Florence travel journal (part 1): Firenze as home base

 

YogaRose.net travel journal for Florence, Italy
Part 1: Firenze, Italia as home base

–>Trip snapshot

–>Five sketches from Florence and Tuscany:

–>A word about the travel journal
–>Future posts in this series

>>TRIP SNAPSHOT<<

Some visitors to Italy fall in love with Venice. Others fulfill their dreams by making a pilgrimage to Rome. For me and my finance, Scott, the trip of a lifetime took us to Firenze, Italia, our home base for a seven-night visit that included New Year’s Eve. We walked and ate our way around Florence and left the city limits for a day to peek into some of the hill towns of Tuscany. Thanks to frecce alta velocita, Italy’s low-carbon-footprint and fantastically fast train line, we also got day-trip glimpses of cities to the north and south that capture so many imaginations.

Italy is a country we have independently longed to visit, and what better time than half a year before our wedding, after which time it’ll be…well, time to settle down. This was our chance to make sure we would never have to say, “If only we had…” It was our honeymoon before the honeymoon — a chance to revel in the kinds of culinary beauty and artistic genius that only Italy can offer, and an opportunity to take some of that inspiration back with us to deepen the hues through which we view the world.

Scott and I unloaded our suitcases not too long ago — we’re back home later than scheduled, thanks to a delayed departure in Florence, a near missed connection in Amsterdam and unfavorable headwinds back across the Atlantic. But of course we’re already asking ourselves if we’ll ever return. We hope so. To help our odds, before we left Florence, we paid homage to a popular bronze statue of a wild boar and did as many visitors do — slipped a coin into the mouth of the cinghiale, rubbed its snout and made a wish to return to the city that historically was the cradle of Renaissance arts and personally has become a cradle of new shared memories.

I’m starting this travel series with five sketches from our week there. Check back for future blog posts that will include:

>>Five sketches about Florence and Tuscany<<

463 STEPS
Not for the weak of heart (physically or romantically): What a cathedral whose dome became the model for Renaissance domes can teach us about confidence and faith

On our very last evening in Florence, we capped off our trip by climbing the 463 steps up to the cupola of Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore), Florence’s stunning Gothic cathedral. What makes this cathedral remarkable is not just that the dome, which took 14 years to build, was the first Renaissance dome, or that it was the largest since Rome’s Pantheon. What’s incredible to me is the story that’s told about the cathedral — that it was originally constructed with a gaping hole where the dome would go, because no one quite knew how to create a dome that could span that space. Can you imagine the immovable belief that things will all work out? And indeed, things did work out, because architect Filippo Brunelleschi came up with an ingenious double shell construction in which the skeleton of a dome was filled in by interlocking bricks fashioned together in a herringbone pattern. This created a dome that relied on its own support as it grew slowly upwards.

Not surprisingly, the 463-step trek up is winding, steep and claustrophobic (there are several passes so narrow you get pretty intimate with tourists making the return journey), and there’s really not much of a warning about any of that when you slide over 8 euros (about $11) for the entrance ticket. I would have expected an impossible-to-miss notice for anyone who is pregnant or has a heart condition, but perhaps that is the overly cautious American in me.

Neither the guidebooks nor Duomo officials adequately prepare you for the trip up — or for the view at the pinnacle. We arrived around 6 p.m. on a perfectly clear evening and marveled at the Campanile, the 270-foot bell tower designed by Giotto. Walking around, we could see the Accademia, where David — created by Michelangelo Buonarroti when he was just 26 — is showcased. Here were all the avenues lined with holiday lights and over there was the Uffrizi Gallery, where you can find Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. We could easily see Santa Croce Church, famous for housing the tombs of Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo. We slipped one euro into the binocular stand and looked with disbelief into the windows of the rooftop restaurant where we had enjoyed our divine New Year’s Eve dinner a couple nights before.

After the initial shock of this perfect view, it seemed most couples realized the romance of the winds and the perch, and shared quick kisses or longer expressions of their gratitude for each other.

>>IF YOU GO. We started the climb about an hour before the last entry, and we’re pretty sure we got lucky with the best possible conditions anyone could have walking up. Florence’s high season is April though October, although July and August can be unbearably hot. It must be a snail’s pace up to the top when the crowds are in town, and I’m sure temperatures rise accordingly in those narrow corridors. After this trip, Scott and I are sure we prefer traveling during a destination’s off season, even if it means cooler temperatures and higher chances of some closures. No matter what the season, if you go, take into consideration whether you want a daytime or nighttime cityscape, and get in line very early in the day or late in the evening. Make sure you’re hydrated going up (that’s the yoga teacher in me), but not so much so that you’ll need to use the bathroom any time soon.

>>LESSONS FROM THE CLIMB. Rick Steves describes the Duomo climb in his guidebook as “463 plunges on a Renaissance StairMaster,” but the journey reminded me less of exercise and more of a journey of faith that all these stairs were leading somewhere worthwhile. You’re placing your feet on each stony step, unable to see ahead and cognizant of the futility in looking back. I had this same type of feeling many times during Hilltop Yoga’s tough 300-hour yoga teacher training program, when I was wondering whether I should stop the emotional and physical gauntlet — a good yoga teacher training program provokes some heavy and often unwanted self-reflection — and turn around. But after the formal program ended and I taught my first Ashtanga class — after I saw the practice of yoga from that vantage point — I knew it had been the right journey.

If you’re ever in Florence, take the climb up, and see what the journey evokes for you.

WHO NEEDS A CAPPUCCINO
Try the cioccolata calda instead

Americans do not know how to appreciate hot chocolate. Italians do. People always talk about Italy and the espresso and cappuccino available there. But what about the hot chocolate? The first time I ordered a cioccolata calda I looked around to see if anyone else was drinking the same thing, and whether they were pouring milk or something in the cup to cut it. I couldn’t accept the fact that the beautifully thick, smooth molten chocolate inside this cup was mine to enjoy as is. What do Italians do when they visit the United States and have their first cup of hot chocolate? Crying seems like an appropriate response. I might not mind winter in Michigan so much if we had this kind of creamy expression of warmth. (OK, I’d probably still mind just as much, but it would at least be a little something to look forward to on the coldest days.)

>>IF YOU GO. Try cioccolata calda in Siena at the Caffe A. Nannini. And by the way, about cappuccinos — for Italians, it’s a breakfast drink. Restaurants will serve it all day if that’s what tourists want, but if you want to do as the locals do, only order this frothy goodness in the morning.

>>LESSONS FROM THE SIPS. Too often, I try to split the difference. In my brief visit, I found that Italian culture fosters making a commitment — whether it’s heavy hot chocolate or a three-hour dinner — and that, in turn, can allow you to live more fully in the moment.  

WILD FOR WILD BOAR
Giving something a (second, third, fourth…) chance

Cinghiale (cheeng-GAH-lay), wild boar, is a noted Tuscan specialty. I’ve never loved the other white meat (though as you know, I’m having issues with the main white meat these days), but when I paid a visit to Memphis a couple of years ago and had ribs down there, I understood, for the first time, the appeal of ribs. Following in the same spirit, I gained a new appreciation in Florence for prosciutto (cured ham), salami and cinghiale. When done right, these meats have a refined and comforting flavor. My single favorite dish from the entire trip (more on that in the next blog post) was pappardelle di cinghiale, wild boar with Tuscany’s extremely wide, flat ribbons of pasta.

>>IF YOU GO. Unless you’re a vegan or vegetarian, don’t be afraid to try cingahle in a few of the various forms available — in pasta, as salami, as a main dish or in a stew. If you hate it, at least you’ll know you gave it all the chances it deserved.

>>LESSONS FROM THE BITES OF BOAR. Location, location, location. I’ve learned that about so many things now — that you risk missing out on something pretty cool if you are too quick to write something off when you haven’t tried it in the right context.

THE TOWN OF SIENA IS DELIGHTFUL 
Who wants prenup?

Drive 35 miles south of Florence and you’ll hit Siena, Florence’s historic archrival and interestingly the first European city to ban automobile traffic from its main square. Siena is, in a word, delightful. An intense horse race called Palio di Siena is held twice every year on the grounds of Il Campo, the town center.

Our local tour guide explained that the city is comprised of 17 neighborhoods, or contradas. It sounds as intensely tribal as a city can get. Each contrada has its own church and fountain (and sometimes museum too), along with its own flag, a mascot (our tour guide made sure we knew she was from the rhinoceros group) and a rival neighborhood. Each neighborhood has a horse that, if chosen by lottery (the town center can only accommodate 10 horses out of the 17), runs the Palio di Siena. It’s a bareback race, and the first horse to cross the finish line — with or without a jockey still hanging on — wins.

Laughing, our tour guide also explained that two people from different neighborhoods who get married will sometimes determine their children’s allegiances in a prenuptial agreement. That sounds to me like a Michigan State University fan and a University of Michigan fan signing a prenup determining if the kids will wear blue or green. Incredible.

>>IF YOU GO. Don’t breeze through town like a tourist, reading the guidebook and looking at buildings and architecture. You have to talk to local residents to realize why this town sparkles. I know that’s true of pretty much any place worth traveling to, but it’s so true here.

>>LESSONS FROM THE TOWN. That I need to go back to spend more time there.

 CARING ABOUT CARBON FOOTPRINTS
That’s the ticket

Floating around one of our guidebooks as a bookmark is my Venice fast train ticket. Right on the ticket there’s a number — 26 Kg — that’s confusing if you’re not used to taking these trains. It turns out this number indicates the estimated amount of CO2 saved by taking this particular trip you’ve just paid 43 euros for. The trip we took to Rome — also at 43 euros each way for second class — saved 32 Kg of CO2 each way. What a sensible idea — telling people in concrete terms how the decisions they are making right now are making a difference right now.

I also learned on this trip that Smart cars — which as you can image are ubiquitous in this part of the world — can also park perpendicular to the curb, as seen here:

People say Italian drivers are crazy. After this trip, I see why and while I agree, I’d add that they are crazy skilled. It’s beyond me how people can drive even small cars through some of these narrow streets, navigate confusing city-center traffic-free zones, snake their way into a too-small parking spot, not kill anyone along the way, and keep their cool the whole time.

>>IF YOU GO. Don’t rent a car. Period. Let professionals (taxi drivers, bus drivers and train conductors) get you from point A to point B.

>>LESSONS FROM THE RIDES. Every single trip I’ve made to Europe (I’m up to four now) has underscored how much farther the U.S. could be when it comes to public transportation. The technology is there — we just have to care enough to put the policies into place that would make it happen.

>>A word about the travel journal<<

I’ve long wanted to follow up my various trips with blog posts that offer something of a yoga-themed travel journal, but it simply hasn’t happened, mostly due to time constraints, I suppose. On this trip, I spent seven hours on fast trains getting to and from Venice and Rome, and nearly 20 hours on planes to and from Florence — so I had time to start in on some blog posts before returning home. I hope that with this post, I’ll start to make it a point to do similar types of guides when I travel — some heavier on yoga and others, like this one, much less so.

If you’ve been to this region, please share your experiences and tips in the comments! I would love to hear about your trips, whether yoga-related or not.

Ciao, till the next post.

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