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Eighteen Rainy Hours in Florence

The train station at seven-thirty in the morning is a lot busier than it should be for a bunch of weary travelers who have just stepped off the night train from Paris and the walk along the platform seems endless. We are walking to the hotel, says the tour guide in her particular Italian accent. It is not a demand or an order, just a plain fact. The hotel is just across from the station and sits on the Piazza Santa Maria Novella right next to the church. The Hotel Universo a hotel that offers little more than a great location and a friendly lobby cat named Luna who provides tired travellers who sit on her couch a low purr and friendly nudge. It is grey and wet like it seems to be always in Florence and we wait in the tired greyness to drop off our bags and get some breakfast.
A day in Florence, about 18 waking hours is not a long time to be in the city that contains sixty percent of the Renaissance art that still exists in Italy, is the the creative home of both Leonardo and Michelangelo as well as Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Donatello and an almost endless list of lesser known but equally capable famous names. What kind of city could spawn such a tremondous surge of creativity and personal expression? We have a day to find out.

Every minute counts and with twenty-three people in tow the minutes pass faster than expected. The Piazza della Signoria at nine in the morning in the wind and the rain and we hear about the fake David and we stand in front of the loggia with its mythic statues of Perseus and the Medusa and if you are twenty years old and taking a moment in Florence you come here to meet others like you and you escape the rain under the roof of the loggia and perhaps discover something or someone that will make this place even more special.
But this is not us as we remain in the rain and listen about the history of the piazza and the movies we should now watch so that we can say that we were right there. Next we go to the Duomo says our guide and we follow her down the back streets twisting this way and that when a simpler route was available. The tour would seem short and not worth the money she was getting paid, so we see a bit of Florence off the main streets which is not an altogether bad thing. We come out of a alley and the Duomo explodes in front of us, a mass of green, red and white marble. Huge in scale it's too large to take in with just one look. It is called Santa Maria de Fiore, Mary of the Flowers and its dome like a huge blossom pushes into the sky in praise of the Creator. We walk around to the side and look down its length before we go inside and see what's under the third largest dome in the world behind St. Peter's in Rome and St Paul's in London, which we had just seen a few days earlier. It is in and out with a quick explanation of the frescoes in the dome. Now to Santa Croce and the tomb of Michelangelo says the guide and out into the rain and wind we go and by this tme most of us have spent the five euros to buy an umbrella from the street vendors. So far over the years. After seeing a cross section of Italian culture in the tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo and Rossini we make our way to the finish of the tour, a leather factory, for a demonstration on how to detect fake leather in the markets which is a pretty useless piece of information because all the leather is fake in the markets. All you need to remember is that you get what you pay for as long as you dont pay leather prices for a plastic copy. Too much time is spent here if you only have eighteen hours.

Ok guys, lets go to the Accademia and see the real David. It doesnt take long and by eleven thirty we are at the David and there is no queue and we walk right in which is a blessing. We quickly pay and find ourselvs standing outside the gallery and we catch our breaths for a moment in anticipation. We walk in and see the smooth and glowing David standing at the end of a large hall bordered by the rough skinned Slaves It is magnificent, beautiful, inspiring, humbling and the perfect example of the melding of concept and execution. We spend half an hour staring at it and walking around it and as quickly as we entered we seem to leave because there is so much to do and so little time. Our timing had been fortunate for there was now a substantial queue waiting in the mist to come in. That was fast, someone says as we head to the straw market and Porcellino. Its time to buy some souvenirs and we have some time for lunch before we go the the Ponte Vecchio. Can we stop at a bank machine, one asks and then another and another. And so we stop and stop and stop and time is going by. Through the Piazza Repubblica and then to the straw market. You guys have one hour and you might think about grabbing a panini while you're at it. We meet right here in an hour. They are excited by what they see and they drift through the aisles of everything, leather, ceramic, cloth, wood, every texture, any form. Porcellino sits qiuetly at the edge of the market, waiting for me, and I put a coin in its mouth and wish that I may return someday to put in another coin to wish the same wish again. The coin slips down the well worn and shiny snout and drops into the grate at its feet. See that? How it dropped through the grating. That means I get my wish. Here, you try, I say giving my daughter a coin. She tentatively places it in the bronze boar's mouth and then lets go. The coin slides down the worn tongue and bounces on the metal and lands on the stone surrounding the grate. There is a pause as she stares at the coin. What does that mean? she asks quietly. It means you dont get your wish. Really? Yes, really. That stinks! she replies. Try again, I suggest. She tries a new coin and this time it bounces on to the stone and then back onto the grate and through the bars and disappearing into the darkness below. Yippee, she says as she watches the coin drop. Redemption. Our activity has attracted a crowd and pictures are snapped as some of the other kids line up to have their wishes come true without really realizing yet that they already have. But life is wishes and so they wish for more and different things with the childish innocence that believes that all things are possible and any dream can come true. They rub the shiny snout of Porcellino like millions before hand taking with them some of those hopes, the hopes of the world. The afternoon slips by.

We gather again in the wind and mist and make our way to the Ponte Vecchio. I didnt believe it was a bridge when you pointed it out, one says. Standing at the mini piazza in the center of the bridge we look out over the Arno and down below we see some large fish hovering near the surface. You can make out the high water mark from the 68 flood, I say pointing across the river at a dark stain about eight feet up from the sidewalk. It is hard to believe this domesticated flow of water was capable of such savagery. Much of the artwork was damaged. I remember seeing news reports of weeping men and women shovelling mud out of the Duomo. A few stand and look out over the mistiness of the day and let the images of the river and the buildings on its banks become entrenched in their memories. Others are looking for a different sort of memory as they go from jewelry store to jewelry store seeing everything and finding nothing, until finally. there it is, the ring I'm looking for, she says. And now we can leave the bridge and slowly make our way back to the hotel. It is four o'clock and it will take about an hour. Our luggage is still in storage and we have yet to see our rooms and we are getting tired. But the fatigue is only temporary because there are still some hours left and many wonderful things yet to do.
The tour guide tells us to meet in the lobby at six thirty. Its not far to the restaurant, she says. We all sigh with relief for we have walked centuries today. Are we going to the disco tonight, an excited voice asks. Yes but that is much later, around ten o'clock, says the guide. There is a buzz of chatter and giggles as everyone leaves for their rooms with the prospect of new and magical things yet to come on their minds.

Supper is bowtie pasta that is creamy and delicious and the kids eat heartily and empty all the serving trays and you can hear them saying this is good and you can see the smiles on the waiters' faces as they offer more. We feel good and we have caught our third wind and we can't believe it is still the same day. The meal continues with farm cut baked chicken and fried cubed potatoes. It is basic and comforting and everyone eats well and we are all satisfied when we leave. Lets go to Vivoli for some gelato, I suggest. We are going to have the world's best ice cream. Is anyone interested and there is a gleeful shout as a hands go up signalling agreement. Is it really the world's best, one girl asks. I haven't ever had the world's best of anything, she says with the hopefullness that is found only in the young. Thats what I've been told, I say and she smiles, reassured. Now where is that place, the tour guide says as we walk down a dark street. I know its around here somewhere. We turn a corner down a narrow street and there it is and we all pile into the quiet little ice cream shop. It looks different I say. Yes, they remodeled last year the guide says and the kids line up staring at the many flavours. What's that and whats that they say pointing and small and large cups are being filled with many flavours. Oh I want the chocolate says one boy as he watches the largest cup being filled with the dark smooth ice cream. Its not cheap but it sure is good, he says. The girl with the question puts a spoonful in her mouth and she smiles. Its ....its....delicious, she finally says.
Back into the darkness with cups in hand and another experience had as flavours are shared and agreements are made that this is truly the best ice cream any of them ever had and that has to be the truth because thats what they will be telling everyone back home.

One last thing today, the disco and so we go back to the hotel and the kids do their best to get ready for something they have no idea about. Do I have to go, asks one of the shy boys. No, but you should, I say. Well, I dont think I'm going to go. You must go, some of the girls say. Everyone must go to the disco because this is Florence and some have heard about the disco from brothers and sisters and friends that have come before. It is a mythic place where strange and curious things can happen, where dangerous European boys are on the make for innocent girls from Winnipeg and glamourous and sexy European girls are out of the reach of the intimidated boys. But they all go and quickly they find a place on the dance floor and they stay close for protection as they move under the pulsating lights and blaring music. The shy one learns that there are young men in the world that have less rythm than he and soon finds a picture of himself on the large video screen in front of the floor labelled as "too cool" along with other faces labelled as "too cute" or "too sexy" and he is glad that he came. The next few hours go quickly and it is time to return to the hotel and call it a day, finally. It is only a couple of blocks and they laugh and talk all the way back to the hotel, hardly believing that this day has come and gone. There goes our eighteen hours in Florence, one says as he enters the hotel. Amazing, only eighteen hours, reply the kids as they disappear to their rooms full of their time in Florence.

 

Text by Bryen Lebar
Picture by Sandro Santioli


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