The large Powerpoint viewing screen in front of me, plotting our course across the vast, blue Atlantic Ocean, shows that our Boeing 777 jetliner has finally reached the European land mass after a 6-hour, 3,628-mile journey from JFK in New York.
It is the crack of dawn on April 25th, and the cabin of the plane is silent as most of us continue our transatlantic dozing. Not having ever been to Europe before, I am catching my first glimpse of the continent. Looking down, a warm glow comes over me. There, below us, just as I expect, are small, compact, walkable patches of English towns illuminated by their street lights. Having lived my entire life in America, they did not seem real. They seemed like storybook towns in a Walt Disney movie.
Plymouth lay 40,000 feet under us-a quite fitting first glimpse for me, since Plymouth Rock was the first outpost of the US colonies across the Atlantic fivecenturies ago.
As an information junkie with a continuously inquisitive mind, I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed the Powerpoint data being fed to us in the cabin. The screen gave us, for the entire flight, our altitude, speed, outdoor temperature (-74 degrees! Yikes!!), clock time in Paris (our European airport destination), estimated time of arrival, and a map of where the plane was on a global map. These were all of the statistics I was always nagging the flight attendants about, and it was delightful and rather comforting to be able to see it all in front of me throughout the flight.
Our planned adventure in our two weeks in Europe was absurdly ambitious. We would spend a few days (two of us with our girlfriends, who joined us for the Paris leg only) in Paris, train to Florence for another few days, see the important cities of the Florence region (Pisa, Cinque Terre, Lucca, San Gimignano, and Siena). Train to Venice for a few days. Then train to Rome for a concluding few days before flying home.
Western Europe is 6 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. We learn that the jet lag going TO Europe is much worse than returning FROM Europe. Going there, we slept on the plane during the European sleep hours and arrived first thing in the European morning. For our entire trip, the lag simply meant that we were able to stay up later at night (and my insomnia, which has me getting up too early in America, was less of a problem when we needed to get up at what would be ridiculously early hours, EST, while in Europe).
By contrast, the trip back to America meant, for us, arrival late at night, EST-what was 11:30 pm in the US felt like 5:00 am western European time after two weeks there. Back home, it was hard to stay up late, and easy to fall asleep early. The result was weeks of falling asleep during the day, and constantly fighting fatigue.
Originally, the trip to Europe was a group of five of us. Our group flew in three separate planes that converged at slightly different times in Paris (the air travel equivalent to auto-dependent, Single Occupant Vehicle travel that three in our group work professionally to discourage).
Given the recent “9/11” World Trade Center terrorist attack, I made the goofy decision to carry a Swiss Army Knife in my checked luggage. This, of course, was quickly confiscated (meaning that our efforts to cut cheese or uncork European wine was later to become a comical challenge). Because of this, I suppose, I was also asked to remove my sneakers to check for additional contraband. Finding none, I was released.
Overall, I was thoroughly impressed by the art, architecture, and urban design in our travels. The Italian food was simply outstanding. And for a few dollars, we bought Italian bottles of wine that put any American wines to shame. A pleasant observation: Much more so than in America, a very large percentage of the young men and women in the Italian cities were gorgeous, glamorous, and very physically fit.
Interesting geographic factoids I learned: Paris is at the same latitude as Canada. Rome is the same latitude as New York City.
Having sampled so many high-quality wines in my travels in Paris and Italy, my appreciation for drinking wine every day grew by orders of magnitude.
Interestingly, like Charleston, which I believe is the most walkable city in America, the outstanding, highly walkable cities in Italy (and Paris) contain a large number of NARROW sidewalks.
As a city planner often involved in city design, my expectations for my first trip to Europe were high. I had heard, for many years, about the quaint, walkable wonders of European cities, which made me quite exhilarated about the trip.
I was not disappointed. Paris and the Italian cities we saw were stupendous. Stunning. Spectacular. Europe is a cultural and culinary feast, and we greedily gobbled it up. A good nights’ sleep comes easily after a full day of walking the streets in Europe.
Bored to tears in the Chicago airport on the flight back to Florida, I find and start reading the headline news on page one of USA Today. After getting numerous complaints about noxious air on flights, the cover story says that a study of Boeing jets finds that airborne chemicals from the jet engines are emitted into the cabin of the planes. A group of airline flight attendants, who were experiencing headaches and other ailments, are now suing Boeing and Honeywell over these allegations. The problem is noticed on Boeing MD-80 jets. The aircraft for my flight from Chicago to Orlando: Boeing MD-80. On the plane, I ask the attendants about today’s news. Oddly, they have not heard…
An amusing discovery I make when returning home: I look in all my bags and pockets, and cannot find my keys anywhere. I begin to start assembling duplicate keys for a new key ring. Then, two days later, I put on my sneakers. My foot gets caught because inside are my keys, $50 in cash, and my missing (fortunately electronic) plane tickets. Incredibly, I had walked several miles throughout several crowded Paris and Italian streets with the sneaker dangling from my backpack, flopping around and upside down wildly the entire time. Somehow, dumb luck meant that they did not fall out.
There is a stark contrast between America and Western Europe. In America, we purchase luxury homes (“McMansions”) and luxury cars filled with high-tech gadgets. The insides of our homes and cars are the most luxurious in the world. We work long, stressful hours so that we can buy the latest Lexus, the most impressive suburban home, and most expensive entertainment system. We have essentially turned inward. We are isolated and segregated from our fellow citizens within our private realm of home and car.
We spend enormous amounts of time in our shiny metal boxes-our expensive BMWs and SUVs-stuck in traffic congestion on our gold-plated highways as we angrily battle with our fellow citizens to rush back to our remote, sprawlsville homes after a long day at the office, where we collapse in our moated, cul-de-sac’d cocoons.
When we step outside onto our streetside sidewalk or public park, we encounter what is the most miserable, empty and unpleasant public realm in the developed world.
What I found in Western Europe was stunningly reversed. The insides of homes and cars are noticeably modest. But each time we walked out into the surrounding community (the streets, the sidewalks, the squares-that is, the public realm), we are in a veritable paradise. Outside, there is vibrancy, sociability, a sense of place, a sense of community, people laughing, people having fun. People have “siestas” during the workday.
The public realm in Western Europe-available to all, regardless of economic status or ranking-is stupendous, lively, sociable, picturesque, romantic, and memorable. The streets, sidewalks, and squares are very quaint and human-scaled. You feel wonderfully alive as you walk amongst the large number of friendly residents who are happily outside enjoying their compact, walkable community-a community surrounded by forests and farms, instead of sprawling residential subdivisions and Big Box retail strips. The citizens of European cities enjoy interaction with their community and their fellow citizens, instead of being isolated and cooped up with expensive entertainment equipment inside luxury homes. They enjoy longer, more relaxed, more fun, and more enjoyable breakfasts, lunches and dinners at their countless outdoor cafes that are found throughout their cities.
Americans seek quality of life by working long hours, making lots of money, buying lots of things and then “cocooning” indoors, away from their fellow citizens, who are, by now, strangers to be suspicious of-and to do battle with each day on raging, high-speed arterial roads during the commute to and from work. Europeans have opted for the more relaxed and friendly joys of community life in the public realm. The community is their living room. Each day brings a friendly, serendipitous walk in a sociable, urban Eden.
When it comes to quality of life, the Europeans do it right. The standard of living in America may be higher. But the quality of life in Europe is unmatched.
Our 2 weeks in Europe-my first trip to the continent-started with a few days in Paris. We then trained to Florence to spend a couple of days. From Florence, we rented a car to see Pisa and Lucca. Trained to Cinque Terre. Drove to San Gimignano and Siena. Back in Florence, we trained to Venice for a few days there. We then trained to Rome to enjoy 2 days there.
Paris is the paramount destination in France. It is culturally, artistically and architecturally rich, in an overwhelming way.
Looking down from my plane window, an odd patchwork of rhombus-shaped French farms appeared 11,000 feet below in the crisp and golden glow of morning sunrise. Compared to American farms, the fields in the agricultural areas surrounding metro Paris are long, thin parallelograms. Sleep-deprived but too excited to be sleepy, the farm towns, basking in the morning sun, look like a fairyland of quaint little villages as I peer down.
Huge farms surround Paris. I see no gargantuan, asphalt seas of parking lots. No endless patterns of sprawling residential subdivisions. It is perfectly appropriate, given this lack of auto-oriented sprawl, that the first thing I notice as the plane touches down was a passenger train speeding by near the airport.
As the plane taxies into Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, I chuckle as I think to myself about a stunning factoid I have come across recently: The city I am from—Gainesville FL—is a city of approximately 100,000 people. Cosmopolitan Paris, one of the great cities of the world, contains roughly 2.2 million people (10.5 million in the metro area). Yet the geographic size of Gainesville-the number of square miles- exceeds that of Paris! What a testament to the wasteful use of land in America…
An interesting, unfortunate trait, during our 30-minute train ride into the heart of Paris, that we are to notice throughout our European travels, is an immense amount of graffiti that is densely applied to all available walls along the train route-albeit high-quality graffiti.
We arrive at our hotel. Hotel de Lille. The pleasures of Paris are so beckoning that we set down our luggage and immediately set out.
First destination: Notre Dame, the enduring, Gothic symbol of Paris (The construction of Notre Dame began in 1163, and was not completed until 1345.) Out front (photo above right), we are greeted, at place du Parvis, by what was to become a daily scene in our travels. Superlative street life and lively outdoor cafes. Notre Dame is quite impressive. We climb the narrow, claustrophobic, winding marble staircase (another common theme in our travels). Exhausted after climbing the 387 steps, we reach the top of the cathedral and emerge at the rooftop perch of Notre Dame. We are treated to outstanding, panoramic views of the city in all directions. The fierce gargoyles frame the scene in a dramatic, picturesque way as we look out at the heart of the city. Inside, the cathedral soars in dramatic, ornamental fashion with its stained glass windows.
After experiencing Notre Dame, we walk to a very lively, popular outdoor café just across a Siene River bridge. I eat a almond/chocolate crossiant, and sip French wine. It doesn’t get any better than this…
That first night, we walk to Les Ministeres for dinner (Of course, I had to select the “skate wing with raspberry sauce, which sounded irresistible, and was…).
After dinner, we enjoy a walk through Paris neighborhoods-still quite alive and pleasant in the late evening hours. Everywhere we look, there is sumptuous food in windows, at outdoor cafes, at markets and shops. We arrive at the Eiffel Tower. Lit up, it is breathtaking. I am quite surprised by how colossal it appears at its base as you stand underneath it.
The cars in Paris are noteworthy. We notice an almost complete absence of American cars. One popular car we see is one that makes perfect sense in a city where space is at a premium. The “Smart” car looks like a small American car cut in half. We discover that it is so short that it can park perpendicular in a parallel, on-street parking space without protruding into the street. In other words, two Smart cars fit into one standard parking space.
Back at our hotel room, we find our bed barely fits inside our tiny room. Small by American standards, but after all, it is all about what is outside our hotel room…the public realm that awaits us outside is what we’ve come to enjoy.
Breakfast is continental in the basement of the hotel. The basement appears to be catacombs or a dungeon, with its arching, brick ceilings, and absence of windows.
After breakfast, we walk across the Siene to the Louvre. The Louvre is the world’s largest museum (photo above left). It was originally built as a fortress in the 13th Century by Philippe-Auguste, and still boasts an outstanding classical architectural style. Upon arrival at the entrance, however, we are greeted by a controversial design by I.M. Pei, the American architect. It is immediately obvious why the structure elicited so much hostility. It is a very modernistic, glass pyramid that is jarringly out of place with the classical architecture of the building it serves as a gateway to. My only comfort is to realize that such a structure will, in the future, be easy to dismantle and remove.
The Louvre served as the residence of many French kings. The paintings and sculptures within the Louvre had been assembled by various French governments over the past 500 years. Most famously, it contains da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The painting is surrounded by an enormous number of camera-clicking tourists. I feel as if I am observing a crowd trying to get close to a famous rock star for an autograph.
Overall, the artwork inside the Louvre is overwhelming.
We walk to the nearby Palais de Justice (the law courts). There, we find the Sainte-Chapelle. Inside, the ceilings are 40 feet high, and the walls are almost completely covered by a colorful, intricate set of stained glass windows. It was built by King Louis IX in the 13th Century (built to house his most prized possession: what he believed to be the crucified Christ’s crown of thorns).
We also enter the Conciergerie, a luxurious palace built in the 14th Century that later became a prison. During the Reign of Terror from 1793-1794, enemies of the Revolution were brought here. One of the 2,600 prisoners held here before being led to the guillotine was Marie Antoinette (“let them eat cake”), as well as Robespierre.
Several times, we stroll the famous “Left Bank” along the Siene-only a few blocks from our hotel.
We discover that a large percentage of storefronts in downtown Paris are restaurants or bars. The French, we find, are specialists in preparing mouth-watering fish dishes in the many Paris restaurants.
And unlike in America, we see NO “gaptooths” or tears in the urban fabric of Paris. That is, building facades are not interrupted by “dead zone” surface parking lots. Instead, pedestrians are seamlessly treated to a continuous feast of interesting, lively facades.
There are endless urban design lessons for American planners such as myself when visiting Paris. An example: many interior courtyards, graced with large, ornate wooden doors at their entry, serve as not only wonderful courtyards. They also serve, occasionally, as parking lots. Unlike American lots, which are miserable when cars are parked there and when they are not, these Paris lots are wonderful both when cars are not there AND when cars are there. And they do nothing to harm the urban fabric, since they are hidden behind building facades and doors. Every street, in part because of how the parking is treated, is picturesque. Every Paris street is a delight.
Next morning. Breakfast again in the hotel dungeon. We set off for the Eiffel Tower-the most famous, recognizable Gallic structure in all of Paris.
Eiffel was built by Gustave Eiffel for the World Exhibition (World’s Fair) of 1889, which was held to commemorate the Revolution. It celebrates the centennial of the storming of the Bastille prison.
Almost torn down in 1909, it stands a majestic 1,043 feet tall. The tower contains 7,000 tonnes of steel, bolted together by 2.5 million rivets (photo above right).
We wait for several hours in one of the many seemingly endless lines of tourists waiting to ascend the tower on an elevator. Finally, we reach the elevator, and are lifted to the 2nd platform. There, we must wait several minutes, since the capacity of tourists at the top (third) level has been reached. Once at the top, we are greeted by icy cold (and very strong) winds. But the views! They are magnificent, and make the wait and the windy cold worthwhile.
Next, we stroll to the Pantheon. The Pantheon, built in the 18th century, contains the mausoleums for “the great men of the era of French liberty.” The crypt of Victor Hugo, Voltaire, and Rousseau, as well as a number of French statesmen and military heroes, rests here in the ornate marble interior of the domed structure.
Palais de Luxembourg and Luxembourg Gardens follows. Gloriously colorful gardens in one of the few large parks in Paris. The palace was built in the 17th Century, and is not open to the public. It houses the French Senate.
On this day, I reach a conclusion: Paris is the most outstanding large city I have ever visited.
On to Champs-Elysees the next morning. A one-mile boulevard originally designed and built in the 1660s. Lined with shops and boutiques, the avenue is teaming with vibrancy and a cosmopolitan character. High-priced fashion is at its most supreme here. Formerly used by the French aristocracy to parade their wealth.
We started at place de la Concorde, built in the 1770s, Paris’s largest and most infamous cobbled public square (the location where the guillotine lopped off 1,343 heads-Louis XVI, his wife Marie Antoinette, and Robespierre met their fate here). Here, we find the immense Obelisque de Louqsor, a huge, rose-granite obelisk which was erected in 1883, and dates from the 13th century BC.
We arrive at Arc de Triomphe (photo at left), second only to Eiffel Tower as a Paris landmark. The Arc is a gigantic, 164-foot arch in the middle of the world’s largest traffic roundabout. Originally commissioned by Napoleon to celebrate his military victories, the arch was finally finished in the 1830s. The Unknown Soldier of WWI lies at the base of the arch, with a flame that is ceremoniously lit each evening. An underground tunnel is the only way to reach the arch, as trying to cross the several lanes of manic motor vehicles darting around the roundabout is suicide (it is quite frightening to look down from the platform at the top of the arch down to the roundabout, as the cars and trucks weave toward seemingly chaotic destinations in a mass of confusion).
Finally, we take in Musee d’ Orsay, and I am stunned by the spectacle of the dizzying number of the impressionist masterpieces.
We stop at a festive outdoor market which has taken over a street and purchase a hunk of a blend of cheeses (a combination of goat, cow, and sheep milk), and some bread. This we treat ourselves to as we sit at a bench along the Seine.
Lit up at night, the inner plaza of the Louvre is stupendous. As is the National Academy of Music (The Opera House).
On our final day in Paris, we ride a packed train to Versailles, the magnificent, grand extravagance of French royalty-palace of Louis XIV. Versailles was the King’s version of a “hunting lodge.” The palace is so opulent that it led to the outrage which catalyzed the French Revolution. Inside, the rooms of the palace have walls and ceilings filled with Renaissance paintings and sculptures. We walk down the grandiose “Hall of Mirrors,” filled with sparkling chandeliers and site of the Treaty of Versailles (photo at right). Indeed, each room contains a stupendous fireplace and chandelier. The grounds of the palace contain geometric, formal gardens, fountains, pools, and sculptures. There we also view the Cathedrale de Chartres, a breathtaking cathedral using Gothic architecture.
Large numbers of people in Paris have a dog on a leash. In fact, dogs are often welcomed into Paris restaurants (in one case, I observe four happy dogs just inside the doors of a bar).
Roughly, not including our lodging, our expenses in Paris were approximately $60 (Euro dollars) per day.
Florence and the Region
We arrive at the Paris train station for our trip to our next destination: Florence, Italy. Our loading dock for the train is oddly packed with a large battalion of about 100 commando-like soldiers, who boarded our train in full uniform.
We depart Paris on a high-speed “sleeper train” to Florence, hoping we are not heading for the Russian front. Foolishly, I did not think, earlier in the day, to buy much in the way of food for the train trip-passing up all those delicious, open markets in Paris. As a result, I went a full day with nothing more than salad, bread and a small amount of cheese. Involuntary fasting in this land of ancient Catholic piety…
The train ride was quite smooth and quiet, which allow us to get a good few hours of sleep in our cramped, bunk-bed quarters. We awake to a rising sun over the snow-capped Swiss Alps on the horizon. Our first stop is Lusanne, Switzerland. We notice no hand-to-hand combat at the station, and are relieved. The commandos will apparently not be pressing us into bloody battle.
With no food to be had on the train, I desperately and hungrily hope for nourishment at the Lusanne station. But we find no restaurants or vending machines. Euro dollars are not taken, nor are credit cards. One shop is found, but it had just closed two minutes earlier. Without food or water for nearly a day, I began hallucinating. I have cheese, but my knife was confiscated at JFK. In a panic, I start breaking off pieces of cheese with my fingers, and eat voraciously and ravenously. Keeping in the spirit of canine-friendly Paris, we notice there is a poodle and German Shepard being kept in the berth next to ours on the train. Perhaps I should end my vegetarian diet…
Florence is a city that seems to have been constructed as a work of Renaissance art. The city is full of masterpiece sculptures and buildings with highly-detailed ornamentation.
Upon arrival at the Florence train station, we strap on our backpacks and set out for our list of most-desired lodging (it was only in Paris that we had advance lodging reservations). The “must-do” recommendation (it was almost a command) was that we stay at a place called La Scaletta. The friend back in Gainesville has stayed there on his previous trip to Florence, and became convinced that it was unmatched in quality. Our guidebooks agreed.
But how could a place widely recognized as being amongst the most impressive, moderately-priced lodging in Florence have any vacancy? I was silently pessimistic. We had not, after all, made reservations 9 months in advance, and assumed the staff would laugh at us when we asked about vacancy.
Somehow, miraculously, they have one room left, and it was large enough for the 3 of us. An extremely large room, and again moderately priced. The hotel had a feature that we were now well-versed in: a long, winding marble staircase of 101 steps leading to our room. We usually opt, however, to use the tiny elevator up to our 3rd floor room (an elevator so tiny that it barely fit one, yet we sometimes squeezed two and even three into it).
What makes La Scaletta so rewarding? The reason it is THE place to stay in Florence? The hotel possesses a wonderous rooftop garden. During our stay in Florence, we were to frequent this place, as it gave us sunshine and a eye-popping, panoramic view of the Florence skyline. And kept on this rooftop was a tortoise-apparently the hotel pet.
Day One in Florence. We walk to Santa Croce, a Gothic church with very tall ceilings, indescribable stained glass, and containing a number of famous tombs: Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei, Machiavelli. The church also contains the most impressive collection of paintings and sculpture of any church in Florence.
Fronting the church is the stupendous Piazza Santa Croce. Overall, the piazzas in Florence, such as Santa Croce, are colossal, monumental expanses.
We were to immediately realize that Florence is apparently the capitol of the world in leather goods. (And the Santa Croce environs seemed to be the leather epicenter, as the piazza was surrounded by countless leather venders.) Knowing this, my fiancé had given me explicit instructions: “If you see a leather jacket for about $50, buy it for me.” We stop at a few vending booths. At one, we spot what appears to be quality jackets that fit the description of what my fiancé is looking for. I let the vendor know what I’m looking for. “I know exactly what your fiancé looks like,” he says, “and I know the jacket that is perfect for her. She will look spectacular in this! Here! Feel the buttery softness of this lambskin jacket.” I tell him my price instructions. We haggle down the price. It is marked at $395. He eventually says he can give it to me for $150 euro dollars. He whips out his calculator. “$120 American dollars! Tell your fiancé that such a jacket could not be found anywhere for $50.” I’m helpless in the face of this rapid-fire salesmanship, and pull out my credit card-realizing that I’ve exceeded my $50 limit.
The next day, by the way, we return to this vendor as one of my travel companions would like to buy a full-length leather jacket. Just for fun, I try on a black leather “bomber” jacket, just to see my look in such a jacket. Mistake. There are now two vendors, and they are all over me like machine-gunning dive bombers. I loudly shout that I have ZERO need for a jacket, since I own a similar one at home, and I therefore have ZERO intention of buying one today. Besides, I’ve already exceeded my $50 limit for my fiances’ jacket!! It does no good. By putting on the jacket, I am doomed. I WILL buy the jacket. “You look absolutely GORGEOUS in that jacket!! GORGEOUS!! It fits you perfectly!! You’re GORGEOUS! Your fiancé will love you!” I have no defense against what is the most impressive display of salesmanship I have ever been subjected to. He whips out his calculator again. The $400 jacket is marked down. “Both this and your fiances’ jacket for $250, which is a great deal that I am giving you only because you were kind enough to buy a jacket from me yesterday!” Suddenly, shockingly, my credit card is out again, and I’m now paying for TWO jackets and my $50 limit is now a distant, forgotten memory, as I ascent to a $250 price for the two.
The most important sales pitch did not come from the salesman, however. While there, another woman was there to buy two jackets. She told me that her friend works at a leather shop. The friend saw the quality and price of the jackets being sold by the vendor, and she was extremely impressed. That was it. I was sold…
Later, I end up buying a lambskin tri-fold wallet I actually needed.
We find ourselves ready to climb the tower next to the Duomo of Florence. Again, the endless, narrow marble stairs. But again, the view from the top is amazingly worth the drudgery of the climb (photo at left). Throughout my stay in Florence, both at the top of the tower and on the streets, I was unable to stop taking photos. Everywhere I looked, I saw things that were urban design gems. Picturesque, human-scaled, quaint, breathtaking.
Our first museum in Florence was Palazzo Vecchio. Contained within are fabulous, immense paintings and sculptures. Also contained within was the Florence city commission auditorium, so large, grand, and filled with sculpture and paintings that it made my Gainesville city commission auditorium back home, by comparison, look like a tiny outhouse.
We visit the center of artistic expression in Florence: The stunning, magnificent Piazza della Signoria is the most astounding piazza in all of Florence. The piazza is lined with a number of quite dramatic sculptures and presents a grandiose view of the surrounding building facades (photo at right). In 1497, it was the venue of the famous “bonfire of the vanities,” at which followers of a fanatical monk heeded his call to toss their worldly goods into the flames (later, this same monk was to be hanged and burned in this piazza, accused of being a heretic…).
Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”) is an elegant bridge over the Arno River. It is packed with shops, and was built in 1345 to replace a bridge swept away by a flood. In 1593, the Medici Grand Duke Ferdinando I, decided to evict what he believed were unpleasant retailers on the bridge-blacksmiths and butchers. He replaced them with goldsmiths, silversmiths and jewelers. Ever since then, the bridge has been devoted to such retail commerce. The bridge is world-renown for its commerce, which became apparent to us as it was jammed with wall-to-wall tourists and endless display cases of what appeared to be very fine jewelry, not to mention food and leather.
Florence has noticeably more food markets downtown, more wine shops, more leather, and more small retailers, overall, than Paris.
First thing next morning, we are off to Gallery Academia, a curiously plain, modest building given what it holds-the David statue by Michelangelo. David is all that he is billed to be. A stupendous sculpture. The Gallery also contains a number of fascinating, unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo.
The Duomo cathedral in Florence. Completed in 1436, it took 14 years to complete just the dome (which stands 292 feet high), and today, it symbolizes Florence in the same way that the Eiffel Tower symbolizes Paris (photo above left). We find it to be an enormous spectacle inside.
Beside the Duomo is the Baptistery. Most notable are the bronze-paneled doors. Inside, we found Byzantine art on the ceilings, including scenes depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, their expulsion, Hades, the 12 apostles, coffins with the dead descending to hell or ascending to heaven, the final judgment, and the arch angels.
The weather in Florence when we were there in late April, was nearly perfect.
Florence was noticeably more dirty, grimy and noisy than Paris. Enormous platoons of wild-eyed, maniac Italians on scooters and motorcycles-the Florence equivalent to the obnoxious air boats in Florida-form ear-shattering packs that race up and down the Florence streets 24 hours a day.
The streetlife in Florence is nearly 24 hours a day. Even after 10 pm, the streets were alive with fun-loving, sociable people enjoying the evening. And both night and day, the streets are filled with the most sumptuous smells of food imaginable.
There are very few street trees in Florence, unlike Paris.
Sadly, we fail to see the Uffizi Palace. Even though we arrived first thing in the morning to beat the long lines, we failed to realize that on May 1st, the Palace would be closed.
Instead, we walk the beautiful streets. Florence is a city that seems to have been constructed as a work of Renaissance art. The city is full of masterpiece sculptures and buildings with highly-detailed ornamentation.
We rent a Fiat Punto to drive from Florence to towns to our west. Our average speed on the autostrada was 90 mph in order to keep up with the flow of Italian traffic. (Rather harrowing due to the rain and narrow lanes, but when Dom “Mario Andretti” Nozzi took the wheel, he insisted that he should toss out his rear view mirror because “what is behind me…is not important.”) We discover that the highway signage is much clearer about directions than are the signs on American highways-perhaps out of necessity, given the relatively high speeds (and, therefore, the abbreviated reaction time) of Italian drivers.
First stop: Pisa. Perfect weather for shooting photos of the marble bell tower, better known as the Leaning Tower of… Unfortunately, we did not have the time or patience to wait in the long line at the tower for the opportunity to climb the tower, which has recently been opened again to those wishing to ascend to the top of it (and the courage to do so). The tower stands 179 feet tall. It is now 15 feet out of perpendicular due to its leaning history.
We drive to Lucca. Built as a defensive rampart almost 500 years ago, Lucca was a medieval city built over more ancient Etruscan and Roman settlements. The town turns out to be surprisingly delightful. Medieval in design with a gridded, connected, walkable, compact, Renaissance street layout and character. The entire town is surrounded by a very tall medieval fortification wall built to repel the marauding Florentine hordes of that age. I tell one of my travel companions-a county commissioner-that we need to build such a wall (“A wall to fight against sprawl!”), instead of what is now proposed, which is a “urban service line” on a map. The wall, after all, would be so obvious that even a schoolchild could understand that the city should not sprawl beyond it.
46 miles west of Florence, Lucca is a very quaint, charming town.
Lucca’s surrounding fortification wall is topped by a very romantic paved greenway trail, canopied with a tunnel of trees and filled with community residents out for a stroll, a jog or a bicycle ride. It is a “social condenser” on which the citizens socialize and interact as neighbors with their fellow residents. An extremely rich sense of community is found on this wall. The trail serves as a “serendipity conduit.” It is a perfectly safe, enchanting place for lovers to walk hand-in-hand (photo at right).
Lucca is a city to walk and explore. Surprise awaits at each intersection as you walk down its narrow, medieval streets. With buildings hugging the sidewalks, there is an extremely comfortable sense of enclosure that makes walking the streets delightful-unlike American streets, which are so wide with big parking lots and big setbacks that the rare pedestrian feels unsafe and over-exposed.
Piazza Napoleone in the middle of town is the most perfectly designed square I have ever experienced.
We dine at the Da Leo dei Filli Buralli restaurant. It is superb, authentic, vibrant. The ambience is outstanding. Inside, the authenticity creates problems, as the menu contains no English translations of the menu items. Only able to understand a few of the appetizers on the menu, I mistakenly order a “rigatoni” dish as my 1st course, and a “pasta” dish as my 2nd course. Our waiter laughs and asks, “due”? “Si”, I said. “Due.” He laughs because as it turns out, I had unknowingly ordered two rigatoni dishes. But the basil rigatoni they served me was, by far, the best rigatoni dish I had ever tasted. “I’ll have tre rigatoni!!”
Lucca was, in my opinion, the best city we experienced in Italy.
From Lucca and La Spezia, we train to Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre is five isolated, nearly unreachable coastal villages perched on sea cliffs. Their almost inaccessible location probably explains why they remain so cute, quaint, and walkable. In such a setting, they have been able to largely escape the degradation of being designed for cars and tourists.
The villages were originally built higher up on the cliffs to protect against marauding pirates. In total, the five villages today contain approximately 6,500 residents.
By far, it is best to travel to Cinque Terre by train, which we did.
We arrive in Riomaggiore. Unfortunately, we are greeted by a chilly rain, which must be common for a seaside region. In hopes of waiting out the rain, we have lunch in a tiny town café. We order the pesto pizza and pesto gnocchi’s. They are both outstanding. It is, by far, my biggest lunch meal ever. I gobble down two servings of gnocchi’s and one and a half pizzas.
By the end of lunch, the relentless rain continues, but we refuse to be denied an exploration of Cinque Terre. We set out on the now cobblestoned “Via dell’Amore”path (Walkway of Love) that links the five villages. Looking back toward Riomaggiore as we reach the first bend in the path, the scene is of a dramatically placed little town spilling down from the steep cliff above the sea (photo at left).
Our progression along the path is stopped after Manarola, the second village. A gate blocks the way, suggesting disrepair ahead on the path. Reluctantly, we turn back to seek out lodging for the night.
Both Riomaggiore and Manarola contain vast areas of terraced vineyards and citrus on their steep farm fields, just outside of the pastel-colored buildings of the villages. In a Riomaggiore vineyard, we spot whitewashed wooden figurines built to look like workers in the field. Italian scarecrows?
It is in Riomaggiore that we find a hotel room (the Locanda Hotel) after a great deal of searching and being told that there was no vacancy. But again, our room is very modestly priced at $90 for the 3 of us, and have a third floor window facing the bay, which gives us superb views of the village and the sea. Which means, of course, lots of stairs to climb again. But, oh, what awaits us at the top makes it all worthwhile.
We lay in bed in the early evening with our windows flung open-listening to the pleasant sounds of a small Italian village. Wafting up to us is the sound of happy, animated villagers enjoying life on their cute little streets. No sirens. No leaf blowers. No cars. No helicopters. We are not in Kansas anymore.
For dinner, we sample “fruit of the sea” and “fruit of the vine” at Trattoria Lalampara-excellent village ambience with a grand view of the sea.
The next morning, villagers laugh as they look up to our hotel room and see me dangling my feet from the window (photo at right). Craftsmen below are laying in new cobblestone on a streetside stairway as I watch the locals walking to work.
Soon, I am at an outdoor café enjoying fresh foccacia pizza with tomatoes and oregano.
We are back on the road. This time, it is the rural roads of Tuscany, an extremely picturesque region of central Italy. The hills and farms of Tuscany are covered with rolling fields of wheat, vineyards, and olive trees.
First stop is the well-preserved medieval town of San Gimignano. Lots of strikingly beautiful towers (originally 72, now 14). Lots of cobblestone streets. Lots of brick archways. And lots of tourists. Indeed, it does not seem like a real town where people live, but more like a theme park. Still, it is worth the visit. At our restaurant, I accidentally order a “Tuscany pate sampler.” Not a dish to order if, like me, you are a vegetarian. Have my first taste-in years (no, wait…ever!!)-of ground goose liver, goat kidneys, sheep intestines…
Siena. City of the Virgin. Founded by Augustus. Another extremely impressive medieval town. Lots of narrow, cobblestoned streets. Stunning vista terminations. Handsome buildings. Countless outdoor cafes. Gigantic churches.
Shockingly, in the summer of 1348, 65,000 residents of Siena died of the plague (The Black Death).
The Siena Duomo is very dramatic, yet inside, is quite dreary with its dark colors. Started in 1200, it was completed in the 1400s. Over 200 busts of popes and Roman Emperors are found inside.
For dinner, we are serenaded by street performers playing Italian songs on an accordion and flute.
Siena, I’m told, has a fantastic, human-scaled street system. Sure enough, the next morning, I am walking the labyrinth of streets in Siena-so narrow at times that I needed to stand sideways to let a car pass. I walk to the edge of the city. Looking out at outlying, sprawling Siena through an archway at the fortification wall of the medieval city, I feel as if I am looking through the gates of hell. The car orientation outside the city is so depressing and America-like outside its walls.
Lit up at night, the Piazza dell Campo-the main piazza of Siena-is magnificent (photo at right). In the morning, I again ascend countless steps (400, actually) to reach the top of the tower (Torre del Mangia) standing over this piazza (364 feet high). The views from here of the terra cotta rooftops of Siena and the outlying Tuscany hills are breathtaking. As I look down into the piazza, I try to imagine the bi-annual spectacle that takes place there. Twice each summer, the “Palio Race” is held there (first held in 1283). It is a mad, wild-eyed, bareback horserace featuring representatives from the 17 neighborhoods of Siena. Each neighborhood has its own trademark flag, and these are paraded before the race. The race is three times around the piazza-which has been covered with dirt for the madness-and lasts approximately 90 seconds. A palio is an embroidered banner, which is the prize for winning the race. That, and the pride of winning the race for the victorious neighborhood. Vast numbers of spectators watch from every imaginable vantage point surrounding the piazza. Someday, before I die, I must go back to observe the spectacle.
We drive like maniacs to return the Fiat in Florence. We catch the train to Venice, and just in the nick of time, as the train pulled out 30 seconds after we boarded. Whew!
Relieved to be on the train, we settle in and start sipping the Riomaggiore Locale Rosso wine we had smuggled aboard (restaurants in Italy tend to serve their “locale” wine as their house wine-and usually for the very affordable price of about $5.
Venice is a city of enchantment. A city built on water. It is a city with extravagant, artistic flair, and intricate architectural details in all its buildings.
The most romantic, picturesque city I have ever experienced. Many call it the most beautiful city in the world.
Filled with outdoor cafes, magnificent churches, magnificent museums and statues, very, very narrow alleys/walkways (so narrow that two people crossing each other on foot must stand sideways to let the other pass) and small canals plied by gondolas.
Our lodging here is at the Hotel Trovatore.
Without cars, Venice is very serene, peaceful and quiet-particularly in comparison to other large Italian cities.
Piazza San Marco is undeniably the center of Venice. In 1797, Napoleon called it “the world’s most beautiful drawing room.” It is the most important piazza of Venice, and contains many of the important attractions of the city. I ascend the San Marco bell tower (this time by elevator, thankfully), and enjoy outstanding views of the piazza and metro Venice.
Our first night there, we notice, to our amusement, that the piazza has 3 to 4 symphony orchestras that seem to be dueling each other as to which can play the most impressively and thereby attract the largest crowds. The music literally fills the piazza.
I visit the Ca’ Rezzonico Baroque mansion, containing the greatest ballroom in all of Venice, and several floors of Renaissance paintings (I am, by now, suffering from “masterpiece fatigue”…).
We have lunch at Piazza San Margareita at the touted Trattoria Pizzeria Antico Capon. I order the spaghetti al pesto and the pizza calzone. Both are delicious. (our “hero,” at left, waiting for his pesto at the Piazza)
Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) is worth a look. Construction started in the 12th century and was finished in the 14th century. It is a Gothic-Renaissance structure using with pink-and-white marble. Below the governing floors are the torture chamber and dungeon/prison.
Inside the dungeon, I am stunned by the thickness of the window-less cell walls. The dreariness of those dark cells must have been unspeakable. Leading into the dungeon from the palace is the “Bridge of Sighs”. Built in the 17th century, it was given this name because condemned prisoners being led to their execution crossed this bridge. It was said that the moans and sighs of the condemned could be heard from the Grand Canal.
In Venice, we frequently wonder about the law of the Mafia-that if we make a mistake, we will “swim with the fishes” later.
Oddly, we were to discover that despite all the delights it holds, Venice restaurants are noteworthy for serving very mediocre breads, compared to other cities in our travels. We were invariably given a basket of stale, cheap buns and slices of bread.
The Riverwalk in San Antonio, in Texas, creates an extremely vibrant, exciting street life atmosphere for that city. It struck me that Venice is a city that is ENTIRELY composed of such river walks.
In my several miles of walking in the neighborhoods of Venice, I was spellbound. In a few hours in one of my mornings there, I shot 3 rolls of film. Every time I turned around, there was a fantastically picturesque view. Walking the narrow streets so wonderfully enclosed by buildings, I felt extremely comfortable. Felt as if I was in a fairy tale. The “outdoor rooms” (the streets, the sidewalks, the squares) of Venice are outstanding.
We take the Venice train to Rome.
Rome has been home to two great empires of the western world: the Roman Empire (now the Roman Ruins) and the Christian Church (The Vatican).
At the Stazione Termini in Rome, we are immediately swarmed upon by hordes of seemingly helpful “tourist guides,” who turn out to be hawking tourists to stay in their hotels in Rome. (The Rome streets contain large hordes of restaurant barkers as well-urging you to sample their delicacies.) One especially articulate and aggressive “guide” directs us to the Daphne B&B, which sounds okay given its modest price and central location.
The B&B starts out as a stunning “small world” experience. Alyssa, the proprietor at the B&B, asks us where we are from. “Florida.” She tells us she used to live there in a city we have probably never heard of. “Gainesville.” Turns out that she graduated from Buchholz High School in Gainesville the same year one of my two travel companions graduated from that school. And her father, who visits the next day while we are there, is an anthropology professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, knows my friend and I by name, and played an important role in hiring one of my heroes at UF-Marvin Harris, the anthropologist, who is now dead.
In a scene from “Sparatcus,” one of the classic movies of all time, slave-leader Spartacus (played by Kirk Douglas) issues one of the most stirring lines in cinematic history by shouting to the assembled mass of slaves that “we march on Rome TONIGHT!!!!”
So we begin our own version of “marching on Rome” to track down our B&B. I highly recommend the Daphne B&B (named after the famous Apollo and Daphne sculpture at the Borghese). Click here for their web site.
Their price is quite moderate. Their hospitality is quite helpful-particularly for those guests who speak English (and are from Gainesville FL…). And their location puts you within walking distance of most of the important Roman treasures.
My first stop in Rome is, of course, Vatican City. Toured the immense St. Peter’s Basilica, which is gigantic and opulent beyond belief, and is the world’s largest church.
It was overwhelming. The basilica covers 18,100 square yards, is 212 yards in length, and contains a dome (designed by Michelangelo at age 72) which stands 435 feet in height and 138 feet in diameter. In 319, Constantine built the original basilica over the tomb of St. Peter, and the structure stood for over 1,000 years. The current structure was begun in 1506 and not completed until 1626. As I approach the basilica, I am walking across one of Bernini’s masterworks: the monumental Piazza San Pietro, complete with a surrounding colonnade of 284 marble columns and the statues of 140 saints.
From St Peter’s, I at first have trouble locating the Vatican Museum. But I wander in the direction of where my map of Vatican City says the Museum should be. Sure enough, I turn a corner and see a long line on a sidewalk. Found it.
Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is, of course, exquisite. It took the great man approximately four years to complete his frescoes. By the end of my tour of the Museum, my neck aches from all the time I spend looking up at the masterful ceilings…but like my long, endless climbs of winding stairways in Italy, the aching neck is worthwhile. The Museum contains a startling array of superb art and relics.
We visit the Spanish Steps (photo at upper left), and are amused to observe a film crew filming a scene of three ladies of the night passing two homeless men huddled around a fire. It is one of three film crews we see while in Rome.
The Trevi Fountain is stupendous. We learn later that night that the evening view, when the fountain is lit up, creates a dazzling display as well.
On my own again, I visit the Pantheon. Originally built in 27 BC and rebuilt in 120 AD, it is the best preserved building of ancient Rome. The hole at the top of its dome represents the “all-seeing eye of heaven,” and while I am there, rain streams in through the “eye” and falls to the marble floor where I stand. On such days, did the ancients believe that it was a sad day for a weeping God?
The bronze entrance doors are over 1,800 years old, and represent some of the only metal ornamentation in the Pantheon that survived the plundering the building was subjected to by various emperors and popes.
The Piazza Venezia is impressive, and fronts the Palazzo Venezia, also known as the “typewriter” or “wedding cake” because of its appearance. This was Mussolini’s residence.
I tour the ancient Roman Ruins-particularly the imposing Colosseum, the Roman Forum, the Arch of Constantine, and the former site of Circus Maximus (a chariot racetrack that held 300,000 spectators).
Construction of the Colosseum began in 72 AD. At its opening ceremony, over 500 exotic wild animals and hundreds of gladiators died in the arena. The arena held over 50,000 spectators. Still in existence are the below-grade passages where the animals were transported (see above). It occurs to me while looking at the structure from the inside that much of the design techniques used to build the Colosseum are still in use today to construct our contemporary sports stadiums. I try to picture what it must have been like to be a gladiator standing on the floor of the colosseum looking up at the crowd of spectators. It made me shudder.
The three of us go to the spectacular Galleria Borghese. A palace dating to 1613, where the Cardinal Borghese was to show off his incredible collection of art and artifacts. Here, our B&B proprietor suggests we use one of the audio recordings available for rent at museums such as this. The audio describes what you are seeing as you can carry the phone-like device around with you. Turns out they are actually quite informative. A cheap way to rent a tour guide.
Unfortunately, because no umbrellas, cameras, or bags are allowed inside, I wait in line for 30 minutes to check my stuff behind a desk (and then another 15-minute line afterward to retrieve it). As a result, I miss a portion of the gallery as visitors are required to have reservations, and our reservation period runs out of time before I see the entire gallery. I realize that Il Duce would have never tolerated such inefficiency…But nevertheless, what I DID see inside is outstanding.
That night we enjoy dinner with our B&B proprietor and her parents. I discuss deep anthropological theory (cultural materialism) with the father, and soak in the enjoyment of another vibrant outdoor café during our dinner. “When in Rome, do as the Romans,” so we engage in a boisterous discussion about urban design, Italy, politics, and other theories, as we enjoy another delightful meal, this time at the Campo de Fiori. Afterwards, we again sample some Italian gelato at Piazza Navona, said to possess Rome’s best gelato. The gelato place we sample is rated #1 in Rome by the New York Times for its gelato (Il Gelato Di San Crispino – do not miss this place). I sample their pistachio and lemon meringue pie. It is to die for! An amusing feature just outside the gelato shop: “Canine Parking” hooks just outside the door for “parking your dog.”
Campo de Fiori is mostly famous for being the venue of the public burning at the stake of Giordano Bruno, who was executed here for heresy, as accused by the Inquisition. His statue in the center looks down upon the square.
It is here, too, that I walk through a very lively outdoor market that is held here each morning.
That morning, I sample a Sicilian-style canola-a favorite pastry my Italian mother made when I was a boy. Scrumptious!
Another day, we are wandering through Piazza Navona, enjoying the animated activity within, and at night, enjoying more delicious Italian wine and pasta at an outdoor café. It is 9 pm, and obvious that downtown Rome is more alive than ever on the streets at such a late weekday hour. The 17th century piazza is quite large, and lined with Baroque palaces. Three fountains grace this piazza. Formerly, it was the site of Emperor Domitian’s stadium. The piazza was built over the ruins of the stadium, which held Roman circus’, jousts, and carnivals.
Overall, it becomes clear to us: Rome was, indeed, NOT built in a day…
This YouTube video consists of photos I shot during my travels in Paris and Italy in 2002: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBM8VPehfb4
November 2011 trip to Rome, Florence, Montepulciano, Cortona and Venice
Dom and Ann spend a few wonderful days in Rome, train north to spend a few fabulous days in Florence, train south to spend a few fantastic days in Montepulciano, train north to spend a few lovely days in Cortona, then train north to finish with a few stunning days in Venice.
While in Florence, we had lunch at Trattoria Mario’s, a vibrant, authentic little diner. The food was outstanding, and the staff was fun-loving. Our table gave us an excellent view of the cooks preparing meals in the kitchen. (See photo of the trattoria on the right.) Very close to us, a cook who’s white cook hat said “Romeo” had an enormous slab of Florentine beefsteak that he expertly chopped into steaks with his large, quite sharp meat cleaver. I left to use the restroom, and on my return I find that Ann has been gazing at the chopping so intently that she has been swept into the kitchen area and had a cook’s hat placed on her head by the kitchen cooks. As I walk back to our table, I spot Ann with a big smile on her face in the middle of all of the trattoria cooks. Perhaps the cutest thing I have ever seen.
We both thoroughly enjoyed Montepulciano. I would now call that town my favorite of all the cities and towns I have visited in Italy.
While I know that other ethnicities have admirable traits, as an Italian I am proud to know that Italians are the best in many, many ways. While in Italy, I was reminded that Italians have the best cars, food, gorgeous women (and men), gelato, ancient architecture, wine, art, transit & cities. Molto buona!
However, Italians are second-rate when it comes to music and military might. Everywhere we traveled in Italy, Italians were listening to popular American songs. Very few seemed to listen to Italian music. And the Italian military over the past century shows quite well the old adage that Italians would rather love than fight. Make amore, not guerra!
Ann and I were astounded by the high percentage of Italian women who are drop-dead gorgeous and glamorous. I speculate that one possible explanation for this is a virtuous cycle in Italy: In a culture where beauty is so highly valued (art, cars, architecture, streets, etc.), some women worked very hard to look very, very attractive. This group of women grew to the point where Italy came to have a reputation as a place where beautiful women lived. That attracted even more beautiful women to move to Italy. Many women in Italy who are not beautiful then have roughly two choices to be competitive (i.e., be attractive to men compared to other women, and to be generally admired): (1) Move from Italy because they are unable to compete with the beautiful women in Italy; or (2) Work very, very hard to become beautiful. Both of these factors, over time, have increased the percentage of relatively beautiful women in Italy.
“Pici,” a rustic, homemade, thick and chewy spaghetti pasta is served in a great many restaurants in Tuscany. It is DELICIOUS!
Most Americans have grown up in communities that are utterly awful and unlovable. Huge, high-speed roads everywhere. Giant, deadening asphalt parking lots that create a swiss cheese lunar landscape. Terrible modern architecture. So when I arrive in Italy and walk its medieval, charming, romantic, ancient streets, I am thoroughly joyous by the spectacular beauty all around me. I can hardly believe how wonderful the ancient streets and buildings are to me. And it occurs to me that spending my entire life in the awfulness of American communities means that when I see such charm in Italy, the contrast is so vividly striking — so absolutely night and day – that I am able to thoroughly appreciate what is around me in the Italian town. In other words, it takes a lifetime of living in a world of misery to truly enjoy the unsurpassed charm of these old villages. By contrast, many Italians have lived with this wonderful charm for their entire lives. Do they truly appreciate what they have? Or is the grass always greener somewhere else? Will they fight to protect their lovable communities, or ruinously seek to emulate America?
Here is a YouTube slide show of our trip in Italy in 2011: