Italy 2007: Day 3
We departed Siena today with a train to Florence or Fiorenze, in Italian. I apparently scared the tour leader when I hopped off the train for a minute to grab a shot of the incoming locomotive. The countryside here in Tuscany is arid and dusty, which apparently suits the growing of olives and grapes apparently but not vegetables like corn. We arrived in Florence and found ourselves again in a bustling metropolis similar to Rome.
Florence is known for its markets and leather goods such as belts and gloves. We started off the day by going to a local market near the hotel: This is something I’ve done several times before when traveling on my own, so it’s cool our group made the same choice. In the market we found butchers and merchants selling the aforementioned meats and cheeses, as well as things like whole roosters plucked of feathers but retaining their heads, dried mushrooms and a panoply (it’s a real word) of olive oils. As a group we bought a lunch of salami, prosciutto, cheese of sheeps’ milk, a blue Gorganzola, and a local variety of hard cheese similar to my Costco favourite, Parmigiano Reggiano called Peccorino. While the others decided what to buy, I shot some closeups of the cheese and meats: The butchers kept their glass refrigerator cases absolutely spotless, which is good not only for photography but reassuring a quality operation is at hand.
We made our way first to the Piazza Signoria to see the fake David statue in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. There I saw a guy shooting with a 75-300mm IS standing on a ledge. Smart: He’s using the telephoto to close focus on the statue and blow out the background with bokeh. Not so smart: Italian policeman yelling at him to get down. I was about to follow suit but decided I would be okay without getting in trouble with the law, however minor it is to stand on centuries old historical buildings.
The streets of Florence are lined with markets. There are small stalls of street vendors selling belts and bags. There are also major fashion boutiques here, just like Rome. Perhaps it’s because we’ve been walking through tourist oriented high streets, but there’s a lot of fashion here. People are very stylish. I suppose if I only walked through Bloor/Yorkville, I’d probably figure Toronto was like that too.
We got to the Galleria degli Uffizi, the famous art gallery. Inside are famous paintings like the Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. Sadly, I know it not from art history classes but from the splash screen of Adobe Illustrator. I’ve probably seen that painting a thousand times while waiting for Illustrator to startup. We’re going to go there tomorrow along with seeing the real David sculpture at Galleria dell’Accademia. A long line is expected. I’m kind of happy to see people waiting for hours in line to see art. I’ve seen people line up for hours to buy stuff on New Years Day (Okay, I once did that for a inkjet printer) and I’ve also seen people line up for hours to ride rollercoasters too (Which I’ve also done: six hours for two rides on Cedar Point’s Top Thrill Dragster) so I’m expecting this to be good.
We continued along to the Ponte Vecchio, which is the famous bridge across the Arno River in Florence featuring little stores over top. Built in medieval times, the bridge used to have butchers forming a market, it now features overpriced gold jewelers and souvenir shops. I actually most anticipated this, having watched a National Geographic documentary about its engineering and construction. But when we made our way around it, I found it to be somewhat boring and tacky, if only for the current tenants of the shops.
Most days the most exercise I get is walking to the laser printer from my desk. This is not a good thing as we did a lot of stairs today. The Piazzale Michelangelo is at the top of a hill on the other side of the Fiume Arno. Typically when traveling, like for example, the Neuschwanstein Castle outside of Munich, hiking upwards is rewarded by an excellent view. At the top of the hill is a great view of the Duomo (dome) of the Santa Maria del Fiore church, the river, the covered bridge Ponte Vecchio and many, many rooftops. A Korean couple we saw earlier was walking around up there, directed by a wedding planner and a local photographer. Florence’s expansive skyline made for a beautiful backdrop: That must have been one hell of a honeymoon to have a local stringer ready to shoot you in your dress and tuxedo on the other side of the planet.
The other side of Florence’s daily commerce showed up at the top of the hill with the now ever present bag vendors, who put out a white sheet and lay out handbags and purses taken out of a big plastic bag. Fantastic luxury brands like “Prado” and “Dolce and Gabba” (sic) were available for your perusal, unless the law came around, which would mean sudden dispersal and subsequent chase. If you really wanted a bag with randomly patterned A’s and S’s on it, versus the classic L’s and V’s of Louis Vuitton, you were in luck: You can bargain your way down from 35 euros to ten and take one home. Our guide told us it was illegal to buy a bag from such vendors, as it’s likely they are linked to the mafia. I didn’t think much of this until later, not ever really wanting a stylish handbag anyways.
We traversed the streets of Florence to the Duomo, a domed church named Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. Our goal was to climb all 464 steps to the top, for the vantage of the rest of the city as well as the inside of the dome, hand painted by Michelangelo with representations of hell, purgatory and heaven, the same feelings you have as you climb up the grueling Stair-Master demolishing work out.
One goes up staircases vertically to an observation ring internal to the space, with full view of the inside of the dome and the painting. Then the stairs begin to follow the curve of the dome itself, eventually coming nearly horizontal such that you have to bend forward and keep from hitting your head on the stone ceiling. While doing all of this, you get an appreciation of the engineering feat that is this 42 meter wide structure that weighs 37,000 tons. It was built in 1432, a time when we didn’t have helicopters, skyscraper cranes or computer aided design to model something before firing the millions of bricks required.
At the Duomo, I spotted a girl shooting with a familiar lens: A 24-70mm f2.8L just like mine. I thanked her for making me feel less stupid carrying it around the world, because she’d gone up the 464 steps lugging it too. She said it was her favourite lens, which makes sense when mounted on 5D full frame camera body.
After we found ourselves at a fantastic little gelato place name Grom. One of things I’ve noticed with gelato shops is their creative presentation: Typically one sees a scalloped mountain of gelato, often decorated with elements of its ingredients, such as coconut husks for one flavoured like coconut. However, this shop was a little different, featuring some very subtle flavours and all of them hidden in metal containers. I had a cone of pear granita (ice), which didn’t have any milk. The taste was very natural and made my day.
While enjoying my ice cream cone, suddenly a man ran around the corner, with a police motorcycle in pursuit. He dropped his bundled white sheet of fake handbags but tore off into the alleyways, leaving the policeman and another colleague confused as what to do with the sudden stash of handbags. I suggested we bargain with the officers for a better deal.
I ended up taking a needed nap after the long day of climbing stairs of churches and hills. The group ventured out to shop in the market.
For dinner, we went out for pizza, our guide inspecting each restaurant for the quality of their pizza oven. Despite being a Neapolitan regional specialty, it seems pizza is everywhere in Italy. The place we went to was founded in 1955 and featured flat, thin crusted pizzas spun by hand. We had a great time enjoying the house wine and wood fired oven baked pizzas, then later turned up at a local club to have drinks, specifically Italian beer, which, as a member of our group remarked, has the aftertaste of peas.