Margherita of the mountain

Cortona at dawn….

The basilica di Santa Margherita is outside the center city walls and up curving stone pathways. I wonder if Margaret climbed a mountain because it’s quite a hike up to see her.


Around the side of the church there is a long, steep staircase that leads down to a path that goes about a half mile downhill. At intervals along the path are small stone structures housing mosaics depicting the staziones di croce, the stations of the cross.

I head down to start at the bottom, and pardon the pun and the sacrilege, but it looks like a hell of a hike up. The $64,000 question is: will I lose weight, gain weight, or break even on this trip, because I am eating deliciously if not healthfully, but I’m walking more in a morning than I probably do in a week at home.

My exercise habits are depressing, back to the crucifixion.

The first mosaic is Jesu Condemnato, Jesus is condemned. There are two almonds along the stone ridge and I wonder whether they’re an offering of some sort. A lot of the stops have offerings – figurines, cards, crosses, flowers… Up close, I can see all the different color tiles used — the shades of browns and beiges for skin. some pieces are missing, the mortar crumbling behind the glass. It’s hard to get a picture. Even in mosaic, the image of a nail being driven into someone’s foot is less than wholly pleasant.

Up the hill, the church bells ring.

Passing through the parking lot again, on my way back down toward the center of town, a man – the caretaker I think – notices me, so I nod and say “Buon giorno, signore.”
He wishes me a good day as well, and gestures to the skies all around, “Bella, si?”
“Si, si,” I agree, in broken Italian, “una bella giornata.”

Walking through the streets of Cortona, I notice, as I often do, the doorways. Some are elaborate, some ramshackle. I don’t know why it is I have a fascination with photographing doors when I travel. Doors and stairs. Maybe it’s because they always lead somewhere unknown and going away from home is about seeing something new. Or at least, it should be.

After stopping off at the hotel for breakfast and to pack, I decide to walk up to the convent of Santa Chiara. A woman tells me it will take about 20 minutes to get there. Her timing is off, because in about five minutes I come to a fork in the road, and am not sure where to go, but a heavy door opens and two nuns walk out. I figure they’ll know which way I should head, so I ask “Scusa, per favore, Santa Chiara?” They graciously understand my mangled attempt at communication, and point me toward a little cathedral that almost looks like a school room, save for the elaborate altar. If I were the type of person who attended religious services, I would prefer an environment like this one to the cavernous arena.

As I walk out, the door next to the chapel opens and a young sister comes out, escorting an older, hunched over nun. I sit and watch the sisters exit the convent doors. I’m more than a little thrown when one walks out, talking on a cell phone. I didn’t know nuns had cell phones.

Walking on, I wind my way through some streets where there are houses. A German shepherd approaches, from behind a fence, thank God, and starts barking loudly, scaring both the hell and the bejesus out of me. I do not like dogs, in any language.

Several houses later, I come across another dog, smaller this time, but in a yard with an open gate, so I stand still, hoping it will retreat. When the lady of the house comes out to investigate why her dog is barking, I hold my hands up to indicate that I’m not a threat and she greets me with a warm “Buon giorno.”

I encounter an older man along a rocky path and ask if I can take his picture. The only word I can understand of his response is brutto, ugly, and I shake my head no until he relents.

My theory of all roads lead home eventually is definitely applicable here. I follow random, unfamiliar paths and find myself in places I’ve been before.

Soon it will be time to leave, so I head back toward the piazza, to sit and relax for a while, and just soak up the last hour in Cortona. The streets are alive now, and people are milling about, wishing one another good day, and chattering on. Sitting outside the Teatro Signorelli is a group of adorable children, on a field trip perhaps. A visiting woman walks by with two girls, presumably her daughters, speaking loudly in English. The kids overhear them and begin enthusiastically showing off. “Hello!” They call out. “Good morning. We are from Ee-taly! How are you? I am good. Bye! Good-bye!”

When I move to snap their picture, they pose happily, grinning and waving for the camera.

Ice cream before lunch is a wonderful travel habit, I’ve decided, so I decide to have a late morning gelato. I want to get the best flavors possible, but I don’t know how to ask the gentleman working at the shop what his recommendations are. I want to avoid that whole ugly American thing, so I try to at least offer options.

“Scusi, per favore,” I begin, praying I have the words right, or at least comprehensible. “Non parlo Italiano. Francais? English?”

Now, please, bear in mind that my French is far from perfect, and after being out of practice for quite a while, my vocabulary is extremely elementary. But compared to the 30 words of Italian I know — most of them food — I feel pretty confident. If pretty confident translates to being able to get by. Or, at least, ask a man what flavor gelato he likes.

Que preferez-vous? I ask, and he creates a concoction of nocciola (hazelnut), fico (fig) and mascarpone for me. It’s rich without being heavy, the flavors complementing one another well, and it tastes deliciously Italian.

I want to pick up some food for the train, so I go into a small alimentari, mini-market, and buy one euro worth of bread, another of cheese, and several clementines. As I’m walking out, I step right into a sea of tourists in matching hats.

“Good morning,” a woman says to me, speaking slowly and deliberately.

“Good morning,” I reply.

“Do you live here?” she asks, still very slowly, I guess presuming I’m Italian and don’t understand English well. I shake my head.

“No ma’am.”

“Where do you live?” she asks stiltedly.

“Chattanooga, Tennessee,” I say, and now she looks almost affronted, and I can’t help but be amused.

“You don’t have a Southern accent,” she accuses, and yes, her tone is now accusatory.

I shake my head. “No, ma’am.”

Before she can say anything else, I smile, nod, and move along on my way. Apparently, though, this encounter has set off a chain of meetings with North Americans, because not ten minutes later, I overhear a couple mention bed and breakfast. I don’t generally care to engage, but I’ve had such a pleasant stay at B&B Dolce Maria, I interject to offer a recommendation.

They, especially the woman, are tickled to hear another English speaker that they start chatting. David and Yolanda are a sweet couple visiting Tuscany on their honeymoon. And, it happens, they live in Knoxville.

She hugs me when we part ways and I head back to the hotel to pick up my bags and to thank Paola for being a wonderful hostess. On the way to the train, I share a taxi with a Canadian mother and daughter. The girl has been studying in Cortona and her mother came over to travel with her for a couple of weeks. They’ve been moving around Italy, staying in hostels (something I can’t see my mother doing), and are now headed to Rome before they fly home to Winnipeg.

They couldn’t be more pleasant, but after days of barely speaking, I’m not really in the mood for idle chatter, so I’m not sad to bid them farewell at the train station. This afternoon, I’m heading to Lucca, on the recommendation of my friend, Kelli. It’s the stop I know the least about. Sometimes, unknown places are the best…

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Home(style)stay

When I arrive at Carmucia-Cortona, the station is nearly abandoned, not even a biglieterria, there’s a taxi stand but no taxis. The only other person is a sullen-looking teenage girl. I call the hotel, mixing up the hotel and the taxi numbers, and speak to the clerk at the hotel thinking he’s a taxi dispatcher, then am annoyed when he can’t tell me exactly when a cab will arrive. But we get it sorted out, and eventually a gentleman drives up and inquires whether I’m going to B&B Dolce Maria, the bed and breakfast I have reservations at, so I know he’s not just a random creeper.

He drives, up, up, up, hills and we enter the walled city of Cortona, turning down streets so narrow I have no idea how he is manuevering this large van through the space.

We arrive at Via Fontebella, in front of a door that has almost no distinction other than its blue color and a sign taped to the front. A woman leans out the window and confirms we are in the right place.

I go up two flights of dim  steps and enter what looks like a small breakfast area, where Paola, the owner and proprietress, checks me in by hand, notes my upcoming birthday (berat-day, she pronounces it), and gives me a map of the city before showing me up to my room. It is palatial compared to some other rooms I’ve had. There’s an alcove with two twin beds, an armoire, a table with two chairs and a queen bed. The door locks from the outside and inside with a brass skeleton key.

I head out, just in time to see the sunset, but my camera battery dies just as the sun is descending, so I catch the last glimspes of it. This is when I learn the vitality of having spare batteries out of the package, because apparently Energizer is packaged by the same people who built Fort Knox. Also, the sun goes down quickly.

I walk around but whether it’s a lack of sleep thing or what, the sense of adventure I had this morning in Assisi seems to be eluding me a little bit here, at least tonight. I feel more timid. I’m still inclined to go up and down the narrow vicoli, but not as much as I was earlier. I’m not quite content to retrace my steps on main streets, but I don’t not do it.

I am determined to find a restaurant that serves fava beans and pecorino, but to no avail, so I find my way back to the restaurant that’s attached to the hotel, run by Paola and her husband. It’s half-full and there’s a fireplace. It ends up being perfect. I say “vegetariana,” hoping I have the word right, and they bring me ribollita, an all-vegetable antipasti dish, and a salad of fennel and blood oranges with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. I’m borderline exhausted and my feet hurt, so the homey atmosphere is just what I need.

My only quibble is the small language block I have when I try to ask directions to a ladies’ room and learn that “lavatory” or “restroom” do not translate. I don’t really care to ask the location of the “toilet,” it just seems a little crass to me. Oh, well.

My tiredness must be written on my face, because Paola comes over and tells me she’ll make me dessert to take up to my room. She brings over a dish piled with chocolate chip and almond cantucci — small, hard biscotti-like cookies – and sends me on my way. I make my way upstairs, where I drag the nightstand into the bathroom and turn that into a bench and the bidet into a foot bath. By 9:30, I’m in bed. Tomorrow will be another early day….

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The point is, I didn’t plummet to my death

More on the title of this post later. Let’s start at the beginning…

I’m awakened about 3 a.m. by nothing more than a bad taste in my mouth. I get up to brush my teeth and get back in bed. Within minutes the first sounds of the birds chirping come about. I want to sleep, so I keep my eyes closed. I could close the window, but it’s so rare to be able to sleep with the window open and fresh air coming in. I think about counting sheep or cows jumping over the moon. Strangely, I conjure up an image of a cow jumping over a little bald man. Don’t ask.

The birds get louder and hunger starts gnawing at me. Sleep eludes me. I spread Nutella from a small package over my last piece of bread from the train and sit in bed, reading my book at 4:30 in the morning, listening to the birds. This is not something I really ever do at home. I like being able to move at a slower pace. But I don’t have a life here. I don’t have a livelihood, i don’t have a job. Maybe when I get home I can take some more time to move slowly. I’m trying not to think about all the work I have when i get back.

The first light hits, barely, and there’s no point in staying inside. So off I go.

When I leave the hotel, there is a box of freshly baked croissants waiting outside the entrance. They’re still warm to the touch (at least, the one I take is. I didn’t go poking at all of them), crisp on the outside and soft inside. The air is chilly and I’m glad to have brought a hat, scarf and gloves. There’s a tip for traveling between seasons: prepare for a variety of temperatures with light layers, and don’t underestimate the value of keeping head, neck and extremities warm. A great way to add extra warmth without bulk? A pair of stockings under jeans. Seriously, world of difference.

I walk empty streets, taking in everything around me — the uneven stones, the slightly blue tint of the sky, the arched doorways. Most of the time, unoccupied streets make me nervous — no one around to hear you scream — but here, I just want to keep walking.

I come across Piazza San Rufino, home of the Assisi Cathedral, where Saints Francis and Clare were, reportedly, baptized.

Continuing on, I come across a rock wall and jagged rock tower. And here is where the post title comes in. In a move that would that horrify my parents (sorry, Mom) and (I hope) make my climbing friends proud, I scramble my way up the wall and then up the tower.
I realize what an absolutely stupid move this is. I’m alone and completely inexperienced. The possibility of plummeting to my death or severe injury is not non-existent. But I feel like I’ll be okay. It isn’t that high, maybe 100 feet or so. Let’s just assume the saints were with me or something.

Going up is fun. Going down is terrifying. I was hoping to see the sunrise, but either I missed it or I was looking in the wrong direction.  Oh well, it felt good. Kind of amazing, actually. Doing something I have no reason to believe I can actually do is pretty spectacular. And yes, I know it’s not all that tall, but for someone who doesn’t actually know how to do this, it’s kind of a big deal.

Feeling a great sense of rejuvenation after my mini-triumph, I continue on toward the Basilica di Santa Chiara, the Church of St. Clare. Despite the signs, I get lost in the winding streets of Assisi along the way.

When I finally find my way to where I’m going, the basilica is set on a now-empty piazza that will fill up within a matter of hours. The church itself is formed of pink and white stones, in a striped pattern, and the view, like all the views here, is beautiful.

Chiara, who ran away from parents determined to marry her off to a wealthy man, was one of the first followers of San Francesco. The founder of the Order of Poor Ladies, she is believed to have been the first woman to have written a monastic rule.

I tiptoe inside the church and I’m the only one inside. There’s a sign forbidding photography, but with not a small amount of guilt, I snap some pictures. Apparently, Clare is not thrilled with me for this, because none of them actually come out. At one point, my camera makes a whirring sound, disturbing the near-silence. From the other side of the wall, in a cloistered area, I hear a man speaking and women responding in unison — a priest giving mass to some nuns, I assume. I feel like a horrible person. Here I am, in their holy space, sneaking around at 6:30 in the morning, trying to document my visit to a place I barely understand. Several young-looking sisters hurry in and genuflect before the altar before slipping behind a closed door. I keep my head down, pretending to be in deep reflection, and I’m pretty sure I’m officially driving the bus to Hell. I know these churches have become public spaces, attractions almost, but right now, I feel like an intruder.

Outside, I cease to hold my breath and eventually come across a sign pointing toward Rocca Maggiore. I have no inkling of what this is, but I’m assuming it’s something akin to “big rock.” Okay. Let’s see what this big rock is all about.

Overlooking Assisi and the Spoleto Valley, it is a fortress rebuilt by Cardinal Albornoz during the second half of the fourteenth century. Thre a sign leading up a path to a ticket office, but it’s far too early and besides, I have no desire to trail along on some tour. Emboldened by my earlier ascent, I want to take the unbeaten path. And I do. Trailing over uneven ground, I climb up as far as I can go, to the outside walls of the fortress and look out. The view is stunning, majestic, and I can see for miles. I have a delicious feeling that I am absolutely not meant to be here.

Making my way back down, I come across an open gate leading down a pathway. I start to go in but see a sign: Attenti Al Cane, beware of dog. Typically, if a gate is not closed,  I’ll go there, something I would be less inclined to do at home. However, my canine-phobic self will not venture farther here. It’s a good thing I don’t because I soon spot another sign – Propretia Privata. I’m not inclined to knowingly trespass if I can help it. So I just step inside enough to glance down the way.

I start to walk back around a hill. I notice a golden retriever on the hillside where I just was. Attenti Al Cane, indeed. I thank every available higher power for the timing. I see it coming down, so I rush down a flight of steps and see another path. I go down that, but it doesn’t lead anywhere. I go back and there on the path is the same dog, about 50 yards away. It just stands there, wagging its tail, looking disinterested. Then it turns around and follows a man in a hat down the Vicolo San Lorenzo.

I’ve noticed more dogs off leashes in Italy, and God knows I do not want a reduction of leash laws in the States, but the dogs here are also scaring me less than the dogs in America because they’re not being loud and frenetic and invasive. Maybe it’s akin to the European attitude on drinking – don’t make it a big restrictive deal and there will be less hullabaloo about it. But I have a personal appreciation of pet restrictions, as I don’t actually appreciate pets, so whatever legalities can keep them away from me — please.

Apparently, the owners of a property I pass feel the same way about trespassers that I do about dogs, because the top of the wall surrounding a house is lined with pieces of broken glass.

Walking back toward town, there are signs of life. The day has begun and I no longer have the city nearly to myself. Children walk with their backpacks toward school. Yes, there are actual young people who go to school here. It throws me for a moment. A woman sits outside her home, her apron suggesting she is taking a break from her morning chores. Her house overlooks a small chapel.

For the record, yes, gelato makes an excellent breakfast, thank you very much. And I’ve walked enough already to not feel guilty about the calories. Besides, there is more walking to be done, back up the hilly twisted streets and steps, to a road that leads out of the city proper. My goal is to reach the Eremo dell Carceri, a small hermitage where Francesco di Bernardone (later St. Francis of Assisi) spent time in the 13th century. I walk along the road, viewing what I’m certain are olive trees on both sides. Of course, I have no knowledge of botany and so for all I know, they’re fig trees. Do figs grow on trees? I think they’re olives.

On each side of the road are images that some might imagine would mar the beauty of the landscape, but to me, they just add character. On one side, down in a valley, is what looks like a large tent surrounded by refuse. On the other is a small, dilapted brick structure, up on a craggy ledge above the road.

Unfortunately, my feet start to feel too much stress from the morning’s ventures and I have to give up the quest to walk the four kilometers beyond Assisi’s borders up to the Eremo, at Monte Subasio. So I head back toward town, make my way back through the narrow vicoli and the piazzi, now coming to life, in search of something slightly more substantial than ice cream to eat.

After that, I will return to Via Fontebella, to the Hotel Fontebella, methodically pack up my backpack, tie my plastic food bag to the top loop, and walk back down, past the path overlooking the courtyard of the Basilica di San Francesco, past the construction site, down to the bus stop, where I’ll catch the bus to the train station.

Today, I am off to Cortona.

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“As to the nature of my faith…”

 

“I am a person of faith. As to the nature of my faith, it’s really none of your damn business.” – Kevin Murphy, “A Year at the Movies.”

Assisi is all stone and winding paths, and uphill, and this, this is Italy I came to see. In some ways, I think every big city is a little too reminiscent of the last one, and so I tend to prefer the smaller towns. The bus goes up, up, until it can’t go any farther, and then I walk the rest of the way up narrow, climbing stone streets, past a construction site, until I reach my hotel. The view is breathtaking.

The first thing I do when I head out is go to the Basilica de San Francesco, the Church of St. Francis. I’ve always loved the prayer of St. Francis, despite not exactly cottoning to some parts of it.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

I don’t adhere to the eternal life part, but I take no issue with those who do and ask that they afford me the same courtesy. My relationship with the spirit world would merit an “It’s Complicated” status on Facebook. I’m not thrilled about the social more that necessitates defining, explaining and justifying ones relationship with whatever higher power(s) one does or does not believe in.

I’ve had moments of religion, of faith, peace, clarity, something in all different places — hearing a song, seeing a painting, a rainbow, in a church, during a kiss, a dance, a lot of different places. I like ideas from different religions. I like aspects of certain prayers. The Hebrew Shehecheyanu, for example, is gorgeous in translation:

Blessed art thou, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this season.

I am happy to learn where I can. I hope and need to learn more. And so I sit in on the sparsely attended mass for a few minutes, and understand about five words.

The church is not crowded, which I like. There’s something about being in a religious building at an off hour. The people who are there are there because of faith, not because of an obligation or social more, at least that’s how it seems to me. This country is Catholic, Catholic, Catholic, but it seems in the right way, not in the way organized religion has mutilated and raped faith. It’s faith for faith’s sake and not for anything else.

What was it that Gandhi said? “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Or in bumper sticker parlance: “I have no problem with God, it’s his fan club I don’t like.” I’m not saying I agree with either theory, but I can see how each makes a certain amount of sense.

That which makes no sense to me at home does not make any more sense here, but somehow there’s a greater sense of… empathy, perhaps.

I like churches and temples, especially when they’re empty. I like the fact that you have to be silent in there. I like the candles. Here, there aren’t actual candles, just electric ones that turn on when you drop a coin in a box. That’s nowhere near as fun as flames.

I see an offering to Santa Caterina, Saint Catherine. When I lived in Brussels, Beligium in 2007, I lived at the Place Ste. Catherine, and I spent a lot of time in the church on the square. It was a difficult time in my life and the vast, empty space gave me comfort.

I leave the church and keep on walking. It’s sunset now. The sky turns pink and I head uphill, winding along the narrow vicoli. I have a tendency when I travel to walk uphill as far as I can go, to turn down every alley I can find…

Away from home, I am braver and bolder, perhaps more reckless, certainly more curious. I take the forks in the roads, venture unmarked streets, look behind doors…

After sundown, I search up and down for a restaurant, Otello, that the hotel clerk told me about. I pass through piazzi, past far too many souvenir shops, by pasticerria after pasticerria. The selections of pastries are colorful, artistic and tempting. I settle on two to save for later — one brutti ma buoni, translation “ugly, but good,” a cookie of chopped nuts, and one soft, orange flavored cookie. I will savor both, slowly, over the next two days and they are delicious.

From my pastry purchases, it takes me a long time to find Otello, a small, dark restaurant with a friendly proprieter, who leads me to a table in the back. It is here that I have an Ugly American moment, about which I feel terrible: I intend to order the pizza margherita, but accidentally ask for the pizza napoletana  instead. Olives, capers and anchovies. Gross.

When traveling overseas, I really do my best to not be an obnoxious tourist. I try to learn at least a few words in a the native language, including “please excuse me, I don’t speak (your language).” I am quiet, polite, not speaking when it isn’t necessary. So this mix up is embarrassing. Fortunately the waiter is very gracious when I apologize profusely for having said the wrong word, and brings me a new order.

After dinner, it’s time to settle in for the night. It’s only 9 o’clock, but I’ve been keeping early hours. I get into bed with my book — appropriately, I’ve brought along Frances Mayes’ “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Bella Tuscany.” Reading before bed is another thing I rarely do at home. There always seems to be too much to tend to, too much to take care of, too much stimulation from things with screens. I am forever frenetic in my daily life. Maybe I can remember to take some of this slow calm with me when I go.

Maybe…

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To market, to market

Sometimes things work out for the best. Skipping the bike tour I had been planning to go on allows me time to visit Florence’s famed Mercato Centrale, and it is the perfect way to end my first stop on this somewhat whirlwind tour.

I wander through a tent filled with tables of produce being sold by different vendors. There are fruits and vegetables in every color of the rainbow, and they make me want to prepare a huge summer feast. Anyone interested in a dinner party?

I try to buy one Sicilian lemon, but the woman selling them tells me no. Once again, the concept of solo proves difficult. So I buy a small container of fragole – strawberries – dark red and longer than the ones I’m used to seeing in American grocery stores, from a tiny, elderly Italian lady.

From there I wander through stall after stall of leather goods, pashminas and cashmere, jewelry, and of course, random kitschy trinkets. I buy a black leather wrap belt, buttery soft, from a sweet, patient man, bargaining him down from ten euros to seven. Days later, I will regret not buying one for my sister as well.

The male merchants call out, eager to flirt with a potential customer. Several of them compliment my eyes (is this in the International Handbook to Being a Guy? I’ve had more men tell me I have pretty eyes than probably every other possible attribute combined). All of them say they’ll give me a good price. I shake my head and say no, I don’t have the money, I need to pay for a train. I need to buy food. I can’t afford a leather jacket, even if it is genuine Florentine leather, and si, si, it is indeed bella. If I had the money and the room in my suitcase, I could do some serious damage here. Maybe another time I’ll come back with an empty suitcase. It might be worth the customs nightmare.

I bargain a man for two pashminas for 12 euros, a forest green one for me and a peacock blue for Abby, and pace back and forth among the selections of leather goods. I finally select a wallet in a rich purple and bargain ten euros off the price. Many of the leather goods are stamped with the words vera pelle, which I think is the name of the company or the designer. I realize later that vera pelle means “real leather.”

As I walk amongst the stalls, some of the merchants ask my name, and I pull out the first Italian names I can think of – Anna, Natalia, Emilia… My own name is not  particularly translatable, like Joseph in Italian is Giuseppe. Holly can be pretty in English, but I despise foreign attempts to pronounce it – the dropping of the H, the lengthening of the O… it’s just unpleasant.

I’ve always taken a great personal interest in nomenclature, examining the significance of names in literature, the meaning behind names, the imagery associated with them. I’ve been taking note of how the images of some names can be altered in translation. Our homely, stringy Claire becomes sensual earth mother Chiara. John, steadfast and kindhearted, translates to flirtatious cad Giovanni. It fascinates me.

Soon, I come to an indoor market place, akin to the Atwater Market in Montreal, and I am in gourmand heaven. I walk around marveling at everything – cheeses, produce, dried fruits, braids of garlic, colorful pastas…

Sapori – flavors – one of the most important words I will learn during my time here. There are so many simple, complex, rich, wonderful flavors here. I find my groove, telling each merchant exactly how much I can spend on a particular product. For less than one euro (80 cents) I buy a wedge of pecorino fresco that would cost me $5 in the States. I spend 50 cents for two hearty slices of bread, 20 cents for a clementine and one euro for a generous portion of biscotti for dessert. My epicurean splurge of the day is three euros for a bag of sundried Sicilian cherry tomatoes – pomodorini Sicilia.

With my strawberries, a bottle of water, and a few small packages of Nutella I saved from the breakfast room at the hotel, my purchases will make an ideal train-time lunch.

At the Santa Maria Novella station, a friendly and helpful conductor makes up for broken ticket machines and a less-than-helpful woman at the slow moving counter. I settle into a seat and dig into my bag of treats. My strawberries have become slightly smushed, and my fingers are sticky and stained red with sweet juice.

I find I don’t care for the slightly bitter pecorino, with its almost spongy texture, as much as I do for a harder, salty Parmagianno-Regiano, but when in Rome, or Tuscany, so I break off pieces of bread and cheese, eating them together, sometimes with a sudried pomodorino and tell myself to enjoy the experience. The pecorino begins to taste better, and it is the best meal I have the whole time I am in Italy.

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These boots are made for walking

I like the Italian for historic center – centro storico – it sounds like “storied center,” which makes sense. For now, though, it’s nice to get a few hundred yards of distance from the more crowded center and more populated historic sites of Florence.

The left bank is considerably greener. I wander pathways that could lead anywhere, attempting to retrace my steps as little as possible. I indulge one of my photographic obsessions, taking pictures of steps.

I find my way into a stone courtyard of upended flower pots. Soon, however, a man approaches me and ushers me out. Apparently it belongs to a convent.

Of course, there is no escaping attempts to make a buck off of tourists. Lots are filled with vendors selling souvenirs. Almost every one has at least one of two very popular items: T-shirts that read “Ciao Bella” in Coca Cola lettering, and David boxer shorts, featuring what is doubtlessly the most famous penis in all of Italy. Classy. I’m trying to imagine who would buy these, or better yet, who would wear them.

In addition to steps (and doors, more on that later), another affinity I have is for cemeteries, and the Cimitero delle Porte Sante is incredible. It’s as much a sculpture garden as it is a cemetery, filled with elaborate headstones and intricate mausoleums.

Some of the dead are buried within walls, names of generations etched on flat plaques. Some have copies of photographs emblazoned on the stone. Many have receptacles drilled into the wall. Two women bring fresh flowers to one of the graves. A man urges a little girl up the steps. Her nose is severely scarred, likely burned. She looks innocent and somehow beautiful and ugly at the same time. I want to take her picture, but I’m afraid I’ll scare her, so I don’t.

The views are beautiful, green and lush, dotted by cypress trees, terracotta roofs, and the Duomo in the distance. I walk downhill along a walled in pathway that leads to a maze of stone streets, and I don’t want to get completely lost, so eventually I head back up and find my way to a park — Remembrance Park, I think it’s called.

View from along the left bank of the Arno

Eventually, my feet hurt so much that I have to stop and sit down. I sit on a rock, take off my boots and massage my feet by rolling them on top of a ridged water bottle. Have I mentioned the importance of stopping for breaks and actually not walking for eight hours in a row? Yeah. Stop for breaks. Don’t walk eight hours in a row. It hurts.

So I head back toward the right bank, and it’s a completely different scene at 4 p.m. than it was at 7 a.m.

The Ponte Vecchio is filled with jewelry merchants and swarming with people. The piazzas are crowded with tourists and people selling art replications. There are street performers near the Uffizi.

One would think that this creepy live cherub statue person thing would be the oddest thing I spot during this hour, but no. That honor goes to French fry pizza.

By the time I get back toward the Galleria dell’Academia, it’s 30 minutes until closing and the line is down the block, but I’m not overly bothered. I’m exhausted, and to be honest, I’m not hugely inclined toward major sights simply for the sake of seeing them. I grew up in New York and never visited the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. I never went to Navy Pier or the Sears Tower when I lived in Chicago. So I’m not overly devastated to miss David. Apparently I’ve already seen pictorial depictions of his finest attribute on aprons and undergarments.

Tomorrow, I am scheduled to take a bike tour through Chianti and then catch a night train to Assisi. My plans, I am quite certain, are going to change. Jet lag + hours upon hours of walking = a very tired, cranky lady.

After a quick rest, it’s back out for dinner, where I am denied a table at a small restaurant because I am solo, alone. I end up being ripped off at a tourist trap restaurant, where I listen to the American family behind me discuss how they managed to somehow lose (please don’t ask) one of their daughters in Florence.

The night is shaping up to be a bust, but I encounter a very enthusiastic group of what I assume are students, based on their median age, cheering and chanting their way down the street. When they spot me with my camera,* some of them wave and grin. It brightens up my evening, and I am grateful.

*I took video but it costs money to post those.

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Meeting Leda and Bia

 It’s 4:30 a.m. in Italy and I’ve been awake for nearly an hour. The alarm is set to go off at 6. There’s no point in trying to get back to sleep, so I head out around 5:30, hoping to catch the sunrise over the Ponte Vecchio.

The city is nearly empty at this hour. A lone woman sweeps the street along the Arno.

The street where I stayed in Florence

Piazza della Signoria

I walk along, searching for the Ponte Vecchio, until I realize the colorful structure I’ve photographed multiple times actually is the Ponte Vecchio. Oops. Not sure what I was looking for.

By 8, a considerable line has already formed at the entrance to the Uffizi. A banner proclaims it is sponsored by the United Colors of Benetton. There is a young woman, about my age, in front of me, and I want to tell her that she has a beautiful scarf and that she needs to close her purse. I refrain though. A sign admonishes visitors to not throw gum on the floors. Really? Enough people threw gum on the floor of the Uffizi to make this a necessary warning?

I don’t really appreciate Italian and Renaissance as much as I do, say, Impressionism, but there is something fairly spectacular about seeing Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in person.

I come across a painting of Giovanni de Medici that looks like the first Sears portrait, in a good way. I discover DaVinci’s Leda and the Swan.

Some of the statues would be great fodder for gender studies classes. The nudity gives some of the more violent sculptures a very homoerotic bent. And it’s really odd when I could swear a statue is of a female, but then there’s a penis.

One of my favorite parts of the Uffizi is not an exhibit at all. Some of the rooms are being prepped for an upcoming showing and there are photographs of construction workers along the wall.

There comes a time in a museum when one is just going through the motions so I decide to head toward the exit which, of course, takes me through labyrinths of gift shops. I plan on resisting any overpriced souvenirs but then I spot a postcard of Bia de’ Medici, the illegitimate daughter of Cosimo, the Grand Duke of Tuscany. She just looks so lonely, I want to adopt her. I have to take her home.

Bia died at age six, and her father commissioned Agnolo Bronzino for a posthumous portrait.

I find a gelateria and get a double scoop of riso (rice) and amarena (cherry). Who says 10 a.m. is too early for ice cream? Then it’s over to the left side of the Arno, where, in lieu of sights like the Galleria dell’Academia, I will wander pathways and parks, and will give my feet cause to rebel against me.

To be continued…

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