Friday, August 26, 2011

Tales from the TRIP - Day 7 - Florence, Italy

Remember back on Day 3 in Prague when I told you about the red spots all over my ankles? Well, Day 7 began with Mom waking up to find them on her ankles. And mine, which had nearly disappeared, were back and even worse than before. By this time, we had heard from my sister-in-law, who confirmed that you don't get bedbug bites in just one spot, but we could not figure out what we might have stepped in that could have caused such a reaction. A little nervous that we might be spotted (pun intended) and quarantined, we kept our unsightly ankle-bites hidden by long pants despite the warm weather.

After all the warnings from Simone about keeping on schedule, we loaded the bus and pulled out five minutes early for our trip to Florence. This apparently made a HUGE difference as we escaped the city before traffic could get to its normal crazy volume. In fact, Simone reminded us at least a dozen times how fortunate we were that we were ahead of schedule because we had escaped before traffic got bad. The drive to Florence is about four hours and they had planned for one stop about halfway. I'll spare you the details, but it would have been nice if Simone had mentioned that there was a functioning toilet on board for emergencies - enough said.

Due to some rule about how often Stefano, the bus driver, had to take a break, we stopped for lunch at an Autogrill just outside of Florence, and then continued into the city. Autogrill's are Europe's version of Stuckey's. Basically, they operate along the many toll roads of Europe providing everything from a hot meal to junk food to books on tape. In this case, the restaurant was actually located above the highway with access from either direction of the highway - so we were cautioned by Simone to be very careful to come down on the right side or we might end up on the wrong bus.

We all made it back to the bus and arrived at Piazza San Marco, where the bus deposited us for our daily hike. It was only a few blocks down a crowded alley until we reached a very non-descript entry which we were told housed Michaelangelo's masterpiece, David. I have to admit, I was a little skeptical, but after waiting thirty minutes, we were led inside by our local guide for Florence; I think his name was Ferdinand. I don't recall his name because I've really tried to repress the memory. Between his strong accent and the paper he held over the microphone as he broadcast tour information to our headsets, we couldn't understand a word the man said.

Mom was surprised to discover that the statue of David was a statue of THE David, from the Bible. All these years, she thought it was just a statue of some naked guy named David. LOL. But when you think about it, you never hear it referred to as King David or David-as-He-Prepared-to-Fight-Goliath. In fact, I had never realized that he was holding a sling and a stone even though I've seen photos of the statue many times. Maybe it was because we had seen so many statues already at this point, but it was a little anti-climactic for me. It was beautiful and crafted with incredible detail -  but we had just seen 2000 equally beautiful statues in Rome.

I did catch one thing that Fernando said that I found amusing - apparently the benefactor for whom Michaelangelo created the David did not like the nose - he said it was too Jewish-looking and he wanted the sculptor to fix it (ignoring the fact that David was, after all, Jewish!). Rather than change it or openly offend his benefactor, Michaelangelo merely waited a reasonable time, told the man it had been changed, and left it as is. The benefactor agreed that it was much improved with a more 'Roman' nose.

We spent less than an hour in the small museum that housed the David and didn't really have time to explore the rest of the museum which included some beautiful paintings before it was time to continue our hike through Florence. This time the hike was well worth it - we came to the Cathedral of Santa Maria di Fiore.

This was perhaps the most beautiful of all the churches we saw in Europe to me. The entire outside is covered in white, rose, and green marble. I took a ton of pictures, but none of them even approaches the beauty of this place. The niches around the entire structure are filled with sculptures of saints and the arches at the bottom include beautiful artwork over each doorway. The dome was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in the early 15th Century as the first of its kind to be built without the aid of a framework. The baptistry, which predates the cathedral by several hundred years, mirrors the ornate tri-color detail.

I really would have loved to see the inside of the chapel, but there was more to see so on we hiked, ending up at the Piazza di Santa Croce, where Simone introduced us to her friends at one of the local gold and leather shops. This works a little like a time-share weekend - only in exchange for enduring their sales pitch, you get to use their restrooms and sit in their air-conditioned shop for free. I know that doesn't sound like a very good deal, and in the US, it would never work - but in Europe it is well worth it! I even got to model a lovely $600 leather jacket in which, I must say, I looked absolutely fabulous.

They did actually inform us how to distinguish real leather from the fake leather that many merchants spray with 'leather scent' to fool tourists. (Basically, you just pinch the leather between your fingers and rub back and forth - if the unfinished side of the leather slides easily against itself, it is not real leather. Go home, try it, tell me if they were telling us the truth!)

So at this point, we had once again spent about 5 hours on our feet as we headed to the bus. Fernando lost any appreciation we might have had for him as he set out at a good clip, leaving several of us in his dust. Eventually, we were about a block behind the stragglers in our group. We were walking down the side of a one way street when we were attacked by pigeons. I don't mean a few pigeons, I mean a huge flock or Hitchcock-esque attack pigeons! They swarmed one way and then spun and dove at us like they were on a mission. I have never minded birds, in fact, I've always kind of enjoyed them, but I was left cowering against the building with my hands over my head squealing like a little girl. Shudder.

By the time the birds had sufficiently terrorized our little band, the rest of our tour group had turned the corner, completely oblivious to our plight. We were very relieved when we rounded the corner and saw the bus waiting within sight. And even more relieved when we arrived at the hotel - the Hilton Garden Inn Florence. This was arguably the nicest hotel we stayed in and definitely the most modern. It was situated quite some distance from the historic district but was modern and high tech - with free wifi in the room! Our dinner in the hotel restaurant was delicious - but even better than the meal was the company.

We sat across from a couple who owns a Ponderosa Steak House in Huntington, West Virginia - do you remember those? We used to have them around here and they were always a great meal for a reasonable price, but you just don't see them anymore in this area. At any rate, she was a nurse, and yes, we did it. We committed that unthinkable faux pax of asking a medical person for some free medical advice - which she was very kind to oblige and informed us that our 'ankle-bites' were actually petechial hemorrhaging due to the swelling in our ankles from all the walking! Even better, she had them too - you know how misery loves company. After spending the evening with our feet up and cool cloths wrapped on our ankles, we both were back in capris the next day!

Day 8 - on to Venice!

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