Black (and Blue and Grey) Sunday

Trip Start Oct 20, 2012
Trip End Nov 02, 2012

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Flag of Italy  , Tuscany,
Sunday, October 28, 2012

Last night, we were sitting by the window, relaxing after a very long and tiring day. A cold front seemed to have settled over the city, and we were passing the time at the window, talking and watching the clouds dart across the full moon behind the Medici Chapel. We got out the camera to capture the scene, and then...tragedy.

Apparently, rain soaked more than the city yesterday. In spite of my precautions, water found its way into the inner workings of my trusty Nikon and poisoned it. After taking it apart, drying out all of the individual pieces, reconstructing it, and repeating the entire process, we had to announce the time of death.

R.I.P. Nikon D40: 2006-2012. We had a good run.

I was too upset to be of much use (read: crying my eyes out), but Violet got on the internet to begin a search for camera stores in Florence. When we went to bed, we had a plan, and when I have a plan, I rest easy. Well, easier. I was still in mourning, after all.

Shortly after setting out in the morning, however, it became apparent that this was going to be a more monumental undertaking than we had originally thought. A few complications:
  • It was Sunday. In Italy, all but the most touristy shops are closed for business. Our options dwindled before our eyes.
  • It was freezing. Or very nearly so. Nothing will lift your spirits like wandering from closed business to closed business when you've already lost feeling in your extremities, right?  Right?!
  • Umm, here's a minor one. How should I put this? WE DON'T SPEAK ITALIAN. OK, I can order two tickets, ask where the bathroom is, say thank you, and pronounce a number of other small conversational things. I was not, however, prepared to discuss camera selections, international tax refunds, or any of the other things that went along with this particular emergency situation. And here is the most important phrase you can learn before a trip to Italy: "Mi scusi, parli Inglese?" I kid you not, it saved our trip.
Long story short, most of the shops who bothered to open on Sunday only sold the 'point and shoot' variety of cameras, and that's not my game. The second one gave us a line on a shop almost at the Ponte Vecchio who is known to sell higher end gear. By the time we hiked to his shop, Bongi, and I espied the gorgeous Nikon and Canon products in the front window, it was all I could do keep myself from crying. And when the very friendly and helpful gentleman inside responded to my inquiry with "Yes, I speak some English; yes, we have the camera you want, and you can purchase it without buying a new lens," it was like being told I had just won the lottery. New camera body (and old lens) in hand, we left the shop a few hundred dollars poorer but a heck of a lot more optimistic. My new-found optimism did not include the weather. I was unwilling to risk my new investment in the rain, and it was still raining plenty, so we hiked back to the hotel to leave all of our equipment safe and dry. 

The photos accompanying today's blog are a mix of scenic river shots I took the day before when we were killing time waiting on our entrance to the Uffizi and photos taken on Violet's iPhone. The quality of the iPhone photos aren't what I would have wanted, but at least we've got something to show for our trek. And it was a trek. To demonstrate just how much walking we did today, look at the satellite image on the left. The red and the blue represent, respectively, the great Nikon search of 2012 and subsequent return to the hotel to stash our goods. The yellow represents our sightseeing path, and finally the green represents the point at which we were too cold to continue, thus making a beeline for the hotel. All told, we walked five miles in the cold and rain. 

Now that all of the morning's business had been seen to, we picked up our tourist business at the Ponte Vecchio, where we crossed the Arno River into the Oltrarno district (literally: beyond the Arno). There's something about this bridge that makes it entirely unique in this city, and it's not just the jewelry shops (yes, only jewelry shops) lining its sides. During WWII, the German forces occupied Firenze for about a year. In 1944, as the Allied forces pushed ever northward, and Florence was on the verge of becoming the next battle ground, the German army began a retreat. To slow the Allied advance, they blew up every bridge across the one. Supposedly Hitler himself gave the order to spare the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge too beautiful to destroy. Who knows if that's accurate, but rather than destroy the bridge and buy themselves even more time, instead the Germans destroyed the buildings at either end of the bridge, resulting in mountains of rubble a few stories high that would need to be removed before the Allied forces could press on. Nowadays, while still pretty, it's pretty much a giant tourist trap--crowded, overpriced, and overly hyped. Traverse it once for the experience and then stick with the other bridges. Call me crazy, but I'm in the "you shouldn't have to queue to cross a bridge" camp.

The first of our tourist destinations today was going to be the Boboli Gardens. Having already walked more than 2.5 miles in freezing drizzle and biting wind and with the threat of stronger rain on the horizon, we scratched that one off our list. Instead, we hooked a left at the foot of the Ponte Vecchio and began our hike up the mountain, home to the monks of San Miniato and the oft-photographed views from the Piazzale Michelangelo. We slowly left the river behind, meandering upwards through narrow medieval streets and alongside 12th century city walls -- take a look at this Google Earth street view for a glimpse. I imagine that on a pretty day, there would be groups of other tourists and locals walking about. As it happened, it turned out to be an almost solitary journey, which certainly made it a little surreal. Apart from the parked cars, it felt like a walk back in time. 

Passing through another medieval city wall, this one via the Porta di San Miniato, we found ourselves at the centuries-old path to the famous monastery atop Monte di Firenze, the mountain of Florence, known as San Miniato al Monte. When I say centuries, I actually mean a millennium. This area is the high point of Florence, and there has been a church on this site since at least the 8th century, although the current one was built about 1000 years ago. It's a fully functional monastery, and I was really looking forward to exploring the building and its grounds, including its incredibly atmospheric cemetery. There was just a little problem, you see.  If you ask Violet, though, she might say it was more like 10,000 problems. I meant it when I said the place we were headed was on a mountain. You know what that means, right? 

Stairs. More stairs. It's called the Viale Galileo. Maybe that's because you climb so many steps you feel like you've climbed into the heavens. Who knows. It was gorgeous, though. Once you leave the last city wall behind, this whole part of Florence is comprised of such lush landscapes and gardens. It's easy to forget you're in a bustling city. We had plenty of opportunities to enjoy the view, what with all of the stopping to catch our breath and all. An hour later (alright, it felt like an hour, but it was probably more like 10 minutes), we reached a plateau, and we could see the Piazzale Michelangelo spreading out ahead of us. At this point, we realized that we were only about halfway up to the monastery. Three guesses as to what happened next...

With that scratched off the list, we turned towards the Piazzale Michelangelo, an overlook created in the 1860's when Florence was the capital of the newly formed country of Italy. Wanting to make their city more grand, they created new roads, new overlooks, and unfortunately, tore down most of the remaining medieval city walls. The piazza features a bronze copy of Michelangelo's David, but we were far more interested in the view. From atop the mount, you can view just about everything worth seeing in this city, from the lush southern gardens around the Belvedere Fortress to the Arno and its bridges and onward to the Duomo rising above the red-tiled sea of rooftops in the distance. On a clear day, I imagine you can see the distant mountains to the north of the city. We soaked up as much of the scenery (also rain) as we could before descending once more into the labyrinthine roads of Oltrarno

You'll be happy to know that art is alive and well in modern Firenze. In this case, though, it's street art, and the artist behind it is a man named Clet Abraham. Walking through the streets on this side of the river, we had seen a couple comical alterations to the city's "Do Not Enter" street signs, which are red and circular with one white bar horizontally across the center. One sign had been altered to suggest a stick figure with his head in the stocks. Another featured a stick figure with a saw, sawing the white bar on the sign in half. These signs, which I would normally tune out as background noise, actually became something we both started to search out, hoping to find new scenes to enjoy. We weren't disappointed, and for your viewing pleasure, let me point you to this website, where someone has posted many of the artist's works. He's become something of a legendary figure in Florence for his nighttime raids, and when asked why he does it, he said he wanted to give another meaning (sometimes religious, sometimes political, sometimes just fun) to the ubiquitous municipal signs that rule our lives. Given that, I doubt he'll ever run out of canvas. Thank goodness.

The stroll down from the overlook was a lot more pleasant than the climb had been, and we very shortly found ourselves back near the Arno River. Gone was the blue (well, blue-ish) water of the previous day. Crossing the Ponte alle Grazie (an ugly 1950's-era bridge), we stopped to take a few more photos and check out how thoroughly brown the river had become overnight. That aside, under rolling storm clouds, the bridge offered a fantastic view of the Lungarni (the roads and paths that line the river like access roads line the interstate), the Ponte Vecchio & Uffizi area, as well as the more bucolic southern side of the Centro Storico. We did our best Clark Griswold at the Grand Canyon impressions -- stood there for a minute, nodded our heads, and then vamoosed (although we clearly lacked a family truckster). Map in hand, we cut through a few more darkened and strangely empty Florentine streets before finding ourselves at our majestic destination: the Basilica di Santa Croce

Don't feel bad if you've never heard of this place. Before we started planning our trip, I certainly hadn't heard of it. Its story is somewhat similar to the Duomo's down the road, being that the present church, which replaced an older structure, was built in the 14th century by many of the same masters. More importantly, though, this place houses the tombs of some of the most noted Italians of history: Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli, Galileo, and Dante. Well, technically not Dante -- his tomb is empty. He was exiled during his lifetime, and when the city forgave him and asked that his remains be returned to his city many hundred years later, the caretakers of his actual grave said: "LOL nice try!" After grabbing a quick bite to eat (and downing some more hot chocolate to stave off the cold-induced numbness in my extremities), we checked our watches and went to find the church's entrance. It was at this point, standing there in the freezing rain, that we discovered our guidebook was incorrect. The church wouldn't open for tours for another hour and a half. There's a time when you are so cold that movement becomes difficult. It was at this juncture that we found ourselves with an important decision: wait around or return to the hotel with all of our fingers and toes safe from frostbite. Ultimately, we had to turn our backs on Santa Croce, meaning I didn't get to see Galileo, and Violet had to forfeit a chance to sneak a touch of Michelangelo's tomb. Stupid weather.
Part of the reason I was so cold was because the "coat" I brought on my trip is a lightweight jacket. Perfectly fine for 50 degrees; as useless as a fart in a jam jar when it's 35 degrees. With the forecast for the remainder of our trip looking increasingly cold, I did what any other woman in my shoes would do...

I bought a leather coat. 

Don't judge me.

Honestly, I'd been tossing around the idea of getting a leather coat as a souvenir, and my eyes had been roving constantly over every leather goods shop we have passed throughout our stay in Firenze. Italy in general is known for its leather, as is Firenze specifically. As I've mentioned before, this city has a very long history with artisans/craftsmen of all schools, and leatherworking is alive and well and among the most important craft being worked today. Pick just about any street; if you find just one leather goods store, I'd be shocked. If you find a dozen or more, that sounds more like it. It's one of the best things about this city--it smells of leather.

Somewhere between Santa Croce and the Uffizi along the Borgo dei Greci lies a simple store, Gruppo Gab. We walked in, started browsing, and a very pleasant woman came out from an alcove towards the back, greeting us with the traditional "Ciao." After ascertaining that our Italian was limited, she switched to well-spoken English, and then proceeded to knock our socks off. Here's the thing: this is a small business. The alcove where she was working? Literally working on leather goods back there (I went and peeked when she was talking to Violet). After a quick discussion, not only did she grab coats from various racks all over the store, but she brought back ones in my exact size. Lady knows her stuff. Among the second handful of coats she picked out for me was the one that would end up making a journey across the ocean. I slipped it on, and it felt as natural as a second skin. Well, I mean, I guess it actually is, but you get the idea. It was just...right. 

By the time we made it back to the hotel, I'm happy to report I retained all of my appendages. A couple of hours sitting by the window, people-watching and reading (and conveniently close to the radiator) were just what we needed.

The other day, I suggested that Italians can't do bad food. I am now forced to recant my statement. Not wishing to walk any further than we had to when our stomachs started grumbling later in the evening, we stopped at a pizza place near the Basilica di San Lorenzo, perhaps a one minute walk from our hotel door. Our laziness was punished with poorly made pizza and crummy service. It was an entirely forgettable meal, and for Italy, that's tragic. 

After the day that we had, though, we slept well (crappy food notwithstanding). 
Lessons learned today:
  • When traveling to another country, it might be useful to look up when they do Daylight Savings Time. Otherwise, you're left with an extra hour to kill in the morning before any place actually opens and a Violet who is upset she missed another hour of sleep. 
  • I still hate pay toilets. 
  • Apparently other people hate pay toilets, too, because we were once again treated to the sight of grown men peeing in public. Is this an Italian thing? A guy thing? Whatever it is, I wish they'd stop. 
  • I'm not sure there's such a thing as too much hot chocolate.
  • Three-wheeled cars are always funny.
  • Good god, this leather coat is fabulous. Why didn't I get one of these things ages ago?!
  • I think I should name my new camera. How does Florence sound? 
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