--THERE'S NOT A PLACE I WOULDN'T GO
…“If you want to see some real miracles, come around the square at 5:00 when all the cripples start walking perfectly normal, until tomorrow morning when the tourists show up.”
That was what our tour guide said as a beggar--whose feet seemed irreparably turned inside-- shook his cup, asking for money.
In a way, the quote sums up a lot of what I didn’t like about Florence.
…I think the beauty of Florence lies on the outskirts, in the country sides, beyond the festering city center where hordes of tourists scrabble over the same set of worn marble tiles, viewing the same cathedrals, dining at the same over-priced Trattorias, jamming generic designer houses—Gucci, Fendi, Armani, Chanel, Ferragamo, Prada, Versace—no different than toddlers waiting for free handouts of cotton candy. This is not to say that city center-Florence is unappealing. On the contrary, there is a ton of energy both emitted and absorbed within a ten mile radius. There are one-of-a-kind dishes, museums, frescos, wonderful architecture. There is a lot that demands your attention, that pulls on your senses, be they sight or smell.
But the city center is also dirty (almost every church could use a good scrubbing) with graffiti that should be gotten rid of and pungent sewage odors wafting out of curb-side grates. The streets are just as narrow as those in Rome, yet the drivers here seem bent on creating pedestrian carnage. Also, a lot of the shopping and dining (which is endless) seems sadly redundant and unoriginal (perhaps those last two descriptions make me redundant), and after some time, selecting a restaurant seems a bit like playing roulette.
But south of the Arno River, detached from the actual “city” city, it’s a different world. After passing over the water and turning a corner down any street, you get a sense of calm. It’s cleaner. It’s more mysterious. It feels more intimate. The food and shopping are considerably more varied, and the father you walk, the greater this becomes, unlike north of The Arno.
It’s unquestionably beautiful on the south side of the river, especially when one gets a view from high up where you can then see the city at a glance while also catching (behind you, or side-to-side) the rolling southern hills, replete with olive trees and vineyards braided across hillsides, stucco homes standing like proud mastheads, an occasional castled poking up from the greenery like a giraffe’s neck made of ancient stone. It’s magnificent, every square foot.
Today, at an altitude higher than the famed Florence city-center dome, I happened upon Fort Belvedere, opposite the dome, across The Arno. The views from there were spectacular, even for one afraid of heights (like me.) Later on, chugging up a grueling steep slope, I came upon a church built in the 10th century. Like most of the most magical cathedrals, this one was ominous, yet it wasn’t so large so as not to also feel intimate. There were frescoes on the walls and ceilings, gold leaf, marble floors with inscriptions, gardens outside, and off to the side, designated mausoleums for the deceased elders who had served the church. There was someone inside playing the pipe organ as a paltry crowd of thirty (in downtown Florence the smallest crowd you’d have in a church such as this would be 300) listened while seated on a 1,000 year old pew.
So I guess the larger take-away is: break away from the beaten path; do the unexpected; take a couple risks and don’t worry if it’s going to screw things up; find the “self” that few others get to see.