Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Very Full Last Day in Italy.

Trip and I woke at ~ 6:30 a.m. at the Academy Hostel in Florence, dropped our backpacks in the luggage holding room, and headed out to the train station...destination San Gimignano, a supposedly super-quaint, medieval, hilltop town with many towers dominating the skyline. We'd been told it was a not-to-be-missed daytrip from Florence so, even though we had to be in Rome that night, we decided to head to San Gimignano for just the morning hours. After a relatively quick 30' train ride to a little place called Poggibonsi, followed by a 30' bus ride, we found ourselves walking through San Gimignano's modest city gate.

The unremarkable gate did not give a true indication of the impressiveness that lay within the village walls. The city was simply stunning. Sandstone dominated, which provided a nice contrast to many of the other towns we'd visited that had been constructed from denser, harder, differently-colored rock like granite or marble. While San G's sandstone may have appeared a bit more fragile, it was a nice change that made it look more unique than many other towns. Immediately apparent were the tall towers we'd heard about before arriving, and we were shocked to learn that the 14 we spied looming over the city were the only ones remaining of the 72 that used to dot its map.

We wandered around for a bit just taking in the atmosphere and taking a few photos before choosing to ascend the Torre Grossa (translation: big tower). Why not go up the biggest one, yeah? This tower was not as tall as some we ascended in Italy, but it was just as impressive. We emerged on the top into a pretty stiff, cool breeze on a mostly cloudy day, but the view was spectacular nonetheless. Looking directly down onto the town, one thing stood out...there were no signs! We'd walked through all of San Gimignano's streets and seen salami shops, wine shops, restaurants, t-shirt shops, hardware stores, little markets, etc. - and yet, it didn't become apparent until viewed from above that the impressive, centuries-old architecture is not marred by a myriad of marketing materials trying to convince you to patronize certain businesses. Actually, it is ALMOST possible to visit this town, and probably a thousand others like it in Italy, and feel like you really have stepped back into the 13th century. Life has changed little over time; yes, there is tourism and yes there is technology, but you still see people living as they have for hundreds of years, still shopping in the same little shops for the same essential daily items, still riding their same old rusty bicycles, still stopping to chat with the corner storekeeper as they stroll by, and still working long, hard days to carve out as comfortable of a life as possible. It was truly a refreshing break from the constant stream of information and technology we are assaulted by on a daily basis (and yes, the fact that I am writing these thoughts in a blog I post on the internet is not lost on me).

After descending the tower stairwell, we wandered uphill to the site of the old fortress in town. These days it's just a modest garden full of olive trees, grapevines, and wisteria, which just happens to be at the top of the city. It was so quiet, so peaceful, and so enchanting that it was hard to leave. But, leaving is what we had to do because we had to get back to Florence so we could get a train to Rome, so shoe shopping could be done before the stores shut.

WHAT?!?! Yes, you heard me right. Shoe shopping. Apparently, Trip had seen some really fashionable-looking shoes in Rome a month earlier when we'd arrived in Italy and his plan all along was to go back and buy about six pairs to take home to the US. So, we bussed it back to Poggibonsi, trained it back to Florence, hoofed it back to the Academy Hostel to get our backpacks, and basically ran back to the Florence train station to hop on the high velocity train back to Rome. We got there at about 3pm and immediately walked back to Funny Hostel, the first place we'd stayed in Italy. Mabri and Giorni welcomed us like old friends and we quickly dropped our packs and hit the streets looking for cash.

Ok, so here's the dealio, yo. Trip (you gotta love him) decided to forget to bring an ATM card to Italy. He did, however, confidently bring $2000 in US dollars in CASH. (I know, I know.) So, every time he wanted to get money over the month we were there, he had two options: 1) find a bank or moneychanger to convert the less-valuable US dollars into Euros, or 2) find a bank to give him an advance on his credit card. All over Italy it proved to be very difficult to do both of these things, and both were fairly to highway-robberingly expensive. I can't tell you how many times I waited in front of a bank with both of our backpacks while he went inside for a half hour only to come out empty-handed, saying that he couldn't get any money changed, or successful but pissed because of the $75 fee he'd just spent to convert $300. (All of a sudden my $3 ATM fee seemed like a blessing.) But, because it was our last day in Italy and we'd done everything I wanted to do, I was content to help him out on his last afternoon's journey of finding cash and buying shoes.

We walked around for about 30 minutes, walking very quickly so as to not waste his precious shoe-shopping time, and tried about 3-4 different moneychanging places...all were too expensive for Trip's taste, so we kept walking. Finally we found one that didn't gouge him too bad with fees (I GUARANTEE he will remember his ATM card next time he leaves the US) and he walked out with a pocketfulla Euros with which he planned to singlehandedly revive the Roman discount shoe economy.

So, you'd think we'd just walk down the street and find some cool shoes, try 'em on, buy 'em, and move to the next place, right? No. That's not how it went down. He had a very specific recollection of a street that had a number of stores with super-cool, super-cheap shoes for about 25 Euros a pair. So we strolled to that street, but all the shoes were shit, besides being upwards of 50 Euros a pair. He swore that he remembered better deals on better shoes in the stores on that street (I had not recalled that same I remembered it, the shoes were the same shit that we were seeing the second time around). So we walked. And walked. And walked some more. He was out of ideas, but still swearing that he had seen good shoes for good prices. Finally after about 2 hours of speedwalking through Rome, at about the same moment we both grew tired of the other's pace. I was tired of walking so fast, wandering fairly aimlessly, looking for something vaguely familiar but not certain. He was tired of my slower pace rapidly increasing the chances that his ultra shoe quest would fail. We agreed to split up and go do our own thing for the next two and a half hours.

In that two and a half hours, I continued to cruise around pretty quickly, but my motive was entirely different. I went to see the Pantheon during daylight hours, which we had failed to do the first time we were in Rome. The Pantheon is astounding and is one of the ancient world's most influential architectural structures. It was built in ~ 125 AD as a temple for all of the ancient Roman gods, but in the 7th century, it was converted to a Catholic church, and it remains as such to this day. It is massive and circular in shape; the height of the dome and the diameter of the dome both measure exactly 142 feet, and to this day the building holds the record for being the largest unreinforced concrete dome. There is a 30 foot diameter circular opening in the top of the dome which lets in all of the Pantheon's light (electricity hadn't been invented when it was built, remember!), as well as any rain that happens to fall. But, these ancient architects, they were savvy...they cut holes and a slight slope into the center of the marble floor to allow any rainfall to run down into a drainage system built under the floor. It was really kind of eerie and amazing to be standing inside a place that's seen so much history as well as a place that has stayed so well-preserved when Mother Nature's got a 30-foot opening through which to throw any kind of inclement weather she likes.

I also cruised again by the magnificent Trevi Fountain, the Forum ruins, the Piazza Navona, and a few other famous Roman places. I met up with Trip, as planned, at 830 p.m. at the Spanish Steps. You may recall that the beautiful Spanish Steps are those that connect the Piazza d'Spagna below with the Trinitá dei Monti (Trinity Church of the Mountain) above. When we were there a month prior, it was cold and the plants were bare; when we returned, there were blossoms everywhere and thousands of people sitting on the steps as well as milling around, just enjoying the electrifying atmosphere. We sat on the steps and busted out the peppercorn salame we'd bought earlier that morning in San Gimignano, along with some delicious pepper cheese that Trip had picked up after the shoe debacle.

Yes, the shoe debacle...apparently, after Trip and I parted, he increased his pace and walked from street to street, neighborhood to neighborhood, looking for any place familiar or unfamiliar that had great shoes for 25 Euros. He was totally unsuccessful and now had a wad full of Euros he'd paid a hefty fee to convert - Euros for which he'd have to pay another hefty fee to convert BACK to US dollars upon going home the next day. Sigh. I have to admit that even though I was definitely laughing at him, I also felt bad for Trip, having thrown such energy and $$ down the drain, coming out not only dejected, but also wearing the same dirty, American shoes that he'd started the journey with.

After our salame and cheese dinner, we forced our tired feet to make one last cross-town jaunt back to our hostel, where we spent a while packing up our belongings. I was trying to figure out how to a) fit, and b) safely package 4 glass bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar in my bag, while still coming in under the airline baggage weight limit. Finally I got it as good as it was going to get and I just crossed my fingers and zipped up my bag for the last time.

We popped out for one last late pasta dinner in Rome. Though our hopes were high, we both knew that we'd left the culinary capital of Bologna days earlier and were probably going to get something only decent or mediocre. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it happened exactly that way. Our last pasta meal was really, really boring, with a bland tomato sauce and a few canned peas, and mushrooms tossed in more for color than taste, it seemed.

Upon hitting our hostel beds, we slept like babies for the grand total of about 5 hours before we arose, grabbed one last macchiato and cornetto (an espresso and a croissant filled with nutella), and boarded the last Italian train for this go-round. Before we knew it we were back in the crappy Rome airport and not long after, we were whisked onto a really big plane that miraculously was only half full. This enabled us to find seats in which there was no one else in the row with us, so we had all the room we could've wanted as we listened to music and watched free movies for 9.5 hours while en route to Atlanta. Oh, and the weather was gorgeous and as we cruised over Northern Spain/Southern France, we got a spectacular view from above of the massive, snow-capped Pyrenees mountains.

Atlanta was shocking, as it always is. Why is it that every time I reenter the U.S. from a trip, I am routed through Atlanta or Houston, two of the most OBESE cities we have in America? I always feel so tiny when I return home. It's funny how I go from being one of the fatter people when I'm outside of the U.S. to one of the skinnier people when I come back.

And now I'm back. What adventure lies ahead? Who knows, but there's always one looming on the horizon somewhere, even if I can't see it yet...

Oh, and P.S...the bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar didn't break on the plane, so, not only am I wearing unstained clothing, but I also sit at this moment enjoying some fresh-baked olive bread dipped in a little taste of liquid Italian heaven. Buonissimo!!

Ciao BELLA!!!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"Renaissance Madness" or "What Happens in Florence...Stays in Florence"

When we rolled back into Academy Hostel in Firenze (yes, Florence), it was much like when we had returned for a second stay at La Controra Backpackers Hostel in Napoli earlier in the month...we were greeted as if we were rock stars! It must be interesting for the hostel employees to get to see people that they liked return for another stay, particularly so they can learn if their travel advice was a) heeded, and b) valuable. Marco, the main dude at the Academy Hostel's desk had given us a LOT of travel suggestions when we had been there for one night toward the beginning of our trip and it was really fun to sit down with him the second time around and tell him that in fact we HAD seen some of the places he wanted us to see.

Now Firenze is an amazing city. It's small and walkable, yet simultaneously large and vibrant. It's heart is liberally sprinkled with historically important sites, and yet this history is simply woven into a normal way of life for Italians. Florentines seem to still live the way they did hundreds of years ago, eating the same foods, living in the same structures, socializing in the same ways; and though they seem to understand the significance of all the historical architecture and art surrounding them, they also seem to just casually regard it as normal, as "the way it is". Life goes on for them as amazed tourists' LCD screens capture glimpses of history their countries lack. Even though some modern conveniences have clearely woven their way into the society's fabric (i.e., cell phones, televisions, cameras, automobiles/scooters), it still feels like you're taking a step back in time to wander its medieval streets. People actually still do ride old, creaky, single speed bicycles to get around town. Or they walk. And they stop to chat. They move slowly. Businesses close for several hours in the afternoon so people can go home and eat, sleep, or spend time with their families. Stress levels appear to be comparatively low, though Americans in general are more stressed out than anyone, aren't they?

Speaking of the historically unchanging, take for example, the Ponte Vecchio (or, "Old Bridge") over the Arno River. Back in the 1500's the bridge was lined on both sides by slaughterhouses. However, the rich and powerful Medici, the ruling family at the time, decided they'd had enough of the smell as well as the blood rolling down the bridge into the river and into the streets of Florence. They ordered all the slaughterhouses out and replaced them with jewelry merchants, whose shops exist to this day, essentially unchanged for 500 years. A walk over Ponte Vecchio today brings sights of jewelry store after jewelry store, right there on the bridge. At the end of each day, each of the elaborate, built-in, antique hardwood storefronts are folded up and locked securely, to be watched over by the bridge-patrolling carabinieri (military police) throughout the night. At dawn, the merchants slowly arrive and go through the laborious, daily process of unlocking their shops, unfolding the maze of shelving, and individually putting each piece back on display for another day's trade. As it was is how it is. We could learn a little something from that, I think.

We had happened to arrive in Firenze during the one week of the year that all museums are visited for FREE. This saved us a lot of money, but also made us have to really plan out the logistics of our museum visits. Given that we were there for a Friday-Monday period, and that some of the more famous places are closed on various weekend days, we had to plan out a detailed museum visit schedule. Since it was free museum week, and since we hadn't purchased any admission tickets in advance, we determined that to make sure we got into the two most important galleries, the Uffizi and L'Accademia, it would be wise to get there really early in the morning. So we planned our Uffizi trip for Saturday morning early and our L'Accademia visit for Sunday morning early.

Saturday morning's Uffizi gallery visit went just as we'd hoped: early arrival, 45 minutes in line, among the first in, and in/out fairly quickly as the large crowds were behind us. It was very impressive seeing the world's largest collection of important Renaissance art, although both Trip and I felt that a lot of the significance was lost on us. Neither of us being particularly well-educated in Renaissance art, we traipsed in three hours through a gallery that many say is not able to be fully appreciated in an entire day. Honestly, it all began to blur; however, there were some really, really amazing paintings by Il Perugino, Botticelli, and even DaVinci and Michelangelo.

Sunday morning's L'Accademia trip went just as I'd hoped. Note that I say "I", because I was alone for that one. Well, technically I was with a Norwegian girl from our hostel for a while, but what I meant was that Trip was not with me. No, I was unable to awaken Trip that morning after the previous evening's festivities so I had to ditch him and visit the Accademia while he snored off his bender. While I am not at liberty to divulge all the details, apparently there were some after-hours festivities that took place the night before which rendered Trip unable to function effectively on Sunday morning. I, unfortunately, did not get to witness all the festivities as I'd left alone (while still coherently functioning) Saturday night from the second pub of a multi-pub crawl. All I will say is I later heard tidbits of stories of drunken, shirtless pole dancing, on the bar, in front of an admiring and cheering, and, shall we say, largely alternative crowd. Oh my. Anyway, I am still trying to gather photographic evidence, not that I will share it with all of you, of course. He IS my best friend, you know. But, as I was saying...

L'Accademia is a gallery that houses Michelangelo's iconic David sculpture. I was able to sneak a couple of illegal photos of the sculpture because I was one of the first people into the gallery that cold, drizzly morning (yes, the Norwegian girl and I stood in line for the obligatory 45 minutes at the butt-crack of dawn in order to ensure we got in). David is AMAZING!! I had heard that it is the perfect sculpture in every way, the perfect form of a man, yadda yadda yadda. Well, I was shocked to be shocked when I saw it. The rumors were true. I walked around and around the statue, admiring it from every angle. It honestly does look perfect from every angle. Really. And, it is absolutely HUGE. It stands about 15 feet tall and literally dominates the room. David's head and hands are noticeably bigger proportionally to the rest of his body, but this was intentional because the statue was originally created to be placed high above the viewer, from which point the head and hands would have looked perfectly proportional. Wow. Furthermore, when looking at David from the right side, you can see his calm, boyish, relaxed manner portrayed. However, when gazing at him from the left side, you see the tough, strong, wary, victorious David who has just slain the mighty Goliath with just a single rock from his slingshot. David is simply stunning and was definitely one of the highlights of the entire trip. I got chills, literally, just standing near this famous Michaelangelo piece, and he carved it at the age of only 29 years!

The Capelli Medici is the ornate chapel and mausoleum of the rich Medici ruling family that ran Firenze from the 14th to the 18th century. It is basically a testament to their richness and their arrogance, a fabulous flaunting of their immeasurable wealth. The huge octagonal chapel is literally covered in the most intricate of marble slabs and inlays. The work is so precise that it inspires amazement and wonder; it is shocking that anyone could carve rock in such ways and fit it all together so that it looks like it was painted. The work on all the walls, floors, and altar is so perfect that it is hard to see or even feel seams in it; you can almost believe it is pieces of solid marble that were mined as is. Unfortunately, I have no photographs of the chapel because the photo police were out in full force that day. In the mausoleum, two famous Michelangelo sculptures (Dawn and Dusk/Night and Day) adorn the final resting places of Lorenzo the Magnificent and Giuliano de'Medici, two of the most prominent and powerful Medici dukes. Night is portrayed as a woman preparing to sleep while Day is portrayed as a powerful, muscular man preparing to get up; seated side by side, they are lovers connected by the calendar for eternity.

After L'Accademia and the Capelli Medici, I just wandered around the old city taking it all in, framing photographs, nursing lunch at a little outdoor cafe, resting now and then in places where people have been resting for more than a millenium. The facade of the Basilica Santa Croce was fantastic, but I thought the innards were average by Italian cathedral standards. Of note, though, was that Michelangelo's tomb was inside, and seeing that was a fitting finale to seeing the multiple Michelangelo works dotting Florence's art landscape.

So, believe it or not, after the day of wandering around Firenze alone, I finally rendezvoused with Trip later that evening at the hostel. Turns out he'd woken up at 10 a.m. (3.5 hours after I'd left) and had been seeing all the same stuff I'd seen that day, just hours behind me. I was impressed by his ability to rally because I thought for sure he'd be completely worthless for the entire day, unable to achieve a vertical position due to a pounding hangover. I was glad to hear I was wrong, and he didn't miss out on the day's sights. And he would have missed out, because the days we went to these places were only days they were open during the time we were there...

(Random thought....Italian sculptures rock! So realistic, so life-like, so violent! I saw men fighting horses, men killing each other, women killing men, men killing lions, battles on horseback, triumphant poses with a severed head held high in one hand and a machete in the other. It was weird, being in a place that is now so peaceful, but getting a constant glimpse into the violent history that pervades daily life. Then, immediately adjacent to the violent scenes forever entrapped in stone there were the beautiful religious sculptures of Adam and Eve, the Madonna and the baby, and various apostles/bible scenes that were so peaceful, sweet, and loving. What an interesting juxtaposition. But wait, I guess religion and violence do historically go hand-in-hand, don't they?)

That night we had dinner with a Brazilian dude named Georges at a little haunt behind the Duomo. We got lured in by the relatively inexpensive meal (9 Euro for a plate) but raked over the coals with the ridiculously expensive Coca Cola (4 Euro for a 2/3 full glass. Dinner was a delicious lasagna, with some tasty fagioli beans, yummy bruschette and an average green salad.

The next a.m., we woke early for our final day in Firenze. Particularly cool that day was another treasure trove of Michelangelo madness - the Bargello Museum. Not only was Michelangelo out in full force there, but his contemporary Donatello was a sculpting star as well. In fact, Donatello sculpted a few of his OWN "David" works, and it was interesting to see the difference between his and Michelangelo's. We also climbed to the top of the dome of the Duomo (duomo actually translates as "cathedral", NOT "dome", surprisingly). Inside the massive dome was a 360 degree fresco (painting) of hell and heaven, with angels, demons, and people ascending from below to above. There were two circular walkways, one several stories above the other, that allowed viewers different perspectives of the paintings close above and the duomo floor far below. One of the most fascinating things about the fresco in the dome was the perspective it required. Up close, the wall looked like simply plaster with large, meaningless paint smears randomly applied. But, turn around and gaze 150 feet across to the far side of the dome and all of a sudden you are viewing an incredibly detailed and magnificent fresco replete with all of the accoutrements of heaven and hell. It's like you're standing in the middle of the painting as it swirls around you, and in order to see what it actually is, you have to look clear across the dome. I have no idea how an artist could paint something like that up many times must the artist(s) have had to stop painting, walk half the circumference of the dome, turn around to view the unfinished work, walk back and paint some more, stop, walk back around, etc., etc.?? I guess that's why the massive fresco itself took over 13 years to paint.

After viewing the inside of the dome fresco, we finished ascending the steep, slanted stairwell and emerged into glorious, warm sunshine on the top of the dome with limitless views in every direction. Florence viewed from above was truly a sight to behold. Like I've relayed throughout these blog posts, we climbed towers throughout Italy to get a) some exercise, and b) a perspective on the city and countryside impossible from street-level. Florence viewed from up high did not disappoint, and was probably the best climb we took. The top of the dome was large and had impressive marble columns, as well as room for many more people than the other towers we'd climbed. The day was partly sunny, with just enough cloud cover to avoid washing out all our photographs and still provide us with a little shade.

After heading down, we hit a street market where I picked up a leather purse for my mom, a sweatshirt for myself, and a few postcards. Back at the hostel that night, I picked up the house guitar and sat outside on the balcony for a while, serenading no one in particular. At one point I glanced over and saw that a woman had walked up from the courtyard below and was standing at the top of the stairwell listening to me play and sing "Brown Eyed Girl". She gave me a shy smile and when I finished she smiled, quietly clapped, mouthed the word "grazie" (thank you), and then disappeared. A few other folks came out from inside the hostel to hang out and listen, including Arabella, the beautiful English girl working the front desk that I had an immediate crush on. It was a fitting near-ending to our Italian trip...hanging out in a beautiful country, in beautiful weather, on the beautiful balcony, with beautiful people, making beautiful music, having beautiful conversation. Later that evening, after one last trip to GROM for some amazingly beautiful, extradark chocolate gelato deliciousness, we were off to bed, packed and ready to rise early for a daytrip to San be followed by travel back to Rome for our final night of vacation before flying back to the States.