Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A week (almost) in Florence

It was really the Trip from Hell. A late departure from Newark, missed connections, cancelled flights, lost luggage. After 26 hours (and an unexpected 4 1/2 hour bus ride from Milan to Florence), we finally arrived at the hotel. I kept asking myself why I thought it was a good idea to accompany R on this trip. Art and history only get you so far!!!

After the nightmare of the trip, the taxi dropped us off on a dark little street close to the Duomo. There was a scary moment when we thought the hotel didn't really exist, but we found the buzzer and someone did open the huge door to let us in. Then we saw it... a little sign that said "Hotel Centrale on the second floor." Can you imagine anything I would like seeing LESS than a huge flight of stairs at that point? Not only stairs, but Florentine stairs. This is a former palazzo, and each flight of stairs is about a mile up. (And in Europe "second floor" means two flights up from the ground level.) Of course we had no suitcases to carry, so it could have been worse! I almost expected the hotel to say "You were so late that we cancelled your reservation" – but for once everything was in order, and we were shown to our room, which was simple but pretty and spotless, with a copy of a Leonardo da Vinci painting on the wall. By the way, I would recommend this hotel highly.

Despite the crowds (June already being peak tourist season), despite the heat, and despite the horrible time we had getting there, Florence is still a wonderful city. It is small enough that you can walk everywhere, though the cobblestone streets can be hard on the ankles. R was busy with the conference every day, and my job was to play tourist. It wasn't hard to do – it was just hard to narrow down the choices!

The conference seems to have been a big success for the participants, quite a few of whom R has known for decades, and some of whom (along with their wives) I met many, many years ago. One day I spent wandering around the city with three of the wives, one from Argentina who has lived in Italy for many years, one from Belgium who has lived in Switzerland with her Scottish husband for many years, and one Belgian. The common denominator, of course, was English, and all of them speak it fluently, so I felt linguistically inferior but enjoyed the fact that they could all communicate with me anyway. I tried to rejuvenate my somewhat pathetic Italian, and it was really a pleasure to hear the music of the language all around me, even when I can't understand what people are saying.

My obligatory visit to the Uffizi was, as expected, delightful. With a reservation I was able to walk right in at the appointed time and stroll leisurely through, though I was told that without a reservation there would be a 3-4 hour wait to get in. Unfortunately, the museum (like Florence in general) suffers from far too many tourists per square meter. There were some rooms where it was impossible to see the artwork, though patience paid off – usually after a wait of a few minutes the crowd would disperse and I could catch a glimpse before the next surge.

One night there was a lovely banquet at a restaurant in one of Florence's many, many converted palazzi, and the food was wonderful. The guest of honor, whose 65th birthday was the excuse for holding this conference, seemed truly touched by the very nice (and brief, and in one case extremely witty) speeches made about him. Another night, also as part of the conference, there was a concert of piano music for 4 hands. We met two professors from Florence for dinner first ("American style," a.k.a. unfashionably early) at a little out-of-the-way trattoria with wonderful authentic Florentine food. A day of fabulous art, food, and music... what could be better?

Our last three nights we had dinner in three different restaurants. Twice we went with Italians to little trattorias we would never have discovered on our own, and the food was excellent at both. The other night we went back to Acqua al Due and it was just as wonderful as we had remembered. We had "assaggio di primi" -- a tasting of 5 different kinds of pasta, and then shared bistecca fiorentina al aceto balsamico, a steak with balsamic vinegar. We then shared an "assaggio di dolci" -- tasting of 5 different desserts -- which we would have skipped except that the couple with us was an evil influence!

R was busy at the conference every day except Sunday, when we did a lot of walking and visited both the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (see the amazing choir loft by Della Robbia here) and the church of Santa Maria Novella, which has some phenomenal artwork by many of the Big Names in Italian Renaissance art like Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Filippino Lippi, Ghirlandaio, etc. Our favorite is the Lippi fresco of St. Phillip driving the dragon from a Roman temple. It is a stinky dragon, and you can see people holding their noses, and the king's son actually faints from the smell. You can see it here. The decision of what to do that day was made easier by the fact that most museums are closed on Sundays, and the churches are open to tourists only in the afternoons. In the late afternoon we walked over to the Piazza della Signoria to take a last look at the wonderful statues out in the open, including a copy of Michelangelo's David and my favorite, Giambologna's amazing Rape of the Sabine Women. Nearby is a Cellini bronze of Perseus holding the head of Medusa plus a variety of other really gory statues.

All in all, it was an interesting -- though far too short -- visit. The conference attendees all seemed to agree that it was an exceptionally good conference, and the spouses had no problem keeping ourselves entertained. It may be the City of Aching Ankles, but it is also a city that is imbued with the history of art, the history of science, and fabulous food. I can't wait to go back. (But maybe on a different airline next time. After all the trouble they gave us on the way to Italy, Continental/Alitalia also managed to lose one suitcase and damage another one on the way home.)

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