Last year, when I was in London for 3 months for the Study Abroad program with Sierra College, my roommate (Barbara) and I escaped to Florence to show Barbara’s friend around some of Italy for about nine days. One of the highlights for Barbara and me was to see Vanni, the infant son of Lorenzo, director of the Study Abroad site in Florence where Barbara, Dee and I were first roommates. I had been here when Vanni was “being cooked,” and had a chance to see the “baby bump” and meet Vittoria, but last fall we happened to visit Florence and see Vanni on the day he was one month old.
This trip, although Lorenzo and Vittoria and I have been in contact by phone, my trips away with Cheryl and my illness and then Vanni’s kept scrambling our plans for us to get together. His first birthday was on September 24, just after Cheryl and I arrived, but all of the stars didn’t align for our visit together until November 8, after Cheryl had flown home. I had forgotten how things had gone in MY house, with young kids having one cold after another, and Vanni seems to have carried the viruses from his daycare home with him, just as my kids did from preschool.
Finally, we agreed to meet at the Bar Rifriulo in the San Niccolo area of Florence, south of the river in a quiet, old-fashioned neighborhood.
I started out early—with a stop at the train station to purchase tickets for my trips to Spello and Bologna, while the lines were short in the early evening. After several years of going to the station to check on train schedules and buy tickets, I’m getting good at it. OK, maybe just “better” at it. No more mistakes about trains that DON’T run on Sundays—a critical issue, at times.
Next, I walked near the Duomo and the campanile, heading south down streets that are now very familiar to me. The sun was low in the sky, so the campanile was already heading into shadow, and the light was colored a little yellow, too.
On the street south toward the river, I happened to see a young woman on a Segue “scooter,” a rare sight here, but then I noticed that she was advertising the Segue rentals, and was just passing out cards and recruiting people who would rather ride than walk. Many of the old inner city streets are limited to pedestrians only, with the exceptions of taxis carrying clients to and from the hotels, and the police cars (whose presence causes the counterfeit goods sellers to gather up their things and hide until the patrols pass).
In the Piazza della Signoria, the Palazzo Vecchio was also in golden light, a nice sight after so many days of rain. This tower and its profile, along with the Duomo, is one of the landmarks of the skyline of Florence, and this palace was the old (“vecchio”) palace of the Medici family before they acquired a larger palace south of the river, the Palazzo Pitti, surrounded by the Boboli Gardens.
Also in the Piazza Signoria, I could see that the copy of Michelangelo’s “David” was completely covered now, including a netting with the likeness of the sculpture, but the profile of the statue beneath the shroud was just barely visible through the cloth.
Walking through the Uffizi (“offices”) where the huge art gallery is in the old banking offices of the Medici family, I found the same portrait artist I had photographed once before, but this time drawing the portrait of a young Asian girl, instead of the blonde boy.
Once I reached the river and turned toward the bridge, I noticed that the rowing club was out on the river, but coming back to the dock to take out their boats. I have only a little experience at the River City Rowing Club (they are expecting me back right after Thanksgiving, as I promised), but these rowers are set up differently in their boats, with two oars each. (I can barely manage ONE!) I noticed that the teams carried the boats on their sides, which is different than the way we did—up and over our heads. I found the boats were surprisingly heavy, and it is a real workout to carry one of those boats, no matter how light they look. Other boats were approaching the dock to leave the water, and each boat had four rowers, no coxswain, and eight oars. With no long stretches in the Arno without small falls to lower levels, I suppose steering is not such a critical thing, but no one is looking in the direction the boat is going—an interesting prospect!
I crossed the river going south and headed for the San Niccolo area, and found a surprise. Above the dumpsters, above the street parking for the scooters and motorcycles, was a small incised marble sign: “Qui arrivo’ la piena dell’Arno.” (“The high water level of the Arno was here.”) At midnight on 4 November 1966, after days and days of heavy rains, a flash flood broke dams above Florence and the city was flooded, ruining priceless treasures of art and inundating the city with mud, heating oil, sewage and debris. Young people from around the world arrived, mostly students, and began months of living in squalid conditions here, without pay, to clean and save ancient books from the National Library, clean works of art, and to just muck out the mess in the city. In 2006, Barbara, Dee and I were in the city for the 40th anniversary of the flood, with many exhibitions and photo displays, and VIP treatment for returning “mud angels” who were no longer young students, but mostly in their early 60s. We accidentally met an old man who restored the famous Cimabue cross from the Santa Croce church, who gave us signed postcards and pointed out that the person in the photo working on the famous cross was—him! I had seen a marker for the high water level inside the Santa Croce cathedral, but this one on the street was even higher, indicating that the south side of the river slopes downward faster than the north side, where Santa Croce is located.
I arrived early (Vanni was still napping), so I took a walk around the San Niccolo neighborhood, and found another of the cars observing the “if the flashers are on, I’m not parked illegally” rule.
A few minutes later, Lorenzo, Vittoria and Vanni arrived, and we enjoyed a drink while Vanni finished the nap he started in the car. Then, after sleeping through a passing ambulance (we were outside on a terrace along the street), Vanni joined us and was charming, despite his recent illness. He has the best of both Lorenzo and Vittoria—but no one’s hair, yet.
What he has is a little reddish, but he had a good visit and didn’t mind that he got dumped in my lap. Both Vittoria and Lorenzo grabbed my camera and took a couple of shots, so I not only had my first chance to hold him myself, but I have the photos to prove it!
As long as the breadsticks (“grissini”) and potato chips (“patatini”) held out, Vanni was perfectly happy to hang out with his parents’ friend from California. An hour went by quickly, and finally Vanni decided it was time to go.
Walking back in the dark, I had a nice view of the Arno from the south side. The tower of the Palazzo Vecchio was visible, as was the Ponte Vecchio, the “old bridge” that is now the home of dozens of goldsmiths and jewelry stores. Their precious wares were all washed into the Arno forty years ago, with the flood, but this is the only bridge that survived the bombings of WWII.
I also had a shot of the Uffizi and its reflection in the river, on a calm night without rain.
I crossed the Ponte Vecchio, remembering that Mike had told me to find a gift for myself—but you can see that I could not choose. Just too many choices!
The jewelry stores were closing, and I caught one of the salesmen putting away the goods in the window, unaware that his bald head was being immortalized by me.
Coming back north, toward the Duomo, I passed the loggia that houses the Mercato Nuovo, also known as the Porcellina Mercato, where a bronze boar is the landmark feature. The legend says that rubbing the nose of the boar and dropping some coins into the fountain below will guarantee that you will return to Florence, and you can see that the snout of this big pig is well-polished by the hands of people wanting to return. I guess I rubbed it well the first time, since this is my sixth year here. (I have an ashtry full of Euro-pennies, and they will get left behind at the Porcellina, to make sure I get to come back!)
In the Piazza Repubblica, with the huge Roman arch and the carousel, Gilli is located on a prominent corner. It is a Swiss confectionary store that has been operating in Florence since the late 1800s, and is the most expensive place in Florence for coffee and a sweet dessert. The windows are art, with arrangements of chocolates, gumdrops, cookies and pastries, often overcoming the good sense of people who care about how much they pay for a treat. Pastries from Gilli are always well received as a hostess gift here, and I have spent my share to have the bag say, “Gilli!”
Finally, almost back to my flat, I passed the Duomo in the dark, lit up at night. The octagonal baptistery on the left, the façade of Santa Maria del Fiore in the middle, the huge brick dome in the background, and the campanile on the right—all the classic landmarks of Florence. It was a good walk to see Vanni, Vittoria and Lorenzo—and a beautiful night to enjoy the city.