Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Euro Post

Ahem, where was I? Oh yes...

I'm home and happy in the comfort of my husband and blessedly wordless companionship of our four-legged family. How I was missing their furred warmth, antidote to the cigarette chill and damp of Amsterdam. We're going to a party tonight (my idea! Mark your calendar, it's my once-every-fifth-year foray into socializing with a group of people I mostly don't know) and I've discovered that I don't have enough fake blood for my dead poet costume, but I'm darned if I'm not going to finish this post before that errand, nap, and dog walk...

After my first day in Florence, I was going to title this post, "I Am NOT Florence," but things got better the second day. Not that the first day was so bad. But my high expectations were dashed, perhaps unsurprisingly, upon the rocks of reality. But I'm getting a little ahead of my traveler's tale...

After some nail-biting delays with the Amsterdam metro, my colleague and I arrived at Schipol Airport a week ago Friday, in plenty of time to chat with an ex-pat Brit working in Amsterdam on his way to Pisa to visit a friend. Deplaning in the Pisa airport, though overcast, the warmer air was immediately relaxing. Italy at last!

On the advice of another colleague, instead of boarding the train for Florence right away, we took a taxi to the Leaning Tower. I had always imagined the famous landmark to be in a square on its own, but instead the Piazza dei Miracoli where it's located had several other lovely buildings. We had our luggage with us, so didn't try to go inside any of them, but their exteriors were delight enough. We eyed our first genuine Italian souvenirs and had our first Italian meal, in a tourist stand just outside the imposing Piazza wall.

I was pleased and surprised when my companion suggested that we hoof it back to the train station (she has a few mobility issues), so off we went, our bags clattering behind us and echoing through the narrow streets of lovely, uncrowded Pisa to the train station. I'm surrounded by Tuscan-wannabe architecture out here, and it was so wonderful to be immersed in the real thing!

After a half-hour wait, we boarded the NJ Transit-like train (serviceable but hardly elegant) and chugged our way to Firenze, peeking into backyard gardens and enjoying the California-ish landscape. We crossed (I think) the Arno several times; it poured, and I worried about getting rained on while getting to our hotel, but it had stopped by the time we reached Florence. One bit of excitement: a pretty train conductor explained that we needed to stamp our tickets in a little yellow machine before boarding--she'd let us off this time, but next time there would be a large fine. Scary!

Another round of bag-dragging in Florence made longer by poor navigation on my part, and finally we arrived at Residenza le Rondini--luckily before dark or we may never have spotted the modest plaque. I realized that while I accurately recalled where it was on the map, I had forgotten to bring the hotel's actual address and phone number--so unlike me! Small, fourth-floor walkup, impregnated with a damp that might've been nice in summer but was not so welcome in October, the stairwell light is normally not kept on to conserve energy so it was a little disconcerting. We were left in the dark on our way downstairs to a nearby restaurant that our kindly host recommended for dinner (chesnut gnocchi in a parmesan sauce, "black cabbage" aka spinach flan, chianti, rosemary creme brulee--oh yum) but we made sure that never happened again.

The next morning, rain and the need for caffeine got me up early out of my squeaky little cot-sized bed. The rain had stopped by the time went out for my first real Italian cappucino at a little place down the street. I collected my companion back at the hotel, had another cappucino, and then it was time to stand in line for the Accademia, even though we had reservations. The first gallery in the Accademia was filled with religious works, which wore on me a bit. ("How many times can you see Christ on a stick?" my travel-mate quipped.) But turning the corner into David's gallery, lined with prisoners and seeing him there, large and gloriously lit under his dome, was wonderful. More religious paintings followed, and we returned to the streets of Florence. This seemed like an appropriate time for our first gelato--grainy, but all succeeding gelatos were mouthfuls of heaven.

We wandered to the Duomo, a magnificent place inside and out. Had lunch in a mod little place (Greek salad with excellent feta cheese, a glass of white wine), headed for the Ponte Vecchio but, disoriented, headed back to our hotel inadvertently. Finally found the famous bridge and elbowed tourists out of the way to cross it. Gelato stop. Thought about getting tickets to the Pitti Palace and Boboli Garden, but it was closing soon. Back across the bridge, admiring the sparkling baubles in the windows and then the statuary in the Piazza della Signoria. We stopped for a drink and shelter from showers in a cafe across from the Duomo. A mediocre dinner for me (ravioli a little too "to the tooth" for my taste) served in a restaurant filled with a tour group of young women--O the din!

Florence impressions: Crowded with tourists from many nations. Gypsy beggar women roamed the Duomo piazza in their uniform of long broomstick skirts and bulky sweaters. Small portions of shops, food, rain. Not as many bicycles as Amsterdam. The Arno was milky mud-colored. It was an easy city to get lost in. I seemed to be staring up most of each day--up at the mosaics, towers, statues, elaborately painted ceilings of the Uffizi. Asian women trying to sell scarves to tourists in line at the museums. It's a magical city, no doubt, but I didn't feel any magic that first day--too many gray skies and crowds, I think.

Sunday was sunnier, inside and out. A quick coffee in one of the many tiny coffee bars, and we hustled down to the Uffizi for an early entrance. Sunday morning meant quieter streets, and I was able to enjoy the atmosphere more. Vendors were setting up stalls in the Central Market (stuff, not food, which disappointed me a bit) and we passed Trattoria ZaZa, a place a friend had recommended we eat--hooray, that seemed like a good sign.

The Uffizi was also amazing, so much to take in: The Birth of Venus, The Battle of San Romano, the "Tribune" room, the Sacred Family, so many portraits, statues...Refreshments taken on the roof cafe and then off to the Pitti Palace, with a stop for gelato (hazelnut and tiramisu--o my god!!!).

In the Boboli Garden, my companion and I parted ways, agreeing to rendezvous for dinner at ZaZa. It was a long climb up a steep slope in the Garden, but oh the views were spectacular in every direction--city views behind and Tuscan countryside ahead. A quick turn through the Porcelain Museum, wondering how it would be to have a backyard abutting the Palace, and then a long wander down the allees of the Garden. It was such a relief to just have a few people around me--no crowds or traffic here--and I felt like I was getting some good exercise.

After a play-tussle with a Pitti kitty that made me wistful for TomCat and a visit to the Grotto, I was off for the Piazzale Michelangelo. I tried to stop for a glass of wine and bite to eat at a place far off the Ponte Vecchio, but it was the wrong time of day, and had to content myself with overpriced fare with a fabulous view at a restaurant near the Piazzale M. I listened to a few songs by a gypsy jazz guitar group, then continued up to Santo Miniato. I loved lingering here. It was the one place where I actually saw a monk and nuns, and people were actually there to worship. The cemetery was beautiful. Inside, it felt very spiritual but not cavernous. There were just a few tourists, a small group at the altar. I followed the tour group downstairs, and as I was admiring the altar there, the tour group leader raised his arms, and the group burst into the most glorious hymn--my magical moment at last. It was over too soon.

I sat outside the church for sometime, then headed down a pedestrian walkway past a protected cat colony made up of cat-sized cabins painted white with green roofs and little plastic panels curtaining the doors, back across the Arno to the piazza outside Santa Croce. I sat on a bench with some older ladies, watching a group of boys kick a soccer ball and tourists and locals crowding into tents selling local foods.

Then on through the crowds into the Central Market, purchasing a few glass souvenirs (well, Venice was close) and then dinner. I had almost an identical meal to the night before, ravioli with a creamy walnut sauce, sauteed spinach with garlic, chianti, chocolate cake, but it was much better.

A restless last night in Florence. I went out early for cappucino, and drank it standing at the bar like a real Italian. It was so odd yet good to be surrounded by people speaking a language I couldn't understand. I went back to the hotel, wrote a few postcards while my companion got breakfast, then off we went to the train station. We remember to stamp our tickets this time, and just barely made the train that went straight to the Pisa airport. I was a bit worried that the conductor would hassle us about this, since our tickets were just for the main train station, but we never encountered one. The back of the train was crowded, so we sat amiably in the door compartment on fold out seats, so we had good views of the countryside.

At the Pisa airport, our Brit friend was also returning to Amsterdam, so we had a merry time chatting with him.

Amsterdam blustered around us when we arrived. A somewhat easier time getting the metro back into the city. We collected our additional bags from our colleagues who had stayed in Amsterdam and off I went to check into the Hotel Winston. I went upstairs to my tiny, dark--er, artistic--stiflingly cigaretty-smelling room (guess with that name, smoking was inevitable), dropped my bags, left the window wide open and went out again.

Walked just a little in the Red Light district--what a strange feeling that neighborhood had. Sipped a beer at an outdoor table on Dam Square, snug under a heat lamp, the wind wiping menus and ashtrays off the tables around me. The ferris wheel was still up, but circling empty. A not very good Indonesian meal. Souvenir shopping, and then one last trip to Albert Heijn for chocolate to bring back to the office. I wanted to wander more, but the rain was too heavy, and I worried about packing wet clothes home.

Back at the hotel, I tried to call M several times with no luck getting through. I was missing him something awful. The room smelled a little better. I repacked my bags, and pushed them all up against the door. I peeked out the window at the sex trade next door: a row of five red light windows lining an alley. Men, mostly alone, walked up and down, looking in at the scantily clad denizens. One woman's gimmick was wearing white lingerie with a black light; another, dressed in standard hooker attire, put on girl-next-door glasses. I was curious about how long clients stayed, aren't you? The two I timed spent just about ten minutes behind the drawn curtains before exiting again.

I awoke on my last morning in Amsterdam feeling as though I'd had a nicotine pie shoved in my face--stuffy, puffy, and headache-y. A shower in the tiniest shower stall ever and pleasant breakfast downstairs while watching Dutch MTV. Back in the rain to the Kras with all my luggage to await the airport shuttle which didn't stop at my new hotel. It was a very long trip home, over 20 hours. Thank god for the movies in the tiny screen in front of me, all four and a half of them.

And now I'm home and Europe is very far away again...


Halloween fun, by way of BoingBoing (I typed Booing first--another Halloween-inspired slip?): Monsters Photoshopped into great works of art.


At 5:08 AM, October 31, 2005, Blogger Nancy said...

That was nice to read. I'm glad you had a good trip and got back safely and all that. The meals you described made me envious. It sounds like it worked out okay having a travelling companion . . .?

At 5:32 PM, October 31, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welcome back. It sounds like lousy weather had a heavy influence on your trip The magical hym moment sounds great.


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