Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I'll take it!

I'll take Florence any way at all! I will!

An article in the paper suggested that traveling to obvious places (off the hit parade of travel destinations) will perhaps give you nothing more than a glimpse of others doing the same.

It doesn't matter. I can look at Florence through crowds. Or despite crowds. Or with crowds. I'll look at her any way at all. (Disclosure: it is my second most favorite city.)

It's true that I approach Florence differently than I do Paris. With caution and some trepidation. No matter how many times I come here, I don't feel totally at home. Florence is bewitching, austere, pretentiously artsy, crowded, confident. I can take a stab at guessing about a Parisian persona. I have far less intuition about the ways and mores of a Florentine.

I have no doubt that my very favorite trips to this city were in the past, with daughters. From when they were little, to the last time we came here as a family, when they were in their teens, each step was a total delight. We wrote postcards together in the Boboli Gardens, we searched out the very best gelato on the planet (so the claim goes, but I have no argument with it, I went back there today), we ate pasta until it came out of our noses, and there was a thrill when I could point to a Boticelli painting and say -- I had this very picture on a pendant that I wore when I was a teenager like you.

On the other hand, one of my least favorite trips to Florence was the most recent one. With Ed. It was crushing to see that this city meant nothing to him. I didn't see then that our days of coming to Europe together were numbered, but I should have known from our short stay here: he couldn't see Florence through my eyes. It was a cold and wet visit and still, I did not fall out of love with the city. I stayed as loyal to her as I did to the person who found little to rave about here.

Today dawned with a pale mist that hugged the hills as if it couldn't let them go.


But I knew that it would lose the battle. Every forecast said sunshine and so I took this morning display to be merely a tease.


And even as I began my hour walk to Rignano sull'Arno, I saw the beginning of what would be the most glorious (weatherwise) day of my trip, I'm sure.


The train ride is a scant 40 minutes, but I doze off nonetheless. The predawn posting had sucked some hours of sleep out of me. I make up some of it coming into Florence.

Now, do not expect me to photograph the Real Florence for you. As I said, I don't even know what the Real Florence is. Even in my travels here in winter, when it's bleak and quite empty, I couldn't really see much beyond the stone facades.

So all I can give you now is my day in Florence, on this most beautiful, brilliant, exquisite September day.  That's all. Nothing more than that.

Follow along, okay?

The Florence train station is always so crowded that you want to be out of there very quickly. Easy. I'm out. And it is just a short walk to the heart of the city. Within seven minutes, you can see this:


Even as I am looking more for this:


Or something like it. Breakfast! I haven't had breakfast!

I'm going to be fussy now. I want the perfect coffee experience. With the perfect Italian croissant (which inevitably will be filled with apricot jam and that's okay!).

I get it right here, at Paszkowski's. (This place is 150 years old, though it used to be a brewery before morphing into a bakery and cafe.)


And this is actually a good way to rub shoulders with Florentine people: eat standing, at the counter. Tourists always want to sit down and idle away the time. Who can blame them -- they've been on their feet, they need the pause. Me, I don't need the pause. I'm with these guys.


Alright. I'm feeling more bouncy after that coffee. And playful. You'll see a bunch of selfies from this day. Like immediately after leaving Paszkowski's.



And now I am about to enter bedlam itself: THE most crowded public space of all -- the Piazza della Signoria. I mean, it's crazy crowded! But I don't mind! I'm rather amused and touched by the resilience of travelers -- following their guides, waiting in line to get into museums and churches, listening, looking, learning.


(I loved this group from a Scandinavian country, though I'm not sure which one. Neptune standing tall behind them must think it to be quite the show of legs!)


Here's a secret (perhaps not that much of a secret) about tourist crowds: they are like rats in Brooklyn. They keep to their designated trails. And so one minute you'll be in the thick of it, with barely room to crack your knuckles, but then, step off their trail (and it's pretty much the same trail for all) and you are faced with sanity. Streets, suddenly looking quite normal.  

And here's another wonderful truth about Florence: most of the center is, by now, closed to city traffic. That's a huge change for the better. Sure, there'll be the privileged taxi or the delivery van, but it's lovely without the roar of buses and the impatient snarl of drivers.

I walk along the Via dei Neri -- which is where you want to go to if you are in need of a food fix. I can't say that I need that ice cream at the Gelateria dei Neri, but I surely do want it. I have a flavor that I love and cannot easily get on the other side of the ocean -- frutti di bosco (fruits of the forest -- the red and blue family of fruits). Here I remembered a commenter's words about a son taking a selfie with gelato in Italy. Given the mirror in the store, I thought it would be fun to play with that idea as well.




Alright, time to cross the Arno to what is in fact my favorite part of the city: the lesser bank. Well, actually it's called the Altarno or the south bank, but it's less frequented by visitors. It's very easy to find quiet spots here.


I want to look for a lunch place. Again, this will be my meal for the day, so I want to make it count. I walk from one spot to the next -- all evening eateries.  I pause in my search, because I see a sweet and somewhat funkier leather goods store. It has what I need -- a change purse. I had been wondering why I never seem to have any coins in mine, until someone at the cafe where I had a cappuccino pointed out that mine was leaking money. It had come unglued and un-stitched. Time to get a replacement. And as I pay for this new little thing, I think -- this woman behind the counter appears so on top of things, surely she'll recommend a good lunch meal. She does. Her choice place is the Trattoria 4 Leoni.  Just down the block and around the corner. Here, in this quiet, simple square.


I ask if they'll have a table for me in an hour.
Oh no, definitely outside!
Well... okay! Come at 2.
I will!
Oh, alright, come before 2.

It's a very genial place. I can't say it's totally for the locals. I can't say that anything here right now is totally for the locals, but this place surely has a nice, small menu and a very welcoming vibe. I'm delighted to book the table.

I have an hour before that. Where to?  No, not museums for me today. No churches, no sights at all. That was yesterday. Today, I'm heading for the Boboli Gardens.

But wait, what is this? Closed? because of the storm on September 19th? What storm? I am so clueless when I travel. Oh, I read my paper, from across the ocean, but I don't really follow local news. Only later, back at the olive farm, I read about this most damaging hail storm that hit Tuscany the day before I arrived.

Somewhat chastened, I walk a bit of this south bank...


...and I cross back over to the right bank too, in search of a Prosciutteria that I'd recently read about; yes, it sells prosciutto, but it also makes and sells sandwiches. I consider buying one for evening supper, though in the end, the spinach focaccia wins. It's not hard to find good food here!


I walk the blocks of this beautiful city without any greater plan. I pause at an infant clothing store and go inside, thinking that perhaps I should learn what Italians call appropriate infant wear. The sales clerk shows me this outfit and that outfit and I think she will never stop producing things for me to look at, but no -- in a few minutes she sniffs her nose and says -- oregano.
Whaaat? I'm puzzled.
Oregano. Don't you smell it? 
I sniff. She is right.
My nose is sensitive when I am hungry! She says. It's time for my lunch.

It's time for my lunch as well. I stroll back to the 4 Leoni. Again I start with a salad. A very excellent one, benefiting, too, from the glorious eating venue and from the deeply blue heavens above.


Following this, after much deliberation, contemplation and tribulation, I pick a pasta dish: little pockets stuffed with bits of pear and cheese, in a heavenly cheese sauce, with added bits of asparagus. With a star at the side of the menu, explaining that it is their house specialty.

And my goodness, is it good!


That's a taste that will stay with me for a long time.

I sit back and look out on the small square. I have to smile now: I have convinced myself that I can't spot a Florentine in a sea of people, but here I have two benches, nearly next to each other and even though on the right one, the couple is sipping the telltale Aperol Spritz (now where did that come from??), I can tell they're Americans. Can you? (It's the shoes.)


And the people on the bench to the left-- surely Florentine, no?


I beg off dessert. It's time for me to slowly head back to the station. Clear blue skies notwithstanding.


And today I have a fabulous return plan: since I knew I would be taking a later train back, I thought I'd chance knocking on the door of the olive farm caretakers and to ask for a lift back from the station. It'll save me 55 uphill minutes and it's just a wee drive for him. Being an agreeable sort, he tells me he'll be there to meet the train.

And so I am back at the farm just after 5 and though it surely is not hot (at most mid seventies), I feel warm enough to go swimming. Impossible to resist!


Tomorrow may well be the one rainy day of the trip. There have been threats here and there but, up to now, I have had no need for an umbrella. It seems right to go to  the city again, don't you think? Tomorrow. I'll decide when I lift the shade and look out at the morning hills.