I don’t have to worry about the calories.

I arrive at San Miniato al Monte with enough time to tour the church thoroughly before vespers. It’s a beautiful space, well lit by the afternoon light streaming in through the small elliptical windows set high into the walls of the nave. The service, however, is being readied in a more austere crypt below.

By the time I note the placement, most of the seats are already filled by teenagers, chatting loudly amongst themselves. Several are bent over on the floor collating sheet music. For a moment, I am puzzled, but then as I watch an adult gesticulate to one of the Benedictine monks, I decide that they must be an impromptu choir, intent on singing, but uninvited all the same.

The monk seems to have agreed to something, but seeing their bags cast widely across the benches, he directs them to move their things into the corner. They do, and then file into line in front of the altar. They sing one song, which isn’t terrible, but then push their luck by reforming for another. At this point they are cut off by a tremendous baritone from behind, soon joined by others in the collective intonation of Gregorian Chant. Looking rather peeved, the teenagers gather their bags and stomp off, not bothering to stay for the actual service.

Many people don’t, actually. Aside from a handful of Florentines for whom this is the local parish church, tourists seem to come and go, treating it with less respect than a typical concert or theater event. By the time we make the sign of peace, I am the only stranger left and those around me greet me warmly in Italian and shake my hand.

The tourists who left early, including those impertinent teenagers, have been rude and disrespectful, which is crime enough. But in their haste they have also missed out on something special. In the gentle texture and rhythm of the chant, in the community of neighbors, and the deep connection to the traditions of the past, there is serenity. Fleeting, perhaps, but easy to miss in the rush of modern life, even for those on holiday who spend too much time obsessing about how much money it costs to wander through a garden.

For me, it lasts long through the sunset I watch from the terrace of Piazzale Michelangelo, back down the hill, along the river, and across the bridge where Claudio is singing tonight. All the way back to the hotel in the dark.