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Doru's Italian Notebook - Sept 2003 (Venice, Veneto, Tuscany, Florence)

September 15, 2003 (Monday) - Montevarchi, the Prada outlet, Radda in Chianti

We start early. We have directions. Pretty good directions, in fact. But they are all coming from Firenze. We are coming from Castellina, by Gaiole, on SS429, then on SS408. And so, when the directions from Patty and Bill Sutherland, which we printed out carefully at home, say: “…A few more kilometers and you will come to a traffic circle. As you go around the traffic circle, go in the direction of Montevarchi” all is good and clear. The only question is which traffic circle, because there are several, as we come from SS408 into SS69. And a few uncharted forks in the road, to boot.

Experienced travellers as we are, we probably miss a critical sign indicating we are leaving Levanella. The problem is that there is a Levanella and a Levane and the sign above the traffic light says: “Arezzo Levane”. No mention of Levanella. A few kilometers beyond the centre of Montevarchi, we are into Levane and it is clear we better ask.

Bill and Patty’s advise was that, in case we couldn’t find the place, and even if we don’t speak any Italian, all we have to do is ask “Prada?” and everybody in the region and beyond will immediately know what we seek and will point us into the right direction. Indeed, we stop. We ask. The answer, with gesticulations, is that we have passed the place; as if we didn’t know…

On the way back, we are a bit more careful. We get to the required traffic light but instead of rushing all the way through, we turn to our right (we were coming from Montevarchi!) onto a street marked Lavanella-La Lama. Past lifeless warehouses, on to the end of the road, a cul de sac and a huge parking lot, where trash cans the size of Chianti hills spill over, full to refuse with packaging materials. A bus and a few cars are already parked. On our left, the SPACE outlet. We have arrived.

As we step out of the car and enter the gate, we almost collide with a cart filled with about 20 of what look like shoe boxes. As we skirt by the cart, we are met by an Italian movie star who probably moonlights as client greeter at the outlet. He directs us towards the huge empty courtyard, as if we could have gone anywhere else.

At the door to the store, thoughtfully, washrooms are provided. A machine dispensing numbers is also provided. A security guard, no movie star this one, indicates to take a number. Josette takes one and we move to go into the store. We are stopped. I look around and I see no lineup. What is to wait for?

Hand sign language with the security guard doesn’t clarify anything and we stay puzzled. The movie star approaches and, deus ex machina, cuts the Gordian knot: every person must have a number, even if we are a couple. One couple, two tickets, etc.

I get also a ticket, the number on the screen above shows something totally different from the numbers we hold, but the movie star opens the door invitingly and with many “Grazie” all around, we’re in.

The temple of Prada! We are finally here! A sentiment of joy and elation infuses me… Oh!, come on, be real! This is just one huge department store, and it is quite empty on this Monday at around 10:30 a.m. There are at least as many attendants as customers, that is sure.

As we move around, we identify the target for our visit: the purses.

We have strict functional specifications to meet and have even brought with us a printout of the desirable models, provided thoughtfully by our daughter-in-law. After searching for a few minutes, I decide to ask one of the clerks where could I find the specific model we are looking for or something similar. “Oh,” comes the answer, “every day we get something else and we never know in advance what will arrive and so you can only choose from what is available today or, maybe, come back another day. Although there is no guarantee you will find it then.”

Well, this was clear enough, and in English to boot. Josette and I huddle and decide we will take whatever we think S. would like and select a few models, which we carry around for a final comparison. Once we choose one of purses, we are directed to either pay immediately, or leave it at the front desk, together with our number (Aha!) and we will be free to browse the rest of the store unencumbered.

As I noted above, the outlet is just a department store warehouse, where a variety of clothing and accessories, most carrying the names and tags of well-known designers, are sold at outrageous prices, pretending to be major discounted amounts. As a rule, an object would be tagged with two prices, the regular and the sale price, the latter being circa 1/3 of the former, still quite astronomical, but surely less than what one would pay for the object in a first class store in Milan or Firenze.

The choice of models and sizes is quite poor; I have to believe that unless one is tall and thin, clothing would be very difficult to fit. I looked at a number of things, particularly sweaters and jackets, and can’t find anything that I would like to buy and ditto Josette.

But the purse is a sure buy, and I also try to convince Josette to buy for herself a Miu Miu shopping bag which I like for her a lot and is only marginally outrageously priced. We look at it a few times and then she says “No!” (I think now she is a bit sorry that she didn’t accept my offer to buy it).

We go to reclaim the chosen purse at the front desk where things are a bit hectic, which is surprising, considering that there are more of them than of us. Anyway, we pay (don’t ask!) and receive full instructions and documentation to reclaim the VAT on departure: a card, an invoice, explanations on how to reach Global Refund, an envelope, etc. All explained with great care and patience, which is appreciated.

We leave with the purse placed in a very large paper bag marked “SPACE”, the real name of the outlet, Prada being just one of the many designer products sold there. We will see a few more bags like this at the Florence airport when embarking on our return flight home.

[Off on a tangent: We thought we have bought a black purse. Back home in Toronto, as we unwrap the package to take another look at it, Josette exclaims: “But it is brown, not black!” We both look and indeed, it seems to be a very dark brown. We take it out on the terrace where, in natural light, it is most definitely brown. We are sure that the purse we have finally picked was black and the tag said “black”. How did it change? David Copperfield? Did they, Horror! substitute it while we were looking at other things? No, it doesn’t seem plausible. Still, to this day, it remains a mystery. But we needn’t worry since our daughter-in-law was very happy with the purse and uses it happily and so our efforts were rewarded by her expressed and evident pleasure]

For lunch in Castellina, it is sandwiches and a chunk of cheese from the deli across the hotel, and fruits from the store further down on Via Ferrucchio. Out on our private terrace, we have a leisurely lunch, checking on the hills spread in front of us. It is too hot for the birds to dance for us at this hour, so it is just the two of us. Later, we rest before going for the afternoon to Radda.

We get to Radda without much trouble in about 10 minutes and, after looking for parking in a Piazza where it turns out signs prohibit it, we turn back and finally park on the side of the road SS429 which passes just below the town’s fortified walls. Somebody just leaves and as we ease the car in the small space, we notice two armed policemen. Before locking the car, I decide to make sure I am in a parking spot permitted to visitors and I go to the two policemen and ask. One of them looks at me for a while and then says in very good English: “I see you have parked, no?” I explain that I want to make sure parking is allowed in that particular spot and his answer is: “Mister, there are laws in Italy but nobody respects them!” I am a bit confused by this statement and I still don’t know whether I should leave the car there or not. The policeman maintains a poker face and I decide to leave the car where it is.

Radda is laid our very much like Castellina, with a sleepy main street that cuts in length the oval walled town. At this hour, not much happens in Radda and there are no crowds the way we met in San Gimignano and even in Castellina around the Coop. We take our time with an elliptical walk from one end of the town to the other, stopping at the Chiesa di San Niccolò, where the only visitors are us and a cat looking for company. We complete the tour by coming out of the walled town at the other end of Via Roma, the main street, passing the Palazzo Communale, then down back towards the parking area, where we find our car where we left it and the two policemen are gone.

By the time we are back in Castellina, most of the shops are open and we find the little stores well stocked with a variety of things which will interest us. We buy a scarf for Josette, then some well priced belts, and end at PEP Bizzarrie where we meet Patrizia Passoni, the owner. PEP Bizzarrie (Via Trento è Trieste 12, tel. 0577 740738,and now they have a web site: www.pepebizzarrie.it) is quite a famous stop for artistic ceramics decorated by hand, and Patrizia is a delightful lady, with a fine sense of humour. We tell her that the PEP Bizzarrie name is quite popular on Internet and highly recommended by happy customers and Signora Passoni seems sincerely surprised to hear it. She says she will look it up tonight at home, but I leave with her some printouts on PEP Bizzarrie I had with me. She tells us that PEP stands for her and her husband’s initials, Patrizia and Elia Passoni, and Bizzarrie comes from well, bizzarrie. (The big Collins Sansoni dictionary says bizzarria is an oddness or grotequeness…)

We choose a vase for our daughter-in-law P., to go with the lace table cover we have already bought for her in Burano. Elsewhere, I find a sweater I like, but they don’t have they right size and promise it for tomorrow and a heavy vest, which I buy but which I will return later (no problems, just a bit of muttering, but then I did buy the sweater, after all) because the shoulders were too wide and stiff.

At Antica Delizia there is a small line up. When my turn comes I ask whether the soya- based gelato is indeed “… ma senza latte, panna o burro”. The answer is a forceful “Si” and so I convince Josette to try a scoop of soia con nocciole, while I have a double helping of Zabaione.

We sit on a bench in the gelateria, and Josette marvels at the creaminess of the soya gelato and says that it just isn’t possible that such a gelato has absolutely no cream in it. I nod skeptically, because Josette is always so cautious, and I encourage her to finish it.

On the way back to the hotel, we make a dinner reservation at La Torre (Antica Trattoria La Torre, can’t be missed in Piazza del Comune, or Piazza Umberto I, depending on who you ask, tel 0577 740236, closed Friday).

This turns out to be a real treat. First, as we are seated, we notice at the next table a couple we have seen at breakfast at our hotel. We don’t waste time and introduce ourselves. It turns out that the world is indeed small since D. and P. are from Woodstock, Ontario, not too far from Toronto, she a nutritionist and he a physician.

Meeting them makes the whole experience even more enjoyable, as during the rest of the dinner we will exchange impressions not only about the food, but over their trip and ours. During the following few days we will meet them often and spend quite a bit of time together. A wonderful couple, with whom we are still in contact.

The dinner is a success. I start with a ribolitta chiantigiana, which turns out to be less fluid than the one I usually have in Toronto at Tutti Matti, or in Florence, but very good if a bit heavy. The waiter asks Josette solicitously whether she wishes to wait with the primo or to bring it while I have the soup. She elects to wait and later follow in good order pollo alla roti con verdure calde miste for Josette, maltagliate con porcini e prosciuto, a delicious pasta with a heady herb sauce, and costoleccio di maiale con patate frite for me. I treat myself to a half bottle of Brolio Ricasoli. One of the best dinners we had anywhere in Italy, complete with water, coffees, coperto included, costs us 53 Euro, 60 Euro with the tip, too good to be true.

It is another beautiful night walk in Castellina: we descend by the Rocca and the church, under a starry sky, and no wind tonight to speak of. We pass by Tre Porte on Trente è Trieste, with people waiting at the door for a free table, down by the old boys’ club and café. There are young kids on the street, with spiffy cars and Vespas, a couple of old ladies are supported by the elbow as they are taken by family, probably, back to the Home.

The beautiful night sky stays with us as we turn back, till we get to the hotel.

Only now Josette confesses that she didn’t want to ruin my obvious pleasure from the dinner at La Torre, but she thinks that the “soia con nocciole” from Antica Delizia this afternoon had surely contained a healthy helping of cream, despite their assurances to the contrary, or maybe they didn’t understand when I asked, because soon after having the gelato she started experiencing stomach cramps typical of lactose presence.

Josette will spend much of the night tossing and turning, and it will take a few days until the aftereffects of the “lactose-free” soya gelato “senza latte, panna o burro” from Antica Delizia will go away. A long night to end Day 15.
September 16, 2003 (Tuesday) - A quiet day in Castellina

This was supposed to be the day when we will drive to Montalcino, with stops including the Sant’Antimo Abbey and whatever we meet on the way.

Thanks to the so called "lactose free" soia con nocciole from Antica Delizia Josette didn’t have a good night, put mildly. And I wake up with a headache, soya or not.

Perked up by the cappuccino at breakfast, we decide that we can’t let the day just go to naught, and stick with the Montalcino/Sant’Antimo plan. On the way out we meet D. and P. who have more modest plans, for the Etruscan tombs near Castellina.

We settle for a long car ride, an estimated up to 1½ hours to Montalcino, by way of Siena Sud, if all goes well and I don’t stray onto wrong exits.

As we approach the Siena Sud exit coming from SS222, the traffic becomes slower and slower, until it finally is reduced to a crawl. Cars jostle from all directions toward the roundabout. It takes some time, but slowly we get there, only to witness the tragic aftermath of a traffic accident: a station wagon with the rear door gaping open up, luggage spilled, small backpacks obviously belonging to children who were in the car thrown on the pavement, police, ambulance. About ten rows of cars try to finesse their way into the roundabout’s only one free lane.

The headache is not gone yet, Josette is quite pale, the tableaux in front of us discouraging. I tell Josette that I’d rather turn back and have a quiet day in Castellina. She couldn’t agree more: I suspect she went along with the plan to drive to Montalcino only because she knew how carefully I have worked to plan it all.

Well, what we didn’t plan was a quiet day of rest after being for the last 15 days on the road. So, as one of my colleagues from Bombay says, I will do the needful: turn back. There is an option for left turn and we’re back into the roundabout, the free part this time, and we head back to Castellina.

This will prove to turn into a very nice day, made of little nothings: a walk in town, a good morning to Elia at PEP Bizzarrie, a stop at the Chiesa San Salvatore, where we have listened to the choir competition on Sunday evening, up to the Rocca, but without the climb all the way to the terrace from which (we are told) Chianti lies as far the horizon. In the Piazza del Comune, a little dog is tied to a gate, with a sign asking who has lost it. We stop by the little dog, worried as to what will happen to it. A young man, who introduces himself as being from the local animal control, says that the puppy must have been left tied to the gate of the town’s doctor in the hope that somebody will take it. In the meantime, he feeds the puppy, who seems very happy.

Down on Via Ferruccio, we stop for coffee and meet D. and P. and spend some time with them talking about us and about our homes.

Further down, we meet the hirsute Duccio Fontani, the herbs sorcerer, who sits by his small cart full with carefully arranged jars and packages, his little dog at his feet. Duccio is from Tregole near Castellina, and he would talk to anybody about herbs, no matter whether they will buy or not. His small jars contain unusual herbal combinations, meticulously scripted on the small labels Duccio sticks to the jars. They are not expensive; we take some and ask Duccio about their best use and Duccio is not a dogmatic herbs man, since he basically says to use them as we feel and experiment with them, rather than pinhole them into a specific food match. When he puts the jars in a bag, it seems that Duccio is not quite sure whether he wishes to separate from them, almost asking to be reassured that they will be well used, that we will not pick the herbs with wet teaspoons or wet knife tips because this would ruin the rest of the spices in the jar. And to use them with dishes that have been already cooked, so that they will not loose their fragrance through cooking, boiling or frying. A nice, quiet man, Duccio, who will come and go as he pleases, his cart shop without a specific schedule.

We collect wherewithals for lunch on the terrace and the sun and the heat will chase us soon after back in the room.

Coffee and desserts in the late afternoon, pizza and gelato in the evening. It was an ideal day: blue sky, no hint of a cloud. With the sun starting to go down behind us, we return to the terrace and the birds, I wish I knew what they are, start their evening ritual of darting from down below up into the sky, chasing each other, turning towards the roof of the Palazzo, a frenzy of flight and chase. One could watch this for hours.

Overnight, the winds pick up again. The witches’ concerto is back, but the car is safely parked in one of the stalls and I know this is just the way the witches of Castellina celebrate the beautiful night. Day 16.
September 17, 2003 (Thursday) - Panzano, Greve, then packing…

This morning, after a previous restful day, we are ready for the road again. First to Panzano, where we have an agenda: my boss stayed there two or three years in a row and recommended a specific albergo very highly. When I called them before deciding on Castellina and Squarcialupi, I was uncomfortable with their answer and approach and decided to pass. Now I will see what I have missed.

10 minutes later we are in Panzano. We find a parking spot along SS222, at the roadside, between trees, and walk back towards the town. The first place we notice is the albergo I decided against: is on the main road, with not much life around it, but lots and lots of heavy, noisy highway traffic. The only redeeming virtue for its location is the proximity to the much-lauded Enoteca Baldi and its famous wine selection.

Up the very steep main street of Panzano, we pass the music school which also hosts the Filarmonica G. Verdi, Panzano in Chianti, and continue to climb towards Chiesa di Santa Maria, which can be seen all the way from the bottom of the street. It is a small church once one gets, however out of breath, near it. The church’s wonderfully carved wooden doors are open and we enter to find a beautiful Madonna and Child. Back out in the sun, we admire the beautiful doors of the church, then wander through back-streets and find enchanting quiet corners, with large gated private homes, and small public parks, with benches, from which open spectacular views of the valley below.

We try to find Dario Cecchini, the decreed Michelangelo of butchers, but have no luck. The Enoteca seems deserted and it is too early for anything but a coffee and we stop right across SS222, where a café is open, some local workers around the bar, a nice, relaxed place until a suspicious looking guy steps in the café. He orders something and looks to be in search of something to loot, but the owner of the café and guests watch him carefully; clearly, he is not a habitué of the café.

Finally, he leaves, so do we. On to Greve.

As always in these hill towns we worry first about parking. That is is easy enough as we cut from SS222 into town, cross the bridge over the river Greve and follow a one-way street up a hill. An excellent spot is found right away, another is free next to it and we flag another car, which has been following us and indicate to them the available spot. At least the two passengers of this car will think well of us today.

From there, backtracking into town, we arrive in the pretty center. First we honour the Gallo Nero, symbol of the Chianti League and now of the Chianti quality wines. The statue of the Gallo Nero controls the traffic in and out of town, always awake and at the ready. Further on, opens the gorgeous Piazza Matteotti, one of those occasional piazze in Italy that cannot be designated in English as squares; this one is triangular.


Gallo Nero di Greve

It is a busy place: the home of the market, all surrounded by colonnades which offer shade to the busy life beneath them: restaurants, cafés, wine and olive oil shops, ceramics and terra cotta and souvenir shops. It is the focal point of the town and makes it the most attractive, albeit the busiest of the towns nestled along the Chiantigiana. A place to return to, for a more leisurely visit.

We leave Piazza Matteotti and spend some time in the little streets behind it, where life in Greve moves at a slower pace. We stop at Chiesa di Santa Croce were we find the triptych by Bicci di Lorenzo of the Madona with Child and Saints.

On the way back to the car, we search for the famous Cantine di Greve in Chianti and luck upon a store with beautiful things for children. We have thought occasionally since we arrived in Italy as to what could we buy for our three months old granddaughter and here we find a beautiful bib, a riot of colours, just the special thing one hopes for. The lady in the store asks whether this is a present (for a moment I may have suspected she had thought I will be the one using it…), and when she hears that it is a present for our granddaughter she wraps it into sufficiently expensive wrapping not only to exceed the price of the bib, but also to put a mortgage on the store. We thank profusely, then return towards the Cantine, an impressive assembly of vaulted cellars in which one can find a great variety of wines and other products of the region. But I don’t taste when I drive, unless I also eat, and for lunch we have planned on something else.

We return to Castellina and stop at the outer edge of Via IV Novembre for two reasons; well, maybe for three: first, to fill the tank of the car towards the drive tomorrow to the Firenze airport where we have to return the car, the second to leave a greeting card at Osteria Il Tinello for a group of Slow Travellers who will gather there for a get-together in a few days, on September 26th, and whom we are sorry we will miss, and third, well, if we are already here, for lunch.

But first the card. I have it ready, with Pauline Kenny’s name on it and, after being seated, I look for the owner of Il Tinello to explain what I want, specifically to ask him or her to hand Pauline the card when the group has assembled in the restaurant. This is harder than expected: the waiter doesn’t speak much English, the Signora at the cash register is confused by my Italian and supporting gesticulations. Finally somebody else comes to the rescue, I believe Vitto the chef/owner, and he understands what I say, pulls out the reservation book and shows me that there is nothing booked for the 26th. I am somewhat surprised but not much and I just ask him to place the envelope with the card in the book, on the September 26th date, which he agrees to do, undoubtedly wondering at this strange American (as we, Canadians, are routinely identified, unless we specifically declare our citizenship).

Well, with this out of the way, we can relax for the more serious business. The first impression of the restaurant is that it is sunny and the air inside feels fresh. Windows are open wide all around, immaculate tablecloths and beautiful table sets. Only a few tables are occupied, it seems mostly with locals although at one of the tables serious wine import/export discussions are conducted in English, sufficiently loud for us to get snippets of conversation. There is a serving table next to the four people, literally covered with bottles and tasting and conversation go on non-stop. I make a note not to drive on the same road with these people if we come out of the restaurant at the same time.

The food at Il Tinello (Via IV Novembre 102, tel. 0577 742835, no closing day specified) is excellent. We share a plate of antipasti Il Tinello, a collection of antipasti which would equal a full lunch for two at home, followed by risotto (my weakness; I get it anywhere I can find it…) fratacchione, which is prepared with onions, local sausages, red wine and grana, a cheese cousin to the parmigiano, and polenta con ragù e con funghi. Accompanied by water and beer, followed by coffees, no thank you for desserts, cover, etc., it all costs 30 Euro, the best Euro for Euro meal we had in Tuscany.

Stepping outside, the heat is shocking. We wait for a few minutes to chill the car before starting towards town, although it may have done us a lot of good to walk. I am glad I didn’t drink more and think of the four who have been tasting wines for the last hour and a half, having started before our arrival and continuing after we left. I hope they have a designated driver… It is not so much the wine, as its combination with the heat!

At the hotel, under the same sterilizing sun, we face and conquer the long procession of stairs to the first floor of the albergo. But the suite is cool, and we cool off and drink lots of water.

Later, the packing starts. Over the last 16 days we have accumulated a bunch of things: a big and heavy vase, a Prada purse of some size, masks, a sweater, a couple of Murano plates, packs and packs of lace, and a variety of trinkets. Since we didn’t throw away anything we have brought with us, the challenge is to… challenge the law of physics which says that two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. In which Josette succeeds. Forget Newtonian physics!

The evening is calm. We join the Castellina passegiatta, and later find D. and P. at the “kids” café on Trento è Trieste and we join them for beer and coffee. On the way back we meet the animal control officer, the puppy to his side pulled with a rope. We stop and ask him what will be of the little doggie and he says that he has taken it; it is now his and he takes care of it. He is a very nice guy and we are happy for the puppy to have found a home.

Night falls and we want to tuck in earlier, and so we go to our preferred pizza place on Via Chiantigiana, with another long walk back to the hotel. I tell Alberto what squarciare lupi means and he looks as if he will have bad dreams all night. Well, he is not supposed to sleep on the night watch. But we do. Day 17.
September 18, 2003 (Thursday) - Florence

The drive from Castellina to Florence, to my total surprise, goes on without any… surprises. Signora Targioni makes sure that this time we will take the road through San Donato, and at the arrival to the airport, other than taking a wrong way and having to make a U-turn, we drop the car off without any incident.

The taxi ride from the airport is an opportunity to realize how much roadwork is being done in Florence, in particular outside of the historic center.

The reception at Hotel Casci (Via Cavour, 13, tel. 055 211686, info@hotelcasci.com, Euro 140/night, including buffet breakfast) is very nice. The first person we meet is Paolo Lombardi, the son of the owners, with whom we have been corresponding in the months preceding the trip and who was kind enough to suggest and then make for us reservations at the Accademia and the Uffizi.

The location of Hotel Casci is remarkable. First, the hotel is on the second floor of a building that was owned at some time by Gioacchino Rossini, who actually lived in this building. Geographically, the hotel is circa 100 m. from the Duomo and the Battistero, within walking distance from most points of interest in Florence. Paolo, and the rest of the staff, speak excellent English and Signora and Signor Lombardi the elders are often on site to lend a helping hand.

We are shown quickly enough to our spacious room, with a high ceiling and the best lighting we have ever met in any hotel in Italy, even the most posh. The young man who opened the room takes special pains to explain the unique arrangement of folding toilet and bidet, an arrangement that allows cramming a shower, counter, toilet and bidet in a space of circa four feet by four feet. This will become a great source of amusement for us, as we will try various configurations of the bathroom until we arrived at a more or less optimal arrangement, and as we will be trying to figure out where and how to get the flushing going. Oh, yes! A great benefit of this arrangement was that the toilet seat was always warm, a real neat thing…

But we had four more days to get maximum productivity out of this very special bathroom; we think it would be best to meet Florence as soon as possible, particularly because it is already after 1 p.m. and at 3:30 we have our reservations for the Accademia.

Orientation is no problem for one staying at the Casci: all one has to do is take the elevator, go down the two floors, get to Via Cavour and look right: beyond the end of Via Cavour, where it becomes Via de’ Martelli. There one can see the Duomo on the left and the Battistero on the right.

I must get out of the way from the beginning something that bothered us throughout the four days we stayed in Florence. Maybe we carried with us an idealised image of this city, which we have seen first in 1972, as budget young travelers, subsequently quite a few times in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when we were a bit more affluent, sometime coming here on business, last in 1996. This time, in September 2003, the city appeared to us neglected, street littered, garbage cans overflowing everywhere. It isn’t that the municipal authorities are not trying; it is just that whatever resources they throw at the problem, particularly the very thorough cleaning at night when the streets are deserted, are not enough. I have nothing against tourists, we are "they" as well, but the lack of respect many display for the city is appalling: food wrappings, plastic water bottles and plastic bags, are everywhere. This bothered me a lot.

Then, there are the aggressive beggars, particularly around the Piazza del Duomo, some of them speaking the same mother tongue we do. The police in the area are gentle but insistent, and so are the beggars and, I must assume, the petty crime that goes with it.

I am not sure there is a solution but seeing these persons in action, particularly on Via de’ Martelli, where bus stations at both ends of the street, a high school and the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi make these corners probably the busiest in town, was painful; it threw a pal over our entire stay.

Since we were quite familiar with the area, we knew to go around this busy area by using either Via Ricasoli or Borgo San Lorenzo.

Now, with this out of the way, to the wonder that is Florence if one only raises one’s sight above the sidewalks.

In the last couple of years I have read a lot more (semi-retirement has many benefits) and I became more acquainted with the history of Renaissance Florence, and I was particularly fascinated by the extraordinary figure of Brunelleschi, goldsmith, sculptor, architect, engineer, mathematician, and the man who gave us back the linear perspective, lost since the times of Greek and Roman civilizations.

A few books, recently read, highlighted this unique period in the development of art and architecture, among them “Renaissance Florence”, by A. Richard Turner, “Brunelleschi’s Dome” by Ross King, “The feud that sparked the Renaissance (How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti changed the art world)” by Paul Robert Walker, and Rona Goffen’s “Renaissance rivals: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Tizian”.

I developed a special interest and even fascination with Brunelleschi and the history of the Dome. I felt some guilt that I have passed by the Duomo so many times in previous visits to Florence and never really looked up, to marvel at the marvel itself. In 1972, when my knees and hips were still young, I have climbed the 400 or so steps to the top of the Campanile, and I gazed across at the others who climbed up into the Dome, I took the obligatory pictures, but the proximity of the Dome didn’t do anything for me then. In those days I was always on the go, between a meeting and a conference, between a business breakfast and a dinner with colleagues well into the night.

And so, I promised myself that when I will go back to Florence, I will make sure that every time I can see it, I will look intently at the Dome and think of Brunelleschi and of his unequalled accomplishment, in an age of Black Death, and feudal dimness and family violence and city against city deadly feuds, of creating a structure without precedent and never surpassed, and of inventing “on the run” just about every single means of calculation and production, and the construction tools and machines which were required to achieve his goal.

And so, I did: every day of the four days in Florence, as we would come and go, we would invariably find ourselves in the Piazza del Duomo and I would look up and think: “Brunelleschi”. And I would look at the white marble ribs of the dome and at the lantern so miraculously and symbolically placed atop Brunelleschi’s dome long after is passing.

For now, for this first time, a few minutes to admire the filigree of marble covering the Duomo and the Campanile as we walk around the cathedral, then around the Battistero. We will have plenty of time to come back, when the crowds diminish, one of the advantages of “living” just around the corner. We return through Via Ricasoli to avoid the corner at Via de’ Martelli and walk over to the Accademia, cutting through another of my Florence favourite squares, Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, the place of perfect visual balance and of the wonderfully proportioned colonnades fronting the Spedale degli Innocenti, more of the Brunelleschi creations.

Hating the cars for ruining the purity of the visual pleasure inspired by the splendid Piazza, we turn back towards Via Ricasoli and the Accademia.

I am approaching the Academia with trepidation, and with some timidity. So much has been written and said about Michelangelo’s David that one always wonders what else can be said or added. As well, the Gallerie dell’Accademia aren’t just about David; there are astounding works of art there which, by default, do not get much mention and by which people, attracted and overwhelmed by the magnetism of the famous statue, just walk without seeing.

And indeed, in the Sala del Colosso, as one enters, there is the Deposizione dalla Croce by Filippino Lippi, completed by Perugino, with the disheveled figures climbing up the ladder, mantles and scarves flapping in the wind, Mary supported and comforted by three solicituous maidens, a most modern painting talking to us across centuries. Then, Gianbologna’s plaster model of the Ratto delle Sabine, here more accessible and impressive than the original in Piazza della Signoria. Further, Michelangelo’s unfinished Prisoners, still fighting for almost five centuries to escape the marble holding them in Sala dei Prigioni, sculptures which were destined for the tomb of Pope Julius II, the one who twisted Michelangelo’s powerful arm and forced him to undertake the Cappella Sistina. In the same room one of his late works, a Pietà. Just to think that here, I can surreptitiously touch the marble he worked and over which he sweated!

And then, the test: will he or won’t he? Oh! well, he does! No amount of reading, and discussing, and arguing, and watching pictures and documentaries will do justice to or explain the impression caused on me by the first, and second, and “nth” view of David’s statue. This is the original, because there is a scaffolding for the restorer (Wet or dry method? This is the question dividing Florence of arts today, as dividing as it must have been, for quite different reasons, the times of the Guelfi and the Ghibellini).

Fortuitously, the scaffolding is somewhat to the right and towards the back, so we get the full frontal impact: the powerful head and torso, somehow at conflict with the feminine roundness of his thighs, these in turn in some conflict with the obvious masculinity of his sex with the carefully coiffed pubic hair, the entire body relaxed, one hand holding nonchalantly the sling, the other probably hiding a stone projectile. He is at rest, and yet ready to pounce, the certainty of purpose in his distant gaze.

I turn this way and the other, and walk around it. A few women climb up the scaffolding, which is prominently marked as donated by Fiat. I imagine that one of them is the restorer who won the “wet or dry” argument, the others, very elegant, are maybe some important donors. Two of them wear shoes with impossibly high heels, but climb up without any obvious difficulty.

As I walk clockwise around David, on the left of the statue I happen upon the computer simulator, a screen controlled by very simple means to allow the view of the statue, entire or parts of it: one hand, then the other, the head, the body. By turning the controls in a number of ways, one can view simulations of the statue, as if it is still in the Piazza della Signoria, at various times of day and night and from a variety of light conditions and angles. A very absorbing “game”, and I play around with possibilities and imagine I am in the Piazza, seeing the original statue, not the copy now ignominiously enclosed with chicken wire, a “protection” technique I remember marred the view of the two statures of the Plini on the front of the Duomo in Como a year ago.

I notice some kids and I think how great it would be to have my grandchildren right now here with me and so I show them how to use the controls, the parents observing but obviously agreeing.

With enough patience to now look around, I notice that in the two rooms adjacent to the Tribuna del David are exhibited a number of works which were restored in 2003 with funds provided by individuals and corporations. Among them, I am greatly impressed by Francesco Rossi (aka Salviati) of the Madonna con Bambino, one of the most touching depictions of a subject heavily overworked before, during and post-Renaissance. In this particular version what is remarkable are the children, among them San Giovannino, whose pretty face does not anticipate the burdens and responsibilities thrown upon him in adulthood. There are three other kids, so cute you’d want to hold them and hug them. Not religious at all, I must say, one of the most civil and humane approaches to Mary and Child I have seen anywhere.

Finally, we walk on to the Primo Piano, where few bother to climb. Here, among the dominating iconic art, including a collection of Russian icons, there is another surprise: a mind-blowing 14th century silk, gold and silver thread embroidery by Jacobo Cambi, about four and a half meters long and one meter high, which used to hang at Santa Maria Novella, now preserved here, at the Accademia.

Down the stairs, a last look at David, and out in the late afternoon light. We go straight to Robiglio on Via dei Servi, where we last had coffees seven years ago. We treat ourselves with coffee and millefeuille paste and buy caramele and biscotti, and now we have the energy to complete the tour of the town, on to Piazza della Signoria, magnificent and not very busy at this hour, the sun slanting on statues and fountain, then to Via Tornabuoni, where we have pleasant memories of Signora Gianna Vasile’s hospitable pensione, now become an expensive hotel.

For dinner we want some place nearby and follow the recommendation of the hotel’s clerk who suggests Giannino in San Lorenzo, on Via Borgo San Lorenzo (Tel. 055 212206, open every day in season). The restaurant, occupying a number of vaulted chambers of what was once a market, serves the usual Florentine specialties, including the beefsteak, tripe and ribollita. We look for something lighter and choose a plate of antipasti misti, arrosto di vitello with a side order of cannelloni beans, fusilli in salsa di pomodoro, half a liter of house red, coffees, all presented with excellent service by a young waiter who seems intent on taking care of us and adds a few crostini while we wait for the secondi. The 40 Euro, plus tip, are well spent and we resolve to return to Giannino. By the time we leave, the place is full, with a mix of tourists and locals.

A walk through the center of Florence, a gelato for me, and back to the hotel.

At night, we discover that the beds, placed with the head towards the corridor running the length of the hotel, will shudder every time somebody will walk by our room, not a pleasant thing, but nothing we can do about. Day 18.
September 19, 2003 (Friday) - Florence

The breakfast room at Casci turns out to be a very busy place. There is plenty of food, but the long, narrow room makes circulation with plates in hand a bit difficult. Still, we manage. I like in particular the contraption for boiling eggs: one chooses egg-holders with a handle of a specific colour to keep track of one’s own chosen eggs and boils them to the desired doneness. Simple and effective.

We start early and go directly to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Somehow, we have always managed to miss visiting this interesting museum, and now, with my new found fascination in Brunelleschi, this is the place to visit since here is being held the wooden model of Brunelleschi’s dome which crowns the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

Entering the modern all-glass atrium, with its elevator and open concrete balconies, it is difficult to imagine that this was the place where workers in stone and marble, carpenters, and other artisans assembled every day to start the day’s work with instructions from their masters and to collect materials. This was where Brunelleschi presented his winning design of the dome, nobody suspecting at the time that the innovations of the goldsmith maestro will stand for hundred of years, witness to his imagination, genius and determination. Nearby were also the workshops of Ghiberti, Brunelleschi’s rival, and of Donatello, Brunelleschi’s friend.

In the atrium, place of honour is given to a number of panels from the originals of one of Ghiberti’s sublime doors of the Battistero, the Door of Paradise, gleaming under their plexiglas protective shields after careful restoration, while on others the work has just began.

Inside the museum there are exceptional works of art, all overseen benignly by Brunelleschi’s funeral mask. There are galleries housing original statues by Jacobo della Quercia, di Cambio and Donatello taken down from the façades of the Duomo, Campanile and Battistero, now protected in the Museo from inclement weather and pollution, as well as an array of tools and contraptions used in the building of the cathedral.

Also here Michelangelo’s work of old age, his own intended funeral stone, the Pietà sculpted when he was almost 80 years old, the still forceful strikes in the hard marble attesting to his vigor of body and mind. Further, an entire hall is dedicated to the singing galleries, the Cantorie, made for the cathedral by Donatello and Lucca della Robbia, later dismantled and fortunately preserved here, panel after panel of grace and beauty, representing youth dancing and singing, accompanied by a variety of époque musical instruments, some quite lewd in attitudes and postures, nude or hardly covered in translucent veils of marble.

Also here the medallions made by Andrea Pisano for the Campanile, all in marble, representing trades and arts, some of the medallions already restored, others undergoing restoration. What is extraordinary, in addition to the works themselves, is the effort, and surely the immense sums of money invested by Italy in the preservation of its artistic inheritance.

Upstairs I find Brunelleschi’s model of the cupola failing to convey the majesty of the original, and the process that has lead from this small model to the decades of creation and relentless push to complete it, unimaginable today in terms applicable to the 15th century and with the means then available.

Since we started early, we stop for coffee and then decide to push on to San Lorenzo and the Cappelle Medicee.

The Basilica di San Lorenzo is erected on ground consecrated to a church by the end of the 4th century by Ambrose of Milano. The present structure is another of Brunelleschi’s Florentine buildings, with an unfinished façade, which challenged Michelangelo to complete one hundred years or so later. However, Michelangelo never went beyond finishing important works in the interior of Basilica, in the new Sacristy and in the Biblioteca. The church itself houses remarkable works by Donatello, such as the pulpits and the choir. In the Medici complex there are three funerary chapels, the Old, the New and the Cappella dei Principi, all decorated with magnificent statues, sarcophagi and reliefs. The “Dream Team” of the 15th century created the Sagrestia Vecchia: built by Brunelleschi, decorated by Donatello and displaying Verrocchio’s tombs of two sons of Cosimo!

The Sagrestia Nuova is Michelangelo’s undisputed domain, replete with monuments and gigantic statues, among them the expressively feminine Dawn and Night and the less defined, somewhat incomplete, the masculine Day and Dusk. Restoration work uncovered faintly visible sketches of lines and calculations by Michelangelo’s hand, using the wall as a notebook. This is very touching to see, almost a personal intrusion in his life.

By the time we finish the visit of the Chapels, the Biblioteca is closed, regrettably maybe, but also charitably, because we are in dire need of food and rest.

This is easily done: food in a small bar on Via Cavour, beds at Casci, a few more buildings down.

For the afternoon Paolo has made reservations for us for a visit of the Uffizi. While yesterday, at the Accademia, the reservation did not appear to have been absolutely necessary, at the Uffizi the lineup confirms the need for reservations at this time of the year. Uffizi is a monumental museum in its size and richness of its collections and here the only viable strategy is really to key on some of the works, maybe based on affinity, maybe on the inspiration of the moment.

So, we stop longer in front of Piero della Francesca’s Ritratti dei Duchi di Urbino, attracted by the abundance of detail on the times of della Francesca: the hills and the lake with sailing boats in the background of the Duke’s portrait, the cracked soil, the cart wheels and the symmetrically aligned olive trees in that of the Duchess, the depth of the countryside continued into the faraway blue of distance, contrasted by the solemnity of the faces and the detail of jewelry and adornments.

Another Madonna con Bambino, this one by Filippo Lippi, different than the one by Salviati at the Accademia, but with the same kind of eye for cute children, in this case an angel with a curled up nose and a plump Baby.

Further on Botticelli’s La nascita di Venere and Allegoria della Primavera, with a Venus perfect yet human, her face very much like that of Botticelli’s nearby Madonna! The Venus with a more innocent air and radiant glory of youth, the Madonna probably modeled from the same face but with more maturity and a touch of sadness.

Then we come across a huge canvas, left unfinished. Da Vinci! Unfinished indeed, but all the detail is there, just waiting to be completed: the architectonic background, the trees, the masses of people in diverse postures, all as if seen through a magenta filter, an Adoration in which the baby looks really like a baby.

Ahead of us there is a lineup. It leads to an octagonal gallery in which a sculpture of Venus, said to be a copy of the Praxiteles original, attracts all the attention, to the detriment of the sculpture of a Sleeping Hermaphrodite, and that of Eros and Psyché, which appear more expressive and accomplished. Unnoticed by most remains the powerful Ritratto di Evangelista Scappi, Francesco Francia’s take of the head of a man with a mission, and with no room for doubt in his eyes.

Perugino’s Ritratto di Giovinetto portraits a young man filled with sadness and longing; he seems to query what is in his future and will he meet unrequited love?

Another room hosts two different visions of Adam and Eve. Eve in Cranach’s painting is more adult, more the temptress. In Durer’s rendition, Eve is such a cute redhead, one couldn’t think that she really did it!

In a painting by Perugianino we find an acquaintance: one of the angels is an exact portrait of Hanna, the daughter of cousins-in-law!

By now, we have seen already too much. We “hit” on El Greco, Tizian, Caravaggio, Tintoretto, but all we long for is a coffee and so, we head in a beeline to the terrace of the museum, where the coffee shop is. What we didn’t expect are the photo opportunities opening from here, with views of the Duomo and of the scaffolding covering the tower of Palazzo Vecchio.

Service is slow at the museum café and not for the first time on this trip (last in San Gimignano) we find that we have rested before we are even asked what we wish to order. So we get up and go down to the Uffizi Piazza where tables are sets for some sort of reception: the entire Piazza is filled with round tables for eight, covered with white tablecloth, security guards all around. We decide to go into Oltrarno for coffee and some sandwiches, maybe some shopping.

Thus brings us right around to the matter of the VAT refund for the Prada purse we bought in Montevarchi.

Our concern is that, since our flight back home on Monday morning will leave at 7 a.m., we may not have the time to line up for Customs and for VAT refund. And so, as suggested at the SPACE warehouse in Montevarchi, we decide to stop at the Global Refund office which, as indicated, is at Ponte Vecchio, 2, 1st floor. As we approach Ponte Vecchio, it is easy enough to find No. 1: it is on the side facing the center. However, finding No. 2 is an entirely different mater: if we look for it next and to the right of No. 1 we can climb up and jump into the Arno. If we take a left on the bridge, the next number is 6, followed by 6r. Baffled, we turn to one of the stores on the Lungarno for help. Nobody knows!

We decide to give up, and maybe should have, and go on, on the bridge, all the way to no. 40 or so. Here we ask again and we are pointed to the side of the bridge facing Oltrarno: here is No. 2, at the other end of the bridge.

Happy that we found our target, we go upstairs and find a small room full of people, all tourists like us, waiting in a longish line. Since there are two people working at the counter, we decide to wait. A note mentions that “Today, refunds only in US dollars and Yen”. Well, US dollars are fine with us and we stay. After a while, one of the clerks leaves, never to be seen again. We are already advancing in the line up so we wait some more. Finally, our turn comes and, since we had all the required papers, we end up with the refund in US dollars cash. As we get out back on the street, right in front of us appear two important targets: a café and Madova, the glove shop.

First, on Via dei Bardi, at too expensive Caffé Maioli, we attend to necessities of life: coffee, some pastries, washroom. Thus content, we can address the more important mater of buying for me some gloves.

Madova, on Via Guicciardini (which then goes on towards the Palazzo Pitti), is definitely an interesting store, with a great variety of gloves in whatever materials, styles and sizes one can dream of. The young sales clerks there are very strict on protocol and manage, gently, to make you feel as if they do you a favour by looking on your behalf for the right choice. But my requirements are very simple: tight fit, black, seams on the inside. Less than 10 minutes later, after adequate measurements are solemnly taken and various options soberly considered, I am the proud owner of a pair of gloves at the paltry sum of 37 Euro, comparable favourably with what I can get in Toronto and undeniably of a much higher quality. We decide to go on towards the Pitti and to return on the opposite sidewalk, where, emboldened by the success with the gloves, I will try to look for a scarf. However, this will not work out well and, despite the abundance of choice, I can’t find quite what I think I want.

Dinner at a pizzeria near the University and Piazza San Marco, where we look in vain for the site of a concert announced for the Church of Saint Mark, which (we will find out next day) has nothing in common with San Marco.

We take our usual night walk, including Piazza della Signoria, where we remember an extraordinary evening in the Palazzo Vecchio in October 1996, as guests of Banco Ambrosiano Veneto, complete with pageantry in the courtyard at the light of a myriad of torches, followed by a private guided tour through the rooms and halls of the Palazzo and its treasures, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres in the Salone dei Cinquecento.

On the way back through Piazza della Repubblica, gelato in hand. Streets are quite empty at this hour but in the Piazza there are buskers demonstrating their talents, Senegalese guys selling the ubiquitous fake-brand purses, terraces full of people. Music, and preparations for some sort of motorcycle rally announced for Saturday. The thought that there are only two days left and then we go home starts to compress the time. Day 19
September 20, 2003 (Saturday) - Florence

We figure that Saturday morning, before crowds arrive, is the best time to visit Santa Maria del Fiore. Good idea, though we started a bit too early and will have to wait some. Behind us a long line forms quickly. We will be among the first 20 or so persons getting in.

In the meantime, we observe people. In front of us two young catholic priests from an African country, with a nun their guide. The young priests carry fashionable backpacks and if not for their vestments and the white round collars, they could have been just another couple of young people touring Florence.

At the corner of Via de’ Martelli another special Florentine contemporary moment develops: a gypsy boss comes into the Piazza with two pretty young gypsy women, the women dressed in the traditional petticoats and leather vests, scarf tied around their head. They have a very loud discussion among themselves, then the “boss” starts talking on the public pay phone while the girls scatter among the crowd. They dart here and there, begging for some money, driven away from time to time by two very benign Italian policewomen; then, the girls return. The “boss” is still on the pay phone; then, one of the girls picks up the phone screaming at the top of her head. They, of course, speak Romanian, and we get snippets of what is being said. We are not so much interested in what is being said as to how the phone is being paid since we haven’t seen any money or card being inserted in the phone, and the conversation is going on for almost half an hour, and still goes on as we enter the Duomo.

The Cathedral, as we step inside, is overpowering. The long nave is airy and uncluttered but the eye is somehow pulled towards the massive octagonal center and the magnificent stained-glass windows, some created by Ghiberti, Donatello and Uccelo, then up into the soaring cupola, where the Last Judgment fresco cannot obscure the trail of those who built the dome piece by piece: little dark squares mark the areas from which repairs can be made now, but which served as safety linkages for the platforms where master masons, and later the fresco painters, did their work five hundred years ago and more, square foot by square foot, day by day, year after year. It is an awesome view and a humbling experience.

What best but go and pay homage to the Master: Brunelleschi’s funerary monument and bust are just to the right of the doors above which is Uccello’s clock, which runs backwards, it is said, although I was not able to notice it. On the wall of the opposite aisle is the fresco of Dante presenting the Divine Comedy to his Florentine compatriots, a bit further on is Michelangelo’s last work, another unfinished Pietà. To the left of the nave Brunelleschi’s rival, Ghiberti, stakes claim to a platform on which is presented, under the name “La luce ritrovata”, the restoration of Ghiberti’s stained-glass window “La Presentazione al Tempio”. People just walk by, as if it is below their radar, which is a pity, since this is a very beautiful and extremely complex vetràta.

From the divine, to the mundane: we continue our itinerary with the target now being the Mercato Centrale. Picturesque, colourful, plentiful, but we don’t seem to take to it any more than to other similar locales, such as La Boqueria in Barcelona, or even our own St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, which gives nothing to either.

From here, Santa Maria Novella is only a few steps away along Via del Giglio.

It is midday and the sun lights up Alberti’s beautiful, jewel box-like façade, a play in marble of Moorish style arches, of rose window and rosettes, a puzzle of square and rectangular blocks, all coming together and gracefully pointing upwards. In front of the church is the spacious square, with inviting benches, which don’t have too many takers because it is hot, very hot.

Refuge from the heat comes inside the church, its interior just as beautiful as the exterior, a soaring space filled with wonders of art: Massacio’s huge fresco of the Trinity, with its down-to-earth Mary and the kneeling donors of the fresco framing it; the crucifixes made by Giotto and Brunelleschi, frescoes by Ghirlandaio at which young Michelangelo is said to have given a helping hand as an apprentice in the workshop, dazzling stained glass windows made upon designs by Ghirlandaio.

A walk in the cloister evokes Dante, who was educated here by Dominican monks, walking in the shade of the vaulted colonnade and learning Latin by rote, most likely none too pleased with so much homework…

By the time we return towards the hotel, the Battistero doors have opened. We have already walked five times around it early in the morning, when Piazza San Giovanni was still very empty and views of the facade and access to the famous doors for photography sessions was totally unobstructed. Now, we step into the short line of people waiting to enter the Battistero. Strange enough, despite the many times we have been in Florence, it is the first time we find ourselves on the inside of the doors!

All people talk about when the Battistero is mentioned is the doors. Not even all of them; the other, first set by Ghiberti and those by Pisano hardly ever earn mention.

Although not rival to the exquisite beauty of the Battistero in Parma, the San Giovanni is special too, in particular thanks to the unique Byzantine golden, sparkling mosaics covering the dome’s surface, reminiscent of Venice’s San Marco. It is said that the cupola of the Santa Maria del Fiore has a total surface of over 3,500 sq. m., and it was all covered with frescos. I wonder what is the surface of the Battistero dome, and how many masters and their apprentices worked at covering it with the Eastern decorative icons, little mosaic piece by little piece, and so was finished also the inlaid marble floor. The impression is completed by black and white marble lace covering the walls and the thought of all the great Florentines whose baby cries accompanied their being dunk in the font, surely among them the natives of Florence Dante and Brunelleschi. Imagine!

Quick lunch at the friendly bar on Via Cavour, where we start being recognized by the staff. Is this good or just indicating how boring our eating habits can be?

Rest and then, out again, this time towards Santa Croce. Piazza Santa Croce is a splendor of light and shade at this hour. There are many visitors around, but the immensity of the space is such that they are hardly noticed. The steps on the North side of the church are in the shade, and they are fully taken by tens and tens of people trying to escape the powerful sun, bottles of drink or gelato cones in hand. Vendors do a very brisk business, mostly selling shawls for some reason, somewhat surprising in this heat.

In the Piazza, a young Philippine couple ask me to take a picture of them with their camera, Santa Croce as the background, and I oblige and ask then in turn for the same favour.

The interior of Santa Croce is wonderful: spacious, airy, friendly, the open wood supports of the nave giving a feeling of intimacy despite the considerable length and height. Tombs and cenotaphs are aplenty in this place, which was considered by Florentines less forbidding, somewhat more familiar, and so the well-to-do Florentines requested to be buried here, and the famous one were anyway… Tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo and closer to us that of Rossini, alternate with Memorials such as the one to Dante at one end of civilization and Guglielmo Marconi at another, with Cherubini somewhere in between, and with sculptures by Donatello and frescoes and paintings by Giotto, all too much to digest in one visit, particularly when one starts getting lost in the chapels, each chapel with its specific character and motive.

At the end, we tour the cloister, then walk by the lively souvenir stores under the colonnades in the Piazza, and decide that a stop for coffees and cold drinks is called for. We sit at a neighbourhood bar on Via del’Anguillara, where we are amused by the flirt between two tall and good looking guys, with a heavy Slavic accent, one of them looking somewhat like Kovacs from ER, and a pretty waitress, probably the daughter of the owner, while the latter watches the exchange and guards her like the Argus with the all-seeing eyes.

As we sit, I take a look at my “to do” list and discover with panic that, despite the careful planning and preparations, something terrible has hit the proverbial fan: we have only one more day in Florence and I forgot all about making reservations for the Corridoio Vasariano and also forgot about the Bargello! I consult my guide and sure enough, Bargello will be closed tomorrow because it will be a third Sunday of the month (!) and for the Corridoio we will need to call tomorrow, tough day to get anybody official to answer a telephone in Italy, or anywhere else for this matter. (Indeed, the call next day will respond with a voice message saying that it is too late to make reservations for the day). How, how, how have I missed this? I am inconsolable, and must order a second coffee to recover. Must come back to Florence some time…

We go on loitering, a very pleasant walk, and stop at a little store we noticed previously and kept in mind, “L’Albero Capovolto” on Via della Condotta. We keep a long-time tradition buying hand finished ceramic squares with inscriptions of “Attenti Il Dottore” and “Attenti Il Dentista” to add to the decorations of our son’s and daughters-in-law offices. We also start a new collection when I offer to Josette a ceramic tile with “Attenti alla Musicista” which now is in her studio, atop a bookcase, looking down at her students as they struggle with their cascading arpeggios, but they don’t understand the menace in the Italian words.

We return for an early dinner at Giovannino in San Lorenzo, pretty early but already quite busy. The waiter who served us on Thursday recognizes us with a smile (joys of a good tipper) and leads us to a well-placed table, on which miraculously appear some crostini and a carafe of red. We have an excellent dinner: a small bowl of ribollita in a lighter version than the one I had at La Torre in Castellina, cappelletti con salsa verde, carbonata di maiale with cannellini toscani, Vinsanto and zabaglione con frutti di bosco, coffee and water, all for 53 Euro, plus tip. The crostini were “on the house”, a gesture we appreciated. Thus set, we walk off some of the just acquired calories to Chiesa di San Stefano al Ponte Vecchio where the Florence Symphonieta presents tonight its first concert of the season, an all Mendelsohn programme, which turns out quite well, with the exception of the concerto for violin and piano, in which the echo in the church returns some trying piano sounds.

We return into a beautiful Florence night, streets almost deserted and we take the usual tour through the Piazza della Signoria, stop to examine in the dim light the statues in the Loggia, then cut towards Piazza della Repubblica where one can always count for a lot of animation. Further the Duomo and the Battistero look somewhat less imposing at night, covered in their mantles of white, black and green. Everywhere street cleaning goes on, motorized and by manual labour. Police patrols the area, now visible, whilst during the day they are usually present but lost in the masses of people. At the corner of Via Ceretani with Borgo San Lorenzo the garbage disposal bins are still overflowing, but all will be cleaned soon enough. Borgo San Lorenzo, with its restaurants and bars and gelaterie and street vendors, is still rocking.

“Home” by the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. People walk quicker at this hour. The street is quite deserted as we step in the lobby of no. 13, Via Cavour. Day 20.
September 21, 2003 (Sunday) - Florence

We are aware that this is the last day of the trip and must make it count. We decide that walking towards Palazzo Pitti would be a good start.

Sunday morning in Florence is disconcerting. There are no crowds, all stores are closed, streets are clean and wide open to see to the opposite end. Even beggars seem to have slept in. Not the street vendors, though; they are already out arranging their wares on pieces of white linen or on sheets of cardboard despite the fact that the streets are deserted. Hope springs eternal, or they know something I don’t.

Since there is no risk of bumping into people, or into pickpockets, on a Sunday morning one can walk in Florence looking upwards. Then one starts seeing upper floors and cornices, and the remnants of towers, towers of the same pedigree as those in San Gimignano but not much mentioned in the Florentine context.

Two or three lonely souls go across Ponte Vecchio together with us. Over in Oltrarno, the same impression of a city gone closed. Only in front of Palazzo Pitti there is more life: souvenir vendors, backpackers, and a small lineup at the entrance to the museum, which is where we wish to get.

“The Italian banks request the pleasure of your presence at a cocktail reception to be held at the Pitti Palace on…” Then I was in this place last. Those were the days, not that I really regret them. Well, not much has changed, as nothing has changed since the palace was built on plans by Brunelleschi and later enlarged under the supervision of Vasari.

I know I run counter to the public opinion, but I like Galleria Palatina at Pitti more than the Uffizi. Well, Uffizi is richer, and larger, and more organized in its presentations, but Pitti is for me a friendlier place, less academically fussy, with an air of eclecticism which appeals to me. The rooms are magnificent; when I enter a room at the Pitti I always start by looking upwards, at the incredibly beautiful decorations and frescoes. Then, down, towards the paintings. These, in turn, defy the stricter museum doctrine of arranging exhibits by time and name; here their placement is more whimsical, and charming, and the art comes more warmly forward. And the art is rich, and because you don’t get all the works of a great artist locked in one room, they come even easier forward as they are sprinkled all over the museum.

Thus we find at Galleria Palatina a trove of Rafaels (the life-like La Velata, and the Maddone: Madonna del Granduca, Maddona della sedia), and Tizians (the unforgettable La Bella, Giovanne Inglese, Uomo dagli occhi glauchi) and Tintorettos and maybe one of the largest collection of works by Andrea del Sarto (San Giovanni Battista, two different Annunciations, Madonna delle Arpie, a self-portrait), Fra Bartolomèo’s Pietà, Perugino’s Lamentazione, Il Rittrato Virile by Veronese, Caravaggio’s rough and tumble street kid who modeled as Amore Dormiente.

Because it was conceived and it developed as a private collection, works by Rubens (I Quattro filosofi and the large landscapes in the Sala dl Venere) and Van Dyck and Velásquez, are also spread unpredictably in several Sale.

Considering that Bargello and Corridoio are not attainable today, this is the last Florence museum we will visit on this trip. We left a few out, pretext or temptation to return.

For lunch we set on a quest: we want to find the little eatery where we had some years ago a wonderfully simple and at the same time excellent lunch. We know that it was in Oltrarno as we happened upon it on one of our few forays in this area, to which we probably did not do justice again, driven as we are to seek works of the masters and be as close as possible to them. And what do you know: today, like then, we just happen upon it again, hidden to a side in Piazza San Felice. Today, like then, the counter up front is full. Today, like then, we go downstairs in a vaulted room, where a few tables are still available, among them the same one at which we ate the previous time.

The name of the place is La Mangiatoia (Piazza San Felice 8-10r, tel. 055 224060). It is a factotum type of restaurant, but it is foremost a rosticceria, and this is what one should have here, whether chicken, pork, beef, etc. There are in fact three rooms: the front where the bar counter is and where the locals eat, then a lower level room, which mostly visitors find because the few steps going down are the first thing one notices after ignoring the bar, and another room up a few steps, which one has to know the place to see it, or to be directed to it by the staff.

The menu is simple, and we order two quarters of chicken, which arrive roasted to perfection, skin crackling under the fork and between fingers, excellent fries, water and beer, coffees and prompt service from a competent waiter who is being helped by a dumbwaiter which brings the food down from upstairs. The lunch added up to 22 Euro with tip, and it was delicious.

We cross back towards Via Tornabuoni over Ponte Santa Trinità, a great location for photos of the Arno and of Ponte Vecchio glorious in the blazing sun. Back to the hotel, where we complete the packing, and rest.

For the late afternoon we have planned a visit of the Florence Synagogue. This allows us to explore a part of Florence we have not seen yet, including Via dei Pilastri and Piazza d’Azeglio, but we probably don’t get a real feel for these neighborhoods because everything is closed on Sundays, except a couple of convenience stores near the Synagogue, which probably service the Jewish Orthodox Community.

We arrive at Via Farini and enter a security gate, only to be met by a young man who explains politely but firmly that the Synagogue cannot be visited at this hour. In view of the evidently tight security and the extremely high exterior fence, which mutely but clearly expresses the same security concerns, we ask whether we can at least take some pictures. We are turned down politely but firmly again, and leave with a single photo of the splendid structure, parts of which were imploded with mines by the Nazis, but which was restored, its vaguely Moorish character brought forward by the late afternoon sun. The lower part of the picture shows the high fence, the Synagogue as if still segregated, imprisoned.

From this besieged structure we find our way to another, seemingly forlorn, completely unattended. Another wonder, another religion. This one is open to all winds and visitors. This is Santa Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi on Borgo Pinti, not far away from the Synagogue. Here we arrive in time: the gates to the cloister are wide open, as is the entrance to the church. Only where a sign directs the visitor laconically to “Perugino”, we are met by two old people, him standing, she sitting by a table on which photocopies of the Perugino frescoes are printed somewhat faintly, in black and white.

There is a sign indicating 1 Euro, not clear whether for a copy, or for entrance, or for a contribution. The old gentleman is quite happy to see us and starts a torrent of words in Italian, much too fast for me to follow, except to gleam that he speaks about the “miràcolo” of the big 1966 flood, when Perugino’s frescoes were saved from destruction after the water levels almost reached their height.

The old gentleman asks whether we would like him to guide us to the Sala Capitolare, but we decline based on previous experiences with unilingual guides, last at the Mezquita in Cordoba (another story, another Notebook…).

We follow signs down to a crypt and then up again and suddenly we find ourselves in a small hall, Perugino’s fresco triptych on the theme of the Crucifixion appearing on our right. There is a bench at the opposite end of the hall, and we sit. And watch, as we are alone with this magnificent composition, colours still rich, little affected by time. What catches the eye is the continuity of the background: the three parts of the triptych, which covers the entire wall, share a continuous landscape, all parts seen together expressing a serenity belied by the drama of the subject. This is a painting for a place of contemplation, and it imparts this detachment to the viewer. We sit for a while, just the two of us, and watch.

On the way out, we enjoy the peace of the cloister, before turning back in the real world. We walk without a specific destination in mind and, as we turn back towards the center, we happen upon Torre della Castagna and a sign directing us towards Casa di Dante. From there, on Via Dante Alighieri, where Dante’s name crowns a Bed & Breakfast establishment also called Casa di Dante. No confusion between the two!

A small café provides us with dinners (crepes, coffee and water) and we turn in Via Calzaiuoli and from there to the hotel.

Later, after all packing is done and ready for the 5 a.m. wakeup next day, we take a last walk, gelato in hand, through a Sunday evening Florence, all quiet, streets deserted, with Piazza della Signoria and Piazza del Duomo being refreshed for the Monday onslaught of visitors. In the fresh night air, the images of the Duomo and the Campanile, and of the Battistero, are the last we will take with us, because tomorrow we go home.

At Hotel Casci the night clerk reminds us that there will be a warm breakfast waiting for us tomorrow at 5:30, and that a taxi ride to the airport was arranged for 5:45. Day 21.
September 22, 2003 (Monday) - Florence - Toronto

As promised, Hotel Casci prepares for us a wonderful breakfast before departure. The taxi is also on time and we arrive in circa 15 minutes to the airport after a fast taxi ride through the deserted streets.

At the airport I line up for checkup, while Josette obtains the required stamp and places the VAT refund envelope in the dedicated box.

The flight through Frankfurt, including the connection, is uneventful, marked by excellent Air Canada service, provided by a very pleasant and attentive crew.

Many hours later, we are home, where, thankfully, there are no surprises. A few quick calls to my father and to our sons, then to Frasier’s sitter, and we’re on our way to Newmarket to pick up Frasier, who seems a bit disoriented when he sees us after such a long absence, then all fall in place in his mind and he goes nuts, barking and singing and jumping around us. We are home.

If one would live ten lifetimes, there will always be something unique and extraordinary to find, see and delight into in Italy. Thousands and thousands of lifetimes were dedicated to create the wonders of Italy, which we often tend to accept without question or curiosity.

What I had brought with me this time, together with the wonders, is a desire to understand better the times and the people who have created these wonders. I have already started.

With thanks to Josette, who is my wife, my navigator, the navigator of my life, and my traveling companion in our life trip.

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