A day in Italy. An afternoon with Florence. (continued from previous blog)

I use to be in love with the Florence airport, I was a bit cool to Florence herself. Too crowded, too noisy, too much traffic, all the usual blather. So now, in my fickle way, I find myself newly in love with the city of Florence and in hate with the airport. Mood swings? Love on the rebound?

bronze of florence. croatian warrior, greekPart three. An afternoon and early evening in Florence

FLORENCE – Boy. I am all over the map here. You remember my undying love for the Florence airport? Well, it died. Hate is such a strong word, but I have thought about it and decided that, yes, so far I think I do hate the new renovation there and what they did to the car rentals area is just beyond contempt. And at the same time, while I use to be in love with the Florence airport, I was a bit cool to Florence herself. Too crowded, too noisy, too much traffic, all the usual blather. So now, in my fickle way, I find myself newly in love with the city of Florence and in hate with the airport. Mood swings? Love on the rebound?

So, there we were at the ugh airport dumping off our rental car. We squeezed our keys into the not quite key-sized window slot to the agent. She has a mini rebellion going on, in what is surely a reaction to the mess they’ve made of those offices. All she can see out her window is a legion of cranky and confused customers. STANDING IN LINE OUTSIDE. Is it any wonder that she has blocked out that view with computers, notices, warning, and instructions about what you can do with your problem. And what you will and will not do at this window. OK, stepping away from the airport.

And into a taxi waiting to whisk us into the city. I usually take one of the reliable every fifteen minutes like clockwork buses. But with two people it starts making sense to grab a taxi. Plus Midge said “we are taking a taxi.” We give him the street address of our hotel and know we’ve got a good driver when he instantly processes the address and says “Orto di Medici” before we add that. Cool. We’re good to go. And because he knew our hotel we ask about our restaurant for tonight. We think they are somewhat near each other. He’s not as solid on that but thinks he knows about it. “Terrible neighborhood? Good food but people doing drugs on the street? Don’t go after dark? Is THAT the place you are talking about?” Oh cripe. What have we done now? Innocents abroad.

Midge at Orto di Medici, Florence, ItalyA few minutes and a few euros later (20 euros) we are in the hotel and I see why Midge says it is her. Note that Orto di Medici is the only hotel we have on our recommends list in Florence. It’s a three star, convenient, and clean as a whistle kind of place. Very pretty. Our room is very nice, on the top floor with a big terrace with topiary trimmed trees framing a city/roofscape view that includes old palazzos and even a duomo. The duomo or a duomo I never could figure out. Anyway, nice view. Per noi? Why thank you. Riccardo at the desk, the man who handled our phone reservations, remembers us from that and we get on famously right from the start. Does he, as a hep young man about town, know about our restaurant? He says yes, that address is only a couple minutes’ walk away but he’s sure he’s never been there. And he isn’t any too positive about that part of the neighborhood either. Oh, fine.

Gentlemen. Start your pedometers. Ours is an Omron. Our office’s physical trainer, Liz from Enerjoy Studios, got everyone on Team Vreeland back in Maine one of these gadgets and we wear them constantly. I’ve had mine on the whole trip and it’s on right now. Whoa, wait where is it? When did I take that off? Can one have too many pockets? Ah, there it is. Well, we put some miles on it during our afternoon and evening in downtown Florence. Florence was fun to the brim with happy campers shoulder to shoulder up and down its streets. We have short and long term walking goals for these streets and here they are:

pop up map of Florence, ItalyShort term walking goals: find the museum named Palazzo Medici Riccardi. Medici hotel, Medici museum, the name is everywhere. They’ve been dead and gone for centuries and wouldn’t they be happy to know how omnipresent they still are today? We want to find that museum because that is where the recently discovered and newly restored full size Greek bronze is being shown. Apoxyomenos, the athlete of Croatia, was found in the waters off Croatia but Italians did the restoration so it seems only right that they get to show it off first.

Long term goal: Find the restaurant where we have reservations. Guess we have to check it out in broad daylight.

The art show is in a fine big old palazzo. We get totally turned around and around finding it but hey, more miles for our pedometer and we’re seeing Florence. Our pop-up map has saved us once again. If you don’t have one, get one now. We’ll wait. Aren’t they cunning? They fit in your pocket and snap open and snap shut somehow and are a few inches wide when open rather than bedsheet-size. So very hard to look cool with a map wrapped all over you on any given windswept foreign street corner. So, all set? Start walking.

lancia limo in museum in Florence, ItalyThe palazzo is as good as the show. We’ve never been in this museum before. Which just goes to show, you don’t have to go to the Pitti Palace with lines going down the block to have a good time here. There are a million things to do. Pick one without a line. This one is covered with massive stone plaques, oversized historic busts, and all that is just in the courtyard. And what is this sitting inside the walls of the palazzo behind eleventy foot tall wrought iron gates? An appropriately large and grand long black limo. The Lancia Thema. Who names these cars? Wikipedia says Themes (singular thema) were “administrative units of land in the Byzantine Empire”. You mean, like “acres”? And I find that name in the web world and it is a real Lancia name but nothing I find on the web looks like this one. What a whale. A rather graceful whale but still a surprise considering we are not in Dallas but here in downtown Europe. Assume it is a homage to Mercedes’ Maybach.

While we are waiting for our group to be let into the featured show (every five minutes) the place sprang to life around the limo. As the driver with headset and black shades stepped out of the car, a Carabinieri stepped smartly from a guardhouse. The doors appeared to open elegantly by themselves in some automatic way. Is that possible? Did I dream that? Regardless, a guy in a suit disappeared through one back door, all the doors closed, the giant iron gates opened. And they were gone.

Now, where were we? Right. Art stuff. The bronze was fine. But nothing bronze will ever match the rough shock of entering the presence of the Bronzes of Riace. Certainly not this relatively polite, passive Croatian warrior. The Riace ones would run this one around the school yard and take his lunch money for sure. They just had Do Not, repeat NOT Mess With Me written all over them in the most stunning and heroic way possible. They are in Reggio di Calabria. If you are ever on the tip of the toe of the boot that is Italy where you take the ferry across to Messina in Sicily stop in and see them.

tiny yellow car in Florence, ItalyIn spite of preferring the Riace bronzes we were glad we saw this museum and this bronze. There was a great crowd and they were managing it well and being accommodating. Signs said they were open till 11 pm. And it is always fun people and car watching on the streets of Florence. This tiny yellow bird of a car was at the exact opposite end of the auto spectrum from the giant limo in the museum isn’t it? Stay tuned for the rest of the story: Dinner in Florence. Coming up next in Part Four.

Water, water everywhere. Life on an Italian peninsula.

CASTIGLIONE DEL LAGO, Umbria, Italy – Not a bad place to be on a sunny day. The “del Lago” part you’ve probably already figured out is all about being right on the lake. Strangest, no – I think the chamber of commerce people would say most unique – geography I can imagine. First, you have this nice round lake in the middle of the Italian peninsula. There are some hilly approaches to the lake but mostly on the far east and some on the north. On the south it is all an agricultural plain around the lake, same with the west where this peninsula, for no reason at all, inexplicably juts straight out into the lake. And there it is. A long, tall rock in the middle of a lake. How did that happen?

I suppose it really doesn’t matter how it came to be there. The point here is that the peninsula is very interesting and when you get up there, the town built there on the peninsula has water on all sides. And you have enough elevation to pull up a gelati and enjoy the view. Look, isn’t that Panicale on that hill over there? If I squint I think maybe it is.
castiglione del lago in umbria, on an italian lake

When you first drive through the main gate you will likely be parking in front of a big palace where there are art shows and exhibitions. That palace is connected to a long skinny defensive corridor to an imposing fortress where the views get really grand and wild. You can sometimes see outdoor movies in the center of the fortress on a summer’s eve. Been there, done that, quite liked that. People smoke, they talk, kids run around, there is a long intermission. Very much not like a night at your multiplex back at the mall in your home town. Meanwhile, along the main, and almost only street, are frame shops, books stores, restaurants, hotels, and pastry and fruit stores of every stripe. And lots of stores with mounted cinghales where you can get wild boar sausage, wine, cheese and other necessities of la dolce vita. And down by one arched entry to the city (you can just barely see it in one of our photos here) is an eccentric “antique” store. Its merchandise is all over the map, just like the owner. He’s tiny and busy as a bee. We usually talk in Italian but every now and then he surprises us with his English. Something about South Africa? I disremember exactly where he misspent his youth. But what I do remember is pushing in through the clutter and inching my way sideways like a crab past decorative farm tools and glass dishes to the furniture cavern at the back and being kind of bowled over by the lofty, seemingly optimistic, prices. I expressed my “concern” over the cost there and the owner said “oh, you need my ‘cose povere’. We have a whole building full of poor things” He herded us out of his building, locking the door behind us, jumped on a long suffering Vespa and motioned for us to follow him. And we were off. The cinder block building he led us to was just a few blocks away, down the hill. And when he opened the doors it was like Ali Baba’s cave to us. Great, fun and funky stuff, dirt cheap. And choices? You bet. This was a nice size place and full to the rafters. In more, shall we say, our price range. We bought things we loved, he steered us to a cousin who is an aces restorer, we picked new marble tops for all of the pieces. That made them seem to match, we had them all stained to match, and a few months later we had a set of bedroom furniture to be proud of. They look old money but they cost hardly any money. And we got what we wanted.


Below the walled town itself the ground goes almost to sea level – ok, lake level. And there are beaches and ice cream vendors, and ferries to the islands and parks. And a nice drive around the peninsula. Being Italy, it is a bit of circuitous route with a baffling one way / non one way kind of pattern to it. Someone in their department of transportation decidedly thought about this way too long. But along the drive, on a sunny day anyway, the lake can be an almost unnatural Caribbean turquoise blue. And should a storm come up, I’ve seen that that blue can change to black water and white caps in a flash. When we took these pictures it was sort of an in-between kind of day. Just recently along this lake drive there is a new modern crop of sculptures that have sprung up. Their job seems to be to frame views of the lake the way their ancient ancestors in the city up above have framed their views for centuries. You remember Katia the broker of course. The people shown next to the sculpture are Katia’s parents celebrating life, good health and Italy on a summer day. Wouldn’t mind being there with them right now. Ciao, Mario, Ciao, Angela!

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland