Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Florence, Italy

Posted on 12/14/03

Here it comes! The granddaddy of ‘em all! Florence! Italian nirvana! The greatest place on Earth! I had been waiting to see Florence since 1994 and now I was finally here!

Well it will probably come to no surprise to you that with the colossal expectations I had for Florence that I suffered a smidgen of a letdown. No wait, a frickin’ huge smidgen of a letdown. I am sorry to report that Florence is not the greatest place on Earth. I’m not even sure if it’s the greatest place in central Italy. Florence is so over-run with tourists, even in November, that you hear more conversations on the street conducted in English than in Italian. In fact, the people on the street who do not have a camera dangling from some part of their bodies are in the pathetic minority. In fact, I am getting really tired of having to use the phrases “in fact” and “even in November,” nine times for each city in Italy. Let’s just establish a given from here on out that everywhere I go and everything that I do while I’m in Italy will include an intolerable horde of tourists and tourist-related aggravation, OK? Good.

Everything in Italy is so tiny and cute!

Due to the train schedule posted in the Riomaggiore train station having only a passing resemblance to the actual train schedule, it took me nearly all day to get to nearby Florence. Lonely Planet and about 15 fellow backpackers were adamant that I stay at the Archi Rossi hostel, near the train station. At this point, the words “near the train station” were more exciting for me than the words “Salma Hayak is here to see you,” so I headed straight for Archi Rossi upon arrival.

Archi Rossi was a frustrating study in duality. The rooms were great, but the German desk clerk guy, who if I had to guess, worked about 14 hours a day as he was always there, was easily the rudest, asshole hostel employee I have ever dealt with. The beds were very comfortable but the classic European toilet tank, which was mounted about six feet up the wall, didn’t have a lid, so if you dawdled at the sink long enough after a flush, the thing would give you a free baptism. The breakfast was huge and satisfying, but in order to get it served to you, one needed to jump through more hoops and ask more favors than is required to get a bill passed by Congress. There was free internet, but there were only three terminals servicing about 80 people that only worked for about 20 minutes out of ever hour and when/if they were up and running, one had to wait in line for half the afternoon and then deal with a download speed that could have tested the patience of Job. One minute I loved the place, the next I was muttering curse words and fantasizing about grabbing the ears of the dickhead desk clerk and smashing his forehead into the counter.

While one would have expected that with all the space, privacy and down time I had in Riomaggiore, that I might have left the place well rested and energized. Unfortunately it was quite the opposite. I stayed up late working each night and then during my one full day in the Riomaggiore, I physically destroyed myself on the Cinque Terre walk. It was clear that my mental and physical state was affecting my already under-whelming first impression of Florence. If that weren’t enough, I was starting to feel the effects of something I like to call “Almost Home Syndrome.” This is a common affliction among backpackers. Whether you’re on the road for two weeks or three years, something happens when you finally make plans to go home and the final leg of your journey begins to wind up. You begin to feel exceptionally home sick. You lose sight of whatever is in front of you and all you can focus on are the people you are missing, the food you plan to eat, the list of movies that you intend to see, etc. Also, the usual perpetual minor exhaustion that backpackers cope with starts to become more acute and you fantasize about the joys of sleeping in the same bed for more than three nights in a row and not waking up in the middle of the night, not knowing what city you’re in or which way it is to the bathroom.

In a nut, I was bummed out. Being aware of these issues is one thing. Dealing with them in a successful manner is another. I tried to take naps, but waking visions of decent Thai food and Timberwolves games kept me too keyed up to fall asleep. I planned laughably easy daily itineraries for myself, but I would still run out of gas by midday and plod back to the hostel for another 90 minutes of lying in my bed wide awake.

My general travel schedule went through a big adjustment while I was in Florence. Time was clearly running short and it seemed impossible to zip through the second half of Italy, all of Greece and then race back to Paris to catch my plane home. I stared at a map for two days before I formulated a new plan. Greece and Switzerland were out. At least as destinations prior to my holiday in the States. Since I was dragging anyway, I would slow my travels to a crawl, do Italy thoroughly and leisurely, meander back to Paris over the course of several days and finally go home without having completed my original itinerary. Who knew that you couldn’t thoroughly do western Europe in six and a half months? Whether I bulldozed straight for Switzerland and Greece upon my return from the States in January or let them go until spring would depend entirely on my mood and motivation at the time. No pressure. Take your time, do it right. Oh yeah, try to enjoy yourself. Check.

After negotiating the painful bureaucracy required to get breakfast at Archi Rossi and having my spiraling bad mood derailed by a friendly American who recognized my dismal state and heroically intervened with some affable conversation, I suited up for Florence. I had added a new component to my already hefty load of gear for city exploration. My longstanding problem with being unable to take low-light, long exposure pictures was finally solved with the purchase of a 13 euro, itty, bitty tripod, that was fully functional in every way, but could be broken down to the size of a fat, desk pen. I proceeded immediately to Florence’s impressive, dimly lit Duomo to play with my new toy. It worked like a wonder. Not only was I able to take crystal clear pictures in low light, but the novelty of being able to fold the tripod up and slide it into my pocket massaged my climaxing geek ego into a thick, giddy lather.

The Duomo ceiling

If you’re a sucker for up-high, panoramic photos of cities, then the climb to the peak of the Duomo’s dome is worth the six euro ticket and the water weight you’ll lose during the climb. From the floor of the Duomo, it looked to be about five stories to the top, but that was just the funky optical illusion of the dome playing tricks on me. It was actually closer to 15 stories of cramped, steep steps built back when Italians were all about 4’-11” and 90 lbs, so even someone of my modest bulk had trouble squeezing through the labyrinth of stairways. The climb was grueling. People were dropping like flies all the way up. Every floor had a tiny alcove that was just barely wide enough for one person to stand and rest while another scootched by, assuming that they weren’t both Americans Rube Tourists, then of course their combined girth made overtaking impossible. Every alcove had panting, beet red, profusely sweating people who, judging from the way they looked, you would have thought they had just sprinted full speed into town from Rome. I couldn’t mock these people too much, I was also sweating like a horse in a glue factory, but that was mostly due to the fact that I was wearing a jacket and it definitely was not jacket weather in the musty stairway. Being a very old city, the rooftops in Florence stand at a fairly uniform height of five stories making the Duomo’s dome one of the highest spots in all of central Florence. The uniform level, color and style of Florence’s skyline, while not breathtaking, is still pleasing to observe. I tried to cool myself down while I took countless pictures of the cityscape and then just stood and stared off into the distance for a long time. Looking out past the rooftops, I saw a plume of smoke, presumably from a controlled brush fire, rising up from the forest across the Arno River and beyond I could see the Pitti Palace at the top of the hill. The view transported me back about 500 years and kept me daydreaming for about 20 minutes before the number of people jostling me to pose for pictures became unbearable, so I slowly climbed back down to street level.

Ponte Vecchio

Saint Spirito

I headed for the water as I inhaled the first of three cups of gelato for the day to see Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge to survive Nazi bombing in World War II. Florence decided to immortalize the sight by lining both sides of the bridge with high priced, Rube Tourist jewelry shops. Yay. On the other side of the river I found and photographed the dullest looking church in all of Europe, Saint Spirito (pictured). For once I could honestly say that a European church was truly boring without worry that I was just being a spoiled church snob.

I was flagging at this point and considering whether or not to pack it in and head for the hostel, when it suddenly started to rain. I decided to take the hint and retired for one of the aforementioned futile attempts at a nap.

Archi Rossi has a wonderful dinning social area where people gather at night and watch one of the hundred or so, movies that they have on VHS tapes. While this atmosphere was nothing like the wine swilling, love-a-thon in Nice, it was still a pleasant way to spend the evening without having to spend any money or risk a drunken mugging. The only drawback of having a hostel-focused nightlife is that after a few too many beers, certain people feel misguidedly welcome to provide live music in the form of a 90 minute bongo solo. Thank God this was conducted out by the internet computers and not in the movie room (he wouldn’t have last 30 seconds in there as we were all engrossed in “Die Hard”), but one could dimly hear him hammering away with lunatic abandon even with the door closed. I’m not sure how the crowd in the internet area put up with it, but the guy broke all bongo endurance records before the desk clerk finally got off his ass told the guy to shut the hell up.

The battistero bronze doors. Shhh! Don't tell anyone, these are replica doors. The real ones are being refurbished.

Santa Croce

The next day was warm and rain-free, so I spent another four hours walking through the streets, trying to find the magic of Florence that everyone had been babbling about. I checked out the small but ornate battistero (baptistery) which has the distinction of being the oldest building in the very old city of Florence with it’s legendary gilded bronze door. Work on the battistero began in the 5th century and Dante was baptized here. Despite being directly across the plaza from the Duomo, I hadn’t noticed the building the day before simply because the Duomo is so much larger and eye-catching that taking note of the relatively tiny battistro when faced with the Duomo is like noticing your dentist standing next to Tom Cruise. After staring for a respectful amount of time at the battistero, I sought out and photographed Santa Croce church, which appeared to be designed by the same guy who did the Duomo, except that in this case he seemed to have phoned it in from the Italian Riviera because Santa Croce was only about 1/3 as ornate. The gypsy begging around Santa Croce was unendurable, so I quickly left, crossed the river and gave my best effort to get up to the Pitti Palace, but after running into two locked and chained gates, I gave up.

I had been avoiding it for two days, but I finally had little choice other than to wobble over to the Galleria del’Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David. I was about as enthused to traipse around another art gallery as I was to eat a live frog with mange, but I felt that I had to make an exception for David. He was after all the most famous sculpture in the western world and if I were him I’d be pissed if people passed up an opportunity to see me in order to go to their hostel to watch “Speed II.”

A photo from a modern unveiling of David. Check out the bug-eyes of the old lady on the right.

The Accademia has the most difficult to find entrance of any art gallery in Europe. In the absence of an obvious front door, I circled the entire building, tried to enter through the architecture school, then through the gallery exit before I finally found an unmarked side door that looked totally uninviting, but I went through anyway and found myself in the gift shop. I read through the Accademia’s lengthy list of exhibits and promptly had a debilitating attack of the Louvre Effect. My legs went weak, my eyes heavy and my stomach started groaning. There was no way that I was going to get 6.50 euros worth of enjoyment out of that place before I slipped into a coma. I walked back out knowing that I would probably slap myself in five years for frittering away my chance at seeing David, but my body and mind simply were not going to cooperate. Besides, I had seen and photographed the copy of David that’s situated outside the Palazzo Vecchio (pictured) and if I ever wanted to lie, I could crop the shit out of the photo, spruce it up with Photoshop and tell people it was the real thing.

Palazzo Vecchio. There's the fake David in the lower right hand corner.

I had initially anticipated that Florence would need a minimum of three days, but after two I was ready to move on to Rome. I ate an entire pizza by myself (not that difficult when you consider typical European portions) and managed to sleep like a baby for 10 full hours before departing for Rome.

Go to Rome

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©Leif Pettersen 2012