Epilogue 2–Lessons learned

Although this was not the first time we had been to Europe, nor was it the first time we had traveled for long periods of time, our Excellent Adventure still taught us a few things–both positive and negative–to keep in mind for next time.

First and foremost–DON’T OVERPACK. We did, to our constant regret. The third bag is a heavy load to schlep around, and it can get expensive too.  Although we were able to duck avariciously exorbitant airline fees for the extra checked bag, when we were in Venice, we had to pay for a day’s storage, then a round trip on the vaporetto to pick up the cursed thing.

One reason we overpacked was we were panicked about winter in Europe. Even though I bravely told everyone that Europe would be substantially no colder than New Orleans, we were not so sure. But the real reason we overpacked was, we just overpacked. I packed four pairs of pants and wore two. Three pairs of shoes, including heavy boots and wore one. The boots came out of the suitcase one time and were not necessary at all. When you stay in a place for any extended time, you will have access to laundry. Just like at home.

The second lesson was that you can hire a company to cart your bags to the train station in Venice, and they will even let you ride on their workboat, saving you the extra 13 euro cost of the vaporetto. The net cost to us for the transport was only 15 euros. Just look up Trasbaglia when you get to Venice. They respond quickly to e-mail, and they show up exactly on time.

While we are on the subject of transportation, Uber works great in Paris, poorly in Nice and not much at all in Florence, where only Uber Black is available. On the other hand, taxis in those cities are first class and much less expensive than in the U.S.

Since we are from New Orleans, dining is of paramount importance, and it’s hard to find a bad meal in any of our European cities. We never did try for the uber-expensive Michelin-starred restaurants, preferring instead the neighborhood bistros where the locals eat. I wrote about this earlier, so I won’t belabor the point, but do not eat in any restaurant that displays photos of the dishes on their menu outside. The food will be bad and generally overpriced compared to the same cuisine better prepared down the street or around the corner from the tourist centers on the main squares.

We generally shared an appetizer or salad (most salads in Europe are huge), ordered one entreé each, with a bottle of wine. Only rarely did our bill exceed 100 euros. One of those occasions was well worth it (Ciasa Mia across the street from our apartment in Paris) and one was not (Il Profetta, which we had remembered from our first visit to Florence but greatly disappointed us this time).

Better still, if you return to the same restaurant and the owners get to know you, they may actually discount your bill. It happened to us twice in Florence.

 

 

 

Epilogue 1–Everyone’s three questions

Back home for more than two weeks now, and we are really not yet fully acclimated. It’s great to see our friends, enjoy Good Friday observances at Galatoire’s, recoil in horror with everyone else about Brussells (after all, we were in Paris only a month after the attack there) and generally try to return to life as it was before. But life will never be as it was before, because–just as we did some 21 years ago in the Caribbean–we have peeked behind the curtain and we have seen a different dimension of life.

And just like 21 years ago, everyone has the same three questions. And just like 21 years ago, the answers are pretty much the same.

  1. What was your favorite place?

A–All of them.

Paris is Paris. If you have been there, you know what I mean. If you read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast about his and Hadley’s Paris years in the early 1920s, you will understand. We walked up exactly the same streets Hemingway did, stopped at the same bookstore, which is still there to this day, drank in the same bistros.

Nice was a delightful discovery. The first time we visited there, back in 1999, we really did not spend much time in the city. We traveled through Provence more than explored Nice, so this was really our first time in the city. We found great restaurants, wonderful bars, even more wonderful people. Walking along the promenade next to the Mediterranean will live with us forever.

Venice is Venice. Don’t bother with Carneval, but Venice is the meeting place of East and West, with mystery and history uniquely combined. Hemingway and every other writer loved it too, and we know why. Getting lost in Venice is a wondrous thing, but even more wonderful is actually giving a tourist directions to the Rialto.

Florence is the birthplace and the center of the Renaissance, all art, architecture, churches and history in one walkable place. Where else can you go to see no fewer than four Michelangelo sculptures in one museum? And none of them named David.

2. How did you stay married?

A–Living together on a boat or extended travel in a foreign country is quite similar. You learn to live by the “one thing a day” rule. Just do one thing each day, whether for pleasure or for chores (laundry). Lynn and I are a team. That’s not to say we never disagreed. But remember, you are on an adventure, so remember to have fun, even when sitting in a lavenderia watching your clothes spin in the washing machine.

3. Did you experience the “ugly American” reaction from the locals? (This is the European version of the question about encountering pirates in the Caribbean.)

A–No. Never. Europeans love Americans, even though our politics and culture mystify them sometimes. Actually, a lot. And we love Europeans for their way of life, their food, their wine, their history. One essential for living in Europe (or just about anywhere else, for that matter, outside the U.S.)–greet locals in their language with a “good morning” or “good evening” before engaging in your broken French or Italian. They will immediately respond in English that’s better than your broken French or Italian. But they will appreciate your effort. It’s just the way things are done there. Bon jour and ciao go a long way.

 

 

The Excellent Adventure ends

The last days of our Excellent Adventure all ran together in a blur under gray, rainy skies and some of the coldest temperatures we had felt since Paris.

Sunday Lynn cooked up her last meal in the apartment, our customary delicious brunch of eggs and lardon, this time sans the lardon because we had eaten it all. Then, of course, we walked over to the Irish Pub at the Duomo for our last Bloody Mary in Europe. The skies were threatening the entire time, and sure enough, it started to rain on our return just a few blocks from home.

And then, incredibly, it started to hail.

Little pea-sized pellets of ice pelted down, which actually was a good thing, because they bounced off my coat without getting it wet. We retreated to our apartment for a very quiet afternoon before venturing out to dinner at Fuoco Matto (Crazy Fire in Italian).

How we missed Fuoco Matto for three weeks in Florence is beyond me. The restaurant is located on Via April 27 right around the corner from our apartment. In fact, you can actually see it from our apartment. However, currently the restaurant is obscured behind scaffolding and orange plastic construction netting, so I use that as an excuse. That and the fact that we usually walk on the other side of April 27 to avoid the scaffolding.

This restaurant is wonderful, among the best we have enjoyed in Florence. The staff is young, friendly and most pleasant. The pizzas are excellent, and the more elaborate main courses are even better. Our dinners were excellent on both nights.

The restaurant offered a glass of prosecco for starters accompanied by a flatbread type sandwich with vegetables served room temperature. After our first dinner there, they brought over a complimentary dessert for us to share with our lemoncello digestif, after which our waiter brought out a bottle of Amore (the base of Amoretto) for further post-prandial tasting. All of it on the house.

Monday was prep day for departure, so packing was the order of the afternoon. Under still threatening skies we walked through the markets around Mercato Centrale so Lynn could buy some scarves and leather bracelets for gifts.

We had decided the night before to go back to Fuoco Matto on Monday for our last dinner in Florence. Part of our decision was location-based, as the rain just would not stop. The second visit was as good as the first, although without the Amore and complimentary dessert tasting.

Apartments Florence was kind enough to let us stay in the apartment until 5 p.m. on Tuesday, as our flight did not leave until 8 p.m. Had they kicked us out at the regular 10:30 a.m. check-out time, I don’t know what we would have done, because Tuesday was the coldest, grimmest day we had experienced in Florence and pretty much our entire stay in Europe.

We managed to avoid most of the rain for a quick walk to Vecchio Mercato restaurant and a last lunch of their most excellent, creamy lasagna. It was full-circle and fitting that our last lunch was at Vecchio Mercato, since our first lunch more than three weeks ago had been there too.

Gabriel, our Apartments Florence check-out attendant, showed up exactly at 5 p.m. and quickly went through the procedure, which included toting up the utilities we used during our stay. The bill came to 188 euros, a bit shocking to us, since we rarely used the heater during the day and never at night. But pay up we did, then hustled into the cab that Gabriel kindly summoned for us.

Florence is not a large city, but it has big city rush hour traffic, especially in the rain. Nonetheless, we reached the airport in plenty of time, and the Veuling ticket counter attendant checked our cursed third bag without charge, as the flight was not at all full.

On our arrival into Barcelona, we hit the timing lottery again, when the hotel shuttle showed up just minutes after we rolled the luggage across the drive to the pick-up point.

The Barcelona Airport Hotel was quite luxurious. Our room was huge by hotel standards, and the bed was at least king size if not bigger. It felt strange not sleeping in an apartment bedroom for the first time in three months. Even more strange showering in a full size shower.

The one essential that the hotel did not offer was coffee service in the room, so the next morning I walked downstairs to fetch coffee and scope out breakfast while Lynn showered. Breakfast was expansive, with a selection of just about any meat, cheese, fruit, pastry, and scrambled eggs you could ask for. We knew it may be our only real meal of the day, so we took advantage.

To my surprise, breakfast was added to our bill, most unusual for European hotels. But to my utter shock, the price was nearly 20 euros each. If I had known, we would have stuffed our pockets. Breakfast at Brennan’s it ain’t, and breakfast at Brennan’s is less expensive.

And so began the odyssey home. First we shopped at the mammoth duty-free store in the beautiful Barcelona airport. I picked up four bottles of 7-year-old Havana Club rum, three as gifts for the guys checking on our boat and one for moi. Havana Club is not available in the U.S. because it is a product of Cuba. But it is overall the finest rum you will ever taste. There is a certain flavor about Havana Club that is different from every other rum at any price. We drank it all over Europe.

But Barcelona’s duty-free store does not deliver directly to the airplane as others do, so we had to schlep the four bottles, all wrapped in duty-free plastic bags, resting on our accursed third bag. That load gets heavy, even perched on a rolling suitcase. It felt good to heave it and the suitcase and my briefcase and our coats into the overhead bin on the eight-hour flight from Barcelona to JFK in New York.

We waved good-bye to Europe one last time, as the plane climbed through the clouds on its way across the Atlantic to the U.S. I can’t deny that we both shed a tear.

Thanks to Global Entry, our route through passport control and U.S. Customs was speedy and almost pleasant. Don’t ever leave home without a Global Entry card–it’s worth every penny of the $20 per year fee.

And then we hit JFK’s international TSA lines. Welcome home to the U.S.A.

There was no separate TSA Pre-Check line, but the agent told us to alert the next agent of our Pre-Check status so we would not have to take off our shoes, etc. It didn’t matter. Only one of the two scanner lines was moving with any efficiency at all, and of course we were in the other one. All told, it took nearly an hour to go through a simple TSA screening that included putting each bottle of rum into a black box machine to make certain the bottles did not contain explosives. This, despite the fact that all the bags were sealed at the duty-free store.

Actually, I have never quite figured out why returning international  travelers are required to go through TSA upon arrival in the U.S. anyway. We had already cleared security in the country we are leaving.

Lugging the rum, the briefcase, Lynn’s “mom bag,” two heavy coats and of course, the oft mentioned third bag, we dragged ourselves down to the gate. It was now 3 p.m. Eastern, about 9 p.m. according to our body clocks. At the gate, a most friendly Haitian Delta agent graciously let us gate-check the monster to get it off my shoulders for the last leg home.

On the ground in New Orleans, we were herded into the longest taxi line I have ever seen in any airport in any city, inlcuding New York. Three flights had arrived at Moisant at the same time about 10:30 p.m., and the taxi line snaked back to the middle of baggage claim. By now, it was 5:30 a.m. to our bodies, and it was all we could do to give directions home to our cab driver.

Our Excellent Adventure was over. Welcome home.

 

 

 

Thoughts as departure nears

Our extended stay in Europe is drawing to a close.  Our senior semester abroad is about to reach finals. The feeling is a mixture of bittersweet and anticipation. I remember the same emotions as we prepared to depart from Idyll and the Caribbean 21 years ago.

It’s not that we are homesick. I swear, I could be an ex-pat with no qualms. But, as in the Caribbean, when your plane ticket bears a certain approaching date, you start thinking about return. Had we been able to spend another month here in Europe, then we would be excited about leaving for Barcelona on Tuesday. Instead, we are anticipating going home to the U.S., truly eager to see our friends, sleep in our own bed, get on our boat and resume our regular day-to-day lives.

We have been here in Florence long enough to know our way around. We don’t need a map anymore. In fact, I gave an Italian passerby directions to San Lorenzo the other day. That’s the benefit of an extended stay in a city.

Maybe three weeks is a week too long. We have explored every church and every museum. We have traveled to Rome, Chianti countryside, Pisa, Fiesole and toured in a vintage Fiat 500. We have found our favorite restaurants and visited some of them as many as three times. At least two restaurants have discounted our checks by about 10 percent.

Now, in our last days in Florence, we are doing exactly what we did in Venice and Nice before that. We take our daily walk on our own familiar route. From our apartment overlooking Piazza della Independenza, we proceed to the sprawling street market at Mercato Centrale, then to Piazza San Lorenzo, then to the Duomo to marvel at Santa Maria del Fiori, then on to Piazza Signoria and the Uffizi on the Arno River. Our return takes us through the fashion corridor lined with every luxury brand from Armani to Zegna. Gucci and Ferragamo are headquartered here in Florence, and luxury fashion is a major industry, because it complements tourism so well.

The loggia at the Uffizi  includes Roman and Renaissance sculpture wide open and free to view up close.
The loggia at the Uffizi includes Roman and Renaissance sculpture wide open and free to view up close.

One common aspect to the last three cities we have visited–Nice, Venice and Florence–is that all of them are experiencing flat to declining populations. And all for the same reasons. Venice’s population is declining more rapidly, but the historic centers of all three have become strictly tourist centers, too expensive, too congested, too restrictive for locals to live.

Here in Florence, hardly anyone actually lives in the center, except tourists and students. The upper and middle classes all live in the hills either north or south of the city, and the lower classes live in large multi-story apartment buildings on the periphery of the historic center.

The same is true of Vieux Nice, where vehicular traffic is severely restricted (as it is in Florence as well), and the majority of permanent residents live either in the outer city ring or the suburbs. And, of course, Venice is entirely tourist-centered. Venetians live in unattractive villages, towns and compounds on the mainland and commute into La Serenissima each day on the bus or the train to serve the tourists who now represent the sole industry supporting the city.

Makes me think of the French Quarter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK, one more museum

San Lorenzo, the Medicis’ personal church, is famed for its New Sacristy, which was designed by Michelangelo to function as the Medici family mausoleum. We had visited San Lorenzo before, but the New Sacristy is a separate admission.

It’s well worth the extra charge. Don’t miss it if you visit Florence.

Just one of six tombs around the chapel. Only three include the statues of their occupants. Michelangelo was called away on another job before finishing this one.
Just one of six tombs around the chapel. Only three include the statues of their occupants. Michelangelo was called away on another job before finishing this one.

Inside, Michelangelo’s famous tombstone sculptures dominate, but the building’s overall effect is stunning. The elaborately colored marble floors with the Medici coat of arms and the seal of the city of Florence greet the visitor. Far above, the brilliant paintings in the dome seem to reach down so you feel you can almost touch them. And the tombs themselves attempt–with considerable success–to magnify the magnificence of their occupants.

Two of the four--Day, Night, Dawn, Dusk. In both, the females are finished and the males are in progress.
Two of the four times of the day crowning opposing Medici tombs–Day, Night, Dawn, Dusk. In both, the females are finished and the males are in progress.

Michelangelo also carved a Madonna for the more modest tomb of Cosimo I, but it and several others were not finished, because the artist was called to Rome by the Pope for another chapel job.

Pisa!

Thursday was Pisa day. It was quite cold and cloudy, as cold as we had experienced since Venice. The temperature would never make it to 50 F all day.

But the small van we rode to Pisa with only three other couples was quite warm, stuffy actually. The route was scenic, passing along fields of grapes and through the town of Lucca, known for its roadside nurseries and as the birthplace of Puccini. Off in the distance, we could see snow-capped peaks of the Appenines gleaming in the faraway sun, which had not reached us yet.

Pisa’s main attraction is located in the middle of town, and the tour buses must park nearly a kilometer away, giving the souvenir vendors plenty of opportunity to hawk their wares. The stalls lined virtually the entire 800 meter walk to the town center, some of them set up in semi-permanent teepees.

Before you get to the Leaning Tower, you must pass the teeming souvenir stands.
Before you get to the Leaning Tower, you must pass the teeming souvenir stands.

Trinket sales or not, Pisa is worth a visit. Everyone knows about the Leaning Tower, but perhaps less well known is that the tower is part of a much larger, expansive church complex. The tower itself is unusual in that it is much more elaborate than most and set far back from the church. Usually the bell tower is either adjacent to or even part of the church which it serves. After all, the purpose of the tower is to ring the bells to call worshipers to Mass. Pisa’s bells are no longer used, because the vibrations may compromise the building. The Pisa cathedral now uses recorded bell sounds.

See, it really does lean.
See, it really does lean.

The architecture of both the church and the tower shows a significant Eastern influence, much unlike the pure Italian Renaissance style of Florence, only 75 kilometers away. This is because Pisa was among the medieval maritime kingdoms of Italy that included Venice, Genoa and Amalfi. The Leaning Tower even features a bas relief of two Roman ships, over the entrance, symbolizing Pisa’s civic connection to classical history.

And yes, the Leaning Tower really does lean. In fact, it started to lean even more for several years in recent history, adding a millimeter a year, until contemporary architects and engineers devised a method to stabilize the building and in fact restore its declination to the original five degrees. The tower has been open to the public for only about the last 20 years to climb its 293 steps in the wake of Galileo.

The entire Pisa cathedral complex is quite impressive, spread out over a large expanse of green grass maintained like a golf course. Like the tower, the baptistry is set far from the cathedral, at least 50 yards. To the left of the square formed by the baptistry and the cathedral stands a long blank wall that shields the cemetery. On the opposite side is the old hospital, now undergoing renovation as a museum of drawings.

Eastern influence in the architecture and lots of carefully tended green space.
Eastern influence in the architecture and lots of carefully tended green space.
Even a millenium ago, the nobles and the Catholic Church were on a budget. The baptistry's roof was built of terra cotta tile facing the ocean and lead plates on the other side to save money.
Even a millennium ago, the Pisan nobles were on a budget. The baptistry’s roof was built of terra cotta tile facing the ocean and lead plates on the other side to save money. The salty breezes from the the sea would deteriorate the lead plates more quickly, so the cheaper and more durable terra cotta is placed on the windward side.

The interior of the cathedral is resplendent in Baroque and Mannerist paintings along its side walls. The original church burned down in 1596, so most of what we see today has been rebuilt from the 17th century, which is why the paintings inside are all post-Renaissance. Part of the floor near the altar is original, and the decorative marble patterns resemble those at San Marco in Venice, a sure sign of similar Byzantine influence. The pulpit is original as well, but was stored away for a few hundred years in pieces and reconstructed recently in a different location inside the cathedral.

Not satisfied with just the regular history, Lynn and I had wandered off to explore the chancery building in the town. There a handsome collonaded courtyard displays busts of all the archbishops of Pisa since the 17th century and plaques listing the ones before that. They go all the way back to the fourth century, just about the time Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.

This is just the first of two plaques, plus numerous busts. The earliest date is sometime in early 300 A.D. That's a lot of bishops, archbishops and a few cardinals.
This is the first of two plaques, plus numerous busts. The earliest date is sometime in early 300 A.D. That’s a lot of bishops, archbishops and a few cardinals.

After a couple of hours of history and walking around in a cold blustery wind, we braved the phalanx of souvenir vendors for the ride back to Florence. The street vendors pushing watches, selfie sticks, sunglasses and bracelets were among the most intrusive and persistent we had ever seen. As our group gathered around our guide to return to the bus, a watch seller walked up and simply refused to leave, even after our guide told him in Italian to get away.

They hawk everything to everyone.
They hawk everything to everyone.

I was tempted to use more Anglo-Saxon language, but as a gesture to international diplomacy, kept my comments to myself.

 

 

Bargello, our last major museum in Florence

It took us three tries, but on Wednesday we finally visited the Bargello, which is less famous than the Uffizi but perhaps equally important in Florence. Bargello is to sculpture what Uffizi is to art, with all due respect to the Accademia.

The building was constructed in the 15th century as a municipal hall of justice and eventually became a prison. It was converted to a museum in the mid-19th century as a repository of major sculpture and coats of arms.

Coats of arms are everywhere.
Coats of arms are everywhere.

From the street, the Bargello looks the part of its original intent–stern, imposing stone walls with medieval parapets on top to repel invaders (actually to keep prisoners inside). As a state museum, admission is quite inexpensive, only four euros. Inside, the visitor walks into a quite expansive courtyard lined with sculptures and coats of arms. The building is deceptively large, and the first floor surrounding the courtyard is composed of room after room of sculpture, religious artifacts, Islamic art and rugs, porcelain, and even personal jewelry worn by various Florentine nobility. One room is devoted almost exclusively to Donatello.

These would make nice additions to our yard art menagerie around our pool.
These would make nice additions to the yard art menagerie around our pool.

Back at the ground level, the showcase room of sculpture, which is quite visible from the street, displays some of the Florentine Renaissance’s finest works by Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Verrocchio, Michelangelo and Cellini. In fact, there are no fewer than four Michelangelo works in the room.

The day displayed beautiful blue sky and brilliant sun, the warmest we have experienced since Nice. Leaving Bargello, we walked down to the Arno and found an outdoor perch for a beer and a light lunch while watching Florence walk by. In a rare nod to some semblance of a healthy diet, Lynn and I both had salads. Mine was Salad Nicoise by some other name, but the best Salad Nicoise I had had anywhere in Europe, including ironically, Nice.

We took the longest way possible to walk home in the warm sun and stopped at the grocery near the train station to buy vegetables, pasta and sausage for Lynn’s superb touch in the kitchen. Our days in Europe and Florence are growing fewer, but we savor each one.

 

Our Florence apartment–fit for a duchess

Our apartment in Florence is easily the largest we have had in Europe. According to our check-in representative, it is owned by a duchess, who also owns the apartment next door. We met owner Gabriella Schonau a few days after moving in while the TV cable was being repaired, and she said she is German, married to an Italian and lives “outside” of town. That means they live in the rich part, so I give credence to the duchess story.

Just beyond the huge wooden doors are huge iron gates leading to the courtyard and our ground floor apartment
Just beyond the huge wooden doors are huge iron gates leading to the courtyard and our ground floor apartment

The bedroom alone is quite a bit larger than our entire Paris apartment, and the kitchen is furnished with all appliances except a dishwasher. Ironically, our tiny studio in Paris offered the most complete set of appliances. But our Florence apartment is all about space. And it is on the ground floor. What a blessing, after climbing 44 steps in Paris, 36 in Nice and 46 in Venice.

Our entire apartment in Paris was not as large as the bedroom in Florence.
Our entire apartment in Paris was not as large as the bedroom in Florence.

The kitchen even features a refrigerator that is almost full size by American standards, instead of the dormitory versions found in the three earlier places. We don’t really use all the space, but it’s nice not having to bend over to open the door.

A stand-up fridge! That's the washing machine to the right, a top loading drum washer never seen in the U.S.
A stand-up fridge! That’s the washing machine to the right, a top loading drum washer never seen in the U.S.
Kitchen fit for a gourmet cook.
Kitchen fit for a gourmet cook.

Adjacent to the kitchen is a real living room with a real couch and a second full bathroom. The fridge and washing machine are located in their own pantry space off the kitchen, and we broke the code on the oven pretty quickly.

Our building is an impressive stone structure said to be about 400 years old. Gabriella said it had been used as the foreign ministry for the new government of Italy when Florence was the capital from 1865-1870. Today the building is occupied mainly by  lawyers, a pediatric dentist next door to us and a few other residents, including a group of American coeds “studying” during their junior year abroad.

Pretty impressive front door. The Medicis and their friends took no chances.
Pretty impressive front door. The Medicis and their friends took no chances.

Our building overlooks Piazza della Independenza, which is lined with other buildings of the same vintage, condition and tenant mix. We are just far enough away from the center of the city to escape the noise and crush of tourists, but only an eight-minute walk to the train station along Via Nazionale and five minutes to the Accademia in another direction.

Our park is actually split in two by April 27 Street or Via Ventisette Aprille in Italian that leads to the Accademia. (April 27 was the date that Florence voted to join the newly formed Italian kingdom in 1869.)

Our building is on the left.
Our building, 13 Piazza della Independenza is on the left.

Ventisette is a major bus stop for the local transit system. The College of Florence flanks the side of the park on our end, a student dorm stands three doors down from our building and two four-star hotels are located all the way across the park on the other end where children terrorize the pigeons in a little playground.

A large bronze statue stands in the middle of each side of the bifurcated park. On the side opposite ours stands the monument to Bettino Ricasoni, the mayor of Florence in 1847 and second prime minister of the newly formed kingdom of Italy in 1866. More importantly, he was the creator of the modern recipe for Chianti wine that did not require a wicker basket around the bottle. A moment of silence in his honor, please. We offered a silent toast to his genius on more than one occasion.

The statue on our side depicts Ubaldino Peruzzi, the first mayor of  Florence and whose family tree starting growing on Florentine soil even before the Medicis. In 1875, he dedicated the statue of David in Piazzale Michelangelo across the Arno River that is now a major stop for the HoHo bus tours.

Even though we are still in winter, our end of the park attracts a number of groups, consisting of mostly men, mostly Middle Eastern, African, Southern Asian (India/Pakistan) or Eastern Asian (mostly Korean). They gather outside on the concrete benches to drink, picnic, play cards, joke and laugh. Florence is by far the most diverse city we have visited so far, and immigrants represent a huge minority of the center city population.

We also hear more American English spoken here than in any other city we have visited. Lots of coed speak, using the word “like” at least twice in every sentence. No wonder–at least 21 American universities have established programs in Florence, even some not generally considered part of the Ivy League elite.

Go Noles! Even in Florence.
Go Noles! Even in Florence.

 

 

 

Touring the hills in a 1972 Fiat 500

Early in our Florence stay, Lynn had come across a tour of the surrounding hillsides in a vintage Fiat 500 that you get to drive yourself. What could be more fun? Or, after seeing Florentine drivers, more terrifying?

Walking down the street one rainy day, we stumbled across a company that sponsors the self-driving tour at a price almost half what we had been quoted by another company. And MyTours starts at the train station, just an eight-minute walk from our apartment, as opposed to several miles out in the hills. So we booked.

Tuesday morning, we met our guide Jimmy in front of the pharmacy at Santa Maria Novella station and walked a few short steps to the parking lot, where our assigned vintage 1972 Fiat CinqueCento (500 in Italian) sat waiting for us in its ancient glory, about the size of a kids’ carny ride. Jimmy offered to drive to the check-in point, which was truly just on the other side of the station, and I was glad to take him up on his offer, not wanting to start my maiden voyage in the middle of Florence rush hour traffic.

Jimmy our tour guide--architect, one quarter everything from Italy to Scotland, and contortionist who cold fit into the back seat of the Fiat 500.
Jimmy our tour guide–architect, one quarter everything from Italy to Scotland, and contortionist who could fit into the back seat of the Fiat 500.

However, minutes later, I was driving through Florence rush hour traffic. We were on our way north toward Fiesole with Jimmy contorted into the vestigial back seat of the car chatting away about the history of Florence, the landmarks we would be seeing, his love for the Fiat 500 and his opinions of the Florentine dialect. Since we had visited Fiesole the day before, Jimmy was delighted to direct us to a different location up the hills that offered an expansive view of Florence under the first sunny skies we had enjoyed in at least four days.

Jimmy was quite the tour guide. Fluent in English, he explained that he is an architect by trade, originally from Venice and is one quarter Scot, one quarter Italian, one quarter Austrian and one quarter Slovenian (Trieste on the border of Italy). His father was an admiral in the Italian navy, and all his brothers joined the military except Jimmy himself, since every family needs a black sheep.

He is Jewish, but he married a Catholic Florentine in a little church behind the Ponte Vecchio, so he is stuck in Florence the rest of his life.  Because he grew up in a military family, he said when he was young they lived all over the world, including assignment to the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

He collects American “muscle cars,” as he called them, and showed us photos of his Pontiac Z28 Firebird, a 1972 Cadillac Seville and his prized Alfa Romeo Spyder. As we drove through the countryside, Jimmy extolled the virtues of the classic Fiat 500, which he said can be found for 3,000 or 4,000 euros today and restored is worth 7,000 euros or more. Hard to believe this little tin can with an engine hardly larger than an outboard could be worth so much today or anytime.

The Fiat 500 is fun, if not exhilarating, to drive. The clutch engages suddenly, and the little engine needs more gas than you think to get up and running in first gear because it is so underpowered. Fourth gear is strictly for overdrive, and I learned quickly not to even bother with it in the rolling hills. At one point we had to pull into a small village parking lot to let the engine “rest,” as Jimmy could detect it was getting tired, aka ready to overheat. Behind the wheel, I could detect it was losing power too.

Fiat 500 couple 2
The adventurous couple and our trusty Fiat 500 in front of San Miniato al Monte Church overlooking Florence. That’s the Duomo above Lynn’s head.

From the hills north of Florence, Jimmy directed us through more narrow, winding roads across the Arno and toward Piazzale Michelangeo, every tour’s favorite lookout over Florence. Since we had been there more than a few times, we took a quick look and drove up to San Miniato al Monte, an 11th century Romanesque church whose facade and interior remain original to this day.  Jimmy explained (correctly, as we knew) that most facades of the more famous religious landmarks in Florence  were reconstructed in the 19th century.

San Miniato's facade is the original, early 1,000 years old.
San Miniato’s facade is the original, early 1,000 years old.

Then it was back toward the city, and by now, I was accustomed enough to the peculiarities of the Fiat 500 to brave Florentine mid-day traffic along much the same route we had taken two weeks before on the HoHo. As we moved into the center of town back toward the train station, Lynn realized that we were driving on Via Nazionale, directly across the park from our apartment. Since I was focused like a laser on the traffic in front of me, I never noticed.

Although we have walked that street literally scores of times in the last two weeks, I didn’t recognize our own street from behind the wheel. What’s going to happen when we gt home after three months away?

Fiesole in the rain

More rain on Monday and more of it. But that doesn’t stop us.

We started the week with a visit to the huge Mercato Centrale to buy ingredients for Lynn’s dinner later in the evening. Vegetables from our favorite vegetable lady–6 euros, including at least a dozen huge mushrooms when Lynn only needed six (one euro for all of them). And two heirloom tomatoes that she insisted Lynn had to have for salad, plus a huge stem of basil and an equally large one of parsley. I guarantee the parsley in Lynn’s herb garden at home never gets a quarter of this size.

Then cheese, another flavor of pecorino. Another 6 euros.

Then wine, of course, three bottles of local juice that totaled a bit more than 30 euros.

And finally the main course, two huge chicken quarters, which the butcher whacked apart in one mighty blow separating the thighs and legs–3.20 euros. No kidding. We spent twice as much on the vegetables as the meat.

We went home to the apartment to put the food away, then walked back out in light rain to Piazza San Marco (the one in Florence not Venice) to catch the 7 bus to Fiesole. For 1.2 euros per person each way we enjoyed a scenic ride north up the hills overlooking Florence, past grand villas with names etched in stone, massive iron gates, private roads and huge cypress trees to screen them from the gaze of plebian bus passengers like us. In about twenty minutes we arrived in the little town of Fiesole, population about 14,000.

There is not much there in Fiesole, to be truthful. A little central piazzale and a road that leads to the panoramic look back to Florence. Luckily, the rain had stopped, so we worked our way up the fairly steep slope, accompanied by two or three other couples with the same intent.

The gas meters in the homes along the road to the panoramic view are all painted with scenes from Fiesole.
The gas meters in the homes along the road to the panoramic view are all painted with scenes from Fiesole.

The scenic view is not marked, but it’s pretty evident. And it’s pretty scenic, even under gray, gloomy, low clouds. Florence is a pretty city whose landmarks stand out even at a distance on a gray day with no shadows for definition. The Duomo is unmistakable, looming so much larger over every other church and structure in the old city. And we could make out some of the other major landmarks like San Lorenzo and even Santa Maria Novella at the train station.

Florence spread out in the valley below Fiesole. When the sun shines, it is a work of Renaissance art.
Florence spread out in the valley below Fiesole. When the sun shines, the city seen from above is a work of Renaissance art.

We came, we looked, we walked down. We visited the church on the side of the square, San Francesco, a stately Romanesque building consecrated in 1028. Think about that–San Francesco will celebrate its millennium in just a few years. Incredibly, the church is a cathedral, as Fiesole, population 14,000, has its own bishop.

The town fathers erected a plaque confirming the 1946 vote overwhelmingly approving a republic over restoration of the monarchy.
The local leaders erected a plaque on the wall of the town hall confirming for all time the 1946 vote overwhelmingly approving establishment of a republic over restoration of the monarchy.

Almost flipping a coin, we decided to eat lunch in Fiesosle rather than take the bus back into town, so we popped into Cafe Deja Vu, where the proprietor pointed out the day’s specials, plated and covered in plastic wrap under the counter. Breaking all the rules I just laid out a few blog entries ago, Lynn ordered the tortellini, and I had the veal cutlets in a tomato sauce with vegetables served over cous cous. And I have to say, both choices were quite good.

And it rained some more, this time harder, while we enjoyed lunch and our glasses of vino. By the time the rain slacked, we were ready for the bus trip back down the hill and a quick visit to the grocery store onthe ay home.

Wouldn’t you know it–while we were in the grocery store, it started to rain again, this time harder than ever. We jumped through the rain across the street to wait out the shower in the collonaded arcade of the Accademia dei Fiorenza. Yes, that Accademia. Actually, this was the art school by that name that is adjacent to and part of the same building that houses the famous museum displaying Michelangelo’s David and a few other works of his. We huddled together with the students and faculty for about ten minutes before the shower passed, then walked briskly back home through the residual drizzle, feeling very much touched by history and art.