no matter where you go, there you are

Sunday, June 20, 2010

when the bright angel dominates, out comes a great work of art, a michelangelo david or a beethoven symphony - madeleine l'engle

We descended the tower after soaking in the city and headed to the Galleria dell'Accademia. As I said before, everything in Florence had an admission price on the higher end and this museum was no different. Though the Ufizi Museum in Florence is better known and actually looked more interesting, the Accademia was the home of Michaelangelo's David and so if we could only choose one over the other, Accademia it was. David made the admission worth it. My only recollection of the other artwork was "eh." What stuck out most was that I first noticed the faces of the people in Renaissance art were all the same. Men's faces, unless there was facial hair, looked the same as women's. There was also a special photography exhibit which included nude photographs highlighting the greatness of the human body. Between them and David, the museum really had an ode to the gorgeousness of the human body going on.

Before seeing David, I only knew a couple things about him. 1) There was a copy in a piazza somewhere else in Florence and 2) He is the David from the David vs. Goliath story. As I turned the bend leading to his location, I was in shock by how tall he was. Almost 8 feet tall, David stands strong, contemplating life. He's absolutely astounding. Not only is his body close to perfection, but the detail carved into the model is pitch-perfect. Somehow, Michaelangelo was able to carve the veins the run down David's outer forearm. It's magical. He looks so real. I walk around him a couple times and stare and stare and stare. And I swear I see a movement from his arm or leg. If he wasn't gray, I might have thought it was a real life model standing before me. David is so indescribably beautiful. Sad to leave, I knew I couldn't spend all day drooling so we parted ways and I bought a couple of postcards in memory of the perfect man.

The Medici Chapels were next but at this point I don't think anything in Florence could top David. The admission price here was also on the high end, and more expensive than Fodors had led us to believe so it was a little depressing for me when we bought our tickets. I don't like being fed false information so it was from this point on where I knew to not trust the guidebooks completely. Not only was the admission on the high end, but there wasn't that much to see. As we got there only 10 minutes before it closed, we thought that maybe we had missed a section or something because the ticket price was so high for such a small thing, but I don't think we did. The main chapel was pretty neat and different than other churches because it was all round and not rectangular in shape. However, it was under restoration so scaffolding was covering about 1/3 of the place and a few statues and pieces of artwork were missing from their homes. The most interesting part of the Medici Chapels was the side room that had tombs carved by Michaelangelo. We weren't allowed pictures so I don't remember the details of them well but I remember really enjoying them. According to my notes, there was a statue of half a man that I thought was really cool.

From the Medici Chapels we wondered through the Piazza della Repubblica with its carousel all lit up and then onto the Piazza della Signoria (home of Palazza Vecchio) where I finally got a picture with David as it's the location of the replica statue.

There were some other very interesting sculptures in the piazza as well and we spent a bit of time admiring them.

By the time we reached Ponte Vecchio it was almost completely dark and the covered bridge filled with small stores was lit up and reflecting beautifully in the still river. Dinner was had at a restaurant on the early side (which was nice as no one was there) and I had the most delicious Pasta Bolgonese ever. My first, true real meal...ahh, delicious! As we made our way back to the hotel, we passed through the Mercato and were almost plowed over by 2 men who were trying to sell knock-off bags which is VERY illegal. Anne suggested they were running from the cops but I thought that was a little absurd. Nope, a few feet in front of us they mentioned the word police...haha.

a traveler without observation is a bird without wings - moslih eddin saadi

We arrived back in Florence around noon and immediately began sightseeing. The Duomo complex was first and it was really magnificent. Though the interior wasn't terribly spectacular save for the frescoes on the dome ceiling, the facade of the cathedral, battistero and campanile (bell tower) were fabulous. The white and black with splashes of pink marble created a gorgeous pattern of stone. The brightness of the stone really contrasted well with the bright red roofs of the city allowing for the buildings to really stand out. After seeing a similar style of architecture in Siena, I assumed this was a Tuscan thing since Rome had nothing like this and when we went to Venice later, the architecture was vastly different. In addition, the carving work, though not as intense as Notre Dame, was still worthy of great praise.

As I said above, the interior of the cathedral wasn't that interesting. Like most other European churches there were side chapels containing statues, tombs and paintings and the rest of the cathedral was open and empty. There were only a few pews set up but this may be so in high tourist season it doesn't get too crowded.

The frescoes on the dome ceiling were really pretty and I wish I'd gotten a picture in focus. The colors were bright with lots of yellows and blues. The layout of the frescoes were unique as well since it had concentric circles, each with different images in the layers. Another unique facet of the Duomo was that the gift shop was in the basement adjacent to the tomb entrance. All the original foundation stonework is there so they have items laid out on rocks jutting out of the walls.

One thing that I didn't like about Florence was that everything had an admission price, unlike a lot of places in Rome which were free, and that the admission prices weren't 2-4 Euros, but 6-8 which puts a damper in plans when you're on a budget. The Duomo admission prices were no different so we had to decide whether to spend our money to climb the Duomo (485? steps) or the Campanile. A hostel roommate of mine in Rome told to me that if you could only do one, the Campanile is the better option because you get a view of the famous Red Roof Dome. If you're on the Dome, yes you're a little higher and you might feel more accomplished, but you don't get to see it in all its glory. Therefore, to the Campanile we went. By this point I was getting much better at climbing stairs in an efficient manner without losing my breath after 10 steps and not slowing down the people behind me. Even so, the different floors of the Campanile offered a nice breaking point and I got to see the carvings alongside the Duomo really close up.

From the top of the tower the 360 degree view of Florence was gorgeous! Red roofs seemed to go into the distance forever, much like Siena so it must be another Tuscan thing.

From the roof we had a wonderful view of the Dome on the Duomo, we could see the Medici Chapels, Palazzo Vecchio, Piazza della Repubblica, and Santa Croce, all places we had yet to visit. Seeing the layout of the city beforehand helped me a lot because when you're in a foreign city, knowing where things are in relation to one another helps a lot with direction. I also saw how small Florence was in comparison to Rome and Paris. Most things we were going to, or wanted to see, were within 15-20 minutes walking distance.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

leaning tower

The train arrived in Florence on time and the city was bustling as I made my way down the main street. I had met an American family on the train who were returning to Florence after visiting Siena for the day and the parents said they would point me in the right direction since they'd been in the city for a few days now. I thought "what the hell? this is nice" and followed them. They pointed out a couple of the major areas and by the time we reached the river I realized they had taken me completely out of the way. I was about 2 bridges south of where I wanted to be. Normally I wouldn't have minded, but Florence is an old city with almost all of the roads and sidewalks being cobblestone. I was traveling with small carry-on rolling suitcase. Let's just say it wasn't easy, and one of wheels barely survived. And by the time I arrived at my hostel I was extremely relieved. Though the river was gorgeous at night and I took a moment to appreciate it, the extra walk was not what I had in mind after a long day already stricken with plenty of lost-ness.

The next morning was a very early one. Anne and Lauren were arriving from Vienna after an all-night train ride so I had to meet them at the station. Florence in the early morning hours was completely different than the previous night. Empty and silent, there was almost no one out and about. I met up with them on schedule and after walking to our hotel and dropping our bags off we headed back out and off to Pisa. Only an hour from Florence by train, we took the time to catch up and ended up reminiscing about how we learned to multiply. Anne learned the most bizarre way I have ever seen. Which is weird since we went to the same school...

We didn't spend much time in Pisa but it seemed like a very relaxed and laid back city. It's small, therefore it felt a lot like Tours, France; a residential city rather than a center of everything one. The Tower, Battisterto and Duomo is about a 5-10 minute walk from the train station and in a very nice area. It's nice and spread out and the rest of the city isn't towering around it. There's room to breathe and admire. The weather was gorgeous, with the bright blue sky only enhancing the beautiful, carved, white stone of the buildings. Even cooler was the old ancient city wall which sits around the far side of the complex.

Initially, the tower doesn't really look like it's leaning but as we walked around it the angle changed and you definitely see the shifted foundation. Because it kept changing I kept thinking my mind was playing tricks on me or something and it was all just an illusion. Nope, it is definitely leaning. Another thing I thought was interesting was that it wasn't very tall. Compared to the size of Pisa's other buildings, it was a little bit taller so it may provide a nice city view, but compared to the Eiffel Tower or even the tower on Notre Dame or the Cupola of St. Peter's, the tower wasn't tall at all. Maybe only 4 stories or so...

Inside the Duomo, there wasn't much of a difference compared to the other Italian churches. A beautifully carved ceiling, a wonderfully painted dome, the altar, side chapels and large paintings adorning the walls. Here, I liked the carved ceiling the best. There was variety in the carvings and as a whole they created a pattern which was visually stunning.

On our way back to the station, we crossed the river once again and the reflection was so picture perfect I had to stop and stare in awe. I can't remember seeing anything like it before. The water was still, nothing disturbing it floating up or down. No trash, boats, people, animals. Nothing. Its mirror properties were outstanding and the reflection was one of my favorite images to capture.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

ramblings on the language barrier

As an English language speaker, I knew there would be a language barrier from the moment I stepped onto European soil. First it was French where I was limited to knowing only a few phrases: "yes," "do you speak," "excuse me" and "thank you." As I was in Paris where English translations and bi-lingual citizens are common I didn't have trouble unless I was a train station (which I find funny as station workers interact with so many people, many of whom are probably foreign). When I bought my train tickets for my journey to Italy, the attendant didn't speak English well and even though it seemed like we communicated well enough, I ended up getting a ticket for the wrong date.

The morning I traveled to Tours, France I spent time at the station ticket windows trying to clarify or possibly change my overnight ticket to Italy. I went to 3 different windows, each subsequently sending me away to another window that were for English speakers and who could deal with the problem at the same time. Finally, when I arrived back in Paris, a Metro worker told me there was luggage storage at the Bercy station. There wasn't. I should have relied on the research I did at home. From then on I was going to do my best to not believe foreigners responses to my questions if I knew they didn't speak English well.

I had no problem with Italian in Rome, but the second I reached Siena I ran into many problems. Though Siena is a city, it is small compared to Rome therefore like many places, the farther you get from the metropolises the harder it is to find English. My attempts at communicating with the bus dude resulted in me believing that I could take any bus and it would take me to Piazza Gramsci. As I recounted here, it didn't.

The entire bus system is itself, a language barrier. Even when I was living in Tokyo, our orientation leaders advised us not to take the busses, or attempt to understand the bus system, unless we knew each bus' destination or could read and understand Japanese. Similarly, in Siena, the schedules were all in Italian, the driver only spoke in Italian, and even then he didn't announce the stops. Bus systems just don't cater to English speaking tourists. Therefore, in regards to Siena specifically, if you only speak English, I suggest bringing a map and walk despite the hills, or cough up the money and take a cab. My day certainly would have been less stressful.

Lucky for me, my language barrier problems ended in Siena and I had no problems throughout the rest of Italy and later in Germany and Austria. Though I knew less German than I did French and Italian, I learned from my earlier mistakes and changed my travel behaviors accordingly. It made for a less stressful vacation and if I ever go abroad again I will know how best to avoid all language barrier problems.