Monday, October 02, 2006

Trials of the Travelers. . .

Part 2

The Hotel Michelangelo Panorama was in a very old, probably historic building off the Piazza SS Annunziata. Its main clientele were American college students, but it really wasn’t a hostel. The rooms were spacious, which sort of made up for the bathroom. But at least we had a bathroom in our room, as at least at that time, many hotel rooms (other than nice ones) didn’t have bathrooms in them. We had to laugh, there was a shower in it, but you had to stand in a small “hip” tub. If you stood back from the shower spray far enough to do any good, you were slipping on the slope of the tub. How anyone could possibly find that comfortable we just couldn’t figure out!

K and her mother had plans that evening so my friend and I were on our own. We didn’t imagine that we could get into too much trouble wandering around the streets of Florence on a Thursday night!

The city was alive after sundown, vibrant and busy with evening shoppers out and about. We could smell wonderful things cooking in restaurants and little kiosks. We stopped and bought pieces of fresh coconut, which is very popular with Italians, savoring the chewy sweetness. Kids rushed around buying chocolate and gelato, their giggles were captivating and delightful to hear. Street vendors were out hawking every type of good imaginable and unfortunately we looked too much like tourists. We got very good at saying “No, grazie” as we walked down the street. The area we were in was alive from the voices of people, but was strangely quiet otherwise. There were no cars in that area, as happens in very old areas in Italy. The streets are very narrow (remember that when they were first created there were no cars) and are called “walking streets”. One of the habits or traditions of Italians was strolling arm-in-arm before or after dinner, laughing and greeting acquaintances and meeting new ones. They are a very sociable society and it was always fun to be out amongst them in the evening.

My friend and I stopped often to admire things in shop windows or on tables on the sidewalk. We bought fresh, hot calzones and ate them as we walked. It was wonderful to be strolling without our bags in tow!

We came across the de Medici palazzo and marveled at the architecture of the palazzo, built in 1444. The original buildings were still standing and looked to be in very good condition. You could almost imagine you were in 1444, except for the electric lights shining through the windows.

The de Medici was a very powerful and influential family in Italy from the 13th to 17th centuries and produced 3 popes during that time. As we looked at the palazzo, the wealth was very apparent. The palazzo offers tours during the daytime and the courtyard is said to be quite lovely, but we left it that evening and wandered on our way, and didn’t return again.

We finally made our way back to the hotel around 11 pm and dropped gratefully into our semi-comfortable beds! It had been a totally lovely day and we were looking forward to meeting our friends for breakfast before going to some museums.

Morning came all too early, but K’s mother had a small balcony off of her room and we sat for awhile and enjoyed the view, as well as hot chocolate and rolls for breakfast.

After that we all went to the Accademie Galleria to see the statue of David. Yes, there are many other precious and inestimable works of art there, but somehow, they all paled after you have seen David.

He is very high up on a base, probably around 6 feet. But even so, you can still see him clearly, details that seem almost impossible when you consider that he is made of marble. Veins appear to pulse with life, muscle and skin that looks real enough to touch. His face and hair are so finely done that it takes little imagination to envision your hands touching it, how it would be warm and thick and curly as your fingers slipped through it. Pictures simply cannot do him justice.

We left our bags in K’s room at the hotel and agreed to pick them up by 5 that evening in order to catch the 6 pm train to Venice. Then, saying goodbye to our friends we sat off to find the Uffizi Museum.

The Uffizi used to be (centuries ago) the city offices for Florence and now house a vast museum with room after room of priceless art treasures. I was determined to find Bottecelli’s Birth of Venice, which has long been a favorite of mine. We wandered the day away, visiting room after room. Finally about an hour before we needed to leave, I found her and she was breathtaking. The painting, by Sandro Bottecelli was painted in 1482, at the heart of the great Italian renaissance. It was much larger than I had imagined and I was intrigued by the tiny brushstrokes that made the painting seem so flawless. I leaned closer and closer towards it to get a better look.

An Italian man standing next to me tapped me on the shoulder and started talking to me in very rapid Italian which I had a hard time following.

“Scusi signora, siete appoggiandosi a iete appoggandosi a vicino al’immagine e vi resolerete fuori degli allarmi!”. He was gesturing at me and the painting, trying very hard to tell me something.

“Signora,” louder and more emphatic, “l'allarme, l'allarme si spegnerà! Andrà fuori di voi è troppo vicino!”

I listened to him and all of a sudden a couple of the words started to make sense. I thought vicino meant in the vicinity of, and allarme could only mean one thing!

I took a step back and looked up at the top of the painting and noticed for the first time some type of framing system around the painting. An alarm system! He had been telling me that I was standing too close to the painting and was about to set off the alarm!

“Grazie così tanto signore, molte grazie!” I said, realizing how awful it would have been if the alarm had sounded. Can we say Italian jail, polizia, and a whole lot of panic?

I was very shaken up and took one last, appreciative look at the painting and turned around to find my friend, who had seen the whole thing, but hadn’t heard what was said. I had of course expected there to be alarms at the museum, but it hadn’t occurred to me that there would be alarms on individual paintings. I explained to her what had almost happened and we talked about it sporadically and giggled a bit as we finished looking at the other paintings in this room.

All too soon it was time to go pick up our bags and get to the train station. I paused for a moment in the door way of that huge room to gaze one more time at The Birth of Venus. It is a spectacular painting and a sight I will never forget. I gradually turned away with a sigh and we left the Uffizi. Maybe it seems silly that one painting could touch you so much, but it did. I have seen one of what I consider the most exquisite paintings of all time and it left a mark on me. Yes, I saw paintings by DaVinci and Raphael and Renoir that day, but none of them touched me like The Birth of Venus.

We caught a taxi back to the hotel and I guess I should say here that after the first experience on the bus in Florence, we always took taxis around Florence.

The trip to the train station was uneventful, but we were both quiet, reflecting I suppose on our trip to Florence. It was an amazingly beautiful city, full of cultural splendor and to Americans, whose society and architecture is relatively young, it seemed so old, but in the best of ways. Life seemed a little slower, although much more constant. People enjoyed life and one another more there it seemed, taking pleasure in each other, not what they owned or could buy, not what their neighbor had or status symbols. It was all about how you lived your life.

We got to the train station in Florence and I went to the window to purchase our tickets to Venice while my friend stayed with our bags.

“Ho bisogno prego di due biglietti a Venezia.” I said to the clerk at the window. Two tickets to Venice, one more day of our tour, then back to Vicenza.

The clerk gave me the tickets and I thanked him. I looked up at the large board that listed the trains and tracks and departure times. I didn’t see Venice listed on it.

“Scusilo ma dove è il treno a Venecia?” I asked the ticket clerk.

He looked at the board and said “Budapest”.

“No Budapest,” I stated. “Venice!”

“Si, si,” he impatiently explained. “BUDAPEST”. In the universal way people have, he spoke a little louder so that the American girl could understand!

Shaking my head I walked away from the window, wondering if this could be right. I explained the situation to my friend and we decided that it was probably correct, that the train was going farther than Venice, so we headed to the right track and boarded the train.

It was pretty crowded, but we finally found a compartment with enough space for us and our bags and settled in for the 2 ½ hour trip to Venice. The train got underway and we both stared out the window as Florence slowly faded away. The conductor came along to collect the tickets and we gave him ours.

He took them and looked at them for a moment, then did a double take and started muttering, whether to himself or us we didn’t know.

“Venezia, Venezia,” he said as he reached around and whipped a book out of his pocket and started flipping through it. “Hmm. . .”

We looked at each other. Oh God, we are on the wrong train. . .

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