Thursday, January 28, 2010

Italy Day 6: Florence

This is a repost of my 2007 trip to Italy with my mom, brother, sister and Aunt.

A sleep-in day, yay! We had to be at the bus by 8 because, believe it or not, streets in Montecatini close. All of them in the center, to let the kids walk to school. That's what our tour guide said anyway.

It took two hours to drive the 65 miles to Florence ... commuter traffic. We were given the day's itinerary on the way in: Gold demonstration, leatherwork demonstration, guided tour to the Accademia, then free time (yay!).
Frankly, I wasn't overawed by Florence when we arrived. I was amused that we walked past a Florentine high school, where all the kids were smoking! We trooped into a gold shop run by a woman from San Francsico (former model did some work in Florence, fell in love with a man there, and just stayed). The "demo" was more a sales pitch for a lot of things I couldn't afford. Booooring! Then we trooped to the leather shop, where we got another "demo," but at least this one told us a tiny bit about leather.

The streets in Florence were tiny, just one car's length, crammed with tourists and cars that don't really care too much about the tourists. It was an adventure getting from Piazza San Croce to Piazza Signora, but frankly our tour guide that day was less than fascinating. The Piazza that we spent about 45 minutes at was filled with statues, the Pallazo Vecchio ... but I just didn't care much. I was glad to finally leave the square, and was about to give up on Florence all together when we turned a final corner and saw the Duomo of Santa Maria del Fiore.

It's enormous, with beautiful white, pink and green coloring. There are so many facets, designs, towers, domes, statues and paintings on it that it's had to decide what to look at. Directly across from the Duomo are the Gates of Paradise, golden doors carved with Biblical scenes from Ghiberti that Michaelangelo described as fit to be the gates of Heaven itself. Didn't care. Barely interested.

First thing, I tried to figure out why they'd paint a church those particular colors. Then my jaw literally dropped as I realized it wasn't paint ... the building was constructed out of three different colors of marble. There were carvings all over it, but my favorite was the one of Mary holding a chubby-cheeked baby Jesus, who reached out to bless ... who? The expressions in the faces were incredible: judgemental, somber, sad, resigned. The burden of the whole world falls on this woman and her baby, and they handle it with dignity.

Inside, the dome was spectacular. The entire church was built with a hole where the dome would be, because nobody knew how to build one yet. How optimistic! Brunelleschi figured it out, and when Michelangelo had to build St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, he studied the Duomo. When he left for Rome, he bid adieu to his building, saying he was off to build her sister; bigger, but not more beautiful.

How nice!

Anyway, back to the painting on the inside of the dome. Paintings of heaven, hell and pergatory. "The Last Judgement," a striking study of perspective and dimension. Breathtaking.

I don't know if it's obvious yet, but Florence zoomed from being my least-favorite city to one I'd visit again, on the strength of art and architecture. I fell in love with the city on the strength of its cathedral. But we had to eventually leave, and we skated right into the Accademia and into the arms (eyesight, anyway) of David.

OK, we stopped and saw some Botticellis first, and the plaster model of The Rape of the Sabine Woman (what is it with men and rape in the ancient world?). But I am among the tens of thousands of people every year who just visit the Accademia to see Michaelangelo's sculptures. Lining the wall of David's room were the Slaves, a series I highly recommend you look up. They're beautiful figures wresting themselves out of blocks of marble. They look just like unfinished scupltures, but was that Michaelangelo's idea? Are they unfinished, or carefully designed to look that way?

And David. Oh, David. You've seen it, but until you've been there, you haven't seen it. The perfect physical form, the defiant and exasperated expression is one thing. But seeing the veins in his arms, and the small bones of his feet, his perfectly chiseled ankles make you want to cry, because no one is that good. It makes you glad that Michelangelo was a sculptor, and sad that his genious will never, ever be equaled. And I'm probably the seven millionth person to think that in the past year.

After seeing David, we left. It's sad to say, yes, but I wasn't with people who were into art. Also, frankly, I had been seeped in culture for five days. I wanted some shopping! We argued a bit over where to go--Anthony desperately wanted to shop for clothes, and thought that an Italian department store would be the palce to be. Snobbily, I argued strongly against the Italian Macy's. Then I felt bad, and got us there. I mean, who am I to deny the boy the one thing he wanted?

First, we stopped for lunch. Not for the delicious pizza that Vincenzo recommended, but at the first self-serve cafeteria we saw, bizarrely. Not my idea, but whatever. Not every meal I eat in America is fantastic. I had some kind of cheese-stuffed pasta with meatballs that was pretty good, if expensive. Then we went to the store, and walked out minutes later. We visited Coi, a gold warehouse where we realized how expensive gold in Florence was (duh!), and then wandered the back streets, stopping every once in awhile to shop.

Katie, my sister in Seattle, had been to Florence the year before, and brought back a wonderful leather purse from a store called Leonardo's. I was curious about it, and halfheartedly looked, but didn't expect to find it ... until we turned a corner, and there it was! Full of beautiful leather goods, ones that were actually made in Florence, not designer goods plopped in a store. It was there that I was inspired for a souviner for Matt: Leather gloves. Not exciting, I grant you, but warm, supple and useful. After visiting two more stores (and spending an hour trying in vain to find myself a purse), I finally settled on a pair of wool and leather outdoorsey-looking gloves. I picked up a belt for myself before mom hustled me out of the store.

We simply had to try this gelato place Vincenzo recommended before meeting up to go back to the hotel. It was staffed by women who were obviously very tired of tourists, so we made a few snap decisions instead of asking which flavors went well together. I picked chocolate and hazlenut (not great), orange (really bitter!), and rice (my absolute favorite flavor, I should have gone back for more). I liked riso so much that I didn't have another gelato in Italy. I also bought a cute touristy shirt, a white T with Florence's symbol on it (a fleur de lis looking thing) and the word "Firenze" blazoned across the top. Too cute!

Well, it was time to go back after that, and take a rest at the hotel (one of the few times I actually did) before walking into downtown Montecatini to find a place for dinner. I was very relaxed, having changed into jeans, flip-flops and my new t-shirt, and was halfway across the piazza before I realized what I looked like: a tourist. I was in a suburb (sort of) of Florence wearing a t-shirt that said "FLORENCE" across the top, and a purse that had patches with the names of other Italian towns on them. For all the precautions I'd taken not to look like a tourist ...

We ended up eating at a local restaurant, where Katherine, Anthony and I exercised our new language skills, and we got to see the local cuisine. Pizzas (yum!), whole crabs in spaghetti, and squirmy looking calamari. Not really so different from home, when I think about it now. No dessert this time, since we all just wanted to go home and go to sleep. The next day we were moving on, and visiting Pompeii.

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