Wednesday, August 20, 2008


After my not-so-wonderful experience with Venice – which I’ve now learned is not so unusual, among both Italians and Americans – I happily moved on to Florence. Getting there was quite an experience. To get around, I have been showing up at train stations empty handed and buying tickets from an electronic kiosk a few minutes before the train departs. It’s not as risky as it sounds. Trains are big and in August they have been quite empty. It turns out you can buy them in advance on the internet and have the reservation number sent to you by sms, something I will do in the future.

So I pull my ticket out of the kiosk, and see that it has me leaving from Mestre station across the bridge, not Santa Lucia, where I am standing. But I have no ticket to get from Santa Lucia to Mestre, and I have no idea which train will get me there. The departures list gives no indication which trains will stop in Mestre and which will simply pass it up. Did I mention that my train departs in 9 minutes? And that if I miss my train, my $100 “standard” ticket becomes completely worthless?

I run to the info desk line, which has a certain Soviet-bread-line quality. I look desperately for anyone who looks remotely official – conductors, janitors, the new machine-gun-carrying military police needlessly dispatched by Berlusconi – and of course, there is nothing but 800 guys smoking. I realize that there is only one possibility for success, because there is only one train leaving the station that will get me anywhere in 9 minutes. I run to that track – the farthest away, natch – and see a conductor standing outside the front of the train, the good part of a quarter-mile away. I run toward him screaming “Mestre? MESTRE?” as he waves me onto the train, closes the door behind us, and drops me off with two minutes to find my connection. The chic Italians seem quite amused when my disheveled self arrives at my seat dripping sweat on the fabric.

Florence itself turns out to be a great little town packed with artistic treasures. Sadly, at this point I am ready to gag if I have to see another 14th century Virgin Mary painting or majolica vase shoved in the corner of some magnificent Renaissance palazzo. I am proud to say that I climbed to the top of the famous Duomo, hiking up (and down!) over 400 stairs to see the amazing view of Florence from Bruneleschi’s dome. Once you start, you can’t exactly give up – the staircases are strictly medieval single-file affairs, so everybody’s in the same boat, moving at the pace of the slowest person. (Shockingly, not me.) The Duomo itself is strikingly beautiful, the gorgeously painted exterior drawing your attention from any angle.

I did manage to see the Museo Archeologico, because I can never resist. My guidebook didn’t seem so enthusiastic, but it was actually quite profound. It seeks to answer a simple question: what if you decided to have a museum and fill it with nothing? You walk through long corridors with empty display cases, gaze at empty walls with lights shining on nothing. It’s the world’s most existential museum. In most countries, you would simply close the museum until the restorations or whatnot were completed. But in Italy, there is nothing unusual about charging people 4 euros to walk around an empty building.

In the middle of my three-day stay, I hit a double whammy. Not only was it a public holiday, due to the Feast of the Assumption (Mary never gets a rest around here), it was also raining like a dickens. Everything was closed, from museums to supermarkets. This turned out to be an excellent opportunity to sit on my ass, enjoy the wonders of the American-style ice machine at the Sheraton, and watch 10 hours of Olympics coverage (in English!) on Eurosport. It was delightful. Even fencing matches and rowing competitions turned out to be surprisingly good.

My absolute favorite thing from this trip, though, wasn’t in Florence at all. A local Italian guy, Carlo, offered to take me to San Gimignano, a medieval fortress town at the top of a Tuscan hill. We left after 8pm, when it was getting dark and still raining quite heavily. After a few missed turns – Italian roundabouts are hilariously difficult to get right – we arrived somewhat late. Literally as soon as we opened our car doors, the rain stopped, the sky cleared, and the stars twinkled. San Gimignano is an beautiful little treasure. We stopped at a trattoria for real Tuscan food, eating rabbit with lemon and capers and a pappardelle with venison ragout. Delicious.

Then we walked over the whole town, which has entirely preserved its medieval character, covered in high towers and twisty alleys and treacherous stone sidewalks. At the top of the hill, there is a park with a panoramic view of virtually all of Tuscany. Sadly, I have virtually no pictures because it was all in the dark. But I’ll never forget it.

On the way back, we stopped for gelato at a place that won the Italian national competition for 2008. I got peach, passion fruit, and orange chocolate, all delicious and perhaps even better than San Crispino in Rome. There’s a lot of crap gelato around Italy; it is worth holding out for the good stuff. Italians themselves mostly don’t, you can see them downing those horrible convenience-store cornettos from the UK in front of the best gelatterias in the country. Carlo explained that Italians are cheap. Nonetheless, if you have a chance to visit San Gimignano, and I highly recommend that you do, stop off for some gelato on the way down.

Next up is Bellagio, a tiny town on Lake Como, where I’m participating in a workshop on higher education policy before I return home.


At 3:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, San Gimignano is lovely, isn't it? I've been to Italy a few times but never ventured beyond Tuscany, where I have family scattered across all those hills. We're from the Montepulciano area but now everyone has drifted to Fiezole or the depressing suburbs of Pisa. I still have a photo I took when I was 16 of one of those lovely doors in the wall of San Gimignano, peering out over the hills and vineyards.

At 8:43 PM, Anonymous Sheila said...

Where was the gelato place, and what was its name? My husband and I are going to spend a week in and around Montalcino next spring, and we will be driving into Florence for the day (I'm not a huge fan of the town, for very much the reasons you didn't like Venice, but I love the art) and driving around the area. If the gelato compares to San Crispino, we will go there, wherever it is!

At 9:57 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Sheila -- I don't know the name to be honest, but it is very easy to find. You park your car in one of the lots, and walk up the hill, and you will find it at near the top of hill with a big sign announcing the victory.


Post a Comment

<< Home