Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Vagabondare (v.) – to roam, wander

It’s going to be a scorching day here in Florence—the forecast is predicting 96 degrees—so over breakfast I take stock of my options. Climbing the dome seems foolhardy, and I’d rather wait for more pleasant temperatures for the walk up to Fort Belvedere and the Bardini Gardens. I settle on some aimless exploration of the city instead.

I drop by the leather school at the basilica of Santa Croce, the Scuola del Cuoio, and buy a set of handsome leather coasters for my nephew, Ethan, which they monogram in gold leaf. He turned twenty-three just last week, and these seem the perfect belated birthday present for a grown man, although when I send him a picture, I can’t resist warning him not to put cheap beer cans on something so fine, only craft brews and fancy cocktails!

I fill the rest of the day with random things, including my own version of an I-Spy game that puts me on the hunt for Clet street signs. I walk to the pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella in search of the rosewater that’s been used so liberally to scent my apartment. I stop for a late lunch under the veranda at the Caffetteria delle Oblate, which has a slight breeze and a stunning view of the Duomo. There I sit for a long while, communing with Alice Steinbach through her memoir, Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman, and enjoy my very first taste of semifreddo, a half-frozen dessert that melts pleasantly on the tongue.

Later, I stand on the Ponte Vecchio and watch as the heat of the day dissolves into a blanket of orange light. As I stare into the setting sun, everything around me is reduced to a simple silhouette—the city skyline, the street lamps, the tourists crowding the lungarno. The sky is on fire and it is awesome to behold.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Meriggiare (v.) – To escape the heart of the midday sun by resting in the shade.

It’s another scorching day in Tuscany and whether it’s the torpid heat or the routine exhaustion that comes with travel, I’m slow to rise this morning—so slow in fact that it’s nearly noon by the time my feet hit the pavement of the Lungarno Torrigiani.

In renting an apartment in Florence for the month, one of my goals has been to explore new areas, especially those outside the crowded streets of the centro storico. Last week, I wandered through the narrow lanes of San Spirito and San Frediano looking for artisan workshops. Today, I’m heading east to San Niccolò, a neighborhood that rests at the foot of city’s southern hills.

I pass the Ponte delle Grazie and spot a simple silhouette standing on the bridge’s parapet with one foot extended precariously over the edge. It’s Clet Abraham’s “Common Man” and I cross to get a closer look. That the statue is here at all is something of a surprise. It’s come and gone ever since it was surreptitiously installed under cover of darkness a few years ago, functioning, as blogger Ann Reavis says, as a “poke in the ribs” to the “all-too-serious art establishment and other red-tape loving bureaucrats of Florence.” Clet, of course, never applied for the proper permit.

Later, to explain and defend the work, he said: “The Common Man statue is intended as a stimulus to take an important and risky step.” It represents one of those moments in life where you take a leap of faith without knowing the consequences. From his perch, the next move might result in glorious flight or end with a sudden tumble into the river. “The irony lays in being part of this dangerous spectacle from the safe side of the railing. The act is permanently frozen in limbo, being a sculpture that doesn’t move and will never finish stepping out, and so will never know if his choice was the right one or not – the only way for us to know is if we were to try it ourselves.”

I’m standing on a bridge alone, halfway around the world from where I came. That’s what travel is all about, isn’t it? Stepping off into the unknown to see where it leads? I may be a rule-abiding college professor with an aversion to modern art, but let’s just say I like “Common Man.” I like it a lot. After all, even an imprudent dive into the Arno wouldn’t be a bad fate on a day like this!

When I reach the Torre di San Niccolò, a medieval stone watchtower built in the 14th century, I think again about Clet, and not just because my route has taken me by his studio on Via dell’Olmo. A few years ago, in another of his brilliant pranks, he hung a giant nose on the tower, mentally fashioning its windows into eyes, and its gate into a gaping mouth. I’ve looked at the pictures online and now even without it there, I can’t help but see a face. Maybe it’s less impressive than seeing the Man in the Moon or the Old Man of the Mountain, the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, or Elvis Presley on a potato chip, but it’s right there in front of me, and all because of an evolutionary wire in our brains called pareidolia. Quite simply, we see faces in ordinary, inanimate objects because we crave order in a world of chaos. We see patterns in random noise that encourage flights of fancy, transforming science into art. It’s something painters have understood and exploited since the Renaissance, so why not embrace it on the modern streets of Florence? Leonardo Da Vinci created optical illusions in his drawings, and so did Giuseppe Arcimboldo, hiding faces in elaborate collages of flowers, fruits, vegetables, and shells, with nary a complaint.

Critics and curmudgeons be damned. The world needs more Clet Abrahams.

I squint up at the long, winding road leading up the hill. I’m baking here in the sun, so I climb slowly, first to a terrace of depleted rose gardens, where already many of the blossoms are curled and brown, and then on to Piazzale Michelangelo, for the finest view of the city there ever could be. I buy a tall glass of lemon granita from a street vendor and sit on the rocky ledge, catching my breath and soaking in the splendor.

I decide to walk along the old stone walls of the city all the way to Fort Belvedere, which feels like a punishing chore on such a hot day. From Via Costa San Giorigio, I seize an opportunity to use my Amici degli Uffizi card and duck gratefully into the shade and seclusion of the Bardini Gardens, which have been beautifully restored after decades of neglect. There’s a cooling stream, acres of woodland, a wisteria arbor bordered with hydrangeas, and a long patio on which to enjoy a late lunch. Before long, I’ve almost forgotten about the heat.

I descend the hill slowly, terrace by terrace, until finally I’ve reached the lungarno again. I rest for bit, enjoying the air conditioning of my apartment and not caring how much it will cost when the utility bill arrives at the end of the month.

When I venture out again later, it’s back to San Niccolò for dinner at a restaurant called Zeb’s. It’s a tiny, unassuming place that I might never had noticed if not for a recommendation from Italy Perfect and a plethora of encouraging reviews on Trip Advisor and Yelp. But it’s also intimidating at first, with a chalkboard menu written entirely in Italian script, and only two rows of counter seats, both facing the bar. I’m feeling nervous, like a fish out of water, when one of the owners comes by. He’s a handsome man named Alberto Navari. He winks at me, putting me at ease, and then talks me through the dishes, advising me on a primi and secondi that are tasty and well-priced, beyond the usual tourist fare.

It’s been a good day, a quiet day, a day lost in thought.

I pass Clet’s “Common Man” again on the way back home, but this time I notice not just the outstretched leg, but also the placement of the arms, which are bent towards the waist, and the hands that are curled, as if into fists. He looks confident in his stride. Unafraid.

In a book called The Art of Travel, one of my favorite authors, Alain de Botton, writes that: “The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.” Perhaps he’s right. I’ve grown to love Florence and my neighborhood on the Oltrarno, and I take pride in the independence that I’ve felt here, and joy in the people I’ve met along the way. It’s been a quite an adventure so far—not just the last two weeks, but the past eight years.

Back then, I was the figure on the bridge. I’d reached a point in my life where I was static and unhappy. In booking a flight to London on a whim one day, I lifted one heavy foot and plunged it into the unknown.

Frozen in time, Clet’s man can never be certain if his choice is the right one or not.

“The only way for us to know is if we were to try it ourselves.”

I did.

And it was.

Top 10 Things to Do in Florence, Italy

Top 10 Things to Do in Florence, Italy

Whenever I think of Florence, I like to remember my favorite scene in E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, A Room with a View. When the heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, first enters the Basilica of Santa Croce without a guidebook, she feels lost and alone.

Of course, it must be a wonderful building. But how like a barn! And how very cold! Of course, it contained frescoes by Giotto, in the presence of whose tactile values she was capable of feeling what was proper. But who was to tell her which they were? She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and trancepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin.

Then the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy.

We should all be more like Lucy when we’re in Florence—that most intimidating of cities. As her companion, the outspoken Miss Lavish says, the “true Italy is only to be found by patient observation.”

With that in mind, put the guidebooks aside. “Give it to me; I shan’t let you carry it. We will simply drift.”


An interactive map of the sites recommended in this article:

#10

Walk in Lucy’s footsteps and visit the Basilica of Santa Croce

The colorful marble stripes on the front of this Franciscan church may be Victorian—described by Forster as a “black-and-white façade of surpassing ugliness”—but the interior dates to the dawn of the Renaissance. There are frescoes by Giotto and Gaddi, as well as tombs and cenotaphs dedicated to many great Italian men, including:

  • Galileo Galilei, the mathematician and astronomer;
  • Dante Alighieri, known for his Divine Comedy;
  • Niccolò Machiavelli, author of a famously shrewd treatise on power known as The Prince; and
  • Michelangelo Buonarroti, the renowned sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, who designed the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, created the iconographic statue of David before his battle with Goliath, and painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Take your time to wander about Santa Croce, then be sure to see the wonderful church museum that’s adjacent, just through the cloisters.

LOCATION:  Piazza Santa Croce, 16

HOURS:  Monday-Saturday, 9:30 AM – 5:30 PM; Sundays and Holy Days, 2:00 PM – 5:30 PM

COST:  Full price ticket, €6; reduced price ticket for children, €4

RULES:  Appropriate dress; photography is permitted without a flash, no tripods

WEBSITE:  Basilica di Santa Croce 

#9

Shop for leather goods at the venerable Scuola del Cuoio

Florence is justifiably famous for its leather. You can shop the San Lorenzo street market* for fun and inexpensive items of questionable origin, or visit any number of the high quality boutiques in town, including Madova, Roberta, Peruzzi, and Frizzoni, but my own personal favorite is the Scuola del Cuoio. Their products—ranging from belts and wallets to stunning purses—are meticulously handcrafted out of lambskin and other more unusual pelts, including deer, ostrich, python, and alligator. For a memorable experience, you can also visit the workshop and watch as an artisan monograms your purchase in gold or silver leaf.

* Update: As of January 2014, the San Lorenzo street market has been indefinitely moved to Piazza del Mercato Centrale and its surrounding streets.

LOCATION:  Enter through the Basilica di Santa Croce, or through the garden that surrounds the apse, at Via San Giuseppe, 5r.

HOURS:  Fall/Winter, Monday-Friday, 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM, Saturday, 10:30 AM – 6:00 PM; Spring/Summer, Daily 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM.

WEBSITE:  Scuola del Cuoio

#8

Cross the Ponte Vecchio and explore the antique galleries and artisan shops of the Oltrarno

The name “Oltrarno” simply means the “other side of the Arno.” From sculptors and wood carvers to gilders, bookbinders and goldsmiths, the small shops you’ll find along the maze of streets between the Ponte Vecchio and Piazza Santo Spirito may seem a world away from the hoards that congregate in Piazza della Signoria and Piazza del Duomo, but getting there requires nothing more than an easy walk across one of Florence’s beautiful bridges.

While the Ponte Santa Trinita and the Ponte alle Grazie were both destroyed by the Nazis near the end of World War II and later rebuilt, the Ponte Vecchio—or “Old Bridge,” in the middle—was spared. Like Brunelleschi’s red-tiled dome, the Ponte Vecchio is an iconographic symbol of Florence.

Before you cross the bridge to the Oltrarno, be sure to stand back along the riverbank to admire the shops that hang pell-mell from the sides. 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.

GETTING THERE:  Explore the area on your own (The New York Times and National Geographic both offer useful itineraries), or book a walking tour with a guide.

NOTE:  For a full day, combine a stroll about the Oltrarno with a visit to the Pitti Palace or the Boboli Gardens, or even late afternoon vespers at the church of San Miniato al Monte (see #4 below).

WEBSITE:  Welcome to Oltrarno

#7

Climb Giotto’s bell tower for a breathtaking view of the city

Getting to the top of the cathedral’s campanile in Florence requires 414 steps, but the view overlooking a sea of red tiled roofs more than makes up for the effort. You can see 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. Best of all, Giotto’s bell tower will give you an unparalleled look at Filippo Brunelleschi’s famous dome.

If you make it to the top and back, be sure to reward yourself with a few scoops of gelato. The delicious Grom is nearby, on Via del Campanile, at the corner of Via delle Oche.

LOCATION:  Piazza del Duomo. Enter via the stairs in the nave of the cathedral, or outside on the south side of the cathedral

NOTE:  There is no elevator. Visitors must climb 414 steps to reach to the top of the bell tower, but unlike the trek to the dome, the staircase is wide and headroom is ample, making it a better choice for those who are claustrophobic.

HOURS:  Daily, 8:30 AM – 7:30 PM

COST:  €6, although a combination ticket including the Duomo, bell tower, dome, crypt, baptistery, and museum is also available

WEBSITE:  Museo del Duomo

#6

See the Gates of Paradise and glimpse the fiery pits of Hell at the cathedral’s baptistery

Michelangelo once called Lorenzo Ghiberti’s bronze panels for the baptistery doors the “Gates of Paradise.” Here in Piazza del Duomo, those panels, which depict scenes from the Old Testament of the Bible, are reproductions of the originals that were installed in 1452, but they are stunning nonetheless.

Inside the baptistery, the scene is somewhat different. The lush ceiling mosaic depicts a benevolent Jesus with arms outstretched and a choir of angels overhead, but what you’ll notice most is a disturbing image of “The Last Judgment.” Look carefully and you’ll see Satan munching on the naked torso of an unrepentant sinner, while others meet an equally unpleasant fate in the jaws of snakes, lizards, and giant beetles.

If you save your visit for a sunny day, you’ll also see rays of sunshine slanting through the room’s narrow windows. When the gold leaf on the glass tiles capture the light, they shimmer and glow as if lit internally by the flames of a hundred candles.

LOCATION:  Piazza del Duomo

NOTE:  Ghiberti’s original bronze panels for the baptistery doors can be seen nearby at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

HOURS:  Monday – Saturday, 12:15 PM – 7:00 PM; Sunday and the first Saturday of the month, 8:30 AM – 2:00 PM

COST:  €4, although a combination ticket including the Duomo, bell tower, dome, crypt, baptistery, and museum is also available

WEBSITE:  Museo del Duomo

#5

Museums, museums, museums!

It’s hard to think of a city with more enticing museums than Florence.

You can see Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery, compare Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia to Donatello’s David at the Bargello, marvel at the world’s largest collection of artists’ self portraits in the Vasari Corridor, stand before Benozzo Gozzoli’s stunning frescoes in the Chapel of the Magi at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi or Fra Angelico’s Annunciation at the San Marco monastery, or indulge in the splendors of the Pitti Palace and the Palazzo Vecchio.

There is never time enough to visit museums in Florence, but be sure to wile away the hours at one—if not all—of these:

COST:  Admission fees for individual museums vary, but consider buying a Firenze Card which provides queue jumping access to 60 different churches, museums, and historical sites at a cost of €72. The card, which is valid for 72 hours, also includes public transportation, use of the city’s wifi network, and dedicated Android iPhone, and iPad apps with built in GPS. Another option is the Amici degli Uffizi pass, which costs €60, but is valid until the end of the year. For useful tips on which to buy and why, click here.

#4

Hear Benedictine monks sing in Georgian chant at the church of San Miniato al Monte

The basilica of San Miniato al Monte is a beautiful Romanesque church in its own right. Built between the 11th and 13th centuries, it has a long, graceful nave and an adjoining cloister and cemetery. But once you’ve visited the grounds thoroughly, consider staying for vespers, an evening prayer service in the Roman Catholic church during which the local Benedictine monks sing in Gregorian chant. It can be a wonderfully serene moment in an otherwise intense and overwhelming city.

LOCATION:  Via delle Porte Sante, 34

TIME:  On Sundays and Feast days, the monks accompany Mass with Gregorian chant at 10:00 AM and 5:30 PM in the crypt. In the summer, Gregorian chant also takes place during vespers at 5:30 PM on weekdays.

NOTE:  If you go, please—I beg you—be polite enough to stay through the entire service. There is nothing worse than a tourist who drops by, only to wander out a few minutes later.

COST:  Free, but a small donation to the church is a welcome gesture

WEBSITE:  Basilica di San Miniato al Monte

#3

Rub the snout of Il Porcellino for good luck and a future return to Florence

Il Porcellino is the statue of a wild boar located under the loggia of the Mercato Nuovo, near Piazza della Signoria. Legend has it that if you place a coin in his mouth and allow it to fall into the grating below, it will bring good luck. And if you rub his snout, you will ensure your return to Florence someday. Needless to say, it’s been polished to a brilliant shine by thousands of tourists.

I’ve visited the little piglet myself on the final night of each of my trips to Florence, and I know it works because I always come back.

LOCATION:  Piazza del Mercato Nuovo

COST:  Free, aside from the coin you use for luck! The proceeds are collected and distributed to local charities.

#2

Stop and listen to a street musician

From Italian pop to accordions and classical guitar, it seems that there’s always live music on the streets of Florence, especially in the evenings on the Ponte Vecchio, and in Piazza della Signoria and Piazza della Repubblica.

Stop, listen, enjoy. It’s free.

And if you like what you hear, tip them a Euro or two. Or better yet, buy their CD to bring those lovely Italian memories home. Listening to Claudio Spadi sing “A te” or “Acquarello” in the middle of a cold, Vermont winter always brings a smile to my face.

WHERE:  In the summer, you can usually find local musicians on the Ponte Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria, Piazza della Repubblica, and often in Piazza San Marco, Piazza Santa Croce, and Piazza Santo Spirito.

WHO:  My personal favorites? Here are some videos of performances by Claudio Spadi and Luca Sciortino, Justyna Maria Janiczak, and Piotr Tomaszewski

#1

Watch the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo

The panoramic view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo, high on a hill on the south bank of the Arno River, is magnificent. From a distance, the architectural details of the city melt into harmonious shades red and yellow, and like the brush strokes in an impressionist painting, the impact from afar is greater than the sum of its parts.

To see the city at its best, go in the evening and stay for the sunset. It’s a sight you’ll long remember.

LOCATION:  Viale Michelangelo

GETTING THERE:  Aside from a taxi or rental car, there are three options for getting to Piazzale Michelangelo:

1) Walk along the banks of the Oltrarno to the footpath that winds up the hill. Please note that there are many stairs and they are steep;

2) Take the number 12 bus from Santa Maria Novella train station; or

3) Reserve a sunset limousine tour with a company such as I Just Drive, which costs €18 per person and requires a minimum of four people.


Where to stay when in Florence

My personal choice is always the Hotel Davanzati at Via Porta Rossa, 5, but don’t just take my word for it. Check out their reviews on TripAdvisor.

Hotel Davanzati Hotel Davanzati Hotel Davanzati


A Photo Gallery of Florence

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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.

Monday, June 10, 2013

It’s a rainy morning in Florence, although I didn’t know it until I stepped out the door. The window in my room at the Hotel Davanzati has a pair of heavy wooden shutters which I kept closed all night, creating the darkest and most blissful cave in which to catch up on my sleep. Needless to say, I’m getting a late start. So late, in fact, that I barely catch the tail end of breakfast at 10:30 AM. Thank goodness for Patrizia’s delicious cappuccino. It’s helped me to wake up with a spring in my step.

Among other things, I’d liked like to do some shopping today. My Dad wants a new leather wallet and my nephew a leather belt. Tommaso is at the reception desk again this morning, so I approach him for some advice on where to go. Like his father, Fabrizio, he’s good at multi-tasking. He’s juggling the phone while he pulls out a map and circles the location of several boutiques he’d recommend, in addition to the San Lorenzo street market.

This is my third stay at the Hotel Davanzati, and yet somehow I’ve never visited the Palazzo Davanzati which is, quite literally, next door. I decide to go there first. With its lushly frescoed walls and wood beam ceilings, is a wonderful surprise. Yes, the hours are limited, which likely explains why I haven’t visited before, but the admission is cheap and the collection of furnishings, ceramics, and lace is magnificent—a time capsule, really, of Florentine life in the 15th and 16th centuries, at least for those families fortunate enough to be in the merchant class.

When I emerge an hour later, the pavement outside is still slick and wet as I turn from Via Porta Rossa onto Via Calimala. I walk past Piazza della Repubblica and its brightly colored carrousel and stop at Gilli to look at the window display. There’s an attractive selection of candy boxes in the shape of Florence’s cathedral dome, baptistery, and bell tower, but none that could survive uncrushed in my crowded suitcase at the moment.

My next destination is the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, where I’m going to see a famous cycle of frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli in the “Chapel of the Magi.” It’s another loose end left over from a previous trip’s itinerary. It’s a small space with limited access, which leads to a line of visitors downstairs, but it’s well worth the wait. The colors are rich and vibrant, and the scene is breathtaking in its detail. Ostensibly, Gozzoli depicts the procession of the Three Kings on their way to Bethlehem, but in a nod to his patron, the work is set in a rich Tuscan landscape, filled with wildlife and crowded with the faces of Florentine noblemen in their finest clothes. Some even believe that Casper, the youngest of the kings, is a portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici, who would later become a patron of the arts in his own right to luminaries such as Leonardo da Vinci, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Michelangelo Buonarroti.

After two museums in a row, I’m ready to go shopping, I stroll through the San Lorenzo street market, but see little to tempt me. When I can’t find anything I like at Peruzzi, either, I decide to try the venerable Scuola del Cuoio, a leather school in the friary at Santa Croce.

I haven’t been inside of the basilica itself since my first trip to Florence in 2008, when the entire apse was filled by a skyscraper of scaffolding. Surely, the work must have been completed since, so I decide to make a return visit along the way. Except that it hasn’t been completed, not even close. I think about the number of years it took to restore the campanile in Venice, or Bernini’s “Fountain of the Four Rivers” in Piazza Navona in Rome, and recall my conversation with Tommaso about Italian politics and how hard it is to get anything done in Italy.

The wallets at the leather school are simple and beautiful, just what I had in mind. I pick out a bifold in lambskin for my Dad in a deep chocolate brown, and I’m surprised at the register when the clerk tells me they would be happy to monogram it for him free of charge. She sends me back to a row of ancient looking worktables where I meet a cheerful young man who places the letters I need in a branding iron and holds it over a flame, before pressing it vigorously into a piece of gold leaf on the inside of the wallet. It’s the perfect gift and I can’t thank him enough.

By the time I leave, the sun has brightened considerably and the late afternoon temperature is rising. I decide to stop by the hotel for Happy Hour and to drop off my bag from the Scuola del Cuoio. Afterwards, I grab a light dinner at La Bussola and then take a slow walk up to the Duomo and back, stopping to watch an artist create a copy of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” in chalk on the street.

Florence, ItalyI’m standing on the Ponte Santa Trinita when the street lamps turn on at half past nine. There’s a musician with an accordion nearby playing a medley of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and “It’s a Wonderful World.” As I listen, I watch the color drain from the sky over the Ponte Vecchio, as if consumed by the fiery orange of the sunset dying behind me.

I’m thinking about how much I love Italy, and how glad I am to have come back to Florence, in particular. This place really is quite something.

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.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

In a moment of inspiration I’ll come to regret, I’ve decided to visit Bologna for the day.

I’ve never been there before, but I know that it’s a university town in Emilia-Romagna famous for its miles of covered walkways—known as porticos—as well as for its food. This is where that scrumptious pasta Bolognese sauce gets its name, so how could I possibly go wrong? It does occur to me that I should have researched the place a bit first, but my entire trip this year has been spontaneous, free of the burden of itineraries and expectations, and it’s worked out exceedingly well so far. I feel confident that serenditpity will guide me in Bologna, too.

I’m getting a late start again, and my train is running behind schedule, which doesn’t help matters, so I don’t get to Bologna Centrale until nearly noon. We’ve arrived at the new underground station that opened just days ago and I feel disoriented immediately. It’s cavernous inside and almost entirely barren. I had expected to find a tourist information office where I could pick up a city map, at least, but there’s nothing around and no one to ask for help. I take the escalator from one level to another, and then another, and eventually find my way out onto the street, but the neighborhood looks nothing like what I expected.

Originally, before I got sick and had to reshuffle my trip, I had reserved a hotel room in Bologna for one night at the Starthotels Excelsior directly across the street from the train station, but standing here now I can see it’s not here. Only later do I realize that I’ve emerged far on the other side of the tracks, facing north instead of south. Without any sense realistic sense of direction, I grab a taxi and tell the driver to take me somewhere in the city center. He drops me off in Piazza Maggiore, and hands me his card in case I need a ride back later. The truth is, part of me wants to turn back now.

I stumble into a branch of the tourist information office and a disinterested woman behind the counter hands me a map, and sells me a €12 ticket for a sightseeing bus that should give me a feel for the city, but really who knows? She waves me off without comment and sets back to reading her book.

By the time the City Red Bus reaches Piazza Maggiore, all of the outdoor seats on the deck are taken, which leaves me to the front of the vehicle under a plastic roof that acts like a greenhouse on a summer’s day. It’s sweltering. At each of the stops, I look back hopefully at the other passengers, praying that someone will step off somewhere to visit something so that I can take their place. The two leaning towers, the Torre Asinelli and the Torre Garisenda? No. The church of Santo Stefano, or San Domenico, or maybe San Francesco? No, no, and no. What about San Michele in Bosco, with its panoramic terrace overlooking the city? Surely, someone will disembark there to appreciate the view. No, indeed. Everyone stays resolutely on the bus, craning their necks and taking pictures. No one ever does get off.

By now, I’m drenched in sweat and in a raging mood. I reach into my purse for something to eat and find that my scarf—the one I keep on hand for covering my shoulders when visiting churches in Italy—has gotten caught in the zipper. When I can’t slide it free, emotion gets the best of me and I tug it HARD, expecting the scarf to tear away. Instead, the zipper breaks. I’ve yanked it clean apart, and I sit there staring at the crooked teeth and at the metal pull in my hand, wondering how I could have been so stupid. In vain, I try to hold the purse closed with a safety pin, knowing all the while that I’ll be an easy target for pickpockets from here on out.

When we complete the loop and arrive back at Piazza Maggiore, it’s nearly 2:00 PM. The buses are taking a long break for lunch, and so do I. I’m not feeling finicky, I just want to eat and to get out of the heat of the sun. In an alleyway just off the square, I find a place called Al Voltone and it seems reasonable enough. I order the Antica Bologna platter with fried tortellini, a foam of mortadella, polenta with fresh cheese, and a petroiana spear—at least that’s what the menu says. It’s all perfectly fine, but certainly not memorable. Nonetheless, the chance to sit and rest in the cool shade does me good.

I take some pictures in and around Piazza Maggiore, of the Palazzo del Podestà, the Palazzo D’Accursio, and the Neptune fountain, and then set off on foot through the porticos, past the leaning towers, to the basilica of Santo Stefano, which has just reopened for the afternoon. Actually, it’s a cluster of medieval churches, chapels, and cloisters, all from different periods. As I stare up at the dark brick dome in the ancient Santo Sepolcro, a polygonal temple dating from 12th century, I decide that I’ve done enough to justify the day. Perhaps my standards are low, but I’m ready to head back. Bologna hasn’t been my finest hour.

Near the Piazza Santo Stefano, I catch the City Red Bus back to the train station and walk past the clock that’s been frozen in time to honor the victims of the terrorist attack that occurred here in 1980. I buy a ticket for the next train to Florence and settle in for the ride.

I’m safe and sound back at the Hotel Davanzati in time for Happy Hour, entertaining Tommaso with the story of how I broke the zipper on my purse. He finds it quite amusing, and now that I’ve had a chance to unwind, I suppose I do, too. Still, he says I should remind him never to make me angry.

Indeed.

Perhaps it’s a good thing to be surprised by your own strength from time to time. Who knows what it may accomplish, even if it does mean sacrificing a perfectly good purse.