One of the great things about travel is being someplace in person that you’ve been in books and movies and your imagination about a million times. But then in real life, there you are.
Being as we were on a two-week Untours adventure, our driver to Roma Termini, our train tickets, and our driver to the Florence apartment had all been arranged for us. Since I live in Texas, USA, it is always an amazement to climb aboard a lovely clean quiet train and travel from city to city at 300 kilometers per hour while people serve you drinks and snacks and your traveling companion falls asleep the instant the forward motion begins.
How could Mary miss watching Rome turn into countryside and then become Tuscany (that countryside being our next vacation destination)?
Although I was terribly sad to leave Rome and it took me a couple of days to really feel Florence, at this point I can’t think of anything completely rational or informative to say. Go read up on Florence. All I can tell you is what it felt like; all I can do is show you a few of the things we saw.
By a great stroke of luck we would be staying in Oltrarno – literally the other side of the Arno from what I shall heretofore refer to as “downtown.” It’s a district of little neighborhoods with charming narrow cobbled streets, small shops, and a long history of housing artists who could never afford to live downtown.
Florence is a city notorious for its noise: tourists, traffic, motorbikes, those little two-stroke trucks delivery people use that can be pushed into and out of parking spaces by hand – noise at all hours of the day and night.
Oltrarno, on the other hand, is full of quiet, peaceful streets.
This was our little street, with piazze on either end; amazingly close to the river and a top-notch gelateria, but far removed from the tourist bustle and traffic noise. We were pleasantly surprised, having read for weeks about how tiny our apartment would be, to find that although it was quite a bit smaller than our massive Rome apartment, it wasn’t so tiny after all.
I think much of vacation success can be chalked up to having realistic expectations, although I must confess once again that my expectations of Italy have nothing to do with reality. And once again I was never disappointed.
Example: whether in Rome or in Florence, as in any big city, sometimes when you’re walking along the smell is not so much springtime as sewer gas. Walk a few more steps and you might be engulfed in the perfume of jasmine draped over a long wall, or the scent of food so tantalizing you’re instantly starving, no matter when your last meal was. You have to be able to roll with the environment as it is exactly where you are. (I say this as current temperatures in Austin are inhospitably close to 100F every day and it is still “spring” here.)
On that first day in Oltrarno we went to lunch at a little trattoria up the street; we would eat there again before our week was up. I won’t go into too much about food because what can one say? How about this: it is both uplifting and depressing to be reminded of how real tomatoes look, smell, and taste.
I ate a fair amount of risotto on this trip; it was asparagus season after all.
This is a tiny little restaurant that can seat maybe 25 or 30 people. The couple in charge – we assumed them to be long-married pair – were very kind and welcoming. The restaurant draws its name and artwork from the trolley that used to run in front of the place, where now there’s a park.
The house white is highly recommended.
Mary and I would spend some afternoon times in that park watching masses of kids at play. With the courts side by side I can venture the opinion that the kids were much better at soccer than basketball; watching them shoot hoops I wished grandson Jessie could be with us to offer them some tips – why didn’t he get wealthy grandparents? But then I thought how a 6’4″ teenager would look among all those relatively short kids. Maybe they would think him Gulliver; I know he would make an excellent coach – this could be the 21st century remake! Gulliver gets out of death sentence by helping team win basketball championship.
But I digress.
Naturally we spent a certain amount of time on the downtown side of the river, since that’s where so much art and history reside. You can’t really think about Florence without thinking of the Duomo, properly known as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. Saint Mary of the Flowers – isn’t that nice?
This is a photo of the instantly recognizable Duomo from “our” side of the Arno, as we walked up & up & up through the Boboli Gardens behind the Pitti Palace. Our Untours host, Helen, made all the right recommendations and I can’t wait to tell you about the one “official” Untours tour we had. In a minute.
That cathedral! It only took about 600 years start to finish. Brunelleschi’s cutting-edge dome was widely copied once the amazing engineering proved possible. The main structure went together between September 1296 and March 1436. Well then! Long before our little adolescent nation was discovered and conscripted, building on this immense cathedral was under way.
What happened in the 19th century is a little harder to explain. We’ll just put it in the “you either love it or hate it” category.
Trust me, the whole thing is covered with that.
I think it may be why we mostly see paintings and photos of the dome. From a distance.
The interior is another one of those tours Mary and I just didn’t take. It’s embarrassing to admit we didn’t use our reservations to the Uffizi either; nor did we go see David in the Galleria dell’ Accademia. We can be difficult to explain, even to ourselves. I think we were so accustomed to quiet tours in quiet neighborhoods that the crush of tourists – even in May – was more bustle than we could stand.
By the end of our trip, I was so overloaded with elaborate and ornate works of art I wanted to travel to some minimalist nation and look at nothing but clean lines and white walls for a month. I couldn’t even stand one more church full of art, so Mary visited Santa Maria del Carmine at the end of our street on her own. It may tell you something about Mary’s life that when she left the church to discover it was raining, by sheer coincidence I was standing at the base of the church steps with an umbrella. Apparently living alongside the Pacific Ocean isn’t enough luck for one person.
Call me the Unruly Traveller; I just can’t find all the words for Florence. So I’ll just walk you through some highlights. From downtown, because even a merry-go-round can be a work of over-the-top art:
I mean, I don’t need to get into a review of all the mood-altering substances we used to ingest for a trip to the amusement park back in the 70s, but this would have left my little circle of misbehaving friends sitting on the pavement for about four hours nodding and laughing and pretty freaked out.
One great thing about walking around in Florence is that you can stumble from place to place, mouth agape, taking a thousand photos and people won’t think a thing of it. You’re a tourist, just like everyone else.
My photo tells me this next location is La Piazza Della Signoria, which is helpful. This is the area of the rules department of the Republic of Florence. It’s close by the Uffizi and right where they hanged and burned Savonarola in 1498. Enormous statues here commemorate numerous examples of human violence against other humans. People haven’t changed much.
Imagine parents’ reactions if American school children walked past that every day! As it was, we saw many school children throughout Rome and Florence, and not one of them seemed to be running away screaming because they had been exposed to depictions of naked bodies performing outrageous acts. But then too, a lot of the kids were holding hands- even pairs of boys! – and we certainly couldn’t have that in the USA. It must be all the kissing and fussing over they get as babies.
I think it is a good thing to step into a different culture once in a while and look at our own cultural constructs from a bit of a distance. If we don’t do that, we run the risk of thinking we are right about everything. And we are way too young a culture to assume we are right about things.
Alongside La Piazza Della Signoria is Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s town hall. It was named the “Old Palace” by Medici when he decided to move to the suburbs (more about Palazzo Pitti in a moment). It is indeed an old palace, its construction started in 1299 atop the ruins of palaces formerly owned by a family of reputed rebels – in part to make sure that family would never build upon that land again.
One look at the so-called First Courtyard, designed in 1453, gives you some impression of the extravagance of the place.
The courtyard is surrounded by a number of these pillars. Not to mention the frescoes covering the walls and ceilings. It is my impression that this decoration was carried out to celebrate the wedding of Francesco de’ Medici
We were told that Francesco’s dad, Cosimo, ordered a covered walkway built from Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti. It was constructed over the Ponte Vecchio, which at that time was an, um, meat processing facility. Top Guy Medici didn’t like the smell and ordered the butchers to find another location, replacing them with members of the gold trade.
True or not, the Ponte Vecchio remains heavily dedicated to gold and silver to this day. With the crowds it kind of reminded me of the Santa Monica pier but with gold and gold and gold where kettle corn and palm readers would be.
As usual, Mary and I wandered up and down streets, generally without specific plans or goals in mind; occasionally we’d pull out a map to orient ourselves. We love window shopping, and little shops (Florence has an abundance, an amazing number of which specialize in pens and hand-painted paper). We wandered into and out of churches and open palaces and so many piazze.
One lunch time we were dithering about a choice of restaurant when we saw an intriguing little place.
We weren’t going to make it into the countryside on this visit, though another agriturismo trip is definitely on my wish list. But here was a restaurant run by people with a family farm outside the city. Here was a little piece of Tuscany right in the midst of busy downtown Florence.
Lunch opened with a red wine made from the owner’s grandfather’s recipe. He would have called it a chianti back in the day, but that isn’t allowed any more because the formula includes some white wine as well. I’m sure we ate another caprese, and I’m almost positive I had another risotto. Dessert was strawberries in red wine and once again it was sublime and heartbreaking to taste what strawberries actually taste like.
I don’t know how one gets away with all the wine consumption that happens during an Italian vacation, but somehow I never even end up tipsy. Or no more tipsy than simply being in Italy makes me. When lunch is two hours long you have plenty of time to metabolize whatever is being offered.
This couldn’t have been the same day, with all that food, but at one point we happened upon a gelateria (name forgotten, alas, do your own research) that had all the right characteristics: something about “all natural” in the window and covered gelato vats. I have neglected to tell you that we had amazing gelato a block from our Rome apartment, so our yardstick was golden.
This little place did not disappoint. You always get at least two flavors or they look at you as if you were just born this morning and have no idea how to go about normal life. I picked chocolate (dark, rich) and pistachio (IT TASTED LIKE PISTACHIOS AND THERE WERE BITS OF ROASTED SALTED PISTACHIOS IN IT).
I believe there was only one day in which we had gelato twice.
I’ll finish the gelato saga by saying that I am taking an online painting class with this British guy Will Kemp and in one of his teaching essays he writes very scrumptiously about a certain gelateria in Florence. Of course I would have to find it, and of course I found it wonderful – although one of the other Untours people make a face of sheer disgust when I mentioned the tiramisu mousse flavor that I adored.
Makes the world go round, I guess.
We were amazed and delighted when we finally figured out that that particular gelateria was mere blocks from our apartment, right down by the closest bridge over the Arno.
I just don’t know how to get through the rest of my life without it.
We were always glad to cross back over into Oltrarno and work our way back to our apartment. The jostle of tourists was abruptly replaced by people going about their normal lives: shopping for dinner, escorting the little ones home from school, taking the dog for a walk.
I just don’t know how to get through the rest of my life without it.