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Italy 2004


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Saturday, 12.4.04: The Week in Review (Italy, Week 2)

This is merely itinerary, with a few comments. Related essays are evolving and will be listed in the right column.

[Go to Week 1]


Saturday. Restless night but all goes smoothly getting to the train station. Taxi ride only 10, so now we're positive we were ripped off by the first taxi driver. At the train station, a "customer care" person helps us figure out that we have assigned seats on an assigned car. That makes it easy. Our seats face each other and we're in the midst of a group of chatty Italian women on holiday. Suddenly, as we arrive in Florence. In the momentary confusion of disembarking, I leave my purse on the train. Panic. I run back and find it.

Hotel Cellai is not as gold-and-glass as the Barberini, but it has the charm of a family operation, with your Italian grandmother's flowered furniture decorating the common rooms. Our stamina is improving. We went out immediately for a delicious lunch at Semidivino, then on to sight-seeing.

  • San Marco Museum: An old Dominican monastery, full of the work of Fra Angelico, one of the great painters of the 15th century. Nearly all the dormitory cells have frescoes done by him on the various mysteries of the rosary. Savonarola lived here -- more on him elsewhere.
  • Galleria dell'Accademia: This museum is full of beautiful 15th century paintings by the students of Giotto, but the main attraction is Michelangelo's statue of David. There is a copy on the main square, but this is the original.  This marble turned into man is literally breathtaking. (And the pictures never show his ass.)
  • Sore feet! Stopped at a "bar" to buy bottles of wine and apple juice.
  • Dinner at a large spaghetteria close to the hotel.

Sunday. Today, the Uffizi. We've been congratulating ourselves on a season with no lines. To our horror, we had to stand outdoors in the chill for an hour,. Apparently they only let in so many at a time to avoid crowding and  give everyone a good museum experience. On line, we talked with a worldly Englishwoman, who gave us a heads-up about the general strike scheduled for Tuesday.

  • Uffizi Gallery. This is basically the collection of the Medici family, accumulated till the last one died in the 18th century. We spent about 3-1/2 hours. When we couldn't walk another step, we found ourselves at the restaurant and regenerated with pasta.
  • Self-portrait show: In the basement of the gallery was a temporary exhibit of self-portraits of artist from all ages and places. It was fascinating and a great way to "cleanse our palate" from gorging on the Renaissance.
  • Ponte Vecchio. A 14th c. bridge over the Arno. The only one not destroyed by the Nazis at the end of WWII. Nice to look at from a distance. Full of uninteresting shops up close.
  • Palazzo Vecchio. I was brain dead and bleary-eyed by the time we dragged ourselves through this one. Too many battle scenes. Give me the religious art I understand.

We had figured out the Metro system in Rome, but Florence has big mysterious buses and a scarcity of taxis. The city was crowded due to a big marathon in the morning. Lots of shoppers in the toniest possible shops. Most of the streets, we finally realize, are closed to traffic altogether. We drag along not making much progress, till Jim spies an off-duty taxi. Our desperate faces convince her to take us to our hotel.

Monday. We bravely launch ourselves back into the museum circuit. Our legs are gaining endurance, but my only walking shoes have decided to play havoc with that bony protuberance between my ankle bone and arch. Ow, ow, ow, ow, with every footstep. I swallow some ibuprofen and carry on.

  • Bargello Museum.  The place for mind-boggling sculpture -- Michelangelo, Donatello, etc.
  • Duomo Museum. The Duomo (or Cathedral) di Santa Maria Del Fiore is the religious focal point of Florence. It was built over centuries, with contributions by the best of the Renaissance and Baroque artisans. Many of the most precious creations have been removed to the museum for safekeeping and better viewing.
  • Battistero (Baptistry) San Giovanni. Separate from the cathedral, with a gorgeous gold mosaic dome.
  • Lunch, with too much Chianti. I keep ordering 1/2 a carafe when 1/4 will do fine for my solo drinking.
  • Giotto's Bell Tower. I don't know what we thought this was going to be, but it turned out to be basically 414 steps. Every time we made it to one platform, we found another set of winding concrete steps. But the reward is a gorgeous view of Florence rooftops and a close-up of the dome of the Duomo.
  • Duomo. The Cathedral itself was surprisingly empty and quiet after all the drama of its exterior and the other buildings. Underneath the church is the crypt of Santa Reparata -- remnants of a more ancient church.

Our slow walk home revealed more of the earthly Florence -- miles of boutiques featuring Italy's finest designers.

Tuesday.  Today there is a general strike in Italy. All the public works are shut down in protest over wages and job losses with Italy's "modernization." Museums are closed, but of course, there are always more churches to see.


  • Palazzo Pitti. Feeds our endless appetite for Renaissance era painting. This is not as orderly as a museum. The vast collection is jumbled , high and low, so that you are suddenly surprised by one of the great ones -- Rafael, Rubens, Titian. So much of this collection has been endlessly reproduced in art books and calendars, that we thrilled to see the originals.
  • We browsed the "antiques" street, but after the Palazzo, everything looks cheesy.
  • After lunch, a walk in the rain along the Arno River, then across to the Basilica of Santa Croce. Another enormous cathedral. Main feature: tombs of Michelangelo, Dante, Galilleo, Rossini and other Italian geniuses.


Thursday. Train to Venice -- crowded. We cross the Appennines through lots of tunnels. The landscape is winter muted. Somehow we got off the train a stop too early. It didn't seem right when only a few others got off and we were supposed to be at the end of the line. Luckily, we realized our mistake in time and hopped back on. We arrived at Venice about 1:30 and walked down to the vaporetto (water bus) stop on the Grand Canal. We had thought #82 would take us to our hotel, but after some inept mutterings with the ticket guy, he pointed us to #1.

  • Grand Canal: Venice's Main Street. In the drizzle and chill, we were fascinated by how the buildings were both beautiful and decayed, many of the first floors abandoned to the tides.
  • Palazzo Sant'Angelo: After micro-rooms in Rome and Florence, we are thrilled with a massive 2-room suite and grand bathroom with whirlpool tub. I crack open a small bottle of French champagne from the minibar.
  • After cheese and crackers from our cache, we venture out to the Gallerie dell'Accademia. More paintings, but with a distinctive Venetian look.
  • We wander back through a disorienting maze of streets. Restaurants don't open for dinner till 7:00, so we go back to the hotel for a breather, then out again.

Friday. Many, many miles on our feet today. Venice is so fascinating we don't mind.

  • Hotel provides us with a water taxi ride over to the island of Murano. The same families have been making glass there for more than 2000 years. We watch the glass blowers, visit the museum, and shop the endless glass gift shops.
  • We figure out which vaporetto to take us back to Venice. We walk from the north coast, through the city to the Grand Canal, see the famous Rialto bridge, then get thoroughly lost. It's cold! I buy gloves.
  • Finally reoriented, we grab a bite to eat and head for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Incredible Modern art collection -- a good antidote to Renaissance overdose.

Saturday. Our last day of sight-seeing! Hard to believe it's nearly over. But we are tired and give ourselves a leisurely wake-up. After breakfast we head for the famous Piazza San Marco. We watch while people feeding pigeons get swarmed -- slightly disgusting, like rats with wings.

  • Doge's Palace. Beautiful windows, but much of the art has a more governmental tone, with the Duke being featured where Jesus normally would.
  • Bridge of Sighs. A span between the palace and the prison, over which the convicts got marched. The prison was a maze of horrible rooms, with a grim chill that reminded me it was time for lunch.
  • St. Mark's Cathedral. An eye-popping tribute to the fact that Venice was the gateway to Byzantium and parts east. Encrusted with gold mosaics.
  • St. Mark's Museum. Endless galleries about the history of Venice and then more galleries of ancient Roman stuff. I think I've come to the end of my sightseeing.
  • Florian's. A famous cafe, founded in 1720. We stop for cappuccino and chocolate cake.

We meander back to our hotel, then out to dinner. I have videotaped the 10-minute walk between the hotel and the restaurant -- a combo a quiet passageways and lively shops, but I'm sure it will never capture the mysterious thrill of this place.

Sunday. Sad to leave Venice. Train back to Rome. In Rome it is pouring, but we wander around the station in order to buy our tickets to the airport tomorrow and to find the right track. Hotel Britannia is only a few blocks away and now we are so comfortable in Rome that with open our umbrellas and stroll through the rain and traffic -- citizens of the world.

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