Another Sunday, another Bloody Mary

We have been downright lazy the last couple of days. That’s one of the great lessons we have learned about long-term travel. When you actually live in a place for more than a week, you no longer feel compelled to pack activities and experiences into every single moment. Sometimes it’s just fine to kick back and enjoy life in your adopted short-term home.

When we lived in the Caribbean some 21 years ago now, we learned the one thing-one day lesson. Just get one thing done in a day and enjoy the rest of the time.

Besides, it’s been rainy, cloudy, chilly and gloomy in Florence for the last few days, so we have not felt the imperative to move about that much.

Saturday we visited the church of San Marcos, filled with Fra Angelico paintings. The museum was closed, but the church is always open to worshipers and reverent visitors. Then we went to the Carrefours right down the street to do some grocery shopping. It rained, hard by Florence standards, so we were pretty soggy by the time we unlocked the big iron gate to our apartment in Piazza della Independenzia.

That was enough. We napped, read, e-mailed, watched Tennis24 on TV and generally lazed about the rainy afternoon. Lynn prepared the pork loin we had bought the day before at Central Market. The pork turned out a bit overdone, largely due to our miscalculation of timing.

But Sunday dawns, and the quest for a Bloody Mary begins. The weather forecast was no better, so we set out at the early hour of 10 a.m. to the Duomo and the Irish Pub, where we surmised we might find someone who understands the concept. We were correct.

The friendly Italian bartender knew exactly how to make a proper Bloody Mary, and with my urging added more Tabasco and emptied his bottle of Worcestershire sauce, which was not quite enough. ‘Twas not great, but any port in a storm, and rain threatened again.

Not a bad Bloody Mary in the shadow of Santa Maria del Fiori.
Not a bad Bloody Mary in the shadow of Santa Maria del Fiori.

Discretion being the better part of valor, we decided to head for the Central Market for a safe pizza lunch rather than venture beyond safe passage home in case of rain. On Sundays, the food court in Mercato Centrale is nothing short of a mob, but a few days ago we discovered the mezzanine dining room to the pizza parlor where there are always tables far from the madding crowds below.

Surprisingly, this Sunday the mezzanine was only about half full, although one table of about eight American coeds led by a large jolly girl festooned with a Florida State sweatshirt and baseball cap created enough noise to fill the room. They also filled the entrance at the top of the stairway for about 10 minutes while they paid their bill, to the consternation of the management.

We split a pizza while watching most everyone else down one each. How do people eat that much?

On the way out, we walked through the vendor stalls, and I purchased three Florentine silk ties that I have yearned for since the first time we visited Florence a few years ago. Of course, I don’t wear ties anymore, but when I do, I will have some beautiful fleur de lis silk ties that everyone will think represent the symbol of New Orleans. In fact, the fleur de lis has been the symbol of Florence for more than 1,000 years. Fiori(tine) is Italian for flower.

Notes on dining in Europe

We have compiled a few notes about dining in Europe, based on trips we have taken over the years and our latest experiences this time over nearly three months. I thought this might be a good time to pass these along, a day after we ate the worst meal we have had here. (But it was our fault. We should have known better.)

  1. Don’t eat at places that display photos of their dishes on the menu, especially if they post the menu outside the door.

    Really? They have to show you a photo of a croissant and a cup of coffee?
    Really? They have to show you a photo of a croissant and a cup of coffee?
  2. Don’t eat at restaurants where an employee stands outside asking you in like a barker.

    He's just waiting for someone to stop of just slow down before launching the pitch.
    He’s just waiting for someone to stop or just slow down before launching the pitch.
  3. In Italy, don’t eat pizza at “cafeterias” or places that display the food under a glass window. The pizza was made in another age, so the dough is thick, the toppings are thin and it is only half-cooked, waiting to be warmed up when you order it. It’s fine to eat pizza from a takeaway shop open to the street, where the pizza is cooked fresh and sold by the slice, as is common in Nice. But avoid Italian pizza under glass windows.
  4. Don’t order a glass of wine or a beer at restaurants that don’t list them specifically on their menus. The wine or beer will be invariably overpriced.
  5. Study the menu before you enter and be ready to order quickly after you sit down. Service in restaurants here is incredibly fast by American standards. It is customary to order wine and food at the same time and be served the wine just minutes before your dishes come out.
  6. At the other end of the meal, don’t expect the check to be brought to you with the same speed. In fact, in some places, don’t expect the bill to be brought to you at all. European after-meal service can seem casual to the point of indifferent to Americans. European restaurants expect you to sit back and let your meal settle. In fact, they will let you sit there at your table pretty much the entire day until you ask for your check. Some Americans consider this poor service; Europeans consider this natural and polite.
  7. Don’t order the “tourist menu” in Italy unless you are really hungry. We usually split an appetizer or salad (their salads here are typically gargantuan) and order one entree each, which might or might not be pasta. The Italian tourist menu typically offers an appetizer, a primi (pasta) and a secondi (meat or fish) and dessert. Too much for us sexegenerians. We rarely see the locals eat like that either, although it is common to see diners of all ages down an entire pizza. The only people we have seen gorging themselves on the full tourist menu are not from Western cultures.

Our angel guides us through the Vatican

If you go to Rome for essentially one day, the one place you must visit is the Vatican. Now that a Jesuit is running the place for the first time, I took a particular interest. Our time was limited, so we chose to take the four-hour tour of the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. We have seen a bunch of churches and museums on this adventure, but the Big Three of the Vatican rank at the top.

Just a few of the local law enforement guys. And that doesn't include the Swiss Guard, the army and another group seemingly called the Capital Police.
Just a few of the local law enforement guys. And that doesn’t include the Swiss Guard, the army and another group seemingly called the Capital Police.

That’s true for everyone else too. The lines for the Vatican Museum stretched for blocks. Our tour guide said that people in line today would wait two to three hours before getting in. In the summer, the wait could go to four or five hours. She may have been exaggerating to support the value of a guided tour, but having seen the lines at the Coliseum the day before, I wouldn’t argue.

Just in case you need something to commemorate your visit to the Vatican.
Just in case you need something to commemorate your visit to the Vatican, they are waiting for you.

Once we emerged inside the Vatican Museum, the crowds thickened even more. Tour groups jostled each other as we all tried to squeeze into the small apartments to view the art and treasures. Certain groups from a non-Western continent are the rudest and pushiest of all. They don’t cede territory to anyone and will barge through like they are trying to squeeze into a rush-hour subway car already too full.

Despite the crowd-induced claustrophobia, I was able to have my own religious experience when we entered the Stanza della Segnatura painted by Raphael. I had written no fewer than three separate papers in college about this specific room commissioned by Pope Julius II, as it is considered to be the quintessential definition of the Renaissance, especially the wall titled “The School of Athens.”  In college, I never thought I would ever see the monumental site in real life. Despite the crowds, the noise, the push of the group, I stood in the room enthralled, humbled and thankful just to be there.

The Vatican Museum contains more than just a bunch of art from centuries ago. There is an entire modern art wing of paintings by Dali, Chagall and many other contemporary artists who have donated their works to the Pope for more or less the same reasons that Michelangelo and Raphael did. Of course, the throngs of groups were not interested in these, but they are worth another look another time. The Sistine Chapel awaited.

Our guide explained that once we entered the Sistine Chapel, she was no longer allowed to give us commentary over the radio, and photos were expressly prohibited by none other than Francis I himself.

One aspect that struck me was that the Sistine Chapel is a chapel, not a church and is sized accordingly. In other words, it’s small. The crowds packed the space to the extent it was hard to move. And remember, this is the lowest of low season. Despite the warnings everywhere against photography, cameras clicked, and the police shouted every minute or so over the crowd noise that no photos were allowed. Most of the people who ignored the prohibition were from other cultures, let’s just say.

But small and crowded as this little chapel is (it has no altar anymore), it is nothing short of stunning. Michelangelo’s paintings are resplendently colorful following years of meticulous restoration. The Last Judgment on the front wall is bigger, more awe inspiring than any art book can render. The creation in the middle of the ceiling is no less splendid, even though smaller than I would have thought until I actually witnessed the relative size of the room.

And then there is St. Peter’s, the Pope’s church.

This year has been declared a quarter-century Jubilee Year, so the Holy Door of the cathedral is open to entry, which conveys upon the person walking through a plenary indulgence. Since I certainly need all the help I can get, I eagerly jumped through without any need for encouragement. (My plenary did not last long. My first thought as I crossed the threshold was about how to make a secondary market of plenary indulgences. Then my second thought was that’s how Reformations get started.)

Inside St. Peter’s, 84 popes are buried, including the first and the last to die (Benedict XVI still lives in his apartment next door to the Vatican Radio tower), plus a few others who served in our lifetime.

John Paul II is especially revered (he is already a saint), and large throngs crowd in front of his tomb to pray and revere the beloved first non-Italian pope in half a millennium. John XXIII, formerly Cardinal Roncalli, patriarch of Venice, is on full display behind glass below St. Jerome’s altar. St. Peter’s tomb is capped by a statue of the first pope, and legend has it that those who pat his bare feet will be graced. So many faithful take advantage of this that the bronze feet are worn smooth to the point that the toes have disappeared.

I chose not to add my little contribution to the eventual damage and desecration of a part of a Renaissance sculpture. Besides, I had just pocketed a plenary indulgence merely by walking through the Holy Door. No need to be greedy. But I did dip into the holy water for a sign of the Cross on the way out. No need to take chances either. The Holy Door was nearly an hour ago.

Returning to the hotel before a late checkout, we walked around the corner to the Spanish steps and the church at the top of the stairway. Unfortunately, a major construction project obscured the view of Rome from the steps, but we both agreed that it was somewhat less than spectacular, even under better circumstances.

By the time we boarded our train back to our lovely Florence, we congratulated ourselves for accomplishing quite a bit of Rome in just a bit more than 24 hours:

• Whirlaround tour of the major Roman sites

• Trevi Fountain

• Spanish Steps

• Vatican Museum

• Sistine Chapel

• St. Peter’s

• A Roman cheeseburger (medium in Europe is NOT medium in the U.S.)

• Two delicious pasta lunches

• Navigating the Rome Metro four times

Not bad for a day and a half. It was time to reward ourselves.

Back in beloved Florence, we treated ourselves to a splendid dinner at La Cucina del Garga, the best restaurant we have found here. Not only does it offer great food, but the service is most friendly and the entire space is an art gallery. Lynn had what she considered the best pasta in her life, and I enjoyed their veal osso buco for the second time. We chatted with the couple next to us, who ironically were spending a day in Florence before they had to take the late train back to Rome, where they are staying a week. We gave them directions on how to walk to the train station, as it is much faster than a taxi.

How Florentine we have become.



A quick excursion to Rome

As long as we are this close for this long in Florence, we felt it shameful not to take a quick side trip to see Rome. Lynn booked a tour of the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s, and I made reservations for an early train out and late train back. We booked a hotel room at the Alexandra right on Via Veneto on the advice of my cousins who have spent lots of time in Rome.

The train from Florence to Rome takes less than an hour and a half through mountains, tunnels, vineyards and fields of winter grass. This trip was much more scenic that the route from Venice to Florence.

The Alexandra is only a few steps from the Barbarini Metro station, which itself is only two stops from the major Roma Termini train station. Piazza Barbarini features the Triton Fountain, a major Bernini sculpture and mid-17th century Roman landmark. You feel like you have arrived in history when you emerge from the Metro station.

The Barbarini family was sort of to Rome what the Medicis were to Florence in their patronage of major art around the city. Their favorite sculptor was Bernini, and one of the Barbarini sons became Pope Urban VIII. That’s how popes were “elected” in those days.

Although Rome has many buses for public transportation, it offers only two subway lines. While that makes travel very simple, it does clog Rome streets with buses at every corner. Combined with no fewer than six different HOHO tourist bus lines, the streets are jammed, even in late February, the lowest of low season.

We, of course, availed ourselves of the red HOHO to get a quick overview of Rome (10 per cent discount with your Florence receipt). Like many old historic cities (including New Orleans), the HOHO lines are routed around and not through the major attractions, so you can only view St. Peter’s in the distance, and other major attractions like the Trevi Fountain are not in view at all. But the roundabout gives the new visitor a quick lesson in  geography, and in Rome a very nice view of the exterior of the Coliseum, Roman ruins and the Circus Maximus. The lines waiting to get into the Coliseum stretched around the corner for blocks. And this is low season.

Finished with our whirl-around tour, we were pretty hungry, so we grabbed a late pasta lunch at the restaurant next door to our hotel. When we finally got to our room in the Alexandra, we were amazed at its size. Our Rome hotel room was nearly the size of our Florence apartment. And the TV showed CNN and BBC news, the first we had seen since Paris.

Our bedroom in the Alexandra hotel.
Our bedroom in the Alexandra hotel.

Now sustained and knowing our way around a bit, thanks to the HOHO, we ventured out to the Trevi Fountain just a few blocks from the hotel. The Trevi is truly an amazing sight, but we were not alone. The semi-circular steps surrounding the fountain were packed with people, mostly student-aged, taking photos, mostly selfies. Remember, this is low season.

What I found most remarkable was that the Trevi Fountain is not a typical stand-alone feature–it backs up to an office building.  How would you like to have that view from your cubicle window?

Not wanting to interfere with the students’ narcissitic impulses to take selfies, we came, we saw, we left. Our walk took us on a large circle around our hotel up to a church and cloister, then around and down again toward Piazza Barbini.

As we walked down the street to the Hard Rock Cafe, I noticed a building flying the American flag, and we realized that this was the U.S. Embassy in Rome. I whipped out my little iPod camera to take a photo of the building to send to my cousin who had worked there several summers ago, but when the guard saw what I was doing, he waved me off in no uncertain terms. I just hope I don’t show up on the no-fly list when it’s time to go home. But, hey guys, the American embassy is not exactly trying to hide with that big Stars & Stripes flying over the doorway. I suppose after 9/11 in New York and 11/13 in Paris, no one can be too cautious. Thanks, Islam.

After all that traveling and walking, we had developed a thirst for a real cocktail. The Alexandra didn’t have a bar, but the neighboring Imperial hotel a few doors up Via Veneto certainly did. Their bar is a tiny but oh so elegant room, and they know how to properly mix a cocktail. I ordered an Old Fashioned and Lynn had her usual vodka and soda, for which they charge an extra three euros for the bottle of fizzy water. European bars do not use guns the way Americans do, so you pay for the water on the side.

For 15 euros each, plus the three for Lynn’s fizzy water, we also received a very generous plate of hors d’ouevres and a selection of fine nuts, just like the St. Regis in Florence. The cocktails were delicious, just what we needed to cap off a fine but long day. In fact, we ate enough to sate most of our late hunger, so we opted to eat Roman cheeseburgers across the street from the Alexandra.

Word of caution here: Europeans undercook their hamburger patties. What is medium to them is nearly raw to us. Order well done if you want your burger anywhere near cooked. But they are juicy.





More Pitti Palace, a rip-off at lunch but an excellent dinner

It would take a herculean effort to see everything at the Pitti Palace in one visit. They know it, because they sell two different tickets, one for the Palatine Museum and the main palace, the second for the Boboli Gardens and the smaller museums. Monday was the finest, warmest day we had enjoyed in weeks, so we set off again for the Pitti Palace to visit the gardens and the other museums on the grounds.

The Boboli Gardens rise in a reasonable climb that rewards the visitor with a panoramic view of the palace and Florence in the background, well worth the effort.

Keep climbing last Neptune.
Keep climbing past Neptune.
Well worth the climb up the BOboli Gardens for a view of the Pitti Palace and Florence in the background.
Well worth the climb past Neptune’s fountain up the Boboli Gardens for a view of the Pitti Palace and Florence in the background.

The museums included in the gardens ticket are interesting, although they don’t reach the level of the Palatine. The Medici Treasury is tucked opposite the Palatine Museum in the Pitti Palace and worth the visit if only to view the rooms where the Medicis and the successive ruling families of Florence lived and governed. Their collections of gold, silver, wood and marble artifacts, some dating back to Roman times, are nothing if not sumptuous.

Once you have made the climb up the Boboli Garden past Neptune’s fountain, you can then visit the museums of porcelain, fashion and modern art. These are much smaller and can be viewed in less than 30 minutes each.

Altogether, we spent nearly three hours touring the smaller museums and walking the extensive gardens, and now we were ready for lunch. Under warm, sunny skies we headed back across the the Ponte Vecchio to the Piazza Signoria to sit outside at one of the restaurants that line the piazza overlooking the Uffizi, David and the Gucci Museum.

It’s an expensive view. We chose the wrong restaurant. Or maybe all the ones on the square are the same. Our simple lunch of a plate of pasta for me and a salad for Lynn with a glass of wine and a beer came to some 45 euros. The food was relatively reasonable, but the menu did not disclose that a beer was seven euros and a single glass of wine is eight, twice the norm at most other restaurants. And they imposed a cover charge of 15% instead of the customary two or three euros per person. To really add to the insulting greed, when I paid the bill, the waiter made certain to mention that the total did not include a tip. He knew full well the bill did include the tip, because that is Italian law. I paid, but I hate being ripped off.

By the way, the name of the restaurant is Il Cavallino on Piazza Signoria if you ever get to Florence. Trip Advisor’s reviews confirmed our experience. Now we know why there were so many tables available. Don’t go there.

Dinner at Vecchio Mercato that night made up for it all with our first bistecca Florentine and a genuinely delightful piano player. Our meal reminded us of the Steak Knife in New Orleans–porterhouse steak accompanied by wilted garlic spinach and roasted potatoes. A tasty touch of home, only two weeks away now.




A proper Bloody Mary in Florence

Sunday means one thing–brunch and Bloody Marys. The essentials of civilization must be maintained, even where the Bloody Mary is not native. But we persevere. We found a proper Bloody Mary in Paris at a neighborhood tiny bistro around the corner from our apartment, in Nice at Wayne’s and in Venice right on Piazza San Marco, of all places.

In Florence, we already knew where to go–the St. Regis hotel on Piazza Ognissanti overlooking the Arno River. Rooms at the St. Regis start at 530 euros, and they offer car service in a Bentley, so they are safe from us ever staying there.

However, the St. Regis hotel offers a mighty fine Bloody Mary. Along with Harry’s Bar, The St. Regis claims to have invented the Bloody Mary. According to the St. Regis version, the drink was invented at the King Cole Bar in New York in 1934 but was renamed the “Red Snapper” for reasons of early 20th century propriety. Today each St. Regis hotel today creates its own interpretation of the Bloody Mary according to its region.

Home of the grappa-based St. Regis Bloody Mary.
Home of the grappa-based St. Regis Bloody Mary. The historic Basilica Ognissante church overlooks the square, protecting us heathens as we sip Sunday Bloody Marys.

In Florence, the St. Regis uses grappa instead of vodka as the base. And they add a sprig of rosemary as garnish instead of the more conventional celery stick (which we have never seen anywhere we have traveled in Europe). Grappa sounds strange for a BM, but trust me, it works.

We had tasted the Florentine Blood Mary at the St. Regis the last time we visited here, so we eagerly ventured out after enjoying Lynn’s expertly prepared brunch of fresh eggs and lardon (chopped bacon in American). And the St. Regis did not disappoint.

We were forced to sit in the book-lined lobby because the bar was closed for a private event: not exactly a sacrifice, considering the elegant surroundings. The Bloody Marys came out with a generous serving of savory nuts (almonds, macadamia and peanut, in case you were wondering). The libations lived up to our high expectations, and we told (perhaps warned?) the very friendly, formal staff that we would be returning next Sunday and the Sunday after that for more.

After enjoying what makes Sundays Sunday, we walked along the river to the Ponte Vecchio and joined the throngs of tourists milling their way through the pedestrian malls lined with Guggi, Ferragamo (both of whom are headquartered in Florence), Tiffany, Armani, Zegna and H&M. We walked through the smaller leather market there, where the goods are more expensive but do not seem any different from the long rows of stalls surrounding the Central Market just minutes from our apartment.

This is the smaller and more expensive of the leather markets. Those ties in the foreground are 5 euros each.
This is the smaller and more expensive of the leather markets. Those ties in the foreground are 5 euros each.
The market around Centrale Mercato stretches for blocks along all the streets surrounding the huge building.
The market around Centrale Mercato stretches for blocks like a spider along all the streets surrounding the huge building.

By now, conscious of  lunch, we pried ourselves into the huge food court upstairs without success. The Mercato Centrale food court is a favorite of Florentines and tourists/students alike. The place was as jammed this Sunday as it had been exactly a week ago when we first arrived. Even if we could have found two seats, there was no telling how long it wold take to order at the packed food counters. A simple pannini from a sandwich shop on Piazza della Independenza was in our lunching future. We’ll save the Mercato Centrale food court for weekdays.

A day in Chianti

Saturday we booked a wine tour through Chianti that went on for nearly seven hours through two wineries and a medieval village. The tastings in each castle included four different wines, all with generous pours for a tasting, plus two types of olive oil at each, balsamic vinegar (two types at the second, including a 20-year old), salami and cheeses. And we had just consumed a very good but very filling lunch right before joining the tour.

We got our money’s worth, both at lunch and on the tour.

We lunched at Vecchio Mercato across the street from the Central Market, where we had shopped for Saturday’s dinner (two beautiful fish fillets) and a bottle of Montalcino, the “king” of the Chianti region wines, according to our first stop on the tour later that day.

Vecchio Mercato was where we had eaten lunch last Sunday, our first day in Florence. It was good then, but outstanding Saturday. We both ordered the lasagna, which comes out hot and creamier than we are accustomed to in the U.S. Italian lasagna uses a bechamel sauce instead of the more conventional American mixture of ricotta and parmesan cheeses. The basic lasagna dish at this restaurant costs all of eight euros, and the half liter of house wine is six more. Quite the bargain.

Starting right after lunch, the wine tour took us up the hills south of Florence into the Chianti region and tastings at two different wineries. Our fellow tourists were all English speaking, predominantly college-age students on their junior year abroad spending their parents’ money. There were a few adults in the bus, but we were clearly outnumbered by the giggling gaggle of chattering college coeds. The word “like” was used incessantly, which to Lynn’s ear is a about the same as a fingernail scratching a blackboard.

(That expression too is a relic, since no school uses blackboards anymore. How will Millennials describe ear-piercing tortuous screeching sounds?)

The tastings were generous but maybe not that big.
The tastings were generous but maybe not that big.

Both wineries offered us tastings of Pinot Grigio, Chianti Classico, Chianti Classico Reserva and a Super Tuscan from their own vines. The first winery, Tenuta del Palagio, located in a medieval castle dating back to at least 1252, also offered tastings of salami and cheese to go with the wines, then bruschetta with three different olive oils and balsamic vinegar.

The second winery, Amorelli, also located in a medieval castle about 30 minutes away, served the same four types of wine accompanied by two cheeses, the second with 20-year-old balsamic vinegar; slices of rich, delicious salami; bread; several bruschetta drizzled with their proprietary olive oil, balsamic vinegar and truffle oil and all topped off with a final shot of their Grappa.

Grape vines in the middle of winter are not so lush until they sprout in about a month or so.
Grape vines in the middle of winter are not so lush until they sprout in about a month or so.

We did not walk away hungry. Or thirsty. It wasn’t overkill, but the presentation and tasting at the Amorelli winery was a bit rushed, and the representative had a hard time talking over the coed chatter to explain the different wines, oils and vinegars. (Really, do we all need to know how drunk you got last night at that wine bar?)

By the time we left the second winery, the moon had risen over the sunset in the hills of Tuscany.
By the time we left the second winery, the moon had risen over the sunset in the hills of Tuscany.

By the time we returned to Florence after a completely unnecessary speed dash through a medieval village, it was 7:30 p.m. We trundled off the bus, thankful for the walk back to the apartment and decided to eat leftover pasta and save our fish for the next day. But that didn’t stop us from enjoying another glass of tasty Italian wine for the evening. Here’s to Chianti.




Oh Duomo!

Finally, the sun came out on Thursday. Warmth bathed our faces as we walked down Via Nazionale for our last ride on the HOHO to take us down to the Arno. Our plan was to walk from the Arno River bus stop past the Galileo Museum, through the Uffizi arcades, the Piazza Signoria and up the street to the Duomo complex. Navigation wasn’t hard–we just followed the crowds of tourists and students going the same way.

Some of the sights and landmarks we recalled from the last time we had visited Florence, which we figured out was only two years ago. As we walked past the David sculpture outside the Uffizi, Lynn and I engaged in a spirited discussion of which restaurant we had been sitting in at the Piazza Signoria when we were approached by the leather goods shysters last time.

The Duomo is a complex of spectacular religious buildings in the piazza with a splendid museum located in a much more modest building behind Santa Maria del Fiore, the Cathedral of Florence. The owner of our apartment had told us the day before to be sure to visit the museum. She could not have been more correct.

For 15 euros, you get a ticket to all the buildings in the Duomo complex: the Brunelleschi dome itself, if you want to walk up nearly 500 steps; the bell tower, if you want to walk up another nearly 500 steps; the Santa Reparata crypt and archeological excavation beneath the cathedral; the Baptistry and the museum itself, which is housed in the building where Michaelangelo created his David. Entrance to the church itself is free, as is just about all churches, since they are open to all us sinners. The museum is worth the 15 euros just by itself.

Just one siode wall of Santa Maria del Fiore, the third largest church in Europe.
Just one side wall of Santa Maria del Fiore, the third largest church in Europe after St. Peter in Rome and St. Paul in London.

The original doors of the Baptistry, so admired by Michealangeo himself, are on display in the museum to keep them safe from the effects of tourists, atmosphere and pollution. Most impressive of all is a huge room where archeologists have partially reconstructed one of the unbuilt walls of an earlier church from actual fragments found on the site.

One wall of the room where the unbuilt facade of of the church has been reconstructed.
One wall of the room where the unbuilt facade of of the church has been reconstructed.

Michaelangelo’s second Pieta and Donatello’s wooden sculpture of the penitant Mary Magdalen draw the biggest crowds. Two tour groups vied for space and sights on our first round through the museum, but the rooms were empty as we left, so we took another close look at the Pieta and Mary Magdalen virtually alone with the art on our way out.

Other rooms showcase models of Brunelleschi’s dome and of the new facade ordered up by the Medicis, who wanted a new,  more modern church. So much for preservation–the current facade is at least Santa Maria’s third.


Still raining

Two days, and it’s still raining, despite the weather forecast. Actually, except for the near-miraculous 15 minutes of sun while waiting on the sidewalk with our bags for the Apartments Florence check-in attendant, the rain has been incessant, light but annoying and no less wet.

That didn’t stop us, however. We walked down to the train station and finally found the Hop On Hop Off bus stop, after walking right past its fairly prominent sign. (The garbage bins would be another blind miss, right near our apartment.)

After paying cash for the 48-hour ticket at the tobacco shop, we boarded for the full tour, then stayed on the bus to go to Santa Croce, where Michaelangelo, Dante, Rossini, Machiavelli and Galileo, among other notables are buried. Leonardo de Vinci, Enrico Fermi and Marconi also have monuments erected to them.

Old church, "new" facade.
Old church, “new” facade.

Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan church in the world. Construction began in 1294 to replace a church that had been there already for a few hundred years. Over time Santa Croce was enlarged in stages to its present configuration. The imposing Italian Renaissance facade in typical decoration of different colors and shapes of marble is fairly recent, dating back to the 19th century.

A young college student from Iowa gave us a free private tour through the huge basilica, showing us the major tombs and monuments, the altar pieces painted by Giotto and the spectacular side altars sponsored and paid for by prominent families in Florence.

After our tour and a beer, we caught the Hop On bus back to the train station and stopped at another grocery store we found on the walk back to the apartment for more wine and food. Later, we walked through the rain around the corner to Cafe Guelfa, which turned out fairly ordinary food with enthusiastic conversation and service from the owner’s wife, who is a big fan of the Clinton family.

We woke up the next day to a better weather forecast but the same weather. Not deterred, we marched off in the light rain for the bus again, this time headed for the Pitti Palace across the Arno River.

The Pitti Palace was constructed in 1458 by the Pitti family to outdo the Medici family. It didn’t work. In less than a century, the Medicis had taken over the Pitti Palace and started to house their extensive art collection in their new digs.

The Pitti Palace--keeping up with the Medicics.
The Pitti Palace–keeping up with the Medicics.

After the Medici line died out in the early 18th century, the successive ruling Hapsburg-Lorraines and then the Savoys moved in and performed their own renovations and “improvements.” In fact, according to our Italian tour guide (again free), the palace was lived in as late as 1919 by the Savoys, who electrified the mammoth kitchen. Years later, the palace also housed displaced Florentines in late WWII when the city was being destroyed by warring factions of partisans and Mussolini supporters before the Allies could arrive and liberate it.

Inside, the Pitti Palace art display rivals any Renaissance collection anywhere. One room alone displays six Raphaels. Tintorettos, Titians and Caravagios are everywhere. Ironically, a number of the most significant works have been removed and are on loan to a temporary exposition in, of all places, Venice. In the one museum we did not bother to visit, because it is fairly small, seemingly unimportant and out of the way in Venice. After a while, a lot of these threads tie together.

In view of the persistent rain, we decided to put off the Boboli Gardens to a drier day, so we caught the Hop On bus back to the train station. Needing just a few items from the grocery for Lynn’s latest success at beef bourguingnon, we managed to completely miss the store just steps from the the train station. So after we got home and dried off for a few minutes, I ventured out again in the rain to the Carrefour Express on the way to the Accademia.

As long as I was in the store, I figured I would grab a bottle of white wine for Lynn while I was there. But when I reached for the bottle, the store manager came up to me and said “non” in no uncertain terms. He pointed to a temporary sign that even my rudimentary Italian could translate:

City of Florence forbids alcohol sales from 3 p.m. today until 6 a.m. Friday.

When I looked incredulous, the manager said simply, “football.”

It was 3:05 p.m.

Shake down days in Florence

When you spend an extended amount of time in a city, the first couple of days can be devoted to basic chores and familiarization. We familiarized ourselves Monday with a visit to the Central Market not once, but twice. The first time was a shopping trip for supplies in the vast ground level among stalls of produce, meats, cheeses, seafood, chocolates and assorted foodstuffs that make Europe such a wonderful place to eat.

Lynn picked out–but never touched–all of nearly ten euros worth of lettuce, shallots, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, carrots, oranges, with a little parsley that the vendor threw in for lagniappe. Or whatever that word is in Italian. Then we marveled at the meat stalls, which are generally segmented by types of animal groups–pork, beef/veal, lamb (not so much here in Italy) and fowl, mostly chicken. The two different butchers expertly chopped the beef for bourguignon (ungloved) and whacked the chicken quarters apart, separating the leg and the thigh with one big swing.

Then it was off to the Carrefour Express supermarket for necessities like paper products, milk for coffee, soap, beer, Scotch and wine. (You can see where our preferences go.) Lynn actually touched a lemon in the produce section without donning plastic gloves, so we stealthily tucked it in its bag before the sanitary police could catch us.

These are the moments international travel is made for.

After hauling the goods back home and putting them away, we walked briskly through the rain back to the Central Market and up to the mammoth food court for a bit of lunch.

Central Market food court
This is just one little corner of the huge food court.
The Central Market food court is so big, it even has its own culinary school.
The Central Market food court is so big, it even has its own culinary school.

The food court was crowded but not totally packed as it had been Sunday. Lynn had a five-ingredient salad that she could not finish, but I couldn’t resist an Italian farm-raised artisanal cheeseburger, loaded. God love the USA.

And then it rained the rest of the afternoon, so by 3 p.m. we were tucked comfortably in our most spacious apartment for cocktails and Lynn’s pan seared poulet.