Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Farewell to Florence

We spent a month in Florence, and I could write more. But I need to move on.  Here are just a few photos of experiences I didn't have an opportunity to discuss.

Like this photo of the day we got to see the workshop for the Duomo, where they repair artwork, as they have for centuries.

The light levels were low on this visit to the Pitti Palace, so it's not as clear as I would like, but I think you can sense the grandeur.

Kevin visited their porcelain museum too, and we both explored a special exhibit at one of the Pitti museums on crystals.  The photos don't do them justice. 

We entered through a black curtain, and there they were:

Some of them were huge! As much as two-to-three feet in diameter and height! They were better than crown jewels.

Then, there were other reasons we enjoyed Florence, such as the small museums. Casa Guidi, for example, seemed like a secret museum, because although it was open, there was no sign at the entrance, only an intercom button marked "Casa Guidi."  When we pressed the button, the guide told us to "Come up to floor 1," but although he opened the door, we could not get through the gated stairway until eventually another of the buildings tenant's unlocked the gate.

Upstairs at last, we were greeted at the door and ushered into the apartment where Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning once lived during their 15 years in Florence. Many of their personal belongings are still there. Today, the Browning Foundation and the Landmark Trust of Britain manage the museum. Entry is free, so we had to pay our respects to the poet who wrote, "How do I love thee?"

The Landmark Trust rents out the apartment, and because there was no one else there at the time, and because we expressed an interest, the caretaker showed us the kitchen and other rooms that are included in the rental. If you rent it, you can choose to let visitors see E.B.B.'s bedroom, or to keep it for yourself. (But because the apartment is only available for viewing three afternoons a week, it would seem somewhat peevish to keep it yourself, wouldn't it?)

There is so much more I could say.  But I think you now have an idea of why our month in Florence means so much to us.

Ah, Florence, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways...

Next up: Rome, Sorrento and Capri, and the Amalfi Coast. 

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Our Flying Toaster (and more)

I love the toaster in our Florence apartment! If you're old enough it may remind you of the old flying toasters screensaver from back in the day.  (Take a look here.)

It's very handy too. Lift up on the little wings, and the toast easily comes out, without tongs or burned fingers.

Ah, Italian design!

I can't say quite as much for our elevator, though it is ingenious. I thought the elevator we had at our apartment in Paris last year was small until I saw the one in Florence, It wasn't big enough to swing a cat in, as you can see.

Note: No animals were harmed in the making of this photo.

No worries! That's actually a grocery bag, not a cat.
And I do like the elevator. If you live in a medieval building, you're lucky to have an elevator at all--and this one saved my dodgy knee.

Note: If you viewed the photos of San Gimignano earlier, I have changed some, if you care to look again. I couldn't find the ones I had selected when I first wrote the post. My apologies.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Return to San Gimignano

The intriguing little town of San Gimignano lies inside these walls.

San Gimignano is one of our favorite Tuscan hill towns. When we last visited there in the 1990s, we bought a painting of the town showing it from a distant hill, its towers gleaming in the sun. It's been displayed in our entry hall for several years.

When we returned to San Gimignano this time, we looked for the artist's shop. But sadly, it's no longer there. Even the shop where we bought the Deruta bowls that we display in our kitchen is no longer to be found. I suppose that's typical of tourist towns. 

Make no mistake about it, San Gimignano is a tourist town! But it's one of those tourist towns you can't help but like--even if every other shop has a stuffed wild boar in front adorned with a scarf or hat. Wild boar sausage and truffles are big items there.

San Gimignano is known for its well-preserved medieval towers. A pedestrian-only village, it's a delight just to walk about its streets and narrow passageways.

Kevin searching for the artist's shop where we bought our painting.
The last time we were there, we came upon a harp concert in a courtyard, but I wasn't sure exactly where it was.

This time, I heard a recording of Loreena Mckennitt's Mask and Mirror emanating from a house nearby as I looked out a window over the valley. It was the perfect accompaniment to the view.

Later, we had a long chat with a British man and his wife while we were waiting for the bus.  He reminded me a little of the actor Bill Nighy, but "Bill" and his wife were staying just down the hill from San Gimignano, so Kevin and I were left with only our own company on the long ride home. We're used to that by now!

Still, I left San Gimignano a little sad, for I have warm memories of our previous visit with friends. Today, they live far apart with very different lives. Things change. It's the nature of life. I still enjoyed San Gimignano, but I wondered if I will see it again. Or will it too only become a faded memory?

The Passeggiata

Not the best illustration of the passeggiata, but a view from a cafe near Santa Maria Novella.

Nearly every Italian town takes an evening passeggiata (or "walk"), where people of all ages congregate in the streets and piazzas.

I first began to think about the passeggiata while Kevin and I were in Verona. We were sitting at an outdoor cafe table sipping that wonderful Italian liquer, limoncello.  Sweet, but also tart with lemon, it is the perfect drink for generating a nostalgic mood.

Once, I would have wanted nothing more than to be part of that evening tradition, strolling the pedestrian ways, listening to the fountains and musical interludes of street musicians. But now, I just observe.

I see the young mom, pushing a stroller, proud of her little one and pleased with her husband, as she looks up at him by her side.

I see the older teenage girls--the ones who know they are pretty, who move and toss their hair in a casual, but practiced way. And I see the pre-teen girls who do not yet know they are attractive, and who sometimes move awkwardly, but who, in their coltish ways, are often much more beautiful than their older sisters. And I see the plain girls and hope, at some point soon, they learn that being kind brings its own loveliness, and that they too can join in the dance.

I see the grandmothers who move slowly, making their way down the alleys with their canes, smiling at both the young ones and their own middle-aged children.

Watching this river of humanity, I feel I know them. For I understand the look of the young mother and the anxiety of the awkward teen. I am close enough to the elderly woman to have a hint of what she also must have in her heart. That's because now I know something I didn't know before. I have realized I do not have to be out there moving in the throng. I can simply watch. I know that long after my seat at the cafe is empty, the passeggiata will go on. Seasons will come, and seasons will go, and other people will be sitting here.  But there is comfort in that thought. It is enough.

Note: Of course, there were men taking part in the passeggiata as well, and I wouldn't want anyone to think I excluded them from my concern. But as a female, I certainly understand girls and women much better, and that's why I focused on them.

Outside of Florence

Near San Casciano

Many films have been set in the Tuscan countryside--and for good reason.  It is lovely. We thought that staying in Florence for a month, we would get out more and explore some of the towns we hadn't seen in previous visits. But as we got into the way of life in Florence, we just didn't feel the need to get away.

We did make  a trip to Fiesole, in the hills above Florence. They have an old Roman theater and a great Etruscan Museum there, but we had been before, and we felt the price was a little high. So we simply sipped cappuccinos at a cafe with a view and walked back to Florence along narrow, but busy roads.

We got yet another view of Florence as we walked back, looking out for cars and motorcycles that zipped by, missing us by inches.

We passed olive groves, villas and schools, and saw egrets in the river on the way back, but it wasn't quite the hike we were looking for. A week or so later, I read a TripAdvisor review of San Casciano, which supposedly has some good country walks and features an Etruscan tomb. So we plotted the bus route to San Casciano and set out one morning with a picnic lunch,

But San Casciano was dead! It was the middle of the day, and everything had shut down for the 2-3 hour lunch break! In Florence only a few shops still observe that tradition (such as our vino sfuso store), but most stores are open, and the tourist office doesn't close. No so in San Casciano.

San Casciano in the early afternoon.
In truth, we did see a few people, and we encountered some British tourists who were looking for wifi. We even found a couple of cafes that were open, so we could have coffee.  But the museum and sights were shut tight.

All was not lost, however. As we made our way to the bus station to return to Florence, we encountered an art installation.  Called "The Boat," it was created by an English artist who was working in collaboration with some young people of the town. Although not yet finished, it created a striking visual display from above.

We visited briefly with the artist, and Kevin helped her carry some supplies to her store.  I feel bad, because I meant to note her name, but all I can recall is her last name is Sainsbury (like the British grocery chain). 

Although we didn't get our walk, we did get a bus ride in the country and an encounter with an artist and her work. Not a bad day!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Of Tacos, Trims, and Titles

Sorry, I have no photos for this post. Maybe I should have saved the photo of the margaritas that I posted with Keara's visit, because at least it was taken at the Mexican restaurant on Via Ghibellina. The restaurant had good food, too, even if it wasn't quite as spicy as the wonderful Mexican food we get in Seattle.

Via Ghibellina became my "go-to" street in Florence.  It's where I had my hair cut. (I liked it.)  It's also where I acquired a new title that I am quite fond of.

The laundromat I used was on Via Ghibellina (4 euros to wash; 4 euros to dry). It had signs with instructions in English, but they weren't really that clear. For example, you had to get tokens for the washers and dryers, but one machine made change and the other didn't. In addition, one machine for dispensing the tokens had a "push here" sticker, but it wasn't clear that it was actually a small metal button nearby that you needed to push, and not the spot where the sticker was. I was confused on my first visit there, but a kind woman helped me. So it was up to me to return the favor.

The last time I used the laundromat, two attractive young women came in. One, who was fair, was from Croatia. The other, who had beautiful, full dark hair was from Mexico. They were students at the university, and they both spoke excellent English, I helped them get their laundry organized. Then they left, while their clothes tumbled around in the washer.

A short time later, a  young man came in. I don't know where he was from, but he spoke limited English with a Slavic (?) accent. I was helping him get his washing into the machine, when the two female students came back. The young man thanked me and left.

That was when I acquired my new title, which was bestowed on me by the young woman from Croatia. "You," she said, "are the Angel of the Washing Place." I rather like that. It also has a much nicer sound than "the Angel of the Laundromat."

Surprises on the Streets of Florence

You never know what you'll see on the streets of Florence! As we were coming back to our apartment one day, we encountered this procession of people in medieval garb.

At first, we didn't know what all this pageantry was about, although the costumes were beautiful . . .

And these children were particularly sweet . . .

Then we saw it--the cart of wine being drawn by two stunning white oxen--and I realized it was the blessing of the wine. The celebration of the harvest and the Chianti was underway. 

A tourist gets into the act.

Behind the traditional wine cart was this tractor and trailer. The men on the trailer were selling wine, but I didn't act fast enough, so I wasn't able to buy any. Darn!

Thanks go to Kevin for this photo.

The parade continued around the piazza to the front of the Duomo, where a priest waited to bless the wine.

Then the entire procession moved down the street toward the Piazza della Signoria, where the city fathers would be presented with sample bottles of the new chianti. I'm told this ceremony goes back more than 500 years.

The next day marked a newer tradition. I looked out the window and saw people gathering for a race. Then, I remembered that a charity race for fighting cancer was taking place that day.  Kevin immediately ran down to the piazza, and he was able to take part in the 5k run/walk. I thought I had captured him in the crowd below, but no, it was the 10k that started outside our window. Sadly, the race organizers were all out of t-shirts, so Kevin didn't get a souvenir. But he does have the memory of taking part in an international event for a good cause. That's not a bad way to spend a morning.

Crowd shots taken from our window. Alas, Kevin isn't in there!

A Visit from Keara

Note: I've posted this out of sequence, because I know family members have been waiting to see what we did when Keara visited us in Florence!

We aren't the only world travelers in the family.  Our niece (actually grandniece) Keara has been traveling abroad for over a year-and-a-half now.  She's a writer, too.  She's a freelancer who writes proposals for businesses that seek to do business with the State of Texas or with other governmental entities, and she can work wherever she has an Internet connection.

Although Keara's job means she has to stay close to a computer at certain times, it gives her the freedom to go where she wants.  We felt honored that she came to see us and didn't complain at all about having to sleep on a bunk bed in an alcove. She's a good sport!

We did have fun, exploring everywhere from the Duomo to the heights of Florence near San Miniato and Piazzale Michaelangelo to the Ponte Vecchio.

Honestly, she's so photogenic, I don't think she can take a bad picture!

The Ponte Vecchio was the scene for a pleasant lunch.  Here's the view from the restaurant's balcony.

Of course, we rubbed the nose of "Il Porcelino" for good luck. As you can see from his polished nose, a lot of people are hoping for good fortune. (Though this little piggy is actually a copy of the original.)

I was sorry that between Keara's work and my poor planning, she didn't get to see and do more, but Kevin and I enjoyed every minute we had together.

Also, an amazing coincidence occurred during Keara's visit. She had offered to take us to lunch, and, at the last minute, we decided to go to the restaurant downstairs in our building. But who should walk in but a former boyfriend whom Keara once had a serious relationship with, and his brother!

The boyfriend had retreated to the men's room, and unsure of what to do, Keara left. She later wrote a gracious email saying if he wanted to meet, she was fine with that, and if not, she understood.

With echoes "of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world..." spinning in our consciousness, we were shocked. Had this been a romantic movie, it would have ended in a sweet reunion, but sadly, this is real life, and sometimes the differences are too great to be overcome. There was no answer to the email before we all left Florence.

Still, this was the strangest coincidence that I have ever witnessed. It had been a couple of years since they had communicated, and yet, there, in that tiny restaurant in Florence, their paths crossed again. As they say in Italy,"Com'รจ piccolo il mundo." 

The great 4-euro Happy Hour margaritas at the Tijuana Mexican restaurant in Florence.
(Not the restaurant of the encounter!)
We hope we meet up with Keara again, on one continent or another, before this adventure of ours is over. After all, it is a small world.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

As Kevin Sees It (guest posting)

For a little variety--and because he deserves his say too--this blog post is by Kevin. It's a lightly edited version of an email he sent. The exceptional black-and-white photos are his. I've added only a few color pictures.)

The neighborhood is unique and very lively. I will intersperse some photos from the neighborhood into my description of my "miserable" life here in Florence.

Our apartment places me in a photographer’s dream environment. Almost any photographer could do a lot more with it than I am able.[R's comment: Not true!]  It is opportunity-rich with life unrolling – or running by on the streets below our windows. I have this huge folder full of photos. It is called La Nazione after the news stand below. My problem isn’t how to find time to take photos, because I can easily take a thousand or so a day, but I am trying to limit them. The trouble is finding the time to weed out the losers, and pick only the best to keep. Ten minutes of shooting might keep me busy for two or three hours. This post includes only a few of the last three days of work. Most were taken last night and this morning.

Looking down at the newstand through the shutters.

Vendors scrambling. Police had entered the piazza, and presumably they lacked permits to sell their wares.

Dusk and morning are the best times to shoot. Not just because of the light, but also because the locals are doing their business in the morning, and the activities on the street at night do not include the hordes of tourists shooting photos of the Duomo. That is a whole other category of shots – and I do have a number of them that are quite amusing.

Because we have a corner apartment, we have views out onto two different streets, and also the piazza surrounding the Cathedral. There is construction going on continually, but I have found that some of the artifacts of the construction make for interesting patterns in the background, sometimes the foreground, of my images.

I have been playing a lot with ISO and with shutter speeds. That is another reason I weed out so many losers. I am going mostly by trial and error.

The vendors in the piazza have  mobile stalls. When they are set up you would never believe they could be constructed each morning and taken down and hauled off each evening. That’s because they are so huge and permanent-looking. But they are self-contained battery-powered carts. The guy below is pushing his bike and steering his cart at the same time. He is actually two-hundred meters or so from his staked-out territory.

Today was a long and busy day. I slept in until 8:00. We have a French press for making our morning coffee. So I made the big pot to get started. Rachel made the breakfast after going to the market for some eggs, which we had forgotten to get yesterday. After my clean-up, we headed off to the farmers market. It is not too far from here, a very pleasant walk on a beautiful sunny morning. Just before the market we saw the wine store that we had heard about, but had not noticed the last time we were in the area. They pump your wine into bottles you bring in, or they will provide the empty bottles for a deposit of 50 cents each. We got three bottles of wine for 10.20 euros including the bottle deposit. A couple of old folks like us own the shop and work it themselves. She handles the counter and he handles the pumping of the wine and the corking of the bottles.

With my pack filled with wine, we made our way through the stalls outside the covered portion of the market. We found some vegetables and salad makings outside – then headed inside to look for our dinner. There is a popular meat, cheese, and pasta stall inside. You have to take a number and there is always a crowd around the counter. We tried two types of stuffed raviolis; ricotta/spinach and lemon. We picked up some freshly made pesto sauce to go with that, and for my personal snacking pleasure, we got some pecorino cheese. Not the hard stuff that you are probably familiar with, but a little softer sort that is great with crackers.

After returning home, but before lunch, I left Rachel and headed down to the Bargello museum. It is about a block-and-a-half down the street from our door. I got a little worried because of the crush at the door to get in. But once inside, it was nearly empty. I just happened to get there when a group of kids was blocking the entrance. I figured today I would concentrate on getting shots of the sculptures, highlights, and shadows. Here is one of the shots from the mornings efforts. This is Donatello’s David, the second most famous of the world’s Davids. The most famous, Michelangelo’s, is three blocks north of us.

Donatello's David

Michaelangelo's David
Maybe I got six good pictures this time. It was time to get back for lunch. Rachel had already eaten. I made a sandwich and salad for myself and took a little nap after weeding out my photos. 

Then we walked over to a theater (Odeon) where they show English speaking films. We saw a pretty bad movie ("The Man From UNCLE").

The Odeon is a beautiful theater, and sometimes we just want to see something in English.

From there we ambled slowly on to the Piazza Signoria, getting some chocolate gelato on the way. When the dripping cones were merely memories, we ducked into the Uffizi Museum. 

The Uffizi is free to us, as is the Academia, Pitti Palace, and the Bargello, since we are members of ICOMOS, an advisory group for UNESCO that helps support many World Heritage sights. The Uffizi is open on Tuesday evenings in summer and early fall to relieve a little of the relentless pressure of visitors. It can be really pleasant to visit in the evening without the crowds, but a nightmare during the normal visiting hours. We have been making good use of the free visits, with multiple trips now to all of the main events with the exception of only once to see David at the Academia. It was packed, even though we got there very early on a week day. Next time we will go in the evening hours.

Michaelangelo's Holy Family in the Uffizi. These days most museums let you take photos,
as long as you don't use a flash. Of course, the photo doesn't do it justice.

We got home for a glass of wine at about 9:00 and had a late dinner, eating all of the pasta we had purchased at the market. It has been a good day. Sometimes I get a bit stressed over the constant travel. But then again, with days like today I see how lucky I am. This is an amazing experience for a poor little Cuban immigrant boy from Bothell. Wait a minute! I am not a poor little Cuban immigrant boy. That's Marco Rubio! (Where did that come from? Maybe the wine?) It was 2.90 euros, and it was great!

I do apologize for this self-indulgent message. I suppose it could be like a slide show that never ends, where everyone is falling asleep. But isn’t that what family and friends are for? They are there for us to bore.