Saturday, April 10:  Firenze I

Two kinds of salami out for breakfast. Yumm.

We drove into Certaldo and parked near the train station. We’d been told there would only be tickets available from the automatic machines, so I hit the tabacchi shop across the street so I could deal with a human. We had given ourselves lots of time to negotiate the uncertain directions, etc., but we found ourselves on the platform about 25 minutes early, so we hopped on a train that appeared halfway between two posted departure times. About 25 minutes later, the conductor came through the train and eventually conveyed to me that we would have to change trains at the next stop, in Empoli (and we thought we had caught a direct train). Off we got in Empoli and a young Italian woman made it clear she was watching out for us. The other members of our car huddled up on the platform and watched with interest as other Italians were engaged in animated conversations with the conductors there. It soon became clear that nobody knew just how the connection to Firenze would work, including the conductors. About a half-hour later, we boarded another train, though nobody could say just when it might depart. But within a few minutes we were underway.

Along the route, we passed two trains, jammed full of tifosi, Italian football fans, all dressed in team colors, chanting, singing in unison and waving flags out the train windows. The boys were wide-eyed at the sight. We arrived in Firenze two hours after departing Certaldo (its suppose to be a fifty minute run) and only then did I realize that we had just fifteen minutes to our reservation (Pat had been aware of the time-crunch for some time). We pulled out our map and power-walked without any missteps to the Accademia.

We made our reservation with two minutes to spare and smugly flew by the long line of walk-ups. Somehow the boys were free (I suspect in violation of policy), but we paid the reservation fee for them. The statute of the David was impressive. I knew it was large, but as you enter the hall a ways back, its size does make an impression. We caught the Boticcelli’s and Michelangelo’s unfinished works (“The Prisoner’s”) and headed for the exit. I found the partially completed Prisoners, with chisel marks and large portions of unworked stone, the most intriguing.

Down the street, we found Piazza Duomo, and admired the Cathedral and Baptistry without going inside. Rick said Giotto’s Tower was a better climb than the Dome, and with less of a line, so went there. Dome was closed, so the line was long, but after five minutes of data collection, I estimated a thirty minute wait, so we held our spots. Thirty-five minutes later we entered. Bambini were free, and were to duck under the turnstiles without a ticket. There were enclosed stone stairways all the way up, with terrazzo (landings) periodically. After each terrazzo, the succeeding stairway became narrower. For the final one, downhill traffic yielded to uphill, as one person had to remain stationary while the other squished by. 414 steps, topping the 300-plus at St. Peters. The view from the top was terrific, including great views of Brunechelli’s Dome, a triumph of engineering for its day, and the greatest dome since the Pantheon.

Rick suggested lunch at I Fratellini, a walk-up window on the street with panini and wine. But first we circled Orsanmichele Church and its exterior statutes by some of the masters. The boys debated their options, and eventually were not satisfied. Its pasta they want for lunch, not sandwiches (apparently). I enjoyed my tuna sandwich and few ounces of wine. When finished with your wine, you return the glass to a simple wooden rack mounted on the wall. Since 1875. Dessert was gelato, on the opposite side of the same block, as per a simple “G” on the Rick Steves map. The best I’ve had. Coffee crunch and “ripen nero” (a delicious, icy black currant).

Dante’s house was a couple blocks down the street, and Michelangelo’s a few blocks beyond that. So we found Dante’s and took pictures, but some route-finding troubles meant we missed Michelangelo’s and instead ended up at Santa Croce Church. Along the way we said hello to Debbie and Dave (our friends from Auburn that we met at the Rocco in Assisi) as we passed in opposite directions. Passing by San Croce, why not check out the tombs of Galileo and Machiavelli and a memorial to Dante? Kids were free. That completed, we succeeded in finding Michaelangelo’s house, Casa Buonaratti. Finally, we allowed Pat to take us to the Bargello Gallery for more sculptures. The gal at the ticket office scrunched up her face when I mentioned “due bambini, un undici anni, un nove anni” while I patted each on the head, and let them in free, I’m sure a violation of official policy.

More Michelangelo’s, Donatello’s, three more versions of David. Robert has become quite the art historian, inferring the messages of many paintings without reading the placards, such as the crucifix with five rays of light piercing St. Francis with the stigmata. He preferred Donatello’s near-feminine David to Michelangelo’s.

Nearing exhaustion and meltdown, we took a break in the courtyard of the former Florence City Hall and then power-walked through dense crowds to the train station. I consulted one of the railroad employees before joining one of the several queues and she suggested the family discount. I practiced my Italian, attempting the whole transaction without English,

Andiamo a Certaldo. (We want to go to Certaldo.)
Quattro, due adulto, due bambini. (Four, two adults, two children.)
Un undici anni, un nove anni. (One eleven years old, one nine years old. [Head pats.])
Andata. (One-way.)
Discount familiae? (Family discount? [Borrowed from the previous employee.])
Binario? (Platform number?)
Diretto? (Direct? [i.e., no need to transfer as in Empoli?])
Ortobello? (Ortobello? [Confirming the final destination of the train.])

The train ride home was smooth, enjoyable and beautiful.

Back home, and everyone delivered, I got back into the car for a supermarket run. I always find a trip to a real grocery store one of the most difficult (and illuminating) excursions when traveling in another country, and this was no exception. I finally found it, as much by accident as by the road signs giving directions to it. My main objective was the large (400 grams, 8 inch high, 6 inch wide) hollow chocolate eggs with a toy inside (“con supresa”) that are the traditional gift for Italian children on Easter. That located, I bought chocolate bars for Pat and myself, clothes detergent to prolong our concentrated and ultraportable REI CampSuds, and some water and snacks for the car. Several differences of note -- the carts have scanners so you can total your purchases, prices in lira and euros. Checkers sit at their stands in swivel chairs. I was asked if I wanted a bag, and replied that I didn’t speak Italian (since I didn’t understand the question), so got no bag. When I finally asked for one, I was charged three cents in a new transaction and scowled at. The bill was less than expected, I think the Easter goods were on last-minute clearance. The adult chocolates (Lindt and house-brand) were delicious and inexpensive.

Dinner was the usual, but we needed a reservation since the hotel is full and its a holiday weekend, so we arrived as Giovanni advised right at 7:30. It quickly became packed and lively, with two tables set up in the hotel reception. We all had a single course, and dessert. Pat had a great veal dish, which she was later informed was just beef. Giovanni implied that the folks in the kitchen couldn’t tell the difference between veal and beef, and that without his supervision (all day) they would run totally amuck. I repeated my pici and sausage, while the boys had safe pasta dishes. During dinner, Giovanni gave us a complete lecture on the marvels of Bruneschelli’s Dome, and how St. Peter’s did not compare (“Michelangelo great sculptor, no architecto!”). The boys wanted to repeat the brownie (chocolate decadence, really) and ice cream from before, but our waiter couldn’t understand what we wanted since it wasn’t on the menu. Chiara interceded and when the brownies came, I said to him “Ahh, brownies!” and he smiled broadly and knowingly, “Si, brownies!” In the meantime, Giovanni dropped off a spare slice of apple tort for the boys, Chiara brought Pat and I each a plate for new and aged pecorino (romano) cheese, and the waiter brought biscotti, vin santo and the grandfather’s pickled grapes. I shelved plans for dessert at that point. We left reluctantly since there seemed to be a good deal of pressure to seat more guests, though we were never rushed.

At dinner we managed to correlate the Il Latini restaurant of Rick’s guidebook in Firenze proper (with a very nice review) to Giovanni’s brother. Chiara said they had left Firenze and come here when the “family split.” We continued to marvel at the dining spectacle for another hour after we returned to our room, especially the folks at the table next to us -- antipasti, soup, pasta, secondi all disappearing before we did.