Florence, Italy - I am loath to admit it. I like to pretend that travel writers have a natural penchant for communicating and navigating, for discovering hidden gems and for avoiding cultural misunderstanding. I believe we should be immune to the pitfalls that plague the unprofessionals.
But this weekend in Florence I had to face the truth. In the course of 24 hours, I found myself standing in a line that stretched around the block to see Michelangelo's David; I found myself unintentionally eating the stomach of a cow for dinner (a Tuscan specialty!); and I found myself paying 7 euros for a tonic water. For those of you who are not au courant on your exchange rates, that's a $10 soda. Ah... the joys of travel.
Despite all that, Florence was glorious. The weather was sunny and warm, a welcome change from the damp chill in Venice. We spent most of the weekend perusing the city's amazing array of Renaiisance art. It's not my favorite period in art history, but the more I learned about it, the more I appreciated the artistic innovations that were introduced. Compared to the drudgery of the Middle Ages, this stuff was revolutionary.
My favorite museum was the Uffizi Gallery, once the private offices of the Medicis, now home to a profusion of Michelangelos, Donatellos, Rafaellos and Leonardos. But the fabulous thing about Florence is that the art is not cooped up into one museum - it's everywhere. Galleries, palaces and churches all over town contain masterpieces by celebrated Renaissance artists. On Sunday afternoon, we strolled along the Arno River away from the center to escape the crowds. We happened to poke into a charming little church, the Chiesa di Ognissanti, and we stumbled on two dazzling paintings by Boticelli (who, as it turned out, was buried in the crypt).
As for Michelangelo, we decided very quickly that there was nothing to gained by waiting, even for David. The trick, of course, is to get up early and arrive promptly at 8am, as the museum doors open. That strategy worked marvelously at the Uffizi; but at the Galleria dell'Accademia we were foiled. A sign was posted announcing "The museum will open at 10am due to a staff meeting." The ol' Saturday morning staff meeting!
Of course, that extra two hours was plenty of time for every single tourist in Florence to finish their breakfast and make their way to the gallery, which explains the line that stretched around the block. So we abandoned our original plan. When we came back the next day at 8am the place was nearly deserted.
The artist and writer Giorgio Vasari described David as such:
"Nor has there ever been seen a pose so easy, or any grace to equal that in this work, or feet, hands and head so well in accord, one member with another, in harmony, design, and excellence of artistry. And... whoever has seen this work need not trouble to see any other work executed in sculpture, either in our own or in other times, by no matter what craftsman."
I am no art critic, but I just didn't see it that way. David definitely has certain body parts that are disproportionately large. It's not what you might think... I'm talking about his massive muscle-bound arm that hangs almost to his knees, and his huge hands that could crush any skull.
I'm not saying he is not a good-looking guy. On the contrary. (In fact, we were both inspired to join the gym.) But as a paradigm of perfect proportions, I am not so sure.
On Friday night we wandered into a friendly little trattoria for dinner. The menu was simple and not too expensive. I thought it was a great opportunity to sample trippa alla fiorentina, the local specialty. For some reason I thought it was fish.
When my food arrived, it looked like a plate of worms in tomato sauce. And frankly, that's what it felt like, slithering around in my stomach. That's when Jerry remembered that tripe is not fish, but the stomach of a cow.
I am an adventurous eater so I was willing to give it a go. In fact, I ate most of it. But while pushing it around on my plate, I happened to flip over a piece of the rubbery, fatty flesh, and discovered the honeycomb shaped cavities of the reticulum that were clearly visible on the other side.
"I really wish I had not done that," I said.
"That's really interesting," Jerry said.
Neither of us ate another bite.
Fortunately, we had a fantastic follow-up the next night, which renewed my enthusiasm for Tuscan cuisine. The Ristorante Cibreu is one of Florence's fanciest. If you are willing to wait, you can go next door and eat the same food at the tiny Trattoria Cibreu. No reservations, no credit cards, no fuss, no frills - just a hand-written menu of daily specials, 14 euros a piece.
Jerry started with polenta, a staple that has been sustaining northern Italian peasants for centuries. I had the fish soup, which was a thick, smooth puree with a rich roux base. For a main course. Jerry had veal medallions, doused in spicy tomato sauce, served with a side of chickpeas. I was not sure what I was ordering, but it ended up being a cod mousse, a creamy spread, served with garlic toast and marinated roasted onion. Florence is in the heart of Chianti region, so that was the house red that complemented our meal. Everything was absolutely divine. It was unquestionably our best meal in Italy - and not a piece of pasta in sight!
Unlike these other anecdotes, there is no happy ending to the story of the 7-euro soda. I did complain to the waitress that we were overcharged. She was not very happy about it, but she did give us 2 euros back; somehow that seemed beside the point (as if a 5-euro soda is more reasonable). Later that same day, another server tried to shortchange us. I guess that tourists are easy targets for such petty scams. I realized that it's necessary to read the menus carefully, to double check prices vigilantly and to count change. Always.
It was really off-putting. I mean, this is what I expect in Africa, not in "civilized" Europe. In countries that are racked by poverty, people can perhaps be forgiven for trying to rip off the tourists, who generally have so much more than the local people. But that's hardly the case in Italy!
Anyway, that was my reminder that I am not immune. It happens everywhere - to everyone. Apparently, those Florentine waitresses don't care that I am a travel writer who has been robbed, cheated and short-changed on five continents!