The plan this morning was snappy and tight: we’d check out of our place in Florence, park in a lot right outside of the city, and then take the train back in for our 10:00 tour of the Galleria dell’Accademia. But, alas, the best laid schemes of mice and men . . .
I conveniently navigated and Suzanne drove, skirting the Florence ZTI and streets full of sauntering people. By now, I had become quite the navigation expert. As evidence, this is from our conversation that morning:
Me: “Now you’ll turn left here and go straight for 300 meters.”
Suzanne: “Yeah, that’s not going to work.”
Me (staring at my phone’s map): “No, just turn left.”
Suzanne: “I can’t drive up the stairs.”
I looked up. The road ended in stairs. Stairs! Three street’s worth of narrow stairs straight up. An old man in a white t-shirt and suspenders sat there. He looked over his newspaper at us, chewed his cigar, and shrugged. It was just another morning in Florence.
Suzanne adeptly drove us out of the maze of narrow lanes and found a larger and busier road, a discovery we both cheered. By now, though, we had used up most of our time and wouldn’t have the chance to drive further out and take a train back in. We had to find a closer parking spot.
I dreaded this because of how awful street parking is in Florence. People squeezed their tiny cars everywhere. That tree branch is empty. A Fiat will fit there! And the rules were very confusing. You can park behind the white stripe, as long as it’s not accompanied by a blue line, but only from 13:40 - 14:10 on Wednesday if, for some reason, a picture of a cross exists somewhere close by.
The parking lot we eventually found seemed reasonable, available, and, after a few turns around a roundabout, convenient. There was a group of Chinese tourists looking intently at the parking payment machine (you pay at one central location in the lot and take a small printout ticket for your dashboard). They made way for me, because it was very obvious I knew what I was doing, and watched me use the machine. Of course, the joke was on them. I knew nothing!
But I tried. I payed for a few hours of parking time but when the machine spit out the ticket, it said my parking time expired at 8:30 in the morning. What? 8:30? It was nearly 10:00.
The group of Chinese gathered around me and looked at my ticket. We all shrugged. So I tried again and bought another few hours of parking. And again, the ticket came out: 8:30.
It was at this point I wanted, truly, to be a good ambassador and use all the years of my Chinese language practice to explain to them how I didn’t know what was going on and how parking was tricky in Florence and how they’d better watch out for mysterious flights of stairs suddenly appearing in random roadways.
But all my Chinese knowledge evaporated from my head and as I stared at the machine, which had taken my money and betrayed me twice, I pointed at it and said like a simpleton, “Bu hao.” This just means no good. The Chinese woman next to me gave me a wide smile and repeated “Bu hao!”
And right then a very nice and helpful Italian man approached, looked at the machine, looked at me, and then said, “It’s Sunday. No pay to park.”
Yes, that means I had just bought four duplicate hours of parking for the next day. Sigh.
By now I had wasted most of our time. We had 10 minutes to walk across most of Florence. Time to bear down, grimace, and embrace another day of intent marching.
We made it to the museum in time, looked at a few of the introductory exhibits, and then turned the corner. This is the one corner I’ll never forget. The one turn and there it was, bathed in light at the end of the corridor: David, the sculpture by Michelangelo.
I’ve seen it in pictures. I’ve seen it in movies. But in person it was magnificent. I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect this. I disdain cliches but yes, it took my breath away.
The museum filled the corridor leading up to David with blocks of marble that Michelangelo had begun carving but, for some reason, had abandoned. All these works in progress, all these half-formed ideas, demonstrated a journey to a masterpiece. We’ve diluted the word ‘awesome’ these days, but it’s the most appropriate word. I was awe struck.
After we toured the rest of the museum, Suzanne said, “Well, that’s a one trick pony museum.” And I said, “Yeah, but what a pony!”
We took a quick trip to the Galileo museum right afterward and then hit the road to the coast. First, though, we made a detour to Pisa to see the grand and mighty Leaning Tower.
Pisa is a tourist town, and most everyone was there to climb the tower. There’s only a certain allocation of tower tickets every day, and ours had a guaranteed entrance time of somewhere between 16:30 and 18:00. We were there in time but still had to wait. No early entries. No bags or backpacks. This felt more like orderly Germany than chaotic Italy.
At first we waited by the shops and restaurants, which seemed to go on and on, but there was a cost to everything. Even going to the bathroom cost a euro. Instead, we opted to find a place to sit, someplace safe from the furnace of direct sunlight.
As we searched for shade to wait out our time, we saw a dad sprawled out in the grass, deep asleep. When his family finally came back to claim his body and his kids crawled on him, he lifted his head and looked directly at me. We both smiled because we both knew the exhausted father secret: a shaded patch of grass ripe for napping is more valuable than any leaning tower of questionable construction. Give us the shade and we’ll stop whining.
The tower climb was easy, especially compared to the Florence Duomo climb. The aging out-of-time punk rocker ahead of me had a red mohawk, a t-shirt that said “Odin looks out for me!” and several pounds of chains looping from pocket to pocket of his stylishly ratty jeans. He had his wallet open at one point and I saw his daughter’s elementary school picture.
Here we were, father’s all, in a queue to climb a tower that single-handled and accidentally brought us all together.
So what of Pisa, besides architectural misconduct? A willing but misplaced tour guide looking for a group to talk to caught me in the plaza and said, “Pisa is all things. You are born and get baptized over there. Then you grow up while going to church over here. Then you climb the tower to get closer to heaven right there. Then you die and get buried in the cemetery over there.” There was a certain pride in her voice as she said this.
All I said was, “Bummer.”
After climbing up and down, we still had a bit more driving to do. We were on our way to Camogli, a small town on the coast of the Mediterranean where we planned to stay for two nights. It’d be a good break from the hectic and, at times, overwhelming March Of Culture we had been enjoying up to now.
Next: Beach blanket bingo - on the rocks, please.