Excerpts from the Journal, Italia 2010

It’s been little over a year since my most recent trip to Italy, which means I’ve already started thinking about how soon I can get back. The da Vinci-esque scrawls that fill up my Moleskine on traveling adventures are perfectly useless (and not just because of the illegibility) as a guide through foreign cities, but chronicling ruminations and observations about anything interesting in our lives is an Idle Time virtue, and one which I ceaselessly promote.

June 29, 2010

A week ago today we made our first trip into Firenze. The five of us, led by Margaret (our rental car’s soothing British-accented navigation device), parked at Piazza Michelangelo above the city, fairly near San Miniato en Monte. As promised by my Rough Guides guidebook (I’m now a big proponent of RG — dispensing with the juvenile snapshot summaries of DK and weary of the snarky pretension of Lonely Planet), parking was free in the piazza, and for €1,20 each we could ride the bus into town (which, honestly, wasn’t that far… we could really have handled a lot more walking on this trip…)

I was happy to show the kids (and Matt) what I remembered from my time here in ’06. Street-level, outdoor views of the Piazza del Duomo, Piazza della Signoria, Santa Maria Novella, Ponte Vecchio, and numerous other churches that I had something to say about — all marginally interesting, and in play later that evening.

The interior catwalk, lower rung

The highlight — and easily the most memorable moment of our time in northern Tuscany — came during our exploration of the Duomo. After exploring the inside of Santa Maria del Fiore we decided to appreciate Brunelleschi’s accomplishment up close by forking over the €8 apiece to climb up into the dome itself. The stairwells were even narrower than the climbs in Siena; the exertion double what we experienced in San Gimignano. The initial egress put us on the first of two narrow walkways encircling the inside of the great dome. A sheet of plexiglass kept us from tumbling down the twenty stories onto the altar below, and above and all around us, the spectacular fresco of the Last Judgment in all its glory. Heads of demons and devils fifteen feet across were just above us — Hell being the lower rung of the artwork — tormenting poor souls with flaming cudgels and flaying skin from sinners’ bones.

Then, back into the stairwell chute for the next narrow ascent. This time the landing produced a fork in the road: right turn for another catwalk around the Duomo’s interior — this one higher up, obviously, with a better view of angels and saints — or further up for an exterior perch and a view of the city.

Naturally we went into the interior catwalk and decided to save the final view atop the great dome for later.

Which turned out to be a mistake. After rounding the interior once again, the arrows directed us down a flight of stairs. We had suspected the error, but didn’t resolve to do anything about it until reaching the next landing.

The widest stairwell in the Duomo, this one leading to the exterior deck.

This was a senso unico route, and the planned pathway was to encircle dome interior #1 first; go all the way up second, to the outdoor dome-top panorama; and then, on the way back down, peel off for dome interior #2. None of us were doing a good job reading signs, and not a one of us bothered to look at the pamphlets handed out as we entered and paid our fees.

Remember these are narrow passages. Extremely narrow. The stairwells are literally too tight to squeeze by anyone coming in the other direction. And the way in which the stone casements spiral downward in a straight plummet makes it impossible to see your companions in front or behind you, let alone any tourists further up or down the passageway.

But we were determined to get to the top of the Duomo. That’s what we paid for. And LDG, God bless her, took point on the mad escapade to recover our tracks and somehow scusa ourselves back into position before getting turned around by guards or an onrush of tourists.

Stationed at the opening of the stairwell onto the landing, she listened for a break in footfall echoing down from the stone steps above. Not knowing how much time we would have before another set of feet started descending, she took advantage of a brief break in audible traffic, shouted “Go! Go!” and we ran back up those steps as fast as we could — all five of us — hoping like hell that no one would be coming down toward us.

Anyone coming down would be going in the correct direction; and there truly was zero room to slide by. We ran up those steps, the equivalent of what must have been three or four stories, squirting loose onto the next landing just as a confused group of tourists was preparing to head down.

Then the really fun part: asking a good fifty or sixty tourists to press their bodies up against the plexiglass, hundreds of feet above the interior of the church, while we slid by quickly and apologetically, breaking free onto that original fork-in-the-road landing whilst the guard’s back was turned. Oh look: there was a sign here telling us to continue up first. Whoops.

In retrospect I must have been overcome with adrenaline. Looking back now on the whole endeavor is a little terrifying. All humans should have an innate fear of heights. It only makes sense. But making that narrow catwalk around the dome’s interior a temporary two-lane passage was sheer desperate lunacy.

View of the campanile and city of Florence from atop the church dome

And worth it. The views of Firenze and the hills surrounding the city were spectacular. In ’06 we took in the countryside from atop the fortifications around the Boboli Gardens; this view gave us a much more searing sense of the architectural primacy of Tuscany’s greatest city. Even though the valley vistas and countryside landscapes we saw this year in both southern and northern Tuscany put that Boboli vantage to shame, the views from atop Brunelleschi’s masterpiece are completely unparalleled.

Before heading home we sat down for dinner at a restaurant in the piazza looking out onto San Lorenzo. Seemingly the moment we all finished, the sky opened up again, much like it did the day of the wedding. We were outdoors, but under plastic canopies, and the drumbeat of rain above our heads was stupendous. We sat in awe for a bit, watching the market vendors around the church clamor to get their stalls packed up and put away. None of us had prepared for rain of course (we also weren’t really complaining either — the overcast skies, the rain, the chill… all welcome alternatives to the weather we thought we were going to have to endure after our sweltering experience in ’06) and we still needed to get back to Piazza Michelangelo, which either involved shelling out too much for a cab or getting drenched en route to the bus station.

We did the next best thing: ordered a carafe of the house red (a wine our waiter assured us was “good, good”), and decided to wait out the storm.

Turned out the wine wasn’t good at all, and as the rain subsided we needed some form of drinking game just to get the glasses empty, let alone finish what was in the bottle. Name Florentine churches! Go: first pause or failure and you’re taking a gulp. Now… if only people had listened to me a little more closely while scampering through town. I didn’t have to take a single sip… during that round.

Round two was makes and models of cars seen in Italy. Deferring to Matt’s desire to drive (or just not to sit in the backseat) put me in the back a lot… with what I determined to be a decided disadvantage in this stage of the game. Ultimately, everything was emptied, the rain ceased, and we were back on the road…

So, during our first extended drive, Rome to Foiano, I bought a three-CD set at the Autogrill rest stop entitled I ♥ 80s — an official EMI-produced compilation chock-full of 80s pop hits. Interestingly enough, what Europeans considered top hits during that decade don’t always jive with what we were digging stateside. When I think Corey Hart, for example, I think “Sunglasses at Night.” This compilation, however, featured his other apparent hit, “Eurasian Eyes.”

At this point we’d heard every disc about a dozen times. Matt is a newfound OMD fan, and rocks out to “Enola Gay” as much as possible. Josh really likes the “why-eye-eye-eye” chorus portion of Duran Duran’s “The Reflex.” The whole car sings along to John Waite’s “Missing You” and every one of us has little snippets of Kim Carnes stuck in our heads at all times. “She’s precocious…” will echo down from Loriana’s upstairs loft from time to time.

We left this little gem in the rental car… sniff…

Enough was finally enough, though, we decided, and at the next Autogrill stop, this time from Passignano to Porcari, Matt bought a new disc. This was another compilation of 80s dance flavor, called Dance 80s #2. The tracklist looked very promising: Bon Jovi, Men At Work, Olivia Newton John, Van Halen…

Then we dropped it in. The first track sounded off. “Is this a remix?” Second song: “That’s not David Lee Roth…” By the third track, a roughshod rendition of “Livin’ on a Prayer” that sounded like it was being sung with Fred Armisen’s eastern European accent, we realized that this was a disc of covers — ridiculous covers at that. A peek inside told us more: the songs were all renditions by either Jhon Matt or the YCC band. At least there was a cover of “Bette Davis Eyes” to co-butcher singalong-style.