FLORENCE, TUSCANY AND VERONA
Monday, September 6, we spent exploring our neighborhood. After a long walk up to Piazzela Michaelangelo and into the hills behind to visit the church and cemetery (primarily for the view which was amazing), we continued on along the road, past magnificent homes and gardens. We detoured down a pedestrian/motorcycle path, via del erta Canina that descended down the hillside along past lovely flower draped apartments and homes and past a large elementary school on the site of the first public elementary school in Florence. This led us into the community of San Niccolo after passing by a local friendly enoteca, Fuori a Porto, at the one of the gates of the city wall. San Niccolo is like an ancient Beacon Hill with small bistros, merchants and squares. It’s a friendly place where we returned after making a few purchases. We discovered that it’s no more than a 10 minute walk from our apartment, so we almost felt like a part of the neighborhood.
That night, Amy and Ben returned from their trip to Positano. After a long train ride, we felt it was too much for them to go out, so Betsy prepared another one of her terrific Italian meals of ravioli, tagliatelli and the remaining chicken cacciatore.
The next day we decided to go to the Pitti Palace, one of our favorite museums in Florence. The collections there are extensive, though not particularly well organized. The palace itself is magnificent, one of the largest in all of Europe. While pictures are not allowed inside, I “accidentally” got these two. The first is a glimpse of one of the beautiful ceilings.
The second picture is Ben striking a pose with Poseiden, a statue that previously stood outside in the Boboli Gardens but was moved into the museum to protect it from the elements.
Dinner that night was at the Osteria Santo Spirito, outside on the piazza. The food was good and the setting was pure Florence.
The next day was a new adventure, a trip in a minibus with another couple with Accidental Tourist out to the Rufina region of Tuscany, courtesy of a birthday gift from the Heimlich’s and the Metsons. We visited a vineyard and tasted wines. They were quite generous with samples, so we were feeling pretty mellow by the time we went to learn to make pasta. Ben and I became expert at pressing the semolina and egg together and feeding it into the pasta machine.
Here we are eating in Christiana’s kitchen, enjoying the good food and the company of new friends.
After we finished, we retreated upstairs to the home of Christiana and Giovanni where we had one of the best Italian meals ever, not the least because it included the raviolis and tagliatelle made by our group. Our hosts were a wonderful couple who made us feel like family. Betsy and Christiana bonded quickly, particularly after they realized they were both very close on birthdates and age.
Our guide, Elisabeth, brought us back to our home in Florence and we rested up from a very complete and enjoyable day.
Thursday we went for a walking tour of the historic center of Florence with Walking Tours of Florence. Though we did this to help Amy and Ben get more of a feel for the city, our guide Christine (from Natick, Mass) was particularly well informed and we learned more about Florence than we expected. For the first time we entered the Duomo. In the past we had mostly admired Brunelleshci’s dome, which surprised the world and changed the nature of building of domes for centuries to come. Like most of Italy’s great cathedrals, the structure is designed to force the visitor/supplicant to look up, diminishing one’s own sense of size and importance. This is a picture of the ceiling of the dome.
Betsy and I went off in the afternoon to sign up for our ceramics and sculpting classes. When we returned, it was too late to visit the Science Museum, so we wandered over to the San Niccolo region to find a wonderful small Osteria for dinner, Pilipepe (pepper lover).
The following day we rented a car and drove Amy and Ben down to the Chianti region, stopping first in our favorite town in that area, Castellini in Chianti, then back through Panzano to show them Il Palagio where we had stayed back in May. Now the grapes are ripening and the small vines we had seen back in the spring are bulging with fruit. The grape tasters say the grapes are not yet high enough in sugar content to pick. We sampled some, and I have to say I agree. While the grapes are tasty, they are not the special sweetness which I remember as a child with my grandfather in Brockton. We stopped in Greve for lunch then drove to the Prada outlet out in the industrial belt of Tuscany. We saw lots of very high fashion clothes and leather, but the prices were very high compared to the US even in the outlet stores. We made no purchases.
The next day started at 4:30 am waking Amy and Ben to leave for the airport. We had a wonderful time with them and we’ll miss them. Later in the morning we drove our car to Verona, ordinarily a two hour drive from Florence. Unfortunately, we had one traffic jam after another and it took us four hours to get there. We arrived at our hotel at 4 pm and were out for the next eight hours before we returned. Verona is an amazing city. Many describe it as a small Florence, but I think, except for the art which is minimal in Verona, Florence is a large Verona. The historic areas are very well preserved and all accessible with no real lines to get in anywhere. People seem remarkably friendly and welcoming. Dante Aligheri spent much time here after his exile from Florence and he is a celebrated notable. His statue stands in the town square in front of the Palazzo of the Scaligeri family, the Medici equivalent of Verona.
The historic part of the city sits in the middle of a loop and on either side of the Adige River, rising up to the low hills with much of the original city walls still intact. This picture from the Torre dei Lamberti looks across the river up to the hill with the city wall at its crest, showing the lookout towers along the periphery.
We stopped at a number of the boutiques where merchants displayed clothing manufactured to their own design. We met Zeno Cestari and his son Arrigo who operate together their store T-Story.
Then we stumbled onto the store of Hubert Gasser, a man who designs and manufactures his own clothes for women that he sells in several small boutiques in Verona and the neighboring cities. It would be hard to imagine a friendlier more welcoming person. We had trouble leaving the store where we met his lovely daughter. Hubert personally took as around the town to help us find a satisfactory place for dinner.
After dinner we wandered back through the town and stumbled, literally on the beginning of a concert performance by Ennio Morricone. Some readers may recognize his name. He is cited as one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, his work focused almost entirely around movie scores. His fame began with the scores for the famous “Spaghetti Westerns” in the 1950’s, but he went on to write for some of the greatest movie producers of our time. To our surprise, this concert was dedicated to the victims of 9/11, as well as all those who have suffered from man’s cruelty over the centuries. We managed to get general admission tickets after the concert started (it was sold out) and found ourselves in the middle of the most emotionally moving event of our entire trip. As the Rome Symphony Orchestra played and the Lyric Symphony Chorus of Rome sang his haunting composition, two large screens showed film clips of the great tragic events of the last century up to and including film shots of the carnage in Beslan, Ossetia. We sat in an ancient Roman arena filled with over 25,000 people, many sitting like us on the steps and walls and were moved to tears. A picture cannot convey the impact of this experience, but here’s a shot of the stage and jumbotrons.
He finished with a tribute to the victims of American xenophobia in the early part of the last century, Sacco and Vanzetti, and we were all, 25,000 strong, singing along at the end. The audience went wild and he had to do four encores before they would let him go. We consider ourselves fortunate to have been able to experience this moment.
Sunday we rented bicycles and rode around the town to the Giardino Giusti, beautiful gardens behind a Palazzo from the 16th century that included a Cypress tree commented on by Goethe and appropriately marked in his honor. This view of the gardens down to the Palazzo gives a sense of the care and detail that went into the planning and continues in the maintenance of this gem.
The drive back to Florence in torrential rain was remarkably quicker and easier, taking only a little over 2 hours. We treated ourselves for dinner since we still had a car and drove to Omero, a little out of the city, for a spectacular dinner.
Monday, September 13, we had a quiet morning, attempting to make plans for Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur. This is the time we feel most our separation from home. In spite of my efforts to speak with the people at the synagogue and visits for services, we have been unable to make any connections in the Jewish community here. It will be a lonely holiday without our family and friends. In the afternoon we started our classes, today with ceramics for Betsy and Sculpture for me. Sylvia, a woman in her 60’s who in spite of her short stature Betsy feels shares a resemblance to Bette Midler. She speaks no English, but her assistant, the very lovely Fabby, helps out, and her English is perfect. Both of us really enjoyed finally getting our hands into this.
Tuesday was an easy paced day, walking up to the Piazzela Michaelangelo on the long route around and then down the back way through San Niccolo. I stopped for a haircut, once again by Franco, which seems to be the universal name for Italian barbers. Franco is a self trained artist as well and his shop is filled with his works. We met with Valentina from One Step Closer, a wonderful organization that puts together itineraries and special tours for people coming to visit Italy. She introduced us to Valentina Melani who will be our cultural guide and Italian instructor for the next 5 weeks.
That night we had torrential rains. Lightening struck all around and we saw a bolt hit the Uffizi directly in front of our window. There was a loud pop and all the lights on that side of the Arno for an entire block went out. By morning the storms had blown over but the entire valley was covered in mist. During our walk that morning to the southern hills of Florence out to the community of Arcetri, I caught this photo of the mist over the olive orchards and cypresses.
That afternoon I began my Italian lessons with Valentina Melani, a wonderful woman who is a linguist and has her degree in English Literature. I can see I have a long way to go. We then went for our second lesson at ceramics and sculpture. We’re making progress, but there is much to learn.
That night Betsy made dinner for Rosh Hashanah. We talked to lots of family on the phone and had a very quiet dinner alone. It was the most difficult moment of our trip. The absence of family and community can be very isolating, particularly at meaningful times. The next morning we walked to the Synagogue, where we had considerably less difficulty than the day before getting in. Once I showed our American passports, they were more than welcoming. The synagogue had a small crowd, but like at home, latecomers filled the seats by 11 am. Betsy sat behind me behind the mechitzah, but I could signal to her or speak if I walked over. The service was difficult to follow. The melodies were entirely foreign, a mix of Sephardic tunes and Florentian idiosyncratic melodies. It didn’t seem to follow any fixed text and it appeared that only the in-crowd knew where the reader was going. Still, it provided time to reflect and a sense of belonging. I had a chance to chat with the 92 year old retired pediatrician, a native of Florence, who was sitting in front of me. Betsy met a few young women who were visitors attending services.
After temple was over, we walked next door to have dinner at Ruth’s, the only Kosher restaurant in Florence. It’s run by Simcha, an immigrant to Florence from Prague. There were only 11 people in the small cozy restaurant. We brought Femme and her boyfriend, Mark, as our guests, since payment had to be arranged in advance. She is a 30 year old orthodox (new orthodox by US standards) woman who is the editor of Holland’s first Woman’s magazine. He is an Internist who is specializing in Intensive Care Medicine. They are a delightful couple and we learned a great deal about their families and surviving in Europe during the Shoah. We were joined by Solomon and his wife Frumme from Mexico City, and Shelly and Bill from Melbourne Australia. The food was amazing and the mood was congenial. We all felt as if we were with a little bit of family. Because of the holiday, no pictures were allowed.
Friday morning we met Valentina for our first culturual tour. We visited the Bargello and had a chance to study the development of sculpture from the beginning of the Renaissance to the Mannerist movement, all of which Donatello encompassed in his 80 years. Since his sculpture of David in the Bargello is one of our two favorites in Florence, we enjoyed understanding the evolution of his work. Photographs are not allowed in the Bargello and it is strictly enforced. I would only recommend that all those who stand in line for hours to get into the Academia to see the David are passing up a great opportunity if they do not take the time to visit the Bargello, which never has lines and get up close to the Davids of Donatello and Verrochio for a real treat.
From there we went to the museum of the Duomo where we saw one of the four Pietas done by Michaelangelo. Having seen the original in Rome and the unfinished Rondini in Milan, it was interesting to see how he applied his technique on this one.
The museum is a must for anybody interested in the history of architecture and sculpture in Florence. We rested for the afternoon and then went for dinner at Latini, a famous eating place in Florence where people wait outside in lines as if it were the Uffizi. On our way over we saw a beautiful Florence sunset over the Arno.
The restaurant was an experience. It was packed with mostly Americans for the early shift with the Italians waiting for the later second seating. The staff were remarkably amicable and helpful and the food came out from the moment we sat down. The seating is very much like Durgin Park with long tables crammed with groups and couples sitting practically on top of each other. We sat with two couples.
One is the chief of psychiatric services at Albert Einstein Medical Center in New York and his wife is a CPA and the other is the chief of the burn service at University of Alabama Medical Center in Birmingham. His wife is a sociologist. We had a great time. The food was outstanding, there was a limitless supply of wine, vin santo and Muscat. Being the “old hands” at Florence that we are, we gave them lots of pointers on where to spend their two days here.
The next day brought a new adventure. We rented a motor scooter, a 200 cc bike, and road up to the tiny village of Settignano, northeast of the city. Here’s Betsy standing by the bike in the center of the town.
We rode on out to see the Villa Gamberaia that Valentina told us to see. This is a magnificent property sitting high on the hill overlooking it’s vineyards and olive groves and looking down on the city of Florence. Here’s a view from the grounds looking down to Florence.
The main house was built in the early 15th century and updated since with it’s most recent done by the present owners, descendants of the family that has owned it for the past 50 years. The grounds are a series of elegant English style gardens with ponds and fountains.
This is the room where the citrus plants are brought into during the winter.
We talked to the gardener who does all the maintenance on the grounds. He’s a tranquil but hard working fellow and he maintains a masterpiece of property. Betsy’s favorite statue on the property was this cute gem.
We stopped for lunch at Tullio’s, a wonderful Trattoria tucked into the small hill town of Montebeni where we had a spectacular meal. One of the best of our trip. It’s a family run spot that is frequented by those in the know. One of the vice presidents of Fiat was sitting two tables from us with a small party. We found out about this place from Dom, the bicycle tour guide and discovered him there with a group on our arrival. We made our way back to Florence after a short stop in Fiesole. We rested for a while at a park along the Arno where families were out enjoying the September sun. Betsy conked out on my lap sitting on the bench in the sun and we whiled away the remaining hours of the afternoon with the Florentians. It was a delightful day- one of our best.
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