Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Giardino (n.): garden

Years ago, on my first trip to Florence, I ventured into the Boboli Gardens. It was late in the day and I had already walked up the hill to Piazzale Michelangelo and back. My feet were tired and my brain overwhelmed by hours spent in churches and museums, absorbed in the art of Giotto, Fra Angelico, and Piero della Francesca. I had thought a stroll through the gardens would be a respite for my body and my mind, but I was wrong. It was a hilly place, situated in a large triangle between the Palazzo Pitti, Forte Belvedere and Porta Romana, and the challenging terrain—which was not apparent on the tourist map I carried with me—wore me out almost as soon as I arrived.

This morning, some six years later, I’m back to try again, this time on a fresh pair of legs before the heat of the day descends. I use my Amici degli Uffizi card to pick up tickets at the entrance to the Palazzo Pitti, and then move through the cool shade of the courtyard, into the sunlit space beyond. There’s an airy amphitheatre fanning out and up the hill, anchored at the center by an Egyptian obelisk. I follow the path up and reach the terrace of the Neptune Fountain, where the god of the sea has his trident in hand, as if to pierce a fish out of the murky green water below.

Up and up I go, toward the statue of Abundance, until I reach the Porcelain Museum and the adjoining Garden of the Cavaliers, where a row of pink roses are clinging to the iron railing at the edge of the terrace. I stop to catch my breath and survey the surroundings. The imposing Palazzo Pitti is to my back, and the red roofs of Florence lie beyond. Ahead is a yellow valley dotted with old palazzos, olive groves, and cypress trees. I feel as though I’ve traveled a long way in a few steep steps. I’ve wandered no further than the Medicis’ back yard, and yet as if by magic, I’ve been transported from the frenetic streets of the city, to the languid countryside of Tuscany, where I’d very much like to stay for a while.

The morning hours turn to midday and then slip pleasantly into early afternoon. I stroll to the Kaffeehaus and an elegant terraced garden overlooking the city, then through a shaded avenue of cypress, flanked by statuettes, all the way down to an island pond near the Porta Romana gate, where an artist has set up an easel to capture the scene, much as John Singer Sargent did more than a century ago.

By the time I reach the Lemon House and the Buontalenti Grotto, I’m ready to head indoors. It’s been a memorable morning, lounging here much as Henry James did in the late 19th century, and it’s done much to change my initial impression. I think of Versailles for a moment, and about the manicured gardens of grand country estates in Britain. I suppose he was right about the Italian manner, “with flowers rather remarkably omitted, as too flimsy and easy and cheap, and without lawns that are too smart, paths that are too often swept and shrubs that are too closely trimmed.” Indeed, there is something wild and shabby about the Boboli Gardens, “here and there a dried-up fountain, and everywhere a piece of mildewed sculpture staring at you from a green alcove.” But the end result, as Henry James wrote, is an “irresistible mixture of nature and art” that rather inclines one to daydream.

I glance at my watch and head back the pebbled path. There are a multitude of museums to discover within the complex of the Palazzo Pitti, as well as a special exhibit of Jacopo Ligozzi’s work, including some fantastical naturalist and botanical drawings that has just opened in the Palentine Gallery. It’s only when a text message arrives on my phone that I break my gaze from the Raphaels, Titians, and Caravaggios.

Some months ago, a reader from the Midwest had contacted me through my blog to ask for help in planning a special trip to Italy with his son. As it turns out, we’ve landed in Florence at the same time and he’s graciously invited me to join them for a sunset limousine tour of the city. They’re staying at the Hotel Davanzati on Via Porta Rossa, with my old friends Fabrizio and Tommaso, who’ve booked our ride through their sister company, I Just Drive, and so I happily agree to meet them there at 7:30, relishing the chance to catch up.

By 8:00, we’ve settled into the back of a Bentley limousine, with an interior far wilder than I could have imagined. There are curved leather seats in stripes of gray, pink, and blue, a thumping audio system, and a minibar awash in neon light. When we arrive at Piazzale Michelangelo, my kind benefactor offers to take my picture, and I strike my best “mine, all mine” pose while leaning against the door, my arm stretched wide across the roof of the car.

It’s an extravagance being here—arriving by limousine to watch the sun set over a glorious city, both brimming with history and the vitality of youth—but I’m grateful most for an evening of unexpected companionship. As a solo traveler, I’ve come to appreciate these fleeting encounters, and whether I ever meet this generous father and his charming son again, I’m glad we crossed paths here on such a lovely summer’s night.

After a glass or two of prosecco on the return drive to Piazza della Repubblica, we joke that we should to stand up through the moon roof like Richard Gere in the movie Pretty Woman, but our driver, Leonardo, says that they’ve had to seal it off because people were throwing bottles out the window and into the street. “Italians can’t be trusted with anything nice,” he says, for a moment I’m reminded once again of the British tourist with the walking stick I met on the way to Fiesole.

Ecco l’Italia. That’s Italy!

By the time we part and I wish my new friends well on the remainder of their trip, the sky has darkened into a velvet black. It’s tempting to stay out late, walking the streets or listening to Claudio on the bridge, but it’s been a busy day and I still need to pack. I’m about to go on a vacation from my vacation. In the morning, I’m taking a train west in pursuit of palm trees and the Ligurian sea.

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.

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.

Friday, June 14, 2013

There’s a handsome new face at the reception desk this morning. It’s Fabrizio and Patrizia’s younger son Riccardo, fresh out of high school. He’s as friendly as everyone else in the family, and equally efficient in handling my hotel bill. We talk pleasantly for a few minutes as he runs my credit card through and prints the receipt, and when I ask for a small favor, he says he would be happy to store my luggage in the corner behind the desk to allow me a few more hours to sightsee before moving on.

There’s a special exhibit at the Palazzo Strozzi called “The Springtime of the Renaissance: Sculpture and the Arts in Florence, 1400-1460” that I want to see before I go. It’s an impressive collection that includes Filippo Brunelleschi’s original wooden model for the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. That object is the fundamental starting point of the Early Renaissance, along with the bronze panels Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti completed for a competition to determine which would be commissioned for the doors of the Baptistery. Those panels are here, too, each depicting the “Sacrifice of Isaac” from the Old Testament. There are nine large rooms in all to digest, with major works by Donatello, Lippi, Masaccio, and Della Robbia, among others. Coming here has been an afterthought, of sorts, but a welcome one.

I return to the Hotel Davanzati and walk up the flight of stairs one last time to claim my bags. Riccardo kindly arranges for a taxi to pick me up downstairs, and before long, I’m on the 11:38 AM train to Lucca. By accident, I’ve picked one of the slower Regionale trains, which makes more stops along the way, but perhaps the extra time will do me good. I need to clear my head after an intense five days in Florence. I have another week in Italy ahead of me and I want to enjoy it.

It’s half past one when a cab driver drops me off at the door of the Hotel Palazzo Alexander on Via Santa Giustina in Lucca. It’s a quiet residential street and a pleasant place to stay, if a bit worn around the edges. I’ll be here for the next two nights, mainly to explore an antiques market that opens tomorrow morning. The rest of today is my own, and I feel no need to rush.

I’ve been here before, on my first trip to Italy in 2008. I combined it then with a day trip to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower, the cathedral, and the Camposanto. It had started out with unseasonably cool temperatures, a driving wind, and torrential rain, but by the time I arrived in Lucca in mid-afternoon, the sun was splitting the clouds and the air was warm and breezy and fresh, as it so often is after a storm. I spent the time I had wandering the streets, walking the city’s walls, enjoying a late lunch at a café in Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, and climbing the Torre Guinigi to stand under the shade of the oak trees and to see the hills of Tuscany roll out like a carpet before me. On one of the rooftops, someone had written in large, block letters: WHERE IS THE HAPPYNESS? And for me it was there, captured in a moment now five years gone. It became one of my fondest memories from that trip, and I always knew I would come back.

I meander up to Piazza dell’Anfiteatro to take some pictures, then down Via Fillungo to the square by the church of San Michele in Foro, where there are people lounging lazily on the steps eating gelato. The shops have reopened following their afternoon slumber and the town is gradually crawling back to life.

Later, I walk into Trattoria Canuleia for dinner, which is just steps away from the curved walls of the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, and ask for un tavolo per uno—a table for one. It appears dark and nearly empty inside, but the waitress leads me out through the dining room to a shaded courtyard in back where there are a dozen or more people dining merrily under a canopy of umbrellas. There are white and aqua tablecloths and potted flowers on the tables, and there is a warm glow coming from the lamps that line the edge of the stone patio. It has the charm of a secret garden, and I’m grateful for the impulse that led me here.

There is a woman seated at the table next to mine and she’s likewise dining alone. Within minutes, she leans over to ask if she can join me. I nod readily, and she carries a glass of wine over to the seat across from mine. Her name is Diane and she’s from Melbourne, Australia on the last leg of her trip to Italy. As I work my way through a bowl of chilled zucchini soup with fresh mint and ricotta cheese, and then a dish of cabbage with buffalo mozzarella and sundried tomatoes, we talk about our travels—all the places we’ve been, and those we’d still like to see. She has a cheerful disposition and a lovely lilting accent, which reminds me of another Australian woman I once met on a train between Assisi and Arezzo.

When we part at the end of dinner, I’m sorry to see her go. Solo travel has its rewards to be sure, but it can be a hard and lonely business sometimes, which is what makes sharing an unexpected meal with a sociable stranger so comforting.