Eurotrip 2011: Florence and Pisa

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, a.k.a. the Duomo.

While I was in Florence, the dominant thought in my mind was that I was glad to be there. However, there was also a voice telling me how stupid I was to have spent ten nights in Rome and only six in Florence, which I like better.

Every corner of Rome seems to be covered with a tourist sheen, while Florence feels more like a normal city that has a few tourist hotspots. It’s smaller, more intimate, and more peaceful than Rome. Sometimes when you turn onto a street in Florence you are the only person in sight, which never happened to me in Rome. Also, many Florentines ride their bikes to get around, which helps create a friendly atmosphere, although the people there still drive like sociopaths.

Florence isn’t as agonizingly expensive as Rome, but it’s still much worse than Athens and Istanbul. I miss being able to buy an overflowing kebab pita for 1.5 euros. In Florence, I started the habit of buying a large Moretti beer every night for only 1.30 euros from a little convenience store near the Duomo and drinking it on one of the bridges.

I enjoyed my hostel in Florence much more than the one in Rome. I stayed at the Sette Santi hostel, which is in a quiet neighborhood about a 25-minute walk from the center of Florence. It used to be a convent, and it’s still next to a church, the ringing bells of which were one of the few annoyances I had to put up with there. Unlike my hostel in Rome, it was quiet and spacious, with the wide, echoing hallways you would expect in a convent, and enough showers so that some were always free. There was a nice hang-out area outside with plenty of seats and picnic tables. The walk to the city was annoying when I had to do it multiple times a day, but that was due to my own poor planning.

My only major complaint is that there wasn’t a kitchen. In Italy, where it’s hard to find a meal for less than 7 euros, a kitchen is a big plus.

Most of the guests at the hostel were American college students traveling around Europe during a break from their study abroad programs. I hate to criticize my fellow countrymen, but I did not enjoy having so many Americans around. They have a super-cheerful attitude that is somehow offensive to a long-term traveler like me. They tend to arrive in groups, so they have little interest in making new friends at the hostel.

A building in Florence.

One of my favorite things about Florence is that it has its own style of architecture. I noticed a few common characteristics in buildings in Florence. Many old buildings have detailed images painted on the outside, something I haven’t seen anywhere else in Italy. I also saw many buildings that had a distinctive contrast between white walls and dark grey stone that looks like clay that hasn’t dried yet. Many of the buildings of the famous Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi have that look, including the inside of the Duomo and the Santo Spirito cathedrals.

The inside of the Duomo.

Paintings inside a church in Florence from an early Renaissance painter.

I prefer the cathedrals in Florence to those in Rome because they are less ornate inside, which makes them feel more spiritual to me. They give the impression of having been built by a community instead of by the Catholic Church. They have a subtle but unique style, which paintings and sculptures from local artists. The exteriors of the churches often have the red and green stripe style seen on the Duomo.

I made a point of seeing Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel because I remembered my history professor giving a lecture about it in college, describing how Brunelleschi tried to give it ideal classical proportions. I thought it was a beautiful, creative little church, and there weren’t many tourists there, which was a bonus.

The Pazzi Chapel.

Another Florence landmark with the wet-stone style is the Laurentian library, designed by Michelangelo for the Medici family. On the outsides of the benches you can see in the photograph are lists of the manuscripts that used to be chained to them. The entrance to the library is a famous staircase that looks like stone oozing out the door. My visit to the library was a nice break from an itinerary consisting almost entirely of churches. It was nice to see a brilliant Renaissance design used solely in the service of knowledge, like the pope’s study in the Vatican museum (one of the Raphael rooms).

The Laurentian library.

Michelangelos famous staircase.

On Wednesday I took a train to Pisa with Dhika, an Indonesian girl from my hostel. The train only took an hour, and it was free with my Eurail pass. I got to check the Leaning Tower off my list of “famous sights I haven’t seen.” The community of Pisa surely appreciates the tourist dollars the tower brings in now, but it must have been embarrassing for them when it started tilting over centuries ago. It doesn’t look good when the tallest building in your city looks like it’s about to fall over.

I liked the parts of Pisa you don’t see painted on the walls of pizza restaurants. The cathedral next to the tower was the first Romanesque-style one I’ve seen. The city itself was like Florence except even more peaceful. It had the Italian beauty without the obnoxious motorbikes. There were almost no tourists outside the cathedral area. It was cheap, also, which led us to get a meal in a restaurant – the first time I’d been waited on since Istanbul.

Pisas tower and cathedral.

Pisas riverfront.

On Thursday I made the mandatory trips to the Uffizi and Academia art galleries. I happened to arrive in Florence during “culture week”, when all the museums were free. The Uffizi gallery helps you appreciate how much art changed during the Renaissance. From the early 1300s to the 1400s, it seems to me, art in Florence went from conservative Byzantine-style mosaics to idiosyncratic works by artists like Botticelli, beautiful in unique ways and covering diverse subjects. In the Uffizi gallery, you can see this happening when you walk from one room to the next. It’s worth the two-hour wait.

Thursday evening, Dhika gave me a McDonald’s hamburger when she returned to the hostel. I pledged not to eat fast food on my trip, but I ate it anyway because I’m not one to turn down free food. McDonald’s tastes the same everywhere, and I won’t pretend I don’t like that familiar taste. Today I took a train from Florence to Interlaken, Switzerland, and during my layover in Milan, the cheapest lunch option by far was McDonald’s, so I got a double cheeseburger there. Hopefully, it will be my last.

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 2

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey To Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Eurotrip 2011: Rome pt. 2

I had a conversation with a guy at my hostel about people who ponder for a long time at historical sights. He thought these people are “full of shit.” Although he enjoys going to historical sights and recognizes the significance of them, he sees no reason to spend a long time thinking about them, and he thinks that people who do so are being pretentious.

I used to believe that, but now I think that it requires a lot of mental effort to take in historical sights the right way. When looking at a centuries-old structure, our instinct – or mine, at least – is to think “that’s cool” or “that’s pretty.” We admire the craftmanship, then we get bored and want to move on. It takes more thought to realize that what we’re looking at once meant a lot to people, and to figure out how.

When I went inside the Coliseum six years ago, I admired the magnificence of it for a few minutes before I got bored and wanted to leave. When I visited it last Wednesday, I forced myself to consider that it was the site of millions of human experiences over centuries – experiences that ranged from that of a Roman senator and his family enjoying good food and entertainment in reserved seats in the front row, to that of a criminal whose last moments of life were spent being attacked by an exotic animal in front of a bloodthirsty crowd of forty thousand people. I wondered what people were thinking when they walked into such a beautiful, perfectly-proportioned building to watch people and animals die.

The inside of the Coliseum.

Wednesday was my “ancient Rome” day. After going to the Coliseum, I went to the Roman Forum and the Palatine Hill. Unfortunately, so little remains of the buildings that it’s hard to imagine what they originally looked like. I just got a sense of an area that was neglected and pilfered for a thousand years. I would like to think that the fact that the forum area was not built over, at least, means that medieval Romans showed it some respect, but it seems more likely that it was too difficult to remove the ruins so that new buildings could be put there.

One building in the forum is still intact, however – the Roman senate building, which was converted to a church after the empire fell.

The forum, with the Roman senate building in the center.

The only other ancient building in Rome that is still in use – the Pantheon – also survived because it was converted into a church. It makes you wish there had been a greater need for churches in the dark ages so that more of the Roman buildings could be saved. Of all the ancient Roman buildings I’ve seen, the Pantheon is the best reminder of the brilliance of Roman engineering. It still holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome, although its almost two thousand years old. The dome is so large that it was visible in Rome’s skyline from every viewpoint I visited – an honor shared by only a few other churches and the reviled Monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II (popularly called the “wedding cake building”) that you can see jostling its way into the picture above. I sat down inside for a while to watch the sunshine from the oculus at the top of the dome make its progress across the ceiling.

The inside of the Pantheon.

After consulting the Wikitravel article on Rome, I decided to visit all of the four basilicas that pilgrims to Rome were expected to visit – St. Peter’s (which I had already visited), San Giovanni, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. They were all as spectacular as you would expect major churches in Rome to be. My favorite of them was St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, which was originally founded by the emperor Constantine over the burial place of St. Paul. It has a beautiful facade with a colorful mosaic, surrounded by a courtyard. It’s on the outskirts of Rome, so there aren’t as many tourists inside.

St. Paul's Outside the Walls

On Friday I took a train to Ostia Antica, which was once the port of Ancient Rome, but is now over a mile from the shore due to silt  from the Tiber building up over the centuries. Ostia is astonishingly well-preserved for an ancient city that wasn’t buried in ashes. Some of the buildings have exteriors that are fully preserved, making it easier to imagine what the town was once like. I spent an hour reading at the town’s theater, where high schoolers from various countries were goofing around.

An ancient apartment building in Ostia.

An ancient restaurant with a visual menu.

The ancient theater in Ostia.

By the time I left Ostia, I was tired of wandering around ancient ruins and imagining what they originally looked like. I was also tired of visiting churches. I thought I was giving myself a big treat when I booked ten nights at a hostel in Rome, but by the seventh or eighth day there I wished I could move on. The density of historical sites in Rome makes it one of the greatest cities in the world, but also makes it crowded and touristy. I missed the feeling I got in Istanbul, Athens, and Palermo, of being a guest in the city, instead of being just one of a horde of tourists, as I felt in Rome.

I also didn’t like my hostel much. It was obnoxiously crowded and loud, especially on weekends, and you had to leave from 11-5 every day so they could clean. These characteristics made it hard for me to make close friends like I did in other hostels. It also seemed to attract a different crowd from the other hostels I’ve stayed in. The guests weren’t the backpacker type; more the American college student studying abroad taking a quick trip around Europe and partying it up type.

I spent my last day in Rome reading in the Villa Borghese park. The day I left, I got up really early to go to St. Peter’s before it got crowded. Then, I went to the train station and boarded a train for Florence.

Eurotrip 2011:  Rome Pt. 1

Eurotrip 2011:  Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  The Journey to Palermo

Eurotrip 2011:  Santorini and Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Athens

Eurotrip 2011:  Istanbul

Italian Journal, Day 7

A view from the Ponte Vecchio

A view from the Ponte Vecchio

June 15, 2003:

Kish and I got up early today to do some laundry. We walked to a nearby laundromat, managed to decipher the signs, and then sat there watching the international version of MTV with equal amounts of astonishment and disgust. The female singers featured on MTV all seem to have taken dancing lessons from strippers, and there’s not much mystery about what the singers are thinking about. We were grateful when the drying cycle ended and we could pack up and leave.

When Kish and I got back to the hotel, the kids weren’t ready to go yet, so I ventured off on my own for another look at the “Gates of Paradise” at the Duomo and then a quick walk to some of the other sites. The “Gates of Paradise” are a remarkable work, in part because they deal with the familiar and disturbing stories of the Book of Genesis — the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Cain Slaying Abel, Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, etc.

I then learned that one of the principal museums in Florence was closed (it closes on irregular Sundays, and this was one of them), so I walked to Santa Croce. It was only partially open — you could walk into the entrance area and look around, but that was about it. My brief visit was worth it, if only to see the tombs of Michelangelo and Galileo. The church itself is a pretty affair with a large and ornate stained glass window at the opposite end. (Interestingly, I returned to Santa Croce later in the day for a closer look and couldn’t get in because I had no Euros and the church actually charged an entrance fee. This is the second or third church to charge an entrance fee, which I find astonishing. The kids think this is no big deal, but I am amazed that a house of worship would not be free and open to all.)

I then walked back to the Duomo, which also was closed due to Sunday services. However, you could go in through a side entrance to enjoy the service, which I did. I stayed for only a short listen to the service, because I needed to get back to Kish and the boys, but it was long enough to appreciate the effect of the Duomo dome on the music. The voices were clear as they were raised in song on the floor, but then rose in the air to become mixed and churned in a kind of musical melange. It was quite striking.

After my return to our hotel, Kish and the boys and I struck out for lunch and an afternoon of touring. We could not find many open restaurants, so we ate at a tourist trap next to the Duomo where we got gouged for a mediocre meal. There is no question but that our most expensive and least satisfying meals have been lunches at or near large tourist locations.

The Uffizi was a different story. After a relatively long wait (50 minutes or so) in sweltering heat, we finally entered the door of what must be one of the world’s greatest art galleries. Some of the rooms were closed, but we were able to see the Botticellis, da Vincis, a Michelangelo, Rembrandts, an El Greco, a de Goya, and countless other works. The effect is overwhelming, and the museum is well organized, so that you can follow the trend in art from religious icons to a broader perspective that includes classical imagery (like representations of stories from Greek mythology) and then finally to the broader world at large. The classical masterpieces are fine, although the constant repetition of themes gets a bit wearing. I much prefer the portraits, including the dozens of portraits of kings, Popes, explorers, sultans, and other notables that line the gallery walls. Kish and the boys don’t have much patience for this kind of museum visit, but I appreciated their perseverance on this occasion.

After we exited the Uffizi we headed to the Ponte Vecchio. It was again insufferably hot. We had some ice cream and granulata then headed back to the hotel. I left for a tour of piazzas near the Uffizi gallery, which feature all kinds of interesting sculpture, students sketching, sweaty tourists, and other people-watching opportunities. It was particularly interesting to see the statues of notable Italians in the Uffizi courtyard — including Dante, Michelangelo, da Vinci, Boccaccio, Galileo, and others. No one can deny Italy — in its ancient Roman days or its Renaissance incarnation — its rightful place in the pantheon of cultures that have made an enormous contribution to the betterment of the human condition and civilization in general.

This leads one to wonder about what happens to civilizations and nations — why they lose their leading role and then are consigned to living off their past glories. In ny view, Florence seems to be in that category — more concerned with preserving and marketing its past than with moving forward into the future. This has caused it to make decisions that seem kind of cheap and tawdry — like allowing a large, open-air market that sells t-shirts, leather jackets and other paraphernalia that appears to be a sop to the tourist trade. I enjoyed this visit to Florence, but I’m also looking forward to Venice.

Our dinner was very good on both nights in Florence, by the way. In acknowledging the contribution that Italy has made to the world, we can’t overlook Italian cuisine and Italian wine.

Italian Journal, Day 6

In the walled city of San Gimighiano

In the walled city of San Gimighiano

June 14, 2003:

Today we drove from Siena to Florence, with a stop in San Gimighiano.

I liked the hotel in Siena very much. Our room was cool — finally! — and we enjoyed a fine breakfast in a garden area behind the hotel, with a lovely view of the surrounding countryside. What a change to be sitting in cool shade in a beautiful garden, rather than in a sweaty breakfast room, as in Rome! It made for a much more enjoyable breakfast.

After squeezing our Opel out of its parking spot — where we had been pinned in by other cars — we drove to San Gimighiano. It is an interesting little town, apparently little changed from the Middle Ages, where it was a stop on the pilgrimage route to Rome. All of that ended with the Great Plague of 1348, and the town became frozen in time.

San Gimighiano was noteworthy from our standpoint for the Medieval Torture Museum, which was fascinating but very disturbing. The endless creativity that the people of the Middle Ages expended in inflicting pain and humiliation in order to extract “confessions” boggles the mind. I think the parade of the rack, the Iron Maiden, the gibbet, flaying the wheel, the stocks, the dunking chair, all made an impression on the boys. Is capital punishment in America really so different?

We left San Gimighiano and drove to Florence, which was a bit hairy. Driving into a large city with a different language and no real idea about where you are going is an adventure. However, Kish did a great job and we found our hotel without too much trouble.

We then headed out into Florence. Our first stop was the Duomo, which is another incredibly large, impressive cathedral. It took more than 100 years to build, and features dozens of busts, statues, frescoes, paintings, etc. What motivated these towns to spend their time and treasure on raising these ornate places of worship? Why churches, and not universities, or hospitals, or public baths?

We then walked to the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David. What an awesome sight that is! After seeing a room of the traditional, Byzantine-influenced Madonna and Child paintings, we suddenly come into a long room with the gigantic David at one end. The room is lined with unfinished Michelangelo sculptures, and then capped at one end by David itself — head somewhat outsized, broken arm and toes, doused with wax, but still glorious and extraordinary. Michelangelo and da Vinci are, of course, the icons of the Renaissance, but sometimes we take them for granted. What caused the explosion of creativity that took art from the rigid Madonna and Child to the realism of David, the Mona Lisa, and the Sistine Chapel? What would da Vinci or Michelangelo have accomplished if they were born into the modern world, well educated, and given the kind of opportunity that Americans now take for granted?

After seeing David the boys and I walked around before returning to our hotel. It is a fine hotel, near the Duomo, in a university section. We had a good dinner at a nearby restaurant, and after dinner walked to the Ponte Vecchio on the Arno. As we approached our hotel, a live band began playing, and I forced us to stop and listen to a song. What a thrill to hear live music in a Firenze square!

As we get ready to turn in for the night, our attention is focused on getting ready to do laundry tomorrow morning. From the ecstasy of the Duomo and David to the dull reality of laundry — such are the highs and lows of travel.