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.

Monday, June 7, 2010

It’s time to move on again, and in packing my bags this morning I feel a rush of excitement.

When I approach the front desk to pay my bill, I tell the clerk how much I’ve enjoyed my visit to Arezzo and the Hotel Continentale. And I mean it truly. In planning my itinerary months ago, I saw my time here as a convenient and inexpensive home base—a way of squeezing a few extra days out of the budget—but it has far exceeded my expectations.

The clerk pauses in his paperwork, looks up, and furrows his brow. “Quiet, quiet, quiet,” he says. “We get in a car and drive to Florence.”

And so it is.

I catch the 8:55 AM train to Florence and arrive at Santa Maria Novella station less than an hour later. After a short cab ride, I find myself back in the welcome arms of the Hotel Davanzati. I first visited Florence in the summer of 2008 and have the warmest possible memories of the place and of family that manages it. This morning, it’s the handsome Tommaso who greets me, and like his father Fabrizio, he is a kind and gracious host. Before long, my things are stowed away in the same charming room, and I have been briefed on the latest trends in local gelato. Grom, it seems, is very much in favor.

As I head out onto the streets and through Piazza della Signoria under a morning sun that already feels scorching hot, I am reminded of all that I love about Florence—the beautiful art and architecture, the enticing aromas wafting out from local cafés, the magnetic pull of museums, the sound of street music around every corner. There is an urban metabolism that pulses with possibility. I feel energized and find myself walking quickly, remembering that I have but a short time here.

I am devoting the day to loose ends, to a list of things I had wanted to do two years ago. There is, it seems, never enough time in Florence.

Because it closes early, my first stop is the Bargello museum, housed in the imposing Palazzo del Popolo, a former barracks and prison. The fortress is impressive in itself. There is an inner courtyard and covered staircase, and the walls are lined with heraldic shields from the 13th and 14th centuries that represent the coats of arms of various city magistrates, known as podestà. Inside, there is furniture and tapestries and some Majolica ware, but the real specialty is sculpture. The Bargello houses Donatello’s bronze statue of David. Completed in the 1440s, it was the first freestanding male nude to be cast since antiquity.

Florence, of course, is better known for a very different David—a more mature and heroic one, carved in marble by Michelangelo. Tourists line up in droves to see it at the Accademia across town, and they stand proudly by a copy of it for pictures in Piazza della Signoria. Here at the Bargello, Donatello’s David seems overlooked, in part because the museum itself is off the beaten path for weary crowds en route to other staples of Florentine history and culture. Even on a busy weekday at the height of tourist season, the museum is nearly empty.

As Mark Twain once wrote in the Innocents Abroad, I like Michelangelo very much, but I do not want him “for breakfast—for luncheon—for dinner—for tea—for supper—for between meals. I like a change occasionally.” As Twain went on to observe, in Florence, Michelangelo “painted everything, designed everything, nearly, and what he did not design he used to site on a favourite stone and look at, and they showed us the stone… Enough, enough! Say no more… I never felt so fervently thankful, so soothed, so tranquil, so filled with a blessed peace, as I did yesterday when I learnt that Michael Angelo was dead.”

Well, if that’s the case, Donatello’s David certainly is a change. He depicts David as a youth, more accurate to the biblical tale, but the pose is jarringly effeminate, with one hand resting on a hip that bends at the knee. The addition of a jaunty hat and Goliath’s winged helmet at his feet, one wing splayed seductively up the back of David’s leg, gives the entire composition a homoerotism that reminds me of the Caravaggios I saw in Rome. I wonder what Twain would have to say about that?

Nearby, I stop in for a bite to eat at Antico Noè, a tiny sandwich shop in an arcaded alley off Piazza San Pier Maggiore. I order the numero otto—pork with pecorino cheese—and watch as a steady stream of college students crowd the doorway. Next, I take Tommaso at his word and pay homage to Grom near Piazza del Duomo, where I get a dish of raspberry and lemon gelato for dessert, and eat it on the steps of the cathedral.

I walk back to Piazza della Signoria and join the security queue to enter the Palazzo Vecchio. This is the local town hall, and its soaring bell tower is nearly as prominent a part of the city skyline as Brunelleschi’s red-tiled dome.

It’s a self-guided tour, but an excellent one given the opulent surroundings. I visit the Salone dei Cinquecento (or, Hall of Five Hundred), where some believe that a long-lost scene of “The Battle of Anghiari” by Da Vinci lies hidden beneath a later fresco by Vasari.  I wander next through a series of connected public rooms, where every square inch of the walls and ceilings are covered by Renaissance art, some of which depict scenes of Florence that are wholly recognizable today.

I have a 3:45 PM reservation to see a cycle of frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel at the church of Santa Maria del Carmine, but with some time to spare I decide to cross the Ponte Vecchio and do a little shopping along the Oltrarno, stopping at Roberta’s to buy a leather belt for my Dad. Then, I walk up along the river to the Ponte Santa Trinita to admire the statues at each end representing the Four Seasons, which were added in 1680 to celebrate the wedding of Cosimo II de’ Medici. The bridge was a beautiful one, with three graceful elliptic arches, but in the closing days of World War II, it was spitefully bombed by the Germans, along with every other bridge in Florence, save the Ponte Vecchio. The statues collapsed into the Arno, and while the remains were put back on the newly reconstructed bridge after the war, the head of Primavera was missing and long thought stolen by soldiers during the liberation. It wasn’t until 1961 that it was finally found downstream.

I am right on time for my appointment. In the end, despite the restrictions—the need for advance reservations, and a limit of just 15 minutes to view the art—my visit in the Brancacci chapel is well worth the effort, especially given the quality of the multimedia presentation beforehand. Begun by Masolino in the late 14th century, and later finished by Masaccio and Lippi, the frescoes tell the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, as well as other stories from the Bible, including “The Payment of the Tribute Money” from the Gospel according to Matthew.

In the only sour note of the afternoon, a French tour group joins my time slot, and despite the usual admonitions for silence and respect, the guide talks loudly the entire time, instructing those with her to stand in the center of the small space, where they remain for the duration, crowding everyone else out. Afterwards, several of us try to talk to the guard to protest. We’ve had little chance to see the frescoes up close because of the guide’s boorish behavior, but it seems there is nothing he can do.

I decide to duck back to the hotel to change out of my sweaty clothes before dinner and to post a few pictures to Flickr for friends and family back home. When I arrive, Happy Hour is underway at the Davanzati, so I have a glass of prosecco beside me as I connect to the internet on my netbook. This is, apparently, an act of heresy in Italy and it draws a good-natured rebuke from Fabrizio, who reminds me that I am on vacation and that I shouldn’t work so hard. I’m truly not working, but it doesn’t seem worth the explanation. I simply agree and close the lid.

For dinner, I’ve reserved at table at Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco on Borgo San Japoco, where a cute Italian busboy asks if he can introduce himself. I nod and he flirts endlessly, insisting on taking my picture. Eventually, the waiter comes by, frowns, and sends him packing back to the kitchen, to my grave disappointment.

I dine well on some hearty Tuscan fare—white beans with sage, and a plate of Pappardelle al Cinghiale, or wide ribbon noodles with wild boar sauce. Sitting nearby is a couple from Florida, celebrating their 13th wedding anniversary. In eating early, and snapping pictures, and in brimming over with enthusiasm for Italy as we talk, we are—the three of us—the spitting image of the American tourist, although hopefully not as hapless and uncouth as those Twain depicted in his narrative.

The night is still young when I leave my Florida friends. The air is cooling at last, and the change in temperature makes for a pleasant stroll. A classical guitarist from Poland, named Piotr Tomaszewski, is playing on the Ponte Vecchio to an appreciative crowd. After a while, I head up Via Porta Santa Maria, past the duomo, to Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. Designed by Brunelleschi himself, this used to be an orphanage known as the “Hospital of the Innocents.” It’s a low structure with an arched colonnade and above each column is a round terracotta sculpture, or tondo, added by Andrea della Robbia around 1487. The tondi depict infants in swaddling clothes lying on a blue wheel—a wheel which actually existed until the late-19th century, allowing mothers to leave their unwanted children anonymously by rotating them into the hospital interior on the equivalent of a Lazy Susan.

By the time I make my way back to Piazza della Signoria for the third and final time, night has fallen. Floodlights have kicked on and the tower and stonework of the Palazzo Vecchio stand stark against the sapphire sky.

In the Innocents Abroad, Twain wrote that “Florence had pleased us for a while,” before becoming tedious in the effort required to appreciate it. I suppose that it’s possible to come to Florence to relax, to embrace what the Italians call l’arte di non fare niente—the sweetness of doing nothing. Fabrizio, at least, says that it is.

This is a city that wears its past proudly on its sleeve, but I’m sure there are times when the looming presence of the Renaissance imposes a burden on locals and tourists alike, for who among us will ever reach the heights of a Donatello or a Masolino, a Brunelleschi or a Michelangelo? And so we exhaust ourselves in stifling heat, trying to see it all in the time that we have.

What can I say? Florence inspires me—not to do nothing, or even something, but to do everything. If not this time, then the next. And that can be rather sweet, too.

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.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

As I lay tucked in bed this morning with the shutters drawn, I consider my situation. I have two days left at the Hotel Davanzati and I had hoped to make two day trips, one to Pisa and Lucca by train, and other to Siena by bus. I have deferred as long as I could based on the unseasonable and increasingly unpredictable weather, but this truly is the end of the road. Whatever happens, I will have to make the best of it.

With a sense of resolve and the anticipation of disappointment, I flip the latch on the shutters and pull them back away from the window. As I lean out to get a better look, the cobblestones on Via Porta Rossa appear little more than damp, and the sky overhead is showing patches of blue. Hallelujah, hallelujah.

I don’t exactly know why it’s so important to me that I see these places bathed in sunlight. Like any traveler, I’ve experienced my fair share of rain. I do have an innate and nonsensical tendency to worry about the weather, but it rarely disrupts my plans in the end. Heck, I survived the torrential downpours that fell across England last summer, and had a mighty good time in spite of it all.

But Italy is somehow different. Anyone with any common sense expects dreary weather in Britain. It’s all part of the mystique. Is it even possible to imagine Brontë’s Wuthering Heights without the windswept moors and the dark, foreboding sky? Yet when it comes to Italy, and Tuscany in particular, the image in my mind’s eye is quite the opposite, constructed from picture postcards and pieces of Hollywood film. That book by Frances Mayes that they turned into a movie was called Under the Tuscan Sun, after all, not Under the Tuscan Rainclouds. I’ve been sold a bill of goods and I am here to collect!

I am confident all the way through my bowl of cereal and two breakfast pastries, optimistic on the walk to Santa Maria Novella train station where I buy a ticket to Pisa Centrale, and hopeful as the train pulls away and heads west, shortly after nine. Halfway there, sitting behind a young Italian woman who talks fast, loud, and incessantly on her cell phone, I notice dark clouds creeping in across the sky.

By the time we arrive, every trace of blue has been swallowed up by the storm. It’s raining so hard and the wind is so fierce that on the long walk to Piazza dei Miracoli, my umbrella is wrenched inside out. I take refuge first in a doorway and then, along with a host of other wet and weary tourists, in a gift shop facing the square.

When it becomes clear that the situation is unlikely to change any time soon, I run across to the ticket counter and buy a pass that allows me to enter five major sites: the cathedral and baptistery, two small museums, and the Camposanto. I pass on climbing the famous “Leaning Tower,” not only because it’s expensive, but because I just might slide off the side to an untimely death in this weather.

I enter the Museo dell’Opera first, and after looking out of the window to observe two things—first, that the tower really is smaller than one would expect, and second, that it really does lean—I pass the time pleasantly, surrounded by beautiful works of art, including a case of illuminated manuscripts written in square notation for Gregorian chant.

Heading clockwise around the square I stop next at the Museo delle Sinopie, which displays the preparatory drawings that were used to create the frescoes on the walls of the Camposanto. These were discovered underneath only after much of the structure was destroyed during an Allied bombing raid in World War II. Then come the baptistery and the cathedral itself, or “Duomo.”

It’s a lovely Romanesque church begun in 1093, but the central pair of bronze doors in front has been removed for restoration and the space covered with unattractive sheets of unpainted fiberboard. When a woman steps in front of me to take a picture, I reposition myself so that I can use the span of her multicolored umbrella to block it from mine. When life gives you lemons… make lemonade!

I enter the Camposanto last, eager to see the restored frescoes that were once damaged in the war. It’s a cemetery made up largely of stone sarcophagi. There is a large rectangular cloister with delicate stone tracery on the windows, and a grassy central courtyard, planted on the periphery with roses of pink, red, and yellow.

The frescoes that stand in relief against the brick wall are fragments to be sure. They are snatches of scenes that once depicted “The Ascension” and “The Crucifixion,” along with other Bible stories. But they are beautiful just the same, with attention paid to the small details of life that I find so appealing. In one, two carpenters use a cross-cut saw to slice boards from from a larger beam. In another, a woman in a brocade gown of pink and blue holds a squirming dog on her lap, as it gently bites her finger. And finally, there is St. Michael the Archangel, who stands with sword in hand at the center of what can only be described as “The Last Judgment.”

I should have seen that coming! How many does that make this week?

Still, my penance may be over at last because as I wind my way back out to the cloister and across the courtyard, I spot a feeble ray of sunshine coming from the sky overhead. The storm has passed, the clouds are breaking.

It’s 2:00 PM by the time I arrive in Lucca on a direct train from Pisa San Rossore station. I haven’t eaten lunch yet, so I’m starved. For me, the first order of business isn’t to admire the city’s fine medieval walls, which I pass under at Porta San Pietro. Instead, it’s to find my way to a restaurant called “Buca di Sant’Antonio,” which I had read about online. The problem is, the only map I have is one produced on my inkjet printer at home and the morning’s rain has reduced it to a smeared and sodden mess. As it is, I have no hope of finding Via della Cervia. I would ask someone for directions, but the streets at this hour are eerily quiet.

Opting for the safety of numbers, I decide to head towards Piazza dell’Anfiteatro instead. It’s the main public square, a discernable blob on the map, and there are bound to be dozens of restaurants nearby. When at last I reach a curved section of wall, I know that I’ve arrived. I follow it to the left and enter through a deep gate lined with bicycles.

Inside, the piazza follows the oval imprint of an ancient Roman amphitheater. I stand and admire the jigsaw architecture and the uniform colors of the space — red tiled roofs above, shades of yellow stucco with green shutters below — before sitting down to eat under the awning at “Roma Bar.” I’m told that the pasta with sage butter is gone for the day, so I settle for tortellini and a mozzarella and tomato salad instead.

Once my stomach is comfortably full, I head off to find the Torre Guinigi, which as it turns out, doesn’t require a map at all. As I head south, away from the piazza, I can see the brick tower, with its famed oak trees on top, looming high above the surrounding neighborhood.

The climb up is an easy one, on wide stone stairs. From here, under a canopy of green, the city of Lucca lies at my feet, surrounded by the Tuscan hills. I can see the oval pattern of the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, and behind it a striking mosaic on the façade of the Basilica of San Frediano. When my eyes drift down to the jumble of rooftops below, I discover a message scrawled in chalk that reads: WHERE IS THE HAPPYNESS?

Perhaps it’s an existential question, a plea for understanding. Maybe it’s nothing at all. In the here and now, however, I know my answer and it’s Italy.

Back on the street, it’s late afternoon and Lucca has awakened from its official midday slumber. The shops have reopened and tourists are beginning to file into Via Fillungo. I stop at Moka Bar for two scoops of gelato — lemon and pineapple — which I eat while window shopping.

I make my way back to Porta San Pietro and climb the steps there to reach the top of the wall. I decide to walk as far as my legs will take me, past the Cathedral of St. Martin and the botanical gardens. As I go, I hear the persistent “ching, ching” of bicycle bells. This comes not just from children who seem to delight in ordering others out of the way, but from everyone, despite the ample width of the gravel path.

Cyclists clearly take priority over pedestrians, and they are more ubiquitous here, and more dangerous, than Vespas in Rome. An extended family whizzes past and no sooner does the father ask the grandmother how she’s faring, then she topples over onto the grass, striking her head on the ground. I stop and offer the use of my cell phone to call for help, but thankfully she seems fine, just a little dazed.

About half way around, I climb down from the wall and meander through the center of town, back to where I began, past boutiques and bookshops and store windows filled with pastries, past the church of San Michele in Foro. By now, the sky has turned a brilliant shade of blue, made deep by the setting sun.

When I reach Piazza Napoleone, I stumble into a raucous celebration in honor of the local Carabinieri, Italy’s military police. Flags of red, white, and green are flying from every window, but oddly enough the song the band is playing is none other than “Stars and Stripes Forever.” It is an odd juxtaposition of the foreign and the familiar.

I’m tempted to linger and to watch. But it’s getting late and I have a train to catch.

On the journey back, in a nearly empty car, I lean my head against the window and watch the world go by. My iPod is in my lap and a track from Il Postino is playing in my ear. The morning’s rain seems a long way away.

It’s been a good day, after all.

Friday, June 6, 2008

It’s a glorious morning, cool and bright, and here I am heading south to Siena on a SITA bus at ten past nine. Tomorrow I leave for Venice, so I’m determined to make the most of my final day by spending it in this quintessential Tuscan town.

The ride is short and uneventful and when we disembark at Piazza Antonio Gramsci, I follow the wisdom of the crowd through the narrow streets of the city, assuming the destination for most is “Il Campo,” the main public square.

It is, and I enter through a bottleneck at its northwest corner. From here, everyone is pausing to take pictures and the pedestrian traffic has come to a standstill. From my position, sandwiched between two buildings, looking in, I’m struck not by the harmony of the architecture, or the grandeur of the Palazzo Pubblico with its sharply cut battlements and soaring bell tower, but on a more elemental level by geography itself.

Maps, even those with well-intentioned contour lines, can do little more than suggest elevation in a two-dimensional space. There is no substitute for seeing a place in person, and for feeling the swell of land beneath your feet. I’ve seen photographs of this square, of course, mainly aerial views that highlight its unique fan shape, with spokes of grey stone contrasted against brick, converging at a single point in front of the town hall. But while the view from above is remarkable, it’s also deceptive. In person, the square slants dramatically forward, like a flattened funnel, and I imagine that water in a rainstorm must converge at the bottom as it would in a giant drain. Not that I’m hoping for rain, of course!

This is the site of the famous Palio, a horse race held twice every summer in which riders on bareback careen around the piazza, its pavement softened by dirt for the occasion. The slope lends the whole affair an even more treacherous air.

I follow the route along the perimeter of the square and stop at the base of the Palazzo Pubblico. According to my guidebook, the building is best known for its 14th century frescoes depicting “The Allegories of Good and Bad Government.” That’s a subject I know something about, so I decide to take a peek, stopping first to capture a vertical view of the bell tower framed by the walls of the courtyard.

When I find the room at last, I think, ironically, that looks much like a secular version of “The Last Judgment.” On one wall a ruler presides over an orderly society, flanked by female figures representing virtues such as temperance, prudence, and peace. On another, a horned figure with pointed teeth embodies Tyranny. He is surrounded by counterparts in vice, including cruelty, treason, and war. A bound figure lies helpless at his feet, while the scales of justice hang cut above his head. It’s surely effective, but not exactly subtle.

Fond as I am of panoramic views, I climb the Torre del Mangia next. From the top, I look down upon a lively crowd, some seated in neat rows at café tables, others lounging in the square. I gaze at curving brown streets that remind me of the Burnt Siena crayons I knew as a girl, all the way out to a sea of rolling hills dotted by small churches and convents.

By the time I reach the ground again it’s time to break for lunch. In a stroke of genius, I settle on “Ristorante La Campane,” where my seat on the patio allows me to enjoy the passing scene of shoppers below. I order a chicken and avocado terrine to start, which I later decide has more shape than flavor, and then a plate of ravioli stuffed with pear and cheese, topped with melted pecorino and cracked black pepper. In every mouthful, this is perfection itself. I rake my memory trying to remember if I’ve ever had a better pasta, and come up empty. This is it.

Unfortunately, I reach my epiphany just as a street musician approaches with a violin in tow. Her efforts are clumsy and cruel to the ear. While I dine on such a dish, it is interesting that I should be subjected to such noise. It is an assault on the senses, from both extremes on the continuum.

Later, she comes onto the terrace and moves from table to table, begging for tips. Normally sympathetic to such gestures, I turn away and notice that she has been refused by all. Slyly, I wonder if the real intent was for us to pay her to stop.

I spend the rest of the afternoon wandering aimlessly through hilly streets, up to the Duomo and down to the convent of San Francesco.  Along the way, I enjoy slow scenes of Italian life — the color of laundry hanging out of windows, of flower boxes perched on windowsills, and of bicycles leaning against archways and alleys. For a snack, I forgo the typical gelato in favor of local delicacies, including a variation on fruitcake known as panforte, and a chewy almond cookie called ricciarelli.

When I claim a spot in the Campo to rest my feet and eat the pastries in my bag, I’m startled by the feel of something wet on back of my head. I look to the birds circling above, certain I’ve been their victim. But a woman nearby points to an old man instead and makes a gesture to suggest that he is crazy. He has a water pistol in hand and he is laughing as he uses it to chase pigeons around the square. Perhaps she’s right, but on a lazy summer day such as this, I envy the idea and its execution.

By early evening, my time in Siena has come to an end. I take the SITA bus back to Florence and the Hotel Davanzati, where I find that a light rain has once again descended. Not to be undone, I revisit “La Bussola” for another round of pizza, and then make one final turn through the streets on foot, stopping by Piazza del Duomo, where the baptistery is beautifully lit from within. From there I head south towards the Ponte Vecchio, which is lonely and silent, and finally to the Mercato Nuovo to place a coin in the mouth of Il Porcellino, and to rub his well-worn snout. As in Rome at the Trevi Fountain, tradition holds that this will ensure my return to the city someday.

I wonder when that will be.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

This morning, as I enjoy one last breakfast at the Hotel Davanzati, I’m taking stock of things. I do a quick count in my head and realize that my adventure in Italy now has reached its tenth day. I have seen the ruins of ancient Rome, the art of the Renaissance in Florence, and now it is time to head to the sea.

Fabrizio is kind to call me a taxi, and soon enough I’m stowed comfortably aboard the 10:38 AM Eurostar train to Venice. With “The Minstrels on the Bridge” singing sweetly in my ear, I watch the shifting terrain out the window, waiting for the causeway that connects the mainland to the island. I purchased Claudio’s CD that night on the Ponte Vecchio, from a stack propped against the lid of his guitar case. Copying the tracks to my iPod using the laptop in my room was the morning’s last minute inspiration, and it makes the time in transit pass quickly.

At a quarter past one, we arrive at Santa Lucia Railway Station, which is flat, industrial, and nondescript — an exercise in mid-20th century mediocrity. Walking out the door, however, is something else entirely. It’s like entering a wardrobe and finding the world of Narnia on the other side. This is the Venice of my imagination, and the Grand Canal is bustling with motor boats, water buses, and gondolas.

As I roll my suitcase down the steps in front of the station, I breathe deeply and allow the salt air to fill my nostrils and lungs. There is much to take in, but there is also business to be done.

At a kiosk to the right, I buy a 72-hour travelcard and learn through observation how to scan it on the machine before entering the Vaporetto. I count the stops carefully and disembark at the third, San Stae, and follow the directions printed on my itinerary to the Hotel al Ponte Mocenigo.

It’s a lovely place, small and intimate, and my single room just around the corner from the lobby desk is exactly the same. There is much to admire here — elegant furniture painted in shades of green and gold, and a Venetian oil painting in an antique frame hanging on the wall — but my stomach is growling and I’m eager to explore. With little pause, I make my way back to the Vaporetto and head in the direction of St. Mark’s Square.

Riding a water bus down the Grand Canal is an interesting experience, to say the least. Despite the risk of collision, I’m surprised to see the boat zigzag from one stop to the next, docking first on the right, then the left. At midday, it’s also heaving with passengers and their mountains of luggage. These two things in combination are bound to lead to chaos and confusion. Halfway down the route, past the Rialto Bridge, a pretentious and overdressed couple waiting for their stop on one side suddenly realizes that it’s about to come on the other. They push their way through in a panic, dragging a quartet of suitcases the size of small ponies and weighing nearly as much. There is something of the ridiculous about them.

The Vaporetto begins to slide back from the pier just as they reach the gate. They lock eyes on the attendant, pleading for help, but he shrugs and shakes his head with more than a hint of amusement. With the energy born of frustration, they push their bags over the side and tumble out after them onto the dock. As I watch the woman’s stiletto heel slip predictably into the gap between the boards, I smile just a little, too.

It doesn’t last long. When the Vaporetto makes its final turn under the Accademia bridge, I can see the scaffolding on the dome of the Salute church looming ahead. There is a crane poised overhead and a monstrous wall of white that extends all the way to the tip of the peninsula. I was prepared for the sight of this in advance, and yet somehow not.

Renovation projects are a reminder of the effort required to hold nature at bay. After all, the city of Venice, perched precariously on its ancient pilings, is in constant battle with the elements. I know this, but I’m disappointed all the same when the Salute scaffolding is followed shortly after by the sight of Roger Federer’s face on a giant Rolex ad in St. Mark’s Square. Then there’s the work being done to the east of the Moors’ Clock Tower, and to the façade of the basilica.  There is netting on the spires to the left, and scaffolding above the center door, near the famous bronze horses. Finally, and worst of all, construction on the base of the campanile has fenced off a large corner of the piazza itself. I rotate miserably for a few minutes, taking it all in, before deciding that, like in Pisa, I’ll just have to get creative with my camera angles.

I walk north of the square, along the Merceria, and grab a late lunch at a small café. I spend the rest of the day wandering aimlessly through tiny alleyways in a deliberate attempt to get lost. Within two or three turns I have succeeded beyond all expectations! Occasionally, I see comforting signs that read “Per Rialto” and “Per San Marco,” but for now I’m content to let fate and fortune be my guide. I follow canals, climb over bridges, and window shop for Murano glass. The charm of the city is proving irresistible.

By 8:00 PM I’ve somehow come full circle, arriving back in St. Mark’s Square, and this time my eyes look beyond the construction and I see the beauty for what it is.

In what will prove to be both blessing and curse, I decide to have dinner nearby at “Ristorante All’Angelo.” I’m tired and it’s convenient. There is one small table left in front, and when the waiter directs me there I find myself sandwiched between a chain-smoking, Middle Eastern couple on my left, and a pair from Holland on my right. It’s a warm night and the quarters are close. It’s impossible not to overhear, and then join, entire conversations. On one side, the Dutch are trying to engage me a conversation about politics. On the other, there is a show of good natured bickering about love and obligation. It’s all so entertaining that I’m distracted from the menu. For sake of simplicity, I wind up ordering a prix fixe translated into English: a tasteless bowl of pasta pomodoro and a Greek salad.

Before long, those on the left introduce themselves. She’s from Syria, he’s from Egypt. They have a long distance relationship and agree to meet in exotic locations three times a year. But she complains to me that he’s not romantic enough, a pronouncement that has him rolling his eyes in mock exasperation. As a woman, she wants me to intervene on her behalf. I say he should take her on a gondola ride. He looks skeptical. Turning to her with a sly smile, I say that if it doesn’t work out, maybe she could go home with the handsome gondolier instead. She likes this idea. He doesn’t, but it seems to have the desired effect.

By the end of the night I’ve learned two things: One, that I should never order food from a Menu Turistico again, unless I’m in the mood for overpriced, uninspired fare; and two, when pressed, I’m perfectly capable of discussing international affairs while simultaneously giving advice to lovelorn couples. Who knew? Of course, maybe those skills are much the same.

Afterwards, I walk back to St. Mark’s Square, where the orchestras are in full tilt under a crescent moon. I watch as an audience of uncertain loyalty claps and cheers and moves in unison between “Caffé Florian,” “Ristorante Gran Caffé Quadri,” and “Café Lavena.” Each group of musicians takes its turn, conscious of the others. The arrangement is simple — two violins, an accordion, a clarinet, string bass, and piano — but the sound they produce here under the stars is lovely, a combination of sentimental waltzes and lively folk dances. In this duel of orchestras, where bows cut the air in place of swords, “Caffé Lavena” surely wins the night with its rendition of Andrea Bocelli’s Con te Partiro. I’m familiar with the lyrics and it means “Time to Say Goodbye.” That will come soon enough. For now, I’m enjoying the moment.

It’s late when I begin to wind my way back to the hotel on foot. The lights from shop windows are fading fast, and soon it will be difficult to find my way through the unfamiliar streets. Still, I linger on the bridge outside of “Trattoria Sempione” to enjoy the scene. Gondolas are departing just below, and for a moment I wonder if I might see my Middle Eastern friends again, locked in a romantic embrace, or at least sitting grimly side by side. This thought is interrupted by a squeal of delight. In an open window of the restaurant, facing the canal, I spy two children, a boy and a girl. As each gondola passes by, they lean out between the ivy and the flower boxes and yell “Ciao!” to its passengers, then fall back into their seats and giggle. I watch them repeat this over and over, and every time it is the same greeting, the same fit of laughter.

It seems to me that we are in agreement, the three of us. Venice is enchanting and it is irresistible.