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Tourist malfunction

Oct. 27th, 2010 | 10:06 pm

Today was full of little mishaps.

Took the 10 a.m. train to Pisa, got there at 11:30, wandered around a bit trying to find Tourist Info office. Signage in Italy is pretty much terrible. A sign will crop up and point you somewhere, but then there will be no further sign and you're left high and dry, and either go too far or not far enough. In the tourist office I started off "Por favor -- " and the young man said, "That's Spanish." "Oh God it is, sorry," I said. I didn't bother to tell him that it's taken me this long to stop saying "S'il vous plait". Spanish represents progress. We continued in English, he gave me a map and told me what bus to take to the Tower.

Once I got to the Tower complex, I was hungry, and again wandered around hoping there would be something other than horrible tourist traps, but there wasn't, so I ended up paying almost 16 euros for a plate of spaghetti and a bottle of water. (Next door there was a Hong Kong Cafe, which was full of Chinese people. I don't know why this seemed out of place to me, really, it shouldn't. But it did.)

The Piazza dei Miracole, as they call the sort of "campus" where the tower, duomo, baptistry, and surrounding museums/outbuildings are, is entirely thronged with awful souvenir stands. Rows upon rows of them, outside the walls, and more awfully, inside. The beauty of the buildings just somehow didn't hold up to the circus-like atmosphere of the souvenir hawkers and the visitors. Maybe I was tired. No, definitely I was tired. But Pisa bored me.That leaning tower

Japanese bridal party before the tower in PisaThe most interesting thing there was this Japanese couple who were having their wedding photos taken. (The groom is standing all the way off to the left.)

I bought a combo ticket to see all the sights, but when I got up to the ticket seller, I couldn't think how to ask for what I wanted, so just gave him a 10 euro note (that was the amount for that ticket), which he proceeded to put in his pocket. "This must be for me," he said, "because you don't tell me what it's for." We then had a little exchange in which I tried to speak Italian and he spoke English and was rather testy with me, but I know I had no business expecting him to read my mind. I really was kind of drowsy and in general I am making zero headway with wrapping my head around Italian. I even keep forgetting how to say thank you, and have to rummage past "prego" and a couple of other phrases in my mind every time I need to find it. But it wasn't a good start to the expedition.

Pisa Duomo My what a big Christ you have. This is the inside of the duomo. Eh. The baptistry interior was entirely underwhelming too.

Teachers' college in PisaI was more charmed by the facade of this teacher training college and church on a piazza that I passed as I was returning to the train station.

Frankly I couldn't get out of Pisa fast enough. Somehow it just rubbed me the wrong way, though I did have some delicious banana gelato on the piazza Garibaldi. Then in the train station, I bought my return ticket from the machine, put in 20 euros, and got a little slip of paper saying there was no change! At first I thought I'd been ripped off, but on closer inspection, realized this slip entitled me to a refund, but I'd have to wait on line and talk to a human. I decided to take the sooner train and so when I got back to the Florence I had to wait 20 minutes on a line to exchange this slip with a clerk for my 14.10 euros. I needed that 20 minutes to figure out with the phrase book how to say "Will you help me please with a refund?" in Italian, which I did, though it was probably unnecessary as handing in the little printed slip that said I was owed 14.10 was self-explanatory and the ticket clerk didn't blink at it. In fact, she was chatting and laughing with her colleagues, all of whom were having a marvelous time, and didn't look at or speak to me at all while she did our transaction.

Pisa trainI really should not have photographed this man on the train, nor should I put his picture on the internet. Yet here I am doing so.

By then it was 4 and I thought it would be nice to go to Fiesole and see the sun set. On the train I was reading about Lucy Honeychurch's outing to Fiesole, and while I wasn't expecting violets and kisses, Rick Steves says it's a good place to be at the end of the afternoon as the light is fading, and that the #7 bus from the train terminal goes straight there. Except that, as it turns out, it no longer does, and one must take a #17 bus to San Marco, the piazza I was in yesterday -- or the day before -- and change. I did that, and got the best seat on the Fiesole bus, which took some half hour to wend its way through increasingly posh residential areas and up and up and up, because Fiesole is in the steep hills with great views down into the valley of the Arno and the city.

Val D'Arno from bus window 2

Val D'Arno from bus window
This gives you some scanty idea of the sort of scenery. I was more and more thrilled as the bus climbed. Finally it reached what looked like it ought to be the central square, and I got off, and a huge number of people got on, and I glanced around and suddenly thought, No, I think the bus is going to climb higher, this isn't the end of the trip, and jumped back on. D'oh! Of course then all the seats were taken, and the bus immediately circled around and started back down, and I had no choice but to bid goodbye to Fiesole after only being there for 20 seconds. (No, there was no chance to get off -- the road immediately dips down sharply, there's no bus stop for quite a way, I'd missed my chance, the end.)

So, rather annoyed with myself, I rode back down, standing up in a very crowded bus, to San Marco, where I attempted to change back to the 17 to return to the train terminal which is steps from my hotel. Except after looking at the various bus stop offerings on the piazza, and by now too tired to even attempt to ask for help, I just found the sign that said 17 and got on the bus, and soon realized that, hello, we were not going towards the center but back out to the residential areas. I was stuck riding that bus for an hour before it finally circled back to San Marco, where I saw that the bus stop I should've used was up a little way from the piazza itself, and then from there it was another 10 minutes to the train station. By time I flung myself off the bus I'd been riding around for over 2 hours without really getting anywhere, though I had a nice sunset tour of the posh parts of Florence, which look a lot like Paris. (And the buses in Florence apparently just do endless loops, so unlike what would've happened to me in NY, I didn't have to get off the bus and wait for another when we reached the end of the line. Thank God for small favors.)

I then went into the 3rd restaurant I saw (the first was McDonald's, the second was Chinese) and ate an indifferent pizza and drank a class of pinot grigio.

So, it was a silly day. I'll be able to go to Fiesole properly on Friday afternoon, after the Accademia and the Museo San Marco. Now I know all about how to get that bus!

Morning view from hotel room, Florence Finally, Dadself asked for a more atmospheric shadowy pic of the view from my hotel room window. Took this one when I got out of bed this morning.

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"Oui. Uh, yes. ...Si! Prego."

Oct. 27th, 2010 | 09:58 pm

All day I was mentally composing my requests to waiters and so on in French and then realizing that that was entirely beside the point. I had no idea I remembered so much French. The line of dialogue in the subject was what I said to the nice waiter at the outdoor cafe in Piazza della Repubblica when attempting to order a second caffe latte freddo. Which I did even though it was not, alas, iced coffee, merely somewhat cool coffee in a small glass with milk (and sugar, alas alas) already added. I was mostly paying for the right to rest there with my feet up and enjoy the late afternoon air and read.

I forgot to mention yesterday, that somehow I got out the airport without ever having my passport looked at and stamped. How did that happen? I got off the plane ... I followed the signs for baggage ... I got my bag ... I walked through the nothing-to-declare channel at customs, where the men with the dogs(!) didn't glance at me, and then ... that was it. My passport was stamped in Lisbon but surely that doesn't entitle me to wander freely and anonymously through the entire EU? Or does it?

So day 1 in Rome. Slept 12 hours, like a top. Glad I brought my special pillow. Started with a rather nice and entirely ample breakfast buffet in the dining room at my hotel, where I ate some frittata, American-style bacon, some fresh fruit, and a small croissant. The coffee was, as warned me, like machine oil, but drinkable with plenty of milk added, though I only had one cup. And this much beats the state of coffee in most places I've traveled in the U.S. where it is so weak as to be useless and tasteless.

My first order of the day was to walk over to the huge Termini train station to buy my ticket to Florence, which I accomplished easy using the machine, and then to buy a Roma pass, which was a little trickier as it took me a few tries to find somewhere it was sold -- I went into the huge very luxe hotel on the piazza and consulted the concierge, who was darling. The Roma pass was 25 euros but pretty much paid for itself already, as it got me onto the subway and into the Coliseum and the Forum.

Which were impressive. And it was perfect weather for a mostly outdoor day -- it got up to about 70 degrees F, was bright and sunny the whole time, which somehow augmented my ability to look at the ruins and imagine what they must've been like when whole. (Helped by listening to Rick Steves' mp3 audio guides as I wandered around.) It's so true that photos don't do justice to the scale of a place. Even by contemporary standards, the coliseum is a formidable structure.

I walked up after those two visits to a restaurant recommended in the guidebook, where I enjoyed a dish of fettuccine in a creamy sauce with ham and mushrooms and peas, at an outdoor table, next to a family from France, whose little boy stirred his ice cream into soup. Then I just wandered, getting a bit lost along the way as I kept being unable to find the names of any streets I could see on the map, but finally, after stopping for my first gelato (blackberry and chocolate, yum), fetching up at the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, which is the oldest church in Rome (possibly) and was built around the time that the whole Roman empire was breathing its last. It's dedicated to the Virgin, and the whole thing was chockful of "Mary Is More Important Than Anything" imagery, including a huge mosaic of her sitting at the right hand of Jesus in heaven, over the altar.

By then I was getting kind of pooped and worried about finding some money, as all the ATMs I'd found thus far didn't have the Cirrus or Star logo on them, and I was afraid using them would be even more expensive than it had to be. I finally found one, had my main ATM card rejected by it (eeek, possibly because I asked for too much money, at least, I hope that's why) and then was able to get a smaller amount of cash with another ATM card. Wandered back to the Piazza della Repubblica, sat for a while at a cafe (the cafes here are not, I will boldly say it, even half as nice as the ones in Paris), and then went looking for a movie theater mentioned in the guidebook which either doesn't exist, changed its name, or otherwise proved elusive. The one theater I did find wasn't showing anything I really wanted to see, and I couldn't tell by the poster if the movies were dubbed or not, and was feeling too shy to ask. As I wandered around looking for the Warner Village cinema, I looked in on another basilica on the P. della R., the name of which I cannot at the moment recall, which was quite dark inside as it was late afternoon by then, but also gobsmackingly ornate and full of fucked-up awesome fancy idols. I will try to peek in there again when there's more light.

Back to the hotel, where I washed a bunch of stuff in the sink and festooned it to dry around the bathroom, and am now in the breakfast room doing this, having had to nag the deskman a bit because the WiFi signal was so weak as to be nonexistent. He rebooted it. It's still molasses. In my room on the fourth floor, it's so intermittent as to be nearly useless.

Will probably step out again to have some dinner at the Flann O'Brien Irish Pub across the street, which is also recced by the guidebook. My hotel is in a very hotel-y district, very touristy and a bit shabby (the area, not the hotel so much, which is fine) -- had I known anything about it beforehand I might've chosen to stay in a different area, but it's quite central.

So that's it. I have to admit that I'm not feeling the heady euphoria that I experienced when I first visited Paris -- and which maybe will be induced in me by Florence, let's hope -- but it was a good good day.

No pictures to post as there wasn't really anything I felt a need to photograph.

And Jason advises me that Chuffey is too much fun, which I hope means that if he's sad about me not being there, Jason has the good sense not to mention it. Probably Chuffey has forgotten all about me already -- Jason says he thinks they've been playing too much. Of course there's no such thing.

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Boar me, Sidney!

Oct. 26th, 2010 | 10:05 pm

Went out for dinner at another local Rick Steves recced place, where I had tortelloni stuffed with ricotta and spinach in a sauce made of boar. Boar is one of the local (Tuscan) specialties. When I ordered it, the waitress said, "You sure you like?" She looked dubious. If I'd known how to say it in Italian, I'd have told her that I was a New Yorker who is not afraid of unusual foreign cuisines! And lo, it was hearty and autumnal and really lovely.

Forgot to mention that maybe the most astonishing piece in the Bronzino exhibit was a two-sided portrait of a hunting dwarf who was in the employ of the Medicis. See both sides of him and a little article about it here. Did I mention he's nude?

After dinner I stepped over to the train station and bought a ticket for Pisa. There's a train every half hour, so I'll just meander over there whenever I'm ready in the morning.

I've started to reread A Room With A View on my iPhone, and over dinner I read the part where Lucy goes out alone and buys art reproduction postcards at Alinari's and then when she's walking through P Della Signora she witnesses a murder and faints and her postcards get soaked in the blood. And on the way back from the train station, walking along via Nazionale (which is where my hotel is), there was Alinari's! It was one of those wonderful little click moments, when something you read really springs to life because you know the locale. I love reading novels set in New York because of course then I can picture everything in it so accurately, and ditto London (though less so), but all my encounters with literary Florence have until now been very unspecific. But I know exactly where Lucy walked the entire time. Which is so pleasing.


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Botticelli, Bronzini, and uh, Buying stuff

Oct. 26th, 2010 | 10:04 pm

Today I visited the Uffizi. I've only been waiting 45 years to get there. Recall that I grew up with that Uffizi monograph of Dadself's, which, along with an equally large and beautiful monograph of the Nat'l Gallery in London, was a favorite book of my childhood, frequently pored over. Then I studied all this art in college, where I was almost an art history major. So the art of the renaissance -- all those Botticellis, Peruginos, Titians, Fra Angelicos and Fra Lippo Lippis, Giottos and Giorgiones, etc are a life-long interest and enthusiasm. You might suspect that after all these decades of build up, I might have been disappointed. It's true I didn't burst into tears the way I did when I first got to the National in London and confronted my favorite painting in the world for the first time. (That would be this one.) But I was filled with delight to at last see so many works I only knew in reproduction -- especially the vast room stuffed with Botticellis. (You know the ones:

But also: and

The Uffizi is large and tiring, and I flagged a bit in the 16th century, but I'll be going back again on Saturday. That is, if there isn't a museum workers' strike.

After lunch I went to Palazzo Strozzi where a special exhibit of Bronzino's pictures was on -- gathered from around the world, many that I'd never otherwise have hoped to see.

Bronzino was a marvelous portraitist:

and a purveyor of terrific cheesecake of both sexes:

Also today, I saw the church of San Lorenzo, which has some sculpture by Donatello, an altarpiece of Fra Lippo Lippi in situ, and a couple of frescoed domes. I revisited a little jewelry shop I'd noted the other day, where I saw a pair of earrings I wanted; I promised myself that if I hadn't forgotten all about them overnight, I'd get them. Also purchased many many postcards.

Just a few pictures today, because I spent most of the day in art galleries that didn't allow photos.

Ponte Vecchio seen from Uffizi gallery
View from the window of the Uffizi, looking at the Arno and Ponte Vecchio

Risotto at Trattoria Nella
Lunch at Trattoria Nella was risotto with radish and gorgonzola. Yum.

Typical street-corner shrine, Florence
Here's one of those street-corner shrines mentioned in yesterday's post. They're everywhere.

Cafe bar, piazza San Marco, Florence
It was too chilly today for gelato, but I had a delicious hot chocolate at this cafe on Piazza San Marco, where I'd gone to see the Museo San Marco, housing Fra Angelico's works. Sadly it was shut. Who shuts a museum at 1:30 on a weekday??? I'll hit it Friday when I go to the Accademia. That is, if the threatened museum worker's strike is canceled.

Teensy car, Florence
I've seen a few of these teensy cars around town. It makes a Smart Car looks like a limo.

By 5ish I'm always too tired to walk anymore, so I've been coming back to the hotel to put my feet up and fool around on the internet. I have to admit I wouldn't mind being able to order in, but that's not a Florence thing. Neither is drinking coffee out of paper cups while walking, which is (mostly) a good thing. I'm nearly tempted to get some hot'n'sour soup and dumplings from the Chinese restaurant in the next block and bring it back up to my room to eat. How sad is that?

Trying to figure out what gift I can bring to Jason, who is taking care of Chuffey. I've been looking into shop windows but nothing jumps out at me. I want to get him something nice; it was so much easier if he was a woman! I also don't know him all that well; we're writing workshop buddies. I don't want to buy him a blank book, though there are nice ones here, because he might be like me and find them annoying and fussy -- he writes in a cheap lined notebook that he can twist up and stick in a pocket or bag, and then transcribes to a computer. I guess I can get him leather gloves. Everyone needs gloves in NYC in winter. Or a nice scarf. Maybe silk socks? Trouble is, all these luxury items are easily attainable in NYC too, if you want them. I'd like to bring something that is really worth fetching back from Italy.

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Rainy day in Florence

Oct. 25th, 2010 | 10:03 pm

Thunder and lightning woke me this a.m., so I decided not to jump up and get an early train to Pisa after all, and lingered in bed for a while. After breakfast -- the breakfast at this hotel is not as varied and sumptuous as at the one in Rome, alas, but perfectly adequate. As I don't care for the look of the bacon & egg here I've been falling back on cold cereal -- I set off in the rain for the Palazzo Medici-Ricciardi, which took a little doing to find. It was, as the name suggests, the residence of the Medicis for a time, but was later acquired by the Ricciardi family, who added to it and put in a lot of 19th century modernizations that I'm sure they liked very much but which aren't all that attractive. Still, I enjoyed the chandeliers, of which this is a sample
Medici-Ricciardi Palace chandelier, Florence

The real reason to visit this palace is to see the tiny chapel, where a marvelous fresco by Gozzoli, depicting the procession of the magi covers three walls. The magi and their enormous retinue of hangers-on, each of whom has an entirely distinct costume and face -- these are probably all portraits of real men -- are depicted passing through the local Tuscan countryside, and there are all sorts of animals and wildlife around them, and it's just eye-poppingly fun. Of course no photography was allowed, and the thing is impossible to photograph in toto, but this is a taste:

From there I went to the Museo Dell'Opera Del Duomo, which contains a lot of the art that used to be in the Duomo basilica itself, but has been moved for safekeeping, such as famous Baptistry doors (which were not on view as they're restored, very disappointing). There were a number of reliquaries on display -- I've always known what reliquaries were, but I'd never really seen all that many of them before, and they are INSANE.
Reliquary, Duomo museum, Florence
This one contains a saint's finger. Can you see it, encased in the glass? How this isn't an idol I will never understand, but never mind, the metal work on these things was astounding.

Rick Steves' guidebook recommends mainly budget options for eating. Today I went to one of his recced restaurants for an early lunch. Self-Service Ristorante Leonardo was up a flight of stairs, a cafeteria, plain as could be, but the food was yummy and only 6 euros. I had lasagna and tried a side of fried polenta.
My lunch, at Self-Service Ristorante Leonardo
Here's what the room looked like:Inside Self-Service Ristorante Leonardo

Also stopped at the Paperback Book Exchange, where I traded in Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator In Piazza Vittorio for a discount on Artemesia, a novel by Anna Banti about the 17th century painter Artemesia Gentileschi, pretty much the only woman artist of the time who had a career.

Hung out reading for a little bit in the sculpture loggia by the Uffizi, where I got this picture of the statue of Perseus
Perseus statue, Florence
then headed past the Uffizi and across the Ponte Vecchio to the Oltrarno area. I was there yesterday, but today, as they weren't saying mass, I was able to go in and see the gorgeous Pontormo fresco in the Church of Santa Felicita. I had to put a euro coin in a box to turn on the lights. They keep this fresco in a cage! It was a little hard to see peering through the bars, but so worth it.

From there I strolled over to Piazza Santo Spirito, visited yet another church, huge as about 5 barns, and full of paintings none of which was very interesting. Outside it was getting on for sunset.
Late afternoon light near the Church of Santo Spirito, Florence

Walked back across a different bridge, from which I had a splendid view of Ponte Vecchio.
NK, with Ponte Vecchio in background

Today's gelato flavors: caffe e limone. Not together. Yes, I actually ate gelato twice this afternoon, at two different places. In my defense, I had a scanty breakfast and a very early lunch.

So far Florence is a delight. My scanty mental images of it are all collapsed. It's not at all pristine, or high-toned; it's very urban, very much in-use. As I walk around I realize that all these old buildings have been repurposed and repurposed and repurposed over and over again. The city is all about the Catholic religion -- there are little shrines to the virgin stuck to the sides of buildings at street corners, with bas reliefs or sculptures or little paintings set behind protective glass, and you can't, of course, walk 10 steps without coming to another church.

Rather to my surprise, I'm finding that all the new stuff I bought for this trip is proving very useful -- which isn't always the case with stuff I buy with high hopes. But all the bags, from the new roller suitcase down to the little daypack and shoulder bag, the raincoat, the toiletries bag, the portable clothesline, and so on, are all coming in handy and performing well.

Edited to add: There are no Starbucks in Florence or Rome, at least as far as I can see. But across from the Duomo there is a Ben & Jerry's. Uh, I'm sorry, but in a city that has a gelateria on every block, WHO WOULD GO TO BEN & JERRY'S???????

Since I first put up this post, I went out to dinner at Nerone Trattoria, another Rick Steves rec, which was just steps from the hotel. I'm already tired of pasta and pizza, and I can't afford the authentic Tuscan beefsteak experience (most of the steaks at restaurants seem to be for 2, anyway, and I couldn't really do justice even to a steak for one, at these prices), but this place had some other Tuscan specialties. I ordered grilled sausage with roasted potatoes and fagioli (beans), and it was deliciozo! Perfect autumn food.

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Early morning musings, and photos found!

Oct. 25th, 2010 | 10:03 pm

Photos under the cutCollapse )

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Oct. 24th, 2010 | 10:02 pm

Was awakened just before 7 by thunder and lightning, and I'm lolling in bed listening to the storm through the open window. It's supposed to be a rainy day, so I'm not going to attempt Pisa today. A lot of sites are shut on Mondays, but frankly I'm ready for a brief rest, a sloooooow day. This is a vacation, after all. And while I meant to jump up and get out the door for an early train, the idea of just lying here for a while is very VERY appealing.

Last night after I posted I had a little adventure in going to the 24-hour farmacia in the train terminal to attempt to buy some ranitidine for my burgeoning heartburn. Why, when packing my ambien and prozac and painkillers and migraine meds and so on I didn't include some Zantac remains a mystery. I wrote "ranitidine o cematidine" on a slip of paper and gave this to the pharmacist. He was very nice and explained to me that the ranitidine had to be dissolved in water and drunk, which is not how its dosed in the US, and saved me a deal of confusion. And it must've worked because I was not awakened in the night by the dreaded awful GERD.

I hear the rain pouring down, hard, and church bells. It's very nice.

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So tired. But tired in FLORENCE

Oct. 24th, 2010 | 10:01 pm

I don't even think I'll go out to dinner. Too bushed, and not enough appetite for another meal. I have milk and biscotti (and figs) here in the room. The mini bar actually has some spare space in it, so I can stash my own water bottle and keep cold milk. Today was a bit intestinally challenging, but as I was in a museum during the duration, I was OK -- I just hope the attendant wasn't counting how many appearances I made at the ladies' loo.

Sunday in Florence was very lively -- the big food market was closed, and some shops, but for the most part, the touristy areas were open for business and people were thick on the ground.

I took one of the little electric buses that go from the train station across to the Oltrano, where I got off not far from Ponte Vecchio. Wandered around some twisty residential streets, all very medieval with the houses presenting blind fronts and shuttered windows, then went down into a lively square for mid-morning coffee, and from there walked to the Pitti Palace, formerly home of the Medicis, now a big museum complex. I sank quite a bit of money into the two separate tickets required to see it all, and then by God, I saw it all. Though having climbed -- and climbed and climbed -- in the Boboli Gardens, which are a series of terraces with long ascents between them, I gave up at a certain point near the porcelain galleries and didn't climb anymore, though I'm not sure how much I missed. Cut for pics ....Collapse )

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Rome to Florence

Oct. 23rd, 2010 | 10:01 pm

Nice butt, Bargello, Florence


Now I have your attention ....

Arrived in Florence this afternoon, and went straight to the Bargello, a former prison built in the 1200s, now a fantastic sculpture museum. The star here is Donatello's David, which is so beautiful it could make you weep, and was the first male nude artwork of the Renaissance. Here is a picture of it, which I didn't take, because it wasn't photogenic in situ with an iPhone:

The museum had many terracotta sculptures, which I didn't know I'd like so much. They were very delicate and lovely and decorative and oddly (oddly to me, anyhow) moving. Here's a typical one:
Terracotta virgin & child, Bargello, Florence

The Bargello has a few paintings, mostly pretty minor studio-of things, but there was a beautiful diptych about St Catherine, and way down in the corner in a big crowd scene, was this little guy.
Teensy detail from big 15th century painting about the life of St Catherine

Portrait bust of an early Medici, Bargello Museum, Florence
I should've taken notes, because I'm not sure who the artists were, but this might also be a Donatello, a portrait of, I think, an early Medici. I know, I know, I'm an unreliable narrator. But LOOK AT THAT FACE.

Portrait bust of a Diva somebody or other.
And this one. Battista Sforza, described on the tag as "Diva". Indeedily.

Portrait of a lady, Bargello, Florence
And isn't she lovely?

Portrait of a lady, Bargello, FlorenceHere she is again.

Here's the view from my hotel room window.

View from my hotel room window, Florence
I changed my room -- the travel agent had booked me into a suite, saying it was actually a better price than a smaller room, but when I got to it I didn't like it, it was vast and psychically chilly and I couldn't get on the Wifi, so I asked them for a regular room, and they were able to switch me. I'm now in a queen, which is also rather vast for a European hotel room, and 30 euros cheaper. The desk clerk actually said, "I'll give you a room with a view." Bingo!

And here I am standing by some fountain in some piazza that is a couple steps from the Uffizi. Yeah, I really had no idea where I was, and now I'm too tired to figure it out.
Outside Uffizi 1</a>
Outside Uffizi-3

How could I forget, I also went into the central market! This is the big everything-in-one-place fresh food market, where the Florentines buy meat, fish, produce, bread, oil, etc from individual vendors/booths. There are also prepared foods and little restaurants.

Pastry at Mercato Central, Florence

Produce at Mercato Centrale, Florence

I bought some figs.

The trains in Italy are very comfortable, and my trip from Rome to Florence only took 90 minutes. I hopped in a cab at the station, only to be told by the cabbie that my hotel was just up the street, and I should get out and walk. Glad to be located here, so it'll be easy to take my day trips by train. Florence isn't large, and I only wandered for about 10 minutes before I found the Duomo, which is a huge huge huge church with a dome, the whole thing covered in brilliantly patterned marble in whites, browns, reds, greens. It's psychedelic.

I ate spaghetti with olive oil and chili pepper for lunch, and a pizza for dinner -- not that I wanted pizza again, but I was sort of at a loss where to go and tired and just plopped down in what was in front of me. I suspect I won't want pizza again for a long time after I get back home.

I had a fun little adventure in a housewares shop where I wanted to buy a rubber bath mat, as I could see myself crashing to my death in the tub in this new hotel. But I didn't know how to say it, the storekeeper didn't know English. I drew it, and then together we deciphered the hieroglyph of a leg and bare foot with water falling on it standing on a mat with suckers on it like an octopus has on its tentacles, and at last he realized I wanted a vasca! After that triumph, I wandered into a bakery and almost bought a kilo of biscotti, until I realized that was going to be a whole great big box, whereupon I just bought 8. I will NEVER be able to manage in Italian.

Yesterday gelato flavors were chocolate and peach. Today's gelato flavors were vanilla and mixed berries.

And ohmiGod it's so expensive here. But let's draw a veil over that for now. I keep reminding myself that I paid less than $200 for the flights. And earlier this evening I was able to use Line2 on my iPhone and the hotel Wifi and call Momself at home in New York for free!

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Picture to prove I'm really in Rome

Oct. 23rd, 2010 | 09:59 pm

NK at the Trevi Fountain, 10/22/10

The Fountain of Trevi was nothing like I'd imagined -- I expected it to be in a huge piazza, and instead it was wedged into a very cramped, very mundane one, all out of proportion. Which was sort of endearing.

I was all over today. Much of the day was a sort of Long March because I kept getting lost, baffled by the map I could never find my location on -- whatever street name I could see on a building, I couldn't find on the paper -- and covering a fair amount of ground, all on foot.

In the morning I took a taxi to the Galleria Borghese, where I had a ticket for 11 a.m. (They are very strict about booking ahead, timed admissions, and a 2-hour window before you're kicked out, though I only last 90 minutes. They also make you check ALL your stuff before you can go in.) I got there around 9:30 and spent the time walking around the gardens, which is the big park of Rome, lovely and a bit scruffy, lived-in. Saw various doggies running around off leash, and was all excited to find it was a free public WiFi zone, except that you had to sign up for it, and all my attempts to do so on my Iphone failed, probably because you had to call a number to verify your registration, which was sort of odd.

The galleria was -- what word can I say? Amazing, yes, astounding, yes, magnificent, yes, blah blah blah. Over the top. Busting out all over. Crazy-cakes. Blissfully beautiful. Hilariously witty. Boastful. Encrusted with preciousness. A feast for the eyes. Overwhelming. Decorated on every surface, floor, walls, ceiling. More putti than you've ever seen in your life. Every ceiling was fully painted with classical scenes done in trompe l'oeil of a quality such as I've never seen before -- the images seemed somehow backlit, they glowed, they stood out from their flat surface in the most astonishing manner. There were sculptures by Bernini and paintings by Carvaggio and a special exhibit of works by Lucas Cranach, whom I LOVE, so that was a real treat. The whole place was like something out of one of my crazy dreams, and I could see it was where Frick's interior decorator got most of his ideas for the financier's New York City mansion.

From there I walked in the gardens again, aiming to exit them at the Piazza del Popolo, which turned out to be rather a long walk. Lots of people were pedaling these sort of golf cart things, which looked like fun -- but were for couples only (natch). Along the way I had a salame panino at a lovely little outdoor restaurant called Pic Nic, and saw these crazy sculptures which were set up in the road.

Rome, Borghese Gardens, sculptural group (partial)
Rome, Borghese Gardens
Rome, Borghese Gardens, 10/22/10
Rome, Borghese Gardens, 10/22/10
A sign explained that they were sculptures about society's silences, like when we see someone littering and don't say anything. I didn't note the artist's name.

Getting down to Piazza del Popolo, from the gardens which were up high, involved walking down a couple of switchback roads and then some stairs. The church I wanted to see there was closed, so I started off hopefully down the Via del Corso, following a sign that pointed to the Pantheon. This street turned to be the Oxford Street of Rome, and it went on forever, and I didn't want to be there, but after much puzzlement over the map, I finally found my way to the Pantheon, which is the oldest intact building in Rome, a former ancient Roman temple converted into a church 1400 years ago(!). From there I limped along to the Trevi Fountain, and then after that towards the Spanish Steps, not really knowing where I was going, or by then, why, which is why when I got to the steps and saw a sign that said Babington's Tea Rooms, I went in. The steps were a madhouse, but Babington's was a quiet, veddy English, veddy proper sort of respite. I ended up spending 21 euros on scones and coffee that I didn't really want (though they were excellent as it turns out) just so I could sit there for a while and breathe.

Took the metro back to P. d. Repubblica, looked around for and found the church that has the major Bernini sculpture of St Theresa, to be confronted by a sign asking people to enter only if they wanted to pray. Screw that, I thought, and tiptoed in anyhow. But it was nearly too dark to see the sculpture, as the church was mostly lit by windows and the sun was setting. It's near the hotel though, so I'll go back there when I return to Rome at the back end of my trip.

Looked in on a couple of other amazingly ornate churches that were all more or less next to each other, which struck me as a bit like being served breakfast lunch dinner and snacks all in one heap.

Tomorrow morning I take the train to Florence, which I'm now very excited about.
I'll be returning to this same hotel for another three nights at the end of the trip, and will do the Vatican and so on then.

SO TIRED. Tempted to go to bed, but should get some supper first.


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Oct. 20th, 2010 | 09:57 pm

I'm here. The ride in from the airport looked just like, as I remarked to my van-mates who were also from Long Island, Long Island. I even saw a sump. And the graffiti on the overpasses is in exactly the same style as the graffiti on overpasses in Queens.

Then the residential area we first hit had adorable apartment buildings that looked like petit fours, and reminded me of Miami. Then we passed the Coliseum and I realized I was in Rome!

My room is teensy but has a queen-size bed and a rather deluxe bathroom with a bidet, a wall-mounted TV(!) and a rubber ducky, even though there is no tub, just a (spacious) shower stall. There's a safe and a mini bar and wifi and painting hanging over the bed of a red rose that is labeled Mr Lincoln. Is Mr Lincoln a kind of rose?

I must go out and find some protein before I lose consciousness.

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May. 4th, 2010 | 05:24 pm

Went to Japan Society to see the show: Graphic Heroes, Magic Monsters: Japanese Prints by Utagawa Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection.
VERY exciting show.
Incredible drama in these images, dynamic design, color, humor, violence, energy, originality. I encourage you to click through the image gallery, though they're all too small to really appreciate the details, and this pictures are all about the details.

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Apr. 30th, 2010 | 10:35 am

Having a new dog and a new therapist and some time off from the pharma world is doing wonders for my state of mind, which could not have been dismal in March.

Within one week during that nefarious month, I lost my dear doggie Miss Traddles, whose health finally succumbed after 14 years and nearly a month, and also my beloved therapist of many (many) years, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer around New Year's time and succumbed to it very quickly, with no chance to say goodbye to patients or wrap anything up. I was able to visit her once in hospice, to see her, hold her hand, thank her for taking care of me for 17 or so years, but she was under 24/7 sedation, and passed away about 10 days after that.

Work on the novel is, as ever, slower than I'd like, but going in what feels like the right direction. As I struggle with it, I find myself mourning, as if it'll never return, that state of mind I once enjoyed very frequently, where the ideas and words just flowed and flowed and I could sit and write for longish periods of time, day after day. I haven't had that in quite a while. I'd like to blame the internet for interfering with my concentration, but as much of a net bunny as I am, I'm still able (thank GOD!) to read novels and magazines for hours on end. That's obviously not the same kind of concentration as goes into creative writing, but it reassures me that I'm not actually devoid of the ability to sit still and focus on one thing, and become immersed.

Reading: making my way with great pleasure through Alice Munro's next-to-last, The View from Castle Rock. Recently I found Mary Robison, and devoured her two novels with great pleasure, though upon reading both I realized she'd really written the same book twice -- they're both strange personal narratives of the inner lives of angry, disturbed, mixed-up, drug-addled middle-aged women in dire straits. The more recent novel, One DOA, One On The Way puts this woman in post-Katrina New Orleans, just to make everything even more fucked up, and is a tour de force, quite unique. Also read a couple of other Southern novels recently, A Summons to Memphis by Peter Taylor, and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. A brand-new novel I'd like to recommend most strongly is Next by James Hynes, which should ideally be read in a single sitting, or at least a single weekend, as it spirals and builds up and up and up to an astonishing climax.

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Apr. 30th, 2010 | 10:21 am

Chuffey loves his squeaky toys, and when he really gets into it, I feel like I'm at clown college.

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Would butter melt in that mouth?

Apr. 30th, 2010 | 10:20 am

Would butter melt in that mouth?

Chuffey, looking deceptively serious-minded. Even grave. As if he was about to give an opinion on the Goldman Sachs lawsuit.

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