Wednesday, March 1
Breakfast is the usual - fruit, cereal, muddy coffee that hasn't improved in taste. Next to us is a foursome of boisterous Germans who must be hard of hearing. Nothing else explains why they're practically shouting, as if they're the only ones in the room. The man closest to me is obese, and, apparently, hasn't showered in the past few days.
The weather is fabulous. We walk to the Accademia, taking streets that are now familiar (we pass the church with the Mogen David, catch a glimpse of the ubiquitous Duomo), and join a group of students who are waiting to enter the museum. We say no, again and again, to smiling street vendors all selling those burnt velvet scarves. Other vendors are selling art work, which they have spread out on the concrete. Still others are hawking a variety of items - T-shirts, postcards, posters, calendars, totes - all imprinted with an image of male private parts, as my granddaughters would say.
The Accademia is smaller than the Uffizi, but we enjoy it more. It's famous primarily for its Michelangelo sculptures--a series called "The Prisoners" housed in a rectangular hall that leads you to a domed room build to accommodate the piece de resistance, "David. " Rick Steve advises eavesdropping on a group that has a tour guide. We sidle up to a tour guide - she's speaking Italian.
"The Prisoners "-- there are four or five, I can't recall -- aren't completed. That's part of the attraction, seeing Michelangelo's emerging artistry. We learn later that, unlike other sculptors, Michelangelo never practiced on models of plaster or other materials. He sculpted directly on the marble--"releasing" the figure or figures he believed were trapped within the stone.
As to "David" ... Our good friend Steve (not to be confused with Rick Steve) was awed by the statue, but nothing prepared us for its majesty and power. It's infinitely compelling, inscrutable. I don't know how long we stood there, gazing up, up, up at the face of the young David (he has just defeated Goliath; his slingshot is born casually across one shoulder), studying the pensive expression in his eyes, the muscles in his thighs, the veins in his hands. The right hand is intentionally larger, Rick Steve explains, to demonstrate David's victory, with God's help, over his monstrously large foe.
The statue, as you may know, is of a nude David. I flash back to the images on the T-shirts, the posters, et al. Oh, I think.
Compared to the David, everything else is anticlimactic, but we visit a room on the other side of the building. One of the docents gives us a mini-tour of the multitude of sculptures along the walls and in the center of the room. Figures from mythology; sarcaphogi; busts of the Florentine elite.
"Grazi," we tell her.
I'm still thinking about the David, feeling his pull. In the museum shop I consider buying a postcard image of the statue, but all of the ones I see are focused on his private parts. Me? I would have focused on his eyes.
It's drizzling when we leave the Accademia. We open our umbrellas and walk to San Lorenzo Piazza, which is nearby, and browse among the stalls. I buy coin purses for my mah jonggers, magnets picturing the Ponte Vechio - one for us, one for each of our kids. I buy pretty wallets for my daughters and daughter-in-law. I intend to get more scarves, but we're worried that the drizzle is going to turn into heavy rain.
The day before I had noticed a stall selling ceramic ware.
"Just two minutes," I tell my husband.
I find the stall and admire the ceramic items. I forget the umbrella in my hand and lean in to get a closer look. My umbrella topples a small cruet. For a second or so time seems to stop, and everything is happening in slow motion. I think I can catch the cruet. But if falls to the ground. The stall owner shakes her head and tells me she's sorry, but I'll have to pay for the cruet.
I'm sorry, too.
"Ten euro," she tells me.
My husband hands her the money. Euro bills are pretty and colorful. Did I mention that? She offers me the cruet. I decline. My husband, bless him, doesn't criticize me for my clutziness. Is he a saint, or what?
"Our Duomo," my husband says. He smiles.
Security is strict. We have to leave all our metal objects, including our camera, in a locker. Then we pass, one at a time, through a small glass booth. We're taken on a short tour of the synagogue and the smaller museum upstairs. The museum has photos of the old Jewish ghetto (the origin of word, Rick Steve explains, is "getto" - Italian for foundry, pronounced with a soft "g" which was later hardened by Germans or Austrians). On the wall is a photocopy of a letter from the Jewish Florentine, a member of the Levy family, who left his estate for the construction of the synagogue.
The synagogue is magnificent. Designed by three architects (one was Jewish), it has soaring cathedral ceilings and three domes, all covered with frescoes in shades of brick and orange. Spots on the ceiling and larger sections along the bottom of the walls are evidence of the damage done by a devastating flood a while ago.
The synagogue is at once inspiring and depressing. I'm filled with pride by the beauty of this building that can house thousands. But there are only 800 or so Jews in Florence, few of whom attend services. On the high holidays there are crowds, our guide tells us. Otherwise, it's difficult to get a minyan (the necessary quorum of ten males), even on a Sabbath. I try to imagine the shul in its glory, when Florence was a large Jewish center.
A group of young men enter the shul. They're all from the University of Michigan, they say when we ask. They heard about the shul and figured they'd stop by and see it.
"My mom will be happy," one of the guys says.
In the museum gift shop we buy two booklets about the synagogue, and two lithographs by an Israeli artist, Michal Meron. One is a view of the Florence synagogue. Another, of the Old Ghetto in Venice. Both are vibrant with color and feeling and have a whimsical tone.
Lunch at Ruth's is soup, pan Toscani, chumous and "Ruth's Special," an assortment of salads and fallafel balls. We chat with a couple from Atlanta who, like us, will be going to Venice for Shabbat. We tell Simcha we'll see him at dinner. He tells us not to come late.
"I have a group of forty-three non-Jewish students and their teachers," he says. "They want to learn about Judaism and sample kosher food."
From Ruth's we head for the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens, both highly recommended by Rick Steve. We walk to the Ponte Vecchio, which is lined with jewelry stores that sell gold and silver. I'd love to browse, but my husband takes my elbow and steers me past temptation until we're safely off the bridge. We're a little tired by now, and our feet are aching, even more than yesterday. It's a cummulative effect, I guess. We buy tickets for the palace and the gardens.
The Boboli Gardens close earlier than the palace, so we decide to tour the gardens first. To reach them we have to climb several long, steep flights of stairs. With each flight the climb becomes more painful. With each step our knees protest more. I wish I had worn my new tennis shoes. ("Don't," a friend had advised; "Italians think it's tacky.")
Finally, we're at the top. The climb was worth the pain. The view, despite the mist -- or maybe because of it -- is spectacular. Shrubs with shades of green, purple, umber. The Duomo. Valleys, small houses tucked into lush hills. At the very top of the gardens we visit the Porcelain Museum - and joke about being careful not to touch anything.
From the top several paths lead in different directions. We decide that the hike down and back up will be too much. We planned to see the Grotto, but by the time we make our way down the flights of stairs, we learn that it has just closed for the day. But we peek inside. My husband manages to get some decent shots. And I buy some postcards from the gift shop.
Next is the Pitti Palace, built by the Pitti family. They sold it to the Medicis, who enlarged it, and then it was bought by an Austrian dynasty who expanded further and renovated. Each room is more magnificent than the other. The walls are barely visible--almost every inch is covered with art. The ceilings are painted with various biblical or mythological themes. One ceiling catches our attention. It depicts the ritual sacrifice of animals at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, accompanied by a procession led by the Kohen Gadol (the High Priest). I was pleased to see art that I could relate to.
We walk through room after room after room - and this, we learn, is only a part of the palace. The rest is closed to the public. In the grand ballroom we chat with one of the museum staff. She offers to take us on a tour of quarters that aren't open to the public, and we eagerly accept. We view the throne room, a private chapel with an altar; numerous bedrooms, guard rooms. Several of the ceilings display the Medici crest. Several depict one of various "virtues."
After thanking our guide profusely, we exit the palace and make our way down the steps to the street. Descending, we find, is more taxing on the knees at this point than ascending.
We cross the Ponte Vecchio. It's almost six, but stores are still open. I exercise tremendous self-control and don't enter any of them. By now it's dark. My husband stops to take a photo of the Arno from the bridge. I wait while he positions the camera on the bridge's ledge. He wants to capture the reflection of the lights on the water. My eyes go to my left and a large batch of padlocks attached to a wood beam. I'm puzzled for a moment, then recall Rick Steve talking about the padlocks: In a romantic gesture, young men pledge their love, lock one of the locks, and toss the key into the Arno.
We're off the bridge. The street is lit up by the headlights of cars and scooters. With the Arno to our left, we walk toward our hotel, passing elegant boutiques that offer clothing with familiar names - Prada, Louis Vuitton, Armani.
In our hotel room we quickly freshen up, then take a cab back to Ruth's. Simcha has brought in more tables and chairs. We chose a table and wait for the students, who arrive shortly with a few instructors. The room is buzzing with Italian. I love hearing the language. When everyone is seated, Simcha talks. I can tell from the few words I understand - Hebrew words - that he's explaining about "kosher" and "Torah." I know he's being funny, because everyone is laughing frequently. I wish I understood what he was saying. I talk with the teacher who arranged to bring the students to Ruth's. She explains that her students have studied the Holocaust, and she wanted them to get a better understanding of Judaism.
The menu is typical Israeli food - salads, chumous, tehina, fallafel. Basically, Ruth's Special. My husband and I have the same. ("I could ask my wife to make you something else," says Simcha, "but she'll throw me into the street.) Sometime during the meal two musicians enter and play songs. Frank Sinatra's "My Way." Another famiiar tune whose name I can't recall. We tip them before they leave.
Simcha tells us that musicians come in most nights to play for the diners. "They came last night, too, but I had to ask them to leave. The London people were mostly elderly. They didn't appreciate the music."
What's not to appreciate? I wonder.
It's our last night in Florence. We thank Simcha (and his wife, Miriam) for the delicious food and for making our stay so pleasant. We take a cab back to the hotel. My feet still ache from the hours of walking, but I'm already missing the cobbled stones, the alleylike streets. The scooters. The Duomo. The bustle of San Lorenzo Piazza. The way the sun glints off the green waters of the Arno.