Monday, July 11, 2005

My Dream Vacation, Part 2: Firenze

The Hotel Adler Cavalieri on the Via Della Scala allowed us to roam around Firenze all day, even in horrible heat. We would check the temperature on channel 10 every day (15 minutes in Italian, 15 minutes in English) and I would try to make the quick conversion to Fahrenheit. The first few days were blistering. However, even with jet lag, we jumped out of bed early the next morning, luxuriated in that huge shower, and headed for the Duomo with our little city maps in hand. We saw the Duomo -- or, actually, we saw Giotto's tower -- looming large before us as we walked down the narrow, winding streets.

I noticed immediately that cars did not have much respect for pedestrians. We are the enemy or even the targets. And narrow cobblestone streets didn't slow these little European cars down. And when we entered areas that cars couldn't reach, thinking we were safe, we were accosted constantly by scooters -- Vespa. Like mosquitoes, they would whiz past my ear when I wasn't looking, barely missing me by inches. And the bicycles were just as bad, just as fast, and could go where no man has gone before.

When we got to the piazza with the tower and Duomo, we immediately noticed an octagonal building right before the cathedral. In fact, this older-looking building prevented anyone from taking pictures of the cathedral straight-on; I remember hearing one American complaining about it, as he tried shooting his camera from different angles. The baptistery is centuries older than the Duomo, and yet only seemed to attract attention because of its famous doors: Ghiberti's bronze Gates of Paradise (supposedly named by Michelangelo when he first saw them). I understand Ghiberti spent over two decades carving these Biblical scenes out of bronze, just because nothing he produced was ever good enough.

But the story of the battistero is utterly fascinating. Since Val did a lot of graduate work on medieval religious art and architecture, I had my own personal guide to the baptistery. We had a seat at one of the wonderful outdoor cafes in the square, and I watched the round baptistery as she told the story.

In those days, baptism was performed on adult men. They would be rounded up at night in a raid, and one-by-one would be marched into the imposing baptistry, which was only used once a year. The bishop would ask the novice to swear each time, and each time he uttered "I swear", the priest holding him would kick out his knees so that he would fall backwards, face up into total immersion of the baptismal waters of the font. They would keep him down just enough so that he would wonder if he was really going to drown, rising only to see the artwork on the top of the ceiling: Christ welcoming him, it seems, to Christendom, except that some figures on the ceiling suggested that he was being welcomed into death. How frightening it must have been for them! After their baptism, they were marched straight into the opening of the cathedral, or Duomo, next door. Hence the closeness of the two buildings.

"With stories like that," Val told me, with a gleam in her eye, "who neeeds the Renaissance?"

I do. And so I insisted that we see Michelangelo's David. Luckily, we accompanied a tour, included in our Firenze city tour, so that we could skip the hour-long line wrapped around the Accademie. Since I had been here last -- 10 years ago? -- David has a barrier around him to protect him from well-wishers. And after I had gotten over my shock-and-awe at seeing this gorgeous sculpture, I could for the first time, notice some irregularities in the form itself, and enter into a thoroughly riveting discussion on why Michelangelo made the choices he did.

Val and I both agreed that this would not be a museum-seeking trip this time. We had little time to waste. Besides....Firenze is an open-door museum! Everywhere you turn, you find masterpieces in architecture all over the city, topped with its noted red tile.

Every day, due to jet lag and the sheer exhaustion of walking an average of 4 miles a day in the heat, we went back to the Hotel Adler to catch a nap in the afternoon. We began to notice how cold the room had become, although when we first entered the room, it felt delicious to us.

We discovered a restaurant close to our hotel. Amusingly it had the same menu, with the same English subtitle misspellings, as another restaurant we found close to the Accademie. This restaurant, air-conditioned inside, had helpful young wait staff and a variety of menu items. Each item we tried was delicioso. And we noticed that, when the patron next to us had finished, they were served a small glass of lemony-yellow liquid. This was limoncello, and we too were able to sample it. It's alcoholic, rather a shock after the pasta, a gift from the restaurant to our palate. Incredibly lemony with a bite to it. We would remember this.

What a wonderful custom in Italy, to consume languourously a large lunch consisting of multiple courses over the period of noon to about 3 pm. Indeed, most shops closed during that time, leaving the American tourist to find a bar that was open or go back to nap at the hotel. Or both.

One night, in our search for the meeting point of the Siena tour the next day, we found a restaurant near the train station, one in several chain restaurants throughout Italy. I have forgotten the name, but it's Pasta R Us -- well, not exactly, but you get the idea. The amazing part is that the meal we had there was delicious! And a great deal cheaper than others we had had. However, the limoncello afterwards was not gratis, and was a sickly yellow rather than a bright hue, denoting a drop in quality.

The food has great variety, of course, in Firenze but pasta is king, or at least is primi patti and for what I usually reached. No garlic is used in Firenze, however; you'd have to go farther north for that influence. Cream sauces were prevalent. And a lot of pesce, or fish, dishes, done all sorts of weird ways.

It was during this trip that I decided that Florence -- Firenze -- is my favorite European city. It's modern, it's medieval, it's Renaissance. Its people are curious, beautiful, fast-moving (and not just on scooters). Art is there to pluck like an overripe bunch of grapes off the vine. It has everything.

I became a little ill one night, and was hesitant to leave the hotel. George told me I should call the illness Luciano's Revenge. Perhaps an amalgam of jet lag and the heat, it nevertheless kept us in the hotel one night, wandering up to the hotel's bar on the highest floor. Unfortunately, the barman did not want to go downstairs for food, so we just ate a few of the h'ors doeurves available. Luciano disappeared by morning. And, as it turned out, it was time for us to move on as well.

Firenze even appeals to the fictional villain. One apothecary shop was notably included as a scene in the movie Hannibal. Dr. Lecter (Anthony Hopkin) walked into the store and ordered up several herbal remedies. The store itself is absolutely real. Originally a storefront for monks (and the monastery is still in the back), right on the Via Della Scala, it's a series of marble and wood furniture rooms with thousands of herbal possibilities, each of which is available commercially to the private citizen.

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