Florence Needs Italians
Here it comes! The granddaddy of ‘em all! Florence! Italian nirvana! The greatest place on Earth! I had been waiting to see Florence since 1994 and now I was finally here!
Well it will probably come to no surprise to you that with the colossal expectations I had for Florence that I suffered a smidgen of a letdown. No wait, a frickin’ huge smidgen of a letdown. I am sorry to report that Florence is not the greatest place on Earth. I’m not even sure if it’s the greatest place in central Italy. Florence is so over-run with tourists, even in November, that you hear more conversations on the street conducted in English than in Italian. In fact, the people on the street who do not have a camera dangling from some part of their bodies are in the pathetic minority. In fact, I am getting really tired of having to use the phrases “in fact” and “even in November,” nine times for each city in Italy. Let’s just establish a given from here on out that everywhere I go and everything that I do while I’m in Italy will include an extraordinarily intolerable horde of tourists and tourist-related aggravation considering the time of year, OK? Good.
Due to the train schedule posted in the Riomaggiore train station having only a passing resemblance to the actual train schedule, it took me nearly all day to get to nearby Florence. Lonely Planet and about 15 fellow backpackers were adamant that I stay at the Archi Rossi hostel, near the train station. After five months on the road, the words “near the train station” were more exciting for me than the words “Salma Hayak is here to see you,” so I headed straight for Archi Rossi upon arrival.
Archi Rossi was a frustrating study in duality. The rooms were great, but the German desk clerk guy, who if I had to guess, worked about 14 hours a day as he was always there, was easily the rudest, asshole hostel employee I have ever dealt with, which was a remarkable distinction when you factor in that I had just come from France. The beds were very comfortable but the classic European toilet tank, which was mounted about six feet up the wall, didn’t have a lid, so if you dawdled at the sink long enough after a flush, the thing would give you a free baptism. The breakfast was huge and satisfying, but in order to get it served to you, one needed to jump through more hoops and ask more favors than is required to get a law passed by U.S. Congress. There was free internet, but there were only three terminals servicing about 80 people that only worked for about 20 minutes out of every hour and when/if they were up and running, one had to wait in line for half the afternoon and then deal with a download speed that could have tested the patience of Job. One minute I loved the place, the next I was muttering curse words and fantasizing about grabbing the ears of the dickhead desk clerk and smashing his forehead into the counter.
After negotiating the painful bureaucracy required to get breakfast at Archi Rossi, I proceeded immediately to Florence’s impressive, dimly lit Duomo to do a field test with my new, mini-tripod which I hoped would help with my long standing, non-flash, long exposure photography problem that had plagued me through most of Europe. It worked like a dream. Not only was I able to take crystal clear pictures in low light, but the novelty of being able to fold the tripod down to the size of a fat pen and slide it into my pocket massaged my climaxing geek ego into a thick, giddy lather.
If you’re a sucker for up-high, panoramic photos of cities, the climb to the peak of the Duomo’s dome is worth the six euro ticket and the water weight you’ll lose during the climb. From the floor of the Duomo, it looked to be about five stories to the top, but that was just the funky optical illusion of the dome playing tricks on me. It was actually closer to 15 stories of cramped, steep steps built back when the average Italian was about 4′-11″ and 90 lbs, so even someone of my modest bulk (5′-9″ 150 lbs. if you must know) had trouble squeezing through the labyrinth of stairways. The climb was grueling. People were dropping like flies all the way up. Every floor had a tiny alcove that was just barely wide enough for one person to stand and rest while another scootched by, assuming that they weren’t both Americans Rube Tourists, then of course their combined girth made overtaking impossible. Every alcove had panting, beet red, profusely sweating people who, judging from the way they looked, you would have thought they had just sprinted full speed into town from Rome. I couldn’t mock these people too much, I was also sweating like a horse in a glue factory, but that was mostly due to the fact that I was wearing a jacket and it definitely was not jacket weather in the musty stairway.
Being a very old city, the rooftops in Florence stand at a fairly uniform height of five stories, making the Duomo’s dome one of the highest spots in all of central Florence. The homogeneous level, color and style of Florence’s skyline, while not breathtaking, is still pleasing to observe. I tried to cool myself down while I took countless pictures of the cityscape and then just stood and stared off into the distance for a long time. Looking out past the rooftops, I saw a plume of smoke, presumably from a controlled brush fire, rising up from the forest across the Arno River and beyond I could see the Pitti Palace at the top of the hill. The view transported me back about 500 years and kept me daydreaming for about 20 minutes before the number of people jostling me to pose for pictures became unbearable, so I slowly climbed back down to street level.
I headed for the river as I inhaled the first of three cups of gelato for the day to see Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge to survive bombing in World War II. Florence decided to immortalize the sight by lining both sides of the bridge with high priced, Rube Tourist jewelry shops. Yay. On the other side of the river I found and photographed the dullest looking church in all of Europe, Saint Spirito. For once I could honestly say that a European church was truly boring without worry that I was just being a spoiled church snob.
The next day was warm and rain-free, so I spent another four hours walking through the streets, trying to find the magic of Florence that everyone had been babbling about. I checked out the fantastically ornate battistero (baptistery) which has the distinction of being the oldest building in the very old city of Florence with its legendary gilded bronze door. Work on the battistero began in the 5th century and it was where Dante was baptized. Despite being directly across the plaza from the Duomo, I hadn’t noticed the building the day before simply because the Duomo is so much larger and eye-catching that taking note of the relatively tiny battistro when faced with the Duomo is like noticing your dentist standing next to Tom Cruise. After staring for a respectful amount of time at the battistero, I sought out and photographed Santa Croce church, which appeared to be designed by the same guy who did the Duomo, except that in this case he seemed to have phoned it in from the Italian Riviera because Santa Croce was only about a third as ornate. The gypsy begging around Santa Croce was intolerable, so I quickly left, crossed the river and gave my best effort to get up to the Pitti Palace, but after running into two locked and chained gates, I gave up.
I finally had little choice other than to wobble over to the Galleria del’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s “David.” This may sound ludicrous and deranged, but after nearly six months of European travel, with all the cathedrals, churches, art, architecture and culture, I was about as enthused to traipse around another art gallery, no matter how vast and impressive, as I was to eat a live frog with mange, but I felt that I had to make an exception for “David.” He was, after all, the most famous sculpture in the western world and if I were him I’d be pissed if people passed up an opportunity to see me in order to sit to their hostel to watch “Speed II” in the dinning room.
The Fake David
The Accademia has the most difficult to find entrance of any art gallery in Europe. In the absence of an obvious front door, I circled the entire building, tried to enter through the architecture school, then through the gallery exit before I finally found an unmarked side door that looked totally uninviting, but I went through anyway and found myself in the gift shop. I read through the Accademia’s lengthy list of exhibits and promptly had a debilitating attack of the Louvre Effect. My legs went weak, my eyes heavy and my stomach started groaning. There was no way that I was going to get 6.50 euros worth of enjoyment out of that place before I slipped into a coma. I walked back out knowing that I would probably slap myself in five years for frittering away my chance at seeing “David,” but my body and mind simply were not going to cooperate. Besides, I had seen and photographed the copy of “David” that’s situated outside the Palazzo Vecchio and if I ever wanted to lie, I could crop the shit out of the photo, spruce it up with Photoshop and tell people it was the real thing.
I had initially anticipated that Florence would need a minimum of three days, but after two I was ready to move on. Florence is a nice city, if you can look past the tourist infestation (God help you June through September), but it certainly was not the first and last word in Italian cities as advertised, particularly after I had just come a whisker away from abandoning my tour plans, and indeed the rest of my life, to settle in beautiful Verona. Approach it with an open, clear mind and god-like crowd tolerance and you should find more than enough to make your stop enjoyable.