Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Art Above All

Hundreds of books have been written about the art of Florence, so I won't even try to convey its full scope. But it's everywhere, including the fleur-de-lis on the water-pipe covers and the door knockers with lions' faces.
Random impressions about the major art I saw:
Michelangelo's David is just breathtaking - photos cannot capture its magnitude. You have to go through a few rooms of the Accademia before you get to it and, even though I'd done some research, I wasn't sure where it was.
Then I got to a doorway and saw, in the next room, people all looking in the same direction with looks of awe. This was the room, a very long room with the David standing at the other end in a round, three-story space. There is a bench lining the half-circle behind the statue and a few chairs and other benches placed so people can see the front. I would sit for a while, then move around, thinking that I was mere feet away from something Michelangelo touched.
I spent about five minutes contemplating the taut tendon behind his left knee and the ribs in his left side. Maybe three minutes just looking at his toenails. And that right hand, the one that I believe is the most beautiful hand in all of art. I also bought an Accademia guidebook which included several closeup photos and discovered that Michelangelo carved his pupils in the shape of hearts. Magnifico!
I also saw Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" and had to restrain myself from crying. But this was during a guided tour of the Uffizi, so I couldn't linger as I did with the David.
I can't begin to remember the hundreds and hundreds of paintings and sculptures I saw on this trip, ones that I've dreamed of seeing in the "flesh" for decades. Timeless works by Durer, Raphael, Giotto . . . I could go on and on.
I don't think I'll ever go to another place in the world that will have as much meaning to me as Florence does.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Countryside

The bus tour to Siena and San Gimignano was fun, and I'm glad I got to see the "other" Italy. The fields, looking like chunks of green carpet flung across the rolling hills; the cypress trees punctuating the vistas like dark-green exclamation marks; the old farmhouses in shades of mustard, toast and cream; plump purple grapes just waiting to be plucked from the vines.
Siena's cathedral is so stunning I'm not sure anyone can do it justice with a mere camera. That's the ceiling above.
We took a lunch break near Siena's main piazza. I sat near two women from Japan, a couple from Birmingham, England, honeymooners from Long Island, honeymooners from Belgium, a couple from France and a couple from Boston.
Then off to San Gimignano, a beautiful village on a hill with some incredibly steep streets. It was packed with tourists, but I found some quiet spots far from the madding crowd.

TV in Italy

I didn't want to spend much time staring at the TV in my room - after all, I could do that at home. But here are a few things I noticed:
Watching CNN's broadcast from London, I realized that British people are really pasty (can you say, "Whiter Shade of Pale"?). Get some sun, people!
It really is vastly amusing to watch dubbed American shows and movies. I saw bits of "Two and a Half Men," "The Flintstones," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and some old John Wayne movie. To my great sorrow, I saw only the end credits of a "Law & Order" episode.
It was much more interesting to watch the show outside my window, where I could see and hear a performance of "Havah Nagilah" by a boatload of musicians under the Ponte Vecchio.

Retail Therapy

I arranged my tickets through an absolutely wonderful site, Weekend in Florence, that let me pick my times/days and download vouchers so that I didn't have to stand in line for tickets. One museum I planned to visit is called the Alinari National Museum of Photography, but when I got there last Sunday I found it was closed for renovation (my credit card has already been refunded).
So I had a free day, and what better way to spend it than shopping? I bought:
Some wonderful items that I won't go into detail about since they're Christmas presents.
A tiny, beautiful etching of a street with Brunelleschi's Duomo in the background (above) from an artist set up near the bridge. It cost the equivalent of $7 and I'm convinced he could get at least three times that much here.
Two posters reproducing famous artwork from one of the vendors who spread their wares out on the sidewalk near the Church of Santa Maria Novella. With the huge volume of foot traffic there, that seems risky, but maybe they're hoping people will step on them and have to buy.
And that afternoon, I set out to get a closeup view of a church on the south side of the Arno. Lo and behold, I stumbled onto a flea market with the typical mix of people trying to clear out their homes and artists selling their wares.
I found some old photos and postcards (don't I always?), a pair of earrings, a Murano glass paperweight (I paid a fraction of what it's worth), a heavily illustrated book on the art of Florence (and I can mostly figure out the Italian text), and a small metal cat sculpture/ring holder.
I realized later I never did find that church I was looking for.

The Clueless Tourist

It's one thing to look at a map, even write notes about street names, and think you can find your way. It's not so easy to actually do it when you're walking on winding streets that change names nearly every block. And when most blocks have a trattoria, a tobacco shop, a gallery, a market and a gift shop, it's darn near impossible. There are no street signs per se - just plaques on the sides of buildings close to the corner, plus some signs pointing the way to major landmarks.
So nearly every day I got sort of lost. I'd be aiming for someplace, looking for a street name and hoping for the best. And several times, I'd just about give up and decide to find my way back to the hotel and either get my bearings there or give up on my original plan. And then, to my wondering eyes would appear the exact piazza or museum I was looking for.
This just proves that God watches over fools and clueless tourists.

What I Did Right

I found the perfect hotel: overlooking the Arno, less than one block from the Ponte Vecchio, with a tremendous breakfast buffet. Oof. Fortunately, I was able to walk almost everywhere and work off those calories. There was no screen in the huge window in my room, so I could lean out and take photos, like this one of the Ponte Vecchio at night.
My last morning there, I was sitting in the breakfast room and thinking how elegant it was: tall ceilings, wall sconces and chandeliers, beautiful draperies and tablecloths, suave waiters in white jackets and black bowties. And just then, The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" came on the sound system. Too funny!
I didn't rent a car: If you look at a map of Florence's historic area, you see something that looks like it was designed by someone who dropped a container of pick-up sticks. But, of course, it just evolved over the course of centuries. Some blocks consist entirely of one building, and some intersections have five or six streets feeding into them. The traffic is chaotic: tiny cars, a gazillion motorcycles (both of those modes of transport make perfect sense with the narrow streets), hundreds of thousands of pedestrians from all over the world, bicyclists, buses and the occasional horse-drawn carriages full of tourists. And yet it all works - I didn't see one accident, and saw only three or four dented cars. But I would be a babbling idiot (no remarks) if I had to drive there.
I planned a very good itinerary: I decided I didn't want to stagger from one museum to the next and risk having everything blur together, so I planned one museum per day, with plenty of time afterward to "digest" and wander with no agenda. A snapshot of my schedule:
Wednesday, Sept. 9: arrive at hotel early afternoon, after flying from Denver to Washington, D.C., to Munich to Florence.
Thursday, Sept. 10: hop-on, hop-off bus tour of the city, including a stop at the Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking Florence.
Friday, Sept. 11: Palazzo Pitti (who wants to be in a town without Pitti?)
Saturday, Sept. 12: bus tour to Siena and San Gimignano, south of Florence
Sunday, Sept. 13: Alinari National Museum of Photography (closed, so went shopping)
Monday, Sept. 14: Casa Buonarroti (Michelangelo's family home); late afternoon boat trip on the Arno (canceled because of rain).
Tuesday, Sept. 15: Uffizi Museum
Wednesday, Sept. 16: Accademia Gallery
Thursday, Sept. 17: home via Frankfurt

Jet-lag Blues

I checked into my hotel early afternoon on the 9th, took a nap and then went out to explore the city and sniff out a restaurant. When I got back to the hotel, I punched the button on the elevator near the reception desk. I'm not sure how long I stood there thinking, "Wow, they really keep these glass elevator doors clean" before I realized the door (NOT glass) was actually open. I just hope nobody saw me standing there like a slack-jawed buffoon.
The other sign that it took me a while to get over my jet-lag (that's my story): during the hop-on, hop-off bus tour I took on my first full day, I spotted an interesting-looking statue off in the distance. As I got closer, I realized it was a closed table umbrella at an outdoor cafe. Hey, anyone would have thought looked like a nun from a distance! I decided against taking a photo, though.

Brief Encounters

A few of the memorable characters I met:
All the wonderful guides - Alessandra, Nicoletta and Annalisa - who led me through their cities (I also took a bus tour to Siena and to San Gimignano, a tiny mountaintop village straight from the middle ages).
The elderly beggar who said the equivalent of "bah!" when I initially said no to her plea and then, when I thought better of it, gave me a long, emotional lecture in Italian.
Cristiano, the very patient and helpful co-owner of the Internet cafe I visited.
The man making masks near the Palazzo Pitti who let me take his photo. And yes, I did buy a mask.
The street musicians, playing guitar and accordion, who hammed it up when I took their photos.
Lily, the bead shop owner. A Seattle transplant who's lived in Italy for eight and a half years, she had a cozy, beautiful shop stuffed full of merchandise and art. The evening before I left, I decided to take a different route from the Internet cafe to the Ponte Vecchio and my hotel, and plunged into the street where I happily stumbled on this shop. I had thought I'd probably make a quilt using photos of Florence, but now I definitely will - I bought beads and ribbons from Lily that I can incorporate into it.
The gentleman dressed in a white sheet, with his face painted white, and holding a bouquet of red flowers and standing like a statue, with a bowl for coins at his feet. When I dropped coins in his bowl, I heard him croak, "Grazie," as if all that standing still had damaged his vocal cords.
Mary and Tom, the Canadian couple I sat with in the Piazza della Repubblica after the rainy weather washed out our boat tour for the second time. After talking about the sad state of journalism these days (Mary is a former journalist who just got her master's in history), Tom suggested I investigate becoming a liaison for English-speaking tourists visiting Florence. Not sure I'd do that, but their encouragement was nice.
The guard at the Accademia (home to Michelangelo's David) who kept saying "beautiful, beautiful" about my camera and winked when he said I could probably take one photo. I've been too naughty in too many museums and galleries, so I've reformed. The guards at the Accademic just roam through the crowd, saying "No photos!" every time they see a flash.
The taxi driver who calmly screeched around a corner on the way to the Florence airport, narrowly missing a couple of elderly nuns. The nuns seemed pretty calm about it, too, but I guess that's part of the job description.
And last but not least: the several men standing outside their businesses who suddenly burst into beautiful song, just because their hearts were full.

The Last Supper

Before leaving, I did some research on restaurants - checking Frommer's best list, etc., but ended up just following my nose and checking the menu posted outside before going in.
But I found one absolutely marvelous restaurant, the Trattoria Ponte Vecchio, about two blocks from my hotel. It had everything: great food, lovely surroundings, decent prices and perfect service. So I ate there several times, enjoying chicken breasts in vino bianco, a tuna steak that melted in my mouth, roast potatoes that were the perfect crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, and an astounding apple cake drizzled with dark chocolate.
So I decided I'd go there for my Last Supper the night before I left. As I dressed in my best clothes, I speculated about what I'd eat. As I strolled between the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi, my mouth was watering. And then I realized I'd reached the Uffizi - where was my restaurant? I trudged back and forth, wondering if I'd hallucinated some "Brigadoon" - a magical place that appears occasionally to enchant people.
I eventually realized that the restaurant was closed on Wednesdays and that one of the filthy "garage doors" I'd passed on my fruitless search was hiding it from me. Curses!
So I followed my nose to another restaurant. I finally decided on chicken and potatoes (instead of the "fettucine to the porky") and, when my meal arrived, I was looking at, basically, chicken strips and french fries like you'd get at KFC. It was good, but still!

Italian men

I was prom- er, warned that I might get pinched while in Italy. Sadly, the closest I got was an arm around the shoulders from a man selling posters on the street. And I'm pretty sure he was just trying to make a sale! Whatever, it worked.
I'm not going to take it personally - I figure The Men of Italy have been warned to keep their hands off. Sigh.
I also got some major flirting from a TSA guy in Denver. Go figure.