Monday, October 31, 2016

Walking Firenze


Walking Firenze

“He dies slowly, he who becomes a slave to habit, who follows the same paths every day, he who never changes his bearings, who never risks to change the colors of his clothes or never talks to a stranger, he who shuns passion, who never changes course, who never takes any risks to fulfill his dreams, he who not even once in his life, never ran away from sensible advice. He dies slowly, he who does not travel, does not read, he who does not listen to music, he who does not know how to laugh at himself.”  *

                                                                                                            Pablo Neruda
It was a bright sunny Thursday the morning we departed on our five star hotel whirlwind adventure.  The fact that the day heralded the first day of fall was obscured by the day’s beauty.  We’d prepped in a day or two and with no dogs or cats to take care of, just plants, it has become a familiar process.  We began our many phased approach to Italy with a car ride to the bus station.  A few hours later found us at Logan International in Boston with hours enough to insure we could check-in our luggage, get through the security checkpoints, and enjoy a leisurely beer.
The trip, that included a train ride, went smoothly.  That is until I went to buy bus tickets to Calitri at the Tiburtina Train Station in Rome.  It seemed the bus we planned to take was full.  It was a Friday, and students who filled the bus were in evacuation mode, apparently eager to return to the comfort of momma’s pasta for the weekend.  I hadn’t anticipated that.  If we didn’t get on this bus, we’d add an additional five hours to an already long day before the next bus arrived.  I bought tickets for the last bus as a backup since it was our final chance to likewise evacuate Rome that day.  My holdout hope, however, was that when the driver of the supposedly filled bus performed a head-count, just before leaving, he might come up with two empty seats from people who failed to arrive.  I stood by the door as the bus filled, praying for two no-shows.  The driver did his count, and lo and behold, exactly two seats miraculously appeared.  Had it been divine intervention?  I wanted to believe it was.  We’d saved a five hour wait only to ride for five hours due to numerous stops, but I can’t complain.  Sitting in the hot bus, its heat was added to by the entertainments of boy-girl, huggy kissy passions all around us.
As we eagerly approached our destination, we talked about what still lay ahead, the final phase of our journey.  By then, we’d been about this going on 24 hours and were stanco (tired).  To top it all off, we were arriving during the evening passagata when the streets would be alive with people as we rolled our suitcases on through the strollers, up the main street to the Borgo and home.  Everyone would certainly know we’d arrived.  It would be a first, and a totally new way of arrival for us, since on previous trips we’d simply rented a car.  Now with Bianca, our new car, waiting for us, a rental was out of the question … Bianca would certainly complain to Margaret!  We needed to get comfortable with this mode of arrival because, as they say, this would be the new norm. 
We arrived in Calitri that evening to a pleasant surprise.  As I looked through the bus window out across the bus stop, toward a nearby pasticceria, I caught sight of our neighbor, Barbara, followed shortly afterwards by another friend, Titti. They were both converging on the bus.  Hallelujah for good friends with a car!  Knowing of our arrival, they’d conspired to meet us and drive us home.  It was a wonderful feeling, both for the thought behind it and the fact that we’d avoided one hell of a bag drag.
Although our journey was over, we soon discovered the night was still young.  There was more ahead, for this being Maria Elena’s birthday, our friends had a welcome dinner-party planned.  As tired as we were, it took only a glass or two of wine for our second wind to kick-in.  Our house had been decorated with a birthday garland spanning the kitchen, more friends soon arrived, the gift of a flowering plant adorned the table, dinner was catered, and a firestorm of three candles topped the cake.  Happy birthday Maria Elena!
The next few days saw us busy opening the house after our three month absence and getting our car.  Bianca was in fine shape, for our friend, American Joe, in the meantime, had busied himself with everything from mounting new tires, having it inspected, to installing a new timing belt.  As for the house, there was only one problem.  The Internet for some mysterious reason wouldn’t work.  The signal provider said they could not “see” our router.  After some time spent playing with the connections, an inspection of the roof antenna revealed that some critter had munched on the cable sufficiently in a few places to cut the fine wire filaments inside.  With its Ethernet connectors and thread-thin wires that couldn’t simply be twisted together, a do-it-yourself repair was out of the question, or at least out of my league.  There would be no Internet until I replaced the entire line.  In any case, although it wouldn’t smother me with work, it would give me something to do in the days ahead.
I had plenty of time, for we were not planning to leave for Florence on the first half of our Five Star Tour for a few weeks.  In the interim, we kept busy.  We were busy visiting friends, attending another birthday party, and with a fund raising dinner for the recent earthquake victims of Amatrice, Italy.  As was the case with the quake, Mother Nature hadn’t cooperated here either.  Unlike the terrible devastation from the quake, ours was just a day filled with thunderstorms.  The good part
about it was that the nasty weather caused the function to be moved inside, into one of the buildings in the town’s fairgrounds.  There must have been 800-1000 people in attendance, coming and going in waves, who for a small donation could enjoy various bands along with the main draw – a local pasta called “cannazza”, along with peas, and stuffed rolls of beef that had slowly cooked while bathed in sauce all day.  Outside the fairgrounds, all but one local restaurant had remained open.  It insured there was at least one place to eat that night for those not attending.  The other restaurateurs were at the gathering helping out with cooking and serving.  It was nice to see the entire town working together toward a common cause. 
We also had time to pick grapes.  The vendemia had arrived and along with friends we hit the fields one fine morning to harvest the white grape portion of the vineyard.  Harvesting the reds would have to wait for later.  It went surprisingly fast this year - because the whites were in the minority, we were finished by 11am.  This gave us plenty of time to clean up and return for the harvest party that followed in winemaker Giuseppe’s cantina.
When departure day arrived, it being too far to drive to Florence, we opted to purchase tickets for a high speed train ride from Naples to Florence.  First we had to get to Naples.  For this phase of the trip we relied on Bianca to get us there.  It was her first long distance outing (1.5 hours) and went smoothly.  We parked Bianca at the U.S. Navy Base adjacent to the Naples Airport and then caught a bus to the central train station in Piazza Garibaldi.  From there, a 300 km/hr Italo train would whisk us to Florence in just over three hours, including stops in Rome.
This, however, is where my story hesitates, for it was in Naples while rolling our luggage from the bus stop to the terminal that we were, as they say, made.  We must have fit some profile known only to pickpockets.  That’s right, I was almost picked.  I say almost because I was lucky enough to recognize the pincer movement but not until it was underway.  Things happen fast.  A push, a touch, a bump …. the distraction before the grab for your wallet, your camera, or purse.  Maria Elena was following behind me as I moved forward trailing our suitcase.  It was a crowded street, not in the best part of town by a longshot.  This is a rough quarter of Naples, with ethnic diversity galore but little of that metaphorical “melting pot” in evidence.  We avoid in when we can but when your trip includes travel by train, there isn’t much you can do other than being extra vigilant.  We’d run this gauntlet through the raw smell of humanity before.  There were store fronts to one side and a taxi lane on the other.  The street was further narrowed by venders with their wares strewn across the pavement insisting you stop and buy their pocketbooks, selfie-sticks or sunglasses.  I’m sure the locals, who are obviously aware of these heists, were watching this off-beat form of entertainment as it unfolded, not unlike the local passengers of that infamous Roman bus route, #64, who likewise enjoy the show as tourists are unwittingly robbed. 
In less than a minute, while crossing the heavily trafficked street near our bus stop, we’d been so correctly categorized, that the troupe’s head-man had concluded we spoke English. Approaching me from my right, with his arm extended holding a tissue, he eagerly attempted to wipe my shoulder, all the while repeatedly saying how I’d been spit on, though I hadn’t.  I didn’t stop.  Still moving forward, I quickly turned toward him and rejected his advance, indicating for him to keep away (tienilo lontano da me).  That was the attempted distraction.  They had expected me to stop, momentarily confused, while he whipped my shoulder as his brigand colleague, a true Dickens Artful Dodger if ever there was one, surreptitiously advance on me.  I knew no Italian stranger would be so concerned if I had anything on my shoulder, whether spit or bird dropping.  In that regard, to me at least, his disingenuous concern was weak, absurd, bordering on unbelievable.  When I turned forward again, it was just in time to see his “Jack Dawkins” accomplice, bent low at the waist, like a tight end trying to catch a low pass.  As he swept across my path, his hand was extended toward me, as he made his move.  To their surprise, my armament of Sicilian expletives quickly rang out.  It was they who looked confused, if not shocked by my barrage, as we moved on toward the terminal.  Other than that, the trip was uneventful.
We walked through the doors of what would be our temporary home for the next few days by mid-afternoon.  Our son, Chris, who had arrived only an hour earlier, led us from the station to the Grand Hotel Minerva (see lead photo).  It is centrally located in Piazza Santa Maria Novella, within blocks of the train station of the same name.  The piazza had once been an 18th century racetrack.  The original towering marble obelisks, capped by the symbol of Florence, the Fleur de Lis, situated at either end of the square, had once served as pylons to indicate turning points in the races.  Today, near one of the stanchions, it still retains its 14th century namesake, Santa Maria Novella Church, with a crescent of stores, hotels, and bars arching around to the opposite pylon.  The recently remodeled Grand Hotel Minerva occupies prime frontage on the periphery of the square adjacent to the church.  We were expected, warmly greeted, and shown to our room. 
We had beautiful accommodations accessed through doors covered in a leather-like material featuring an image of helmeted Minerva.  Upon entering, it was the bed that first caught my eye.  It
was a king sized, four-poster with draped, hanging shear linens leading to a down-filled duvet and puffy pillows.  After a long day of travel, it beckoned us but would have to wait.  Our bathroom was large, modern, and clad in Italian marble.  The showerhead cantilevered from the wall, as a diving board might, with hundreds of tiny nozzles ready to create a pillar of water.  A concave magnifying mirror, like none we’d ever seen before and edged with lights, caught our attention.  Behind the door, on the wall, hung the added courtesy of two fluffy bathrobes.  The finishing touch to our room was a generous, mirrored, walk-in closet.  To complete our swank space, our windows opened like the Pope’s to a view overlooking the entire historic plaza below.  A chilled welcoming bottle of Prosecco from the hotel manager was just what we needed.  We had arrived in grand style as the name, Grand Hotel Minerva and the arrival celebration in our son’s room proclaimed.  
We were soon off to explore.  A rooftop terrace commanded a 360 degree view across the windswept city, while an adjacent swimming pool, to cool for a swim, unfortunately lay vacant.  It required a Negroni, properly prepared with freezer-cold gin, refrigerated Campari, a splash of vermouth, and a half-slice of orange, to counterintuitively keep me warm.
That evening, there in the cradle of the Renaissance, Christopher visited two hotels for business purposes.  We got to come along!  First stop was a tour of the St. Regis followed afterwards by one of the Westin Excelsior.  At the St. Regis, a Florentine jewel located just a stroll away from the Ponte Vecchio along the Arno in Piazza Ognissanti, the hotel’s front office manager kindly brought us
through a suite recently occupied by Madonna.  Massive and impeccably decorated in classic Italian style, it was a knock-out, nothing less than a Presidential Suite.  Afterward, we were offered cocktails in their Michelin starred Winter Garden Restaurant.  It was there that we were treated to their celebrated “Sabering”, a tradition where nightly the foiled and wired top of a bottle of Prosecco is severed from the bottle with the swipe of a saber’s blade.  Evidently, when hotel patrons want their Prosecco, they expect it quickly!
On the opposite side of the plaza we were next given a tour of the Westin Excelsior Hotel.  Centuries ago it was a medieval palace and evidently it hasn’t lowered its standards since.  Its elegant impact began at the entrance when the doorman
opened the door to the lobby.  There we were greeted by a cutting edge contemporary atrium flawlessly paired with unique renaissance features.  The marble floor alone was exquisite; the entire room the epitome of consummate elegance.  It distracted from Front Office Manager Raffaello’s welcome, who with pride, then proceeded to give us tours of their various classes of rooms. The staircase in particular, leading up from the lobby, featured a striking Italian Liberty Style.  This 19th century design, an Italian adaptation of Art Nouveau, emphasized spiraling, sinuous architectural forms.  Looking down through the central void of the staircase, its descending stairs clinging to the walls in boxy lockstep, I felt a sense of infinity as it fell away, almost  indefinitely, to the converging rules of perspective.  
Dinner at the Excelsior’s rooftop “Se·Sto” garden restaurant followed.  The only thing distracting from our meals in this contemporary glass-enclosed facility were the 360-degree views of the city, beginning with the Arno River.  High atop our perch, I first enjoyed Spaghetto al Concentrato di Astice (spaghetti in a lobster sauce), then Filetto di Vitello (veal fillet), while Maria Elena chose Gnocchi con funghi porcini al wasabi (gnocchi with porcini mushrooms and wasabi).  Two celebratory bottles of excellent 2008 Brunello Castelsiocondo later, we’d concluded our extravagant Mediterranean style meals.  It had been a memorable first day in an elite world.
There was much to see in Florence and so little time.  Unless we somehow managed to stay awake the entire time, we had about 36 hours to take it all in.  Though small and amenable to walking, it nevertheless is not an insignificant city.  We began to explore its one of a kind sites the
next morning following a wonderful breakfast.  Our first stop took us next door to the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella (see lead photo).
The interior of the Santa Maria Novella Basilica was massive, its wall decorated with stunning frescos.  In addition to the Basilica, the extensive complex included a museum, the Great Cloister, various chapels, and an interior cemetery, the Cloister of the Dead.  We saw it all.  This once Dominican Order church, begun in 1279, is today owned and operated by a partnership of the Religious Buildings Fund, the municipality of Florence, and the State.  I found it similar to Montecasino, where religious are nowhere to be found.  With an entrance fee of €8 per person and massive tourism, it must be a thriving money maker.  
Over the course of the day, we crisscrossed the city.  We passed through the Central Market, a favorite of mine, where foodstuffs of every sort, from pig ears to sandwiches, can be had.  Map in hand, we moved on to that famous of all Florentine landmarks, the Duomo, Bell Tower, and Baptistery.  Even as early as it was, long lines already circled the Duomo.  Leaving the Duomo area behind, we moved toward the river, our goal the Piazza della Signoria.  The square, as ever, was splendidly arrayed with antiquities, fountains, statues, and of course, ever growing numbers of tourists.  Passing the copy of Michelangelo's David, we entered Florence’s town
hall, Palazzo della Signoria.  Just inside, an Asian couple dressed in wedding finery were being photographed as part of what I can only guess was a destination wedding - a really special destination, half way around the world.  Nearby were some of our favorite sites including the Loggia dei Lanzi open-air sculpture gallery, as well as the Uffizi Gallery which unfortunately closed that day.  Of course we couldn’t miss showing Chris the spot where in 1497 Girolamo Savonarola carried out the famous Bonfire of the Vanities, burning books, gaming tables, fine dresses, works of poets, and finery of every sort.  We pointed out the round marble plaque marking the exact spot where a year later Savonarola, having fallen out of favor with the Pope, was hung and then burned.  I would have thought excommunication would have been enough.
From there we made for the Arno through the Uffizi courtyard where we could glimpse the gold laden Ponte Vecchio.  Once a 100 foot span of butcher shops, it was on the order of Cosimo I de' Medici in 1593 that the bridge acquired its current glitzy character as a home to bling when one jewelry shop after another took up residence there.  Since we were last there, the “padlock
phenomenon” has also put down roots on Ponte Vecchio.  This current fad is connected to the idea that lovers, by locking a padlock (many times to another lock) and throwing the key in the river, the lovers became eternally bonded.  With so many tourists, thousands of padlocks appear annually, which need to be removed due to the resulting damage to the centuries old bridge.  Honestly, I felt it was an attractive blight, far better than spray tagging.  Currently, this form of love art is reportedly on the decline after the city put a sign on the bridge mentioning a €160 penalty for those caught locking something to the fence!  On a return visit we’ll just have to see if love conquers all.
About then, it was time for a break, a long break over glasses of wine.  Something to soak our feet in would also have hit the spot.  We chose Antico Trattoria dei 13 Gobbi.  It looked interesting, with an intimate atmosphere, somewhat like a deli.  The walls were clad in wooden panels from wine crates, hundreds of them.  Oak ceiling beams
gave it a classic Tuscan look, but then, we were in the heart of Tuscany not some knock off Italian restaurant in Fiji.  It is best known for its Florentine steak, but this being only lunch, I instead chose a Caprese salad antipasto followed by an indulgent pasta alla carbonara with crispy cubes of pancetta, while Chris enjoyed a pizzas, and Maria her favorite, pasta alla vongole.  My only excuse, I’ll work out when back in the States.  However, an unexpected workout lay just before us.
By this point, since leaving Hotel Minerva, we’d made what looked like a rough circle of the city.  Now we walked what approached a diagonal across that circle to the Four Seasons Hotel for one final facility tour with Christopher.  Our feet guided us on a journey from crowded town

squares to tiny, quiet streets, away from the bustle of an overrun tourist infested city.  But to think, weren’t we part of that infestation?  Arrived at the Four Seasons, we at least felt we were somehow special, apart from the masses in that upper 1% stratum we are so often politically reminded of.  Of course we were not staying there, but in our short while there, whether seated in their main lounge, or later in their atrium-like bar enjoying a refreshing aperitivo, we experienced their exceptional brand of what I can only describe a persistent perfection in elegant surroundings of the highest quality.  In a completely separate building we toured a personal oasis in the heart of Florence, their spa, which extended underground.  For a wine lover like myself, just imagine the “Chianti Wine Massage” treatment I noted among the spa’s offerings.  I can only imagine sensations worthy of Bacchus! They had created an experience much admired but not easily replicated anywhere else in Florence. 
In terms of space alone, there is nothing to match it anywhere else in the city.  It had distanced itself from the city center for a reason.  At the heart of the Four Seasons awaited a delightful surprise - the Giardino della Gherardesca – a sanctuary of giant shade trees, vast lawns and vibrant flowers, sprinkled throughout with art.  One of the largest Florentine gardens, it had been kept private and unseen for hundreds of years.  Whether it be a romantic dinner, secluded in some shady spot, or a
sprawl on the lawn, all can be had here in this expansive giardino (garden).  Walking its interlacing pathways with Sofia, our Sales Manager host, we came upon striking statues, fountains, ponds, a pavilion, a swimming pool, even a small Ionic temple.  For a more modest reprieve from a busy world there was even a hammock strung between two obliging trees.  It was a refreshing escape from Florence’s busy streets.  You can lose yourself on this estate.  I especially enjoyed its unparalleled display of art positioned here and there throughout the grounds.  These numerous and absolutely fabulous works of art are worthy of their own Uffizi.  Our three hotel tours now concluded, and while personally totally unaffordable on our part, I’d settle on Madonna’s suite at the St. Regis, the gardens of the Four Seasons, and the rooftop restaurant at the Westin Excelsior.
There was more, if more could make an already fab visit to Florence any better.  We reluctantly left the Four Seasons and pushed-on to one last destination, the Santa Croce Basilica.  We wanted Chris to see the tombs of some of Florence’s greatest names: Michelangelo, Galileo, Rossini, and Machiavelli along with a memorial to Dante (buried in Ravenna).  While they are dead and gone, by this time we were in need of medical attention ourselves to revive.  A cab ride later miraculously deposited us at an Irish pub across the square from the Grand Hotel Minerva … just the way to end a day, if not with an Irishman, than with a pint.  God bless the Irish!  Like Camp Pendelton recruits, according to Chris’ watch pedometer, we’d walked a total of 9.8 miles that day.  All that we lacked were the back-packs.  By all reports, I’d been the drill sergeant on the forced march!
Ever a non-believer in Five Star living, I discovered that someone like myself can easily acclimate to this lifestyle.  Like the photo Michael J. Fox’s character, Marty McFly, held in Back to the Future, in which he was gradually disappearing from the scene over time, the bourgeoisie in me was gradually being supplanted by a pampered, jet-setting plutocrat I did not recognize.  If I’d stayed any longer, there’s no telling what may have happened.
Oh, and as for the hotel’s name, Minerva, when I asked, they indicated it was a common name in the past, though I’ve still never met a Minerva in the flesh.  But past can mean a very long time ago, especially in Italy.  For now, although there is still time, I’ll have to be simply satisfied with the statues of her, which were everywhere, though not in any of the halls of the hotel. 
The next morning we rented a car.  Returning to the Grand Minerva, we checked-out and loaded our luggage aboard for the next phase of our trip.  A turn of the key and we’d be off, this time deep into Tuscan wine country.  However, as new as it was, it refused to start.  Thus began the next episode of this cinque stelle tale.  Stay tuned.

From That Rogue Tourist



*  Interestingly, in addition to this poetic soliloquy, Pablo Neruda was the Chilean poet-diplomat and politician who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971.  The 1994 well-known Italian film, Il Postino, centers on the story of Pablo Neruda, then living in exile near Sicily on Salina Island in the 1950s.  In the movie, he befriends the local postman (we saw his bike on PrĂ³cida, an island near Naples) and through his influence engendered in the postman a love of poetry enough to help the postman woo his love, the local beauty, Beatrice.  If you haven’t seen it already, follow Neruda’s advice - change your ways, break a habit if you must, and if need be, read subtitles.