There are these areas in many Italian cities called the ZTL or Limited Traffic Zones, and if you accidentally drive into one you’ll find yourself in a sea of people while being squeezed by very tight streets. You’ll also get fined pretty heavily, and for a rental car the fine just appears on your credit card. It’s an Italian magic trick!
I didn’t want to accidentally venture into one of these zones on our drive into Florence, so we chose a particular parking garage nearby the place we were staying. (I discovered later in the evening a much better and cheaper parking lot outside of the city, but it required a quick hop on a train to get to the Florence city center; note to self: do better parking research!)
I happily navigated as Suzanne found her way around the fringes of the Florence ZTL, and I confidently directed her the wrong way down a one way street. For a few seconds it was a stalemate. We couldn’t move forward and going backward into a intersection designed by a kindergartener’s scribbling seemed impossible. But Suzanne put the car in reverse and crept slowly into the honks and dramatic hand gestures of drivers around us, ultimately preserving because she’s embraced the Italian way of driving: I am an immovable object who is also an unstoppable force.
Once safely parked in the garage, we had to march pretty quickly to our scheduled tour of the Florence Duomo.
The Duomo is a massive cathedral, beautiful, and surrounded by people taking pictures and looking for shade. We had a skip-the-line tour, and we found our tour guide with just two seconds left before she began. She she saw us running up, she gave herself a internal skull examination by rolling her eyes so far backward in her head. I know. I know. Buy a watch. I got it.
I didn’t know the Duomo tour would be such a climb. All my jovial step bopping and joke making disappeared quickly when I realized I was breathing like a charging rhino. Good grief, it was a serious climb up all sorts of slick and worn steps, none of which were very friendly to my giant, flat feet. In all, we climbed nearly 500 stairs, at times sandwiched between the inner shell of the cathedral’s dome and the outer shell. It was a tight squeeze on uneven stairs, especially when some people decided they’d had enough and turned around to climb down. That meant those of us going up had to push against the curve in the wall while those climbing down squeezed past. All the while the only sound filling the tight hallway was huffing, puffing, and panting from the lurking specter of cardiac arrest.
At top the view was worth it. This is a sentence I heard it quite a bit on this trip from people around us, justifying whatever agony they had just gone through. Oh, the line was worth it. The climb was worth it. The loss of consciousness was worth it.
In this case it was true. All of Florence spread out below us, and our guide told us the story of all we saw, including the devastating flood of 1966.
I find the Florence Duomo and other buildings, mainly cathedrals, built around that time, so interesting. A few centuries before, the Romans built infrastructure that lasts to this day: roads, aqueducts, buildings. All the things we’ve been gawking at. But then Things Fell Apart, and the where did the money and energy go? The Dark Ages were good for the cathedral construction business, I suppose. Not so much for literacy. Or science. Or art - unless you painted everyone with a steering wheel behind their head.
After lunch our next tour was the Uffizi gallery where our guide, after hearing us pant as we climbed even more steps, told us stair climbing was very good for us. It got rid of all the toxins in our bodies.
My favorite of all our tour guide’s annotations, though, had to be her commentary about a triptych by Hugo Van Der Goes with the pithy title of: “Adoration of the Shepherds and Angels and St. Thomas, St. Anthony the Abbot, St. Margaret, St. Mary Magdalene and the Portinari family.” This is what our guide said about a sharp-toothed, flat-headed, toad-like creature lurking under a red dress in the painting: “Right there, in the corner, is like, you know, Jabba from the Star Wars. No one knows why it is there.”
Was Joseph Campbell right? Do we eventually replace one set of heroes with another? Do our myths reflect our ego? Should start building that Jabba the Hut cathedral from the Star Wars right now? Wait, I think Disney is already doing that in Florida.
As we left the museum and took another wrong turn, we came upon a surprise symphonic concert in the piazza near the museum. It was what you’d expect in a movie about romantic serendipity in Italy: opera, orchestra, art, sunset. Then, incongruously, they played Smoke on the Water, and that cultural stereotype vanished in an instant, replaced by the head bopping and general rocking out of the people around us. The tentacles of American culture reach everywhere.
Next: It’s Pisa, not pizza.