Sunday, 18 May 2014

Tuscany, part 2 - Florence

This is part 2 of the account of my short visit to Tuscany - Arezzo and Florence, see part 1 (only in Bulgarian for now). 

Part 2 - Florence/Firenze 

I arrived at Florence Santa Maria Novella station on Wednesday around 11 am, by train, which this time took only about one hour. My hotel was close to the station but I could only check in from 1 pm, so I headed off for a walk, a lunch and sightseeing. About ten minutes later I was at the Florence Cathedral or Il Duomo. The Duomo is ridiculously, indecently big and besieged by tourists on all sides. Now I know that good Catholics need to feel small, insignificant and unworthy inside and around their Heavenly Father's homes, but it almost seemed like the Heavenly Father himself would feel small and insignificant in the face of the Duomo. 

The front side (perhaps the other sides too) is ornamented with, among others, dozens of statues of stern, strict, condescending, angry-looking priests, cardinals, popes, saints, I don't know whats, who were looking down on me, as if saying things like "you are a sinner-eh", "you need-eh to repent-eh", "you'll burn-eh in hell-eh" (I'm trying to imitate the way Italians sound when they speak English:-). After ten minutes of contemplating this impossibly strict but just grandeur, and trying to figure out how to take a photo of it, I decided to move along and see what awaits me next. I had read about Florence on Wikipedia and knew I wanted to see the statue of David, the Fountain of Neptune, the Palace of the Medici, something with Machiavelli (a statue, a grave, I don't know), the Ponte Vecchio, but had no idea where they were. Google maps could tell me which piazza is where but not what's on it, so I was ready to be surprised. And I was. Following the hordes of people and looking up, down and sideways with a curious look, like a real tourist, I suddenly found myself on the Piazza della Signoria. Wikipedia claimed it was one of the most beautiful squares in the world. And beautiful it was - if you could only make the tourists disappear for a while. Well, the piazza itself was not so impressive as the statues in it - a world of difference from the nasty, judgemental Christian faces on the Cathedral. These were beautiful, athletic, naked, defiant ancient gods and heroes, fighting evil, conquering enemies and slaying creatures. The most prominent ones that I could recognise were, of course, Neptune, David, Hercules and Perseus. 

The women, on the other hand, usually had their private parts covered (Jupiter forbid we should see a cunt), sometimes missing limbs, doing nothing, sometimes getting raped or being abducted as brides... My feminist feelings were a bit hurt but my aesthetic ones - filled with joy from the male statues! Apart from the strong, muscular bodies, though, there was also a large body of tourists, in groups, in couples and trios, or alone like me, which were driving me crazy. I mean, you can't even take a proper photo of anything without dozens of unknown people in it. As Carrie says, "I couldn't help but wonder", if the world's wealth was more equally distributed, as I usually wish, how many people would there be on Piazza della Signoria, or for that matter, on Damrak or the London Eye, etc. etc. Whenever I visit a popular tourist destination, should I be happy that there are hundreds of millions of people living in poverty who are not able to travel to these places? (And I'm blushing with shame at the moment!) So, despite the naked men and annoyed with the crowds, I decided to move on.
With Dante on my shoulder

Looking so Machiavellian! :)

A few metres away was the Uffizi Gallery. I didn't go in the gallery itself, I believe that art is, unfortunately, largely wasted on me, but I love statues. And here I found the third "set" of statues in Florence - after the ugly, angry Christians and the mouth-watering ancient heroes, these were the artists, scientists, poets and statesmen of Florence (and Italy?). Starting with what I learned was called "the big three" - Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarca - these men (yes, again, only men) were looking proud, dignified and confident. And rightfully so - all of them have made great contributions to literature, art and science. There were a few names that I didn't recognise but among those that I did were Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Gallileo, Machiavelli, Amerigo Vespucci... Passing by the last one, I heard someone explaining to a couple of American tourists "He's the one that discovered America - you see - Amerigo - America"... Oh by Jove! So few things more annoying when you travel than to meet American tourists "doing Europe" in a week. At one point I was, like, how many times can you, like, say "like" in, like, one sentence ... and stuff? Like-ing aside and, of course, Columbus is more known for discovering America, but come on, people... Go to school! 

From Uffizi, I headed to Ponte Vecchio - the Old Bridge. When the Allied Forces were advancing in Italy at the end of WWII, the Germans destroyed all bridges on the Arno river in Florence but someone somehow convinced them not to blow up Ponte Vecchio because of its historical value. While taking photos of the bridge from a few hundred metres away, finally something happened that I had been expecting for three days - I felt the spontaneous smell of baked bread, tomatoes, olive oil and garlic, coming as if from nowhere. In Belgium you can spontaneously smell Belgian waffles and chocolate, in Germany - baked wurst and in Amsterdam - weed, so I was hoping that in the same way Italy would smell like tomatoes, garlic and basil.. Anyway, I started sniffing and turning around frantically, as if I had smelled ... success or something, until I noticed the people sunbathing and barbecuing (well, obviously an Italian version of barbecuing) on the river banks below. Mmmm yummy! But then I had to move along and find something to eat. The Old Bridge is now filled with small booths selling all sorts of stupid stuff and, of course, tourists. I crossed it quickly and sat down to eat the most expensive and dry panini with prosciutto and mozzarella in my life. But these things happen when you're a stupid tourist and actually worse things have happened to me, so I decided not to be annoyed for more than 20 minutes and proceeded to Palazzo Pitti - the Palace of the Medici. The Medici were the most powerful family in Florence for centuries and apparently stimulated the arts, sciences and trade but I somehow associate them with greediness, cruelty, scheming, murders and poisoning. I was even prepared to pay 10 Euros entrance fee for the Boboli Gardens and the Palace but the lady at the ticket desk didn't have a 10 to return from my 20-Euro note... And didn't accept anything but cash. I stuck around for a while but after a few minutes she still didn't have a 10-Euro note, so I decided to try again tomorrow and went to find my hotel. 

My hotel was not really a hotel but a "pension" and I was welcomed there by a strange person - a skinny 50-or-so-year-old either a woman with a prominent grey moustache or a man with a very feminine voice (being in Italy, I assumed the first). She didn't speak much English but showed me to my room and asked "you - fumare?" and showed me the balcony where I could fumare (smoke). The room and the fact that I had a balcony were great, the only downside was that there was one toilet for the whole floor. Still, the price was 45 Euros and I didn't go to Florence to sit in my hotel, so this was just a minor inconvenience. 

After resting for an hour or two, I went out again, this time to check Florentine fashion shops and weep. Florence is among the top 50 "fashion capitals of the world" and I wanted to see what this means. Well, as anyone can imagine, it meant looking at fancy label shops and their fancy windows and wondering if I would be even allowed to enter, in my shorts, T-shirt and sneakers. I was travelling with hand luggage only, otherwise I would've bought myself a hundred things (yeah, right, as if I can afford it:-) After a consolation prize of coffee and gelatto, I returned to one of the most dick-populated squares in the world - Piazza della Signoria. It was already around 5-6 pm and this time there were far fewer tourists on the square. Without them, I could enjoy the art immensely more. (I also couldn't help thinking of South Park - "one wiener next to another wiener... floppy wiener, wiener party..." :-).

Seriously though, floppy wieners and kinky associations aside, I was captivated by the sculptures, the details, the curves, the proportions, the stories they were telling - David before the battle with Goliath, Hercules defeating Cacus, Perseus with the head of the Gorgon Medusa, Menelaus holding Patroclus... Maybe, after all, art was not so wasted on me? I spent probably an hour staring at David, Neptune, Hercules, and all the other heroes, gods and monsters, this time closely and looking at every detail. I thought I had read somewhere that David has the perfect proportions and is taught in Sculpture classes as the perfectly shaped male body. Maybe that's why I was so fascinated - supposedly we're attracted to body and face proportions and, well, who wouldn't be attracted to a body/face with the perfect ones? And the statue of Hercules and Cacus, which, like I said, brought on strong kinky associations and I took probably ten photos of it ;-) 

I went back to my hotel for a bit, then out again for dinner and hopefully to find a gay bar to have a couple of drinks. I had a lovely foccaccia for only 5 Euros but the only gay bar, which was not a cruising bar, was apparently closed at 9 pm. Aaargh, I hate that gays are such vampires - I can kind of understand that a gay bar doesn't work at 2 pm but why not at 9 pm? Does nobody like going out for a couple of drinks before midnight? So I went back to see Piazza della Signoria when it's dark and there are even fewer tourists, sat there again for half an hour and went back to my hotel. A step-measuring app that I had once installed on my phone and forgotten about, suddenly popped up saying I had walked 22 000 steps that day, which was my record. I calculated this should be around 11-13 kilometres and felt good about myself :) 

On the next day, my flight was around 5 pm, and I had to check out of my hotel at 10. So I had decided to spend most of my time in the Boboli Gardens and Palazzo Pitti. As if on a mission to spite me, the woman at the ticket desk again didn't have a 10-Euro note to return from my 20. Normally I would get really annoyed and just leave, but now I decided to be stubborn, so I went and bought a coffee and water and finally had the right banknote to buy a ticket to the gardens and palace. And I'm glad I did.

The gardens were relatively big, with small alleys among the bushes and trees that made me think of a labyrinth and wonder if a Minotaur would jump out of somewhere.. Well, they were also well lit and there were people around (not as many as in the centre, thank Juno!), so there was no real danger.. But there was an obese American tourist complaining about all the stairs and climbing - apparently the stairs were more dangerous to people's health.. 
I think I walked through most of the garden for the fun of it and for a futile attempt to make a panoramic photo of Florence (since I had recently discovered that my phone can make those). I didn't find a good spot, so without a panoramic photo, I decided to go inside the Palace, where I was mainly curious in the exhibition "Hats - between art and Extravaganza". 
The exhibition was part of the "Costume gallery" of the Palace, so I was lucky to see not only artsy and extravagant hats but also costumes - ranging from the 15th century to nowadays. Unfortunately, as in most museums, you can't really take photos of everything you want, you have to do it sneakily. So these are not the most extravagant hats - there were also some with birds, others with flowers, nets... I passed probably 20 rooms or so (as part of the exhibitions) and this was only a small part of the palace. "I couldn't help but wonder", who needs so many rooms and what the hell did the Medici do in them? If I were a royalty or from a powerful ruling family - would I have such a shamelessly huge palace? Probably yes... Of course, the walls and ceilings of the rooms were heavily decorated with ornaments and paintings. One particular ceiling caught my eye (and damn it, I couldn't take a photo and now I can't even find it on the internet O_o) and I fantasised a little story around it. It depicted a 25-30-year-old handsome, athletic Greek/Roman soldier (with the tunic and sandals) being outed as gay in front of his family by the poet. The poet had a harp and the look of a person betraying someone else for the fun of it. The soldier was looking down, with his head in his hand. The sisters were looking at him with amusement, slightly snickering or gossiping, while their husbands and the father were giving him a judgemental, disapproving and reproaching look. The actual story is probably entirely different, but seriously, these were the looks and postures of most of the people in the painting. And my version is so much more interesting and current around the International Day against Homophobia, which is the day I'm writing this post :-) 

Even though I still had plenty of time, I decided to have a last pizza, a last visit to the famous Italians, the naked boys standing on the square and the judgemental Christians on the Duomo and head back to the station to take my bus to the airport. 

Some final "general" thoughts on Italy 
Like in every southern-European country, you can enjoy nice weather (I even got a little tanned from my three days there), great food and open, chatty and loud people (provided you can speak the same language), but the streets and the building, seem a little ... unmaintained. You can notice that the country or city is not as organised as, say, Amsterdam or Brussels, where you don't see buildings with smoked or falling façades. Everywhere I've been in Italy, there are very narrow streets with very narrow sidewalks, sometimes just one sidewalk and all the houses have shutters (which is kind of cute and definitely handy in the summer). If, like me, you like drinking 2-3 coffees in the morning and have at least two cigarettes with each, be sure to order "caffè Americano", otherwise you'll get about a spit of very strong espresso, which means you will gulp it in one go and can't take a second. Well, at least my head started spinning after two espressos and half an Americano. In Italian all words end in vowels and the stressed vowel is always long, that's why they speak English so funnily - "do you waant-eh miilk-eh?" 

Alora, arrivederci and andiamo!

Most of my photos from Italy are available on my Facebook

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