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Day 5 – Dispatch from Florence – The City of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and Galilleo

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1800 GMT, 31st December, Onboard a Eurostar from Florence to Rome

Around 5:30 pm GMT on 30 December 2007, I said my goodbyes to Venice – hoping to return some other day – and began my journey to Florence onboard a Eurostar train. By now I had begun to expect a fairly quick service at the Eurostar. This, however, was an unusually slow ride. The train did not stop unusually in between but it stopped on too many stations, some quite small ones. Later, as I read Bill Bryson’s account of his journey to Florence, I found myself nodding at his description of how slow this all was – by Eurostar standards – although I thought some of the superlatives he used were somewhat exaggerated.

The perception of the length of my journey was, however, elongated by another distraction. I was sitting infront of a young Italian couple that tended to spoke perfect accent-free English and equally perfect accent-free Italian.  Although there was nothing particularly striking to about the couple, their quite public expression of love for each other was proving to be quite a distraction for people in the carriage. Bryson seems to think that the Italians have devised a way to have have sex without taking their clothes off.

 Well, this wasn’t that quite there, but for me they were getting a little too cosy for comfort. I was trying hard to concentrate on my writing by shielding myself by putting my laptop screen between them and myself but you can only do so much when the distance between yourself and the source of such distraction is merely 36 inches. Then situation got a little more comfortable and “work friendly” when the couple got off at Bologna.

I reached Florence around 8pm GMT. Having faced the wrath of Marriot – the Greek godess of hotels – before I was now quite cautiuous to do more due-diligence on my hotel choices and spend a little more money for a little more comfort at night. One of the problems with picking the right hotels had been that I was booking my hotels online almost on the go. Each night, I would find fifteen minutes to half an hour to book my hotel for the next city thus making this especially difficult.

In Florence, I had picked Hotel Adler Cavelieri which was, once again, right across the train station. The hotel was much nicer from inside that it looked from outside. It was refreshing to see that a porter was available to pick up your backpack from the hotel lobby and show you the room. I was not at all unhappy to hand him a few euros in exchange for this unexpected courtesy. While the room was shaped strangely with a long enlongated entrance to the main living area, it was very comfortable. A small welcome gift of very delicious chocolates lay  on the bed that I happily savored. As I took a nice warm shower and settled down, I contemplated the choice of getting ready and doing out to eat or just going to bed to get a few extra hours of sleep. In this battle of ideas, the forces of slumber won  over the forces of hunger and I decided to get into the bed and pretend that I’ve just had a hearty dinner. Flipping the channels between news and Italian music, I went to sleep sometime during the next hour or so.

Anticipating the hectic next day, I had a nice long sleep that night and woke up quite refreshed around 8am in the morning. Went for a breakfast downstairs and found a very beautiful patio right next to the breakfast salon in the hotel. Had my usual croissant with fruits and juices and sat in the patio while sipping my coffee as I planned my day in Florence. While, like most of us, I had heart bits and pieces about Florence, the familiarity was not to the extent that I that there was something here in particular that I wanted to see or visit. I had, therefore, arrived here without any preconceived ideas of how I wanted to spend my day. I took the usual course of taking the advice of the concierge on the top-3 attractions of the city and let myself be surprised by what I find as I walk through the city. With my backpack with the hotel, and map in hand, I started my “Florence by foot” adventure.

Florence’s history goes back more than two millennia. The city was founded as a roman colony in 59 BC and has, through history, remained an artisitc and intellectual capital of Italy and even the whole of Europe. Writers and artists like Dante, Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Donatello have been key figures in Florentine intellectual and artisitic history. Florence is a relatively small city – or atleast the city-center is relatively small – that makes it it quite convenient to walk through the major attractions. Florence is also a very rich city from both a cultural-intellectual and religious standpoint. While it doesn’t seem that way at first glance – and didn’t seem that way to me on my first visit here and that too a one-day excursion – but it is perhaps one of the most richest cities in the whole Italy.

Bryson described Florence as the city with “the most treasures than any city in the whole world” stating that it has twenty-one palaces, fifty-five historic churches, eight galleries, and twenty museums. If thats so, I would tend to agree with Bryson that Florence doesn’t do a particular good job at promoting its treasures. For example, the gentleman at the hotel counter who should have guided me to the best of Florence did not even mention a single palace at all. Bryson goes a step furhter to claim that Florence is not good at protecting, preserving, and displaying their collections. A number of these treasures that should be available for public viewing are actually in a state of disrepair and/or locked up out of public sight. Another thing that I probably missed at the time – and was told to me later by a friend – was the nightlife in Florence. I didn’t have much time for it – arriving in Florence around 8:30ish and leaving by 3:45 pm next day – so I don’t know what it would have been had I gone out that night.

As I began walking, I found the Florence city center to be in considerable state of disrepair. Using a city map and navigating myself through narrow alleys and streets that make up Florence’s historic center, I arrived at the Duomo – the city’s main church. All I can say about Duomo was that it was a building “different” from what I had seen before.  It is very difficult to compare the number of churches I have seen on this trip so for. Every building has a unique story, a logic, and a personality of its own. The view of Duomo at Milan was breathtaking not because its architecture was better than the Duomo in Florence, it just the mammoth size and the imposing presence of that building that left me in an awe. Florence Duomo is unique and has become a symbol of Florentine architecture. I particularly liked the use of various colors in the facade – the red brick, the white marble, and they grey stone are mixed up in a very appealing way. There is a sense of cleanliness to this architectural design with well-defined lines separating the use of different colors but also the latter mixing in interesting ways.

Both inside the cathedral and outside, the use of visuals depicting various instances and stories from the New Testament and those narrated by Christ’s disciples are in ample supply. This has been and will remain so in the future travels as well a regular feature of christian places of worship and made me wonder about the importance of visual depictions of human figures and events to the christian religious philosophy. Another thing that I noticed at Duomo – in somewhat of a contrast to the other cathedrals that I had seen so far – is the mixing of religious and military-political figures within a clearly religious place. This probably makes for a very interesting investigation into the role religion has played in the political and military history of the Western world.

We all probably know of the strongly religious motivation of the Crusades which were directly sanctioned by the various Popes in Rome, but I believe that religious figures and their sanction has been instrumental in the building of the Western Empire throughout the age of colonialization in the 17th to 19th century and probably also in the 20th century, though the later saw replacement of religious power and symbols by more secular notions of empire and power. Another issue that this probably raises is whether the modern secular (“reformation”?) movement in the West was a result of too much influence of the religious ideas with the functioning of the state – despite the fact that this influence resulted in significant victories for Western imperialist powers?

From the Duomo, I went past Paizza Della Signoria and Santa Corce (where Machiavelli, Gallileo, and Michelangelo are burried) as I moved through the streets towards the Ponte Vecchio – a bridge across the River Arno that the traveller’s guide said was lined on both sides by an array of exotic shops of various kinds. As I approched the Ponte Vechhio, I walked through Via del Corso and Via dei Calzaiuoli that are some of the richest shopping streets in the city and it was quite interesting to see — in dilapidated buildings dating back several centuries perhaps more — some of the most high-technology shops and leading fashion brands.

This mixing of the old and the new too has been one the regular features of some of these oldest cities that I’ve been through in Europe — something that you don’t find in the more recent vintage Main Street America or in Pakistan or even Asia Pacific. Many of these cities have government restrictions on disfiguring or altering the outside appearance of these buildings to protect the city’s historical heritage and yet they house some of the modern shops, hotels, and office buildings from inside. Makes me think of our fetish with creating new and modern buildings as our old cultural heritage remains in considerable diserpair. The last time I went to Lahore Fort, I found it in a fairly dilapidated state and yet that fort – with Sheesh Mehal and all – was probably one of the best, if not the best, buildings that Muslim Emperors have built in that part of the old. Similar is the story with the equally important, though not as royal, Old City of Lahore and the I. I. Chundrigar Road in Karachi.

As I reached Ponte Vecchio, I was expecting to see a number of Senegalense immigrants lining the street “selling crappy jewelery and fake Louis Vitton bages” as prophesized by Bryson. Instead, I was suprised to find a fairly well-organized “gold bazar” with jewelery shops lining up on both sides of the bridge and tourists occupying the center area. It seemed like the Florentine government had had a break-down on the immigrants at this particular location and now it was free of crappy jewelery and fake designer items. Later, though, as I continued to walk past the bridge, I did find some signs of fake designer bags and jewelery. I stopped by to ask one of the seller where he came from and he, quite sheepishly, mentioned Bangladesh. It seems like the Senegalese have moved up the value chain and have been replaced by Bengalis in at least this type of trade in Florence.

In this crowd at the Ponte Vecchio, somebody handed me a leaflet for a Tandoori Restaurant. Looking at the menu list of halal chicken and all sparked sudden pangs of hunger in my stomach. I made note of trying to find this restaurant on my way back to have some good old desi food. From Vecchio, I went to Palazzo Pitti – a major museum and gallary in Florence that is built within an old building that is a remanant of the intense rivalry between two Florentine business families – the Pitti family that built the Pallazo in attempt to outrival the Merdici family that ultimately ended up buying and owning it. The impact of big financial empires on Florentine architecture, art, and culture is very pervasive. Florence is known as one of the leading banking centers in Italy and has a long-standing rivalry with Venitians in that regard. Venice was once a center for spice and gold trade from the East with Arab and Indian merchants bringing their produce to this important port in Italy from where it used to go all over Europe. The Merdici family of bankers bankrolled Portugal’s exploration activity that ran ambitious sea expeditions towards east and that ultimately opened up much of Asia to to Europe thus bringing an end to the boom in Venice.

By the time I reached Pallazo Pitti, I had lost my appetite for going into yet another museum-gallery and trying to interpret inscriptions written in Italian. The big garden in front Pitti was closed for the day and so I decided to trace my steps back towards Vecchio. On the way, I found some signals towards Piazalle Michelangelo. I had read about the panoramic view that this particular monument offered. As I began walking towards it, the road kept on going on and on and it started a steep climb. I didn’t know what to expect so I kept on walking with the motivation to go just a little bit further. The steepm climb turned into an even steeper climb, and then into a stairway up a hill, and then into yet more steeper stairway up the hill. By this time, I was literally cursing myself for my curiosity that forced me to go towards Piazalle Michelangelo. Having come this far, I kept on climbing but was telling myself “This better be good, or else…”.

I counted more than 200 steps before I entered an area atop a mountain with a big sculpture of Michelangelo and a number of smaller ones made by artist lined up along the sides. The place was bustling with people selling soveniers and tourists all over the place. As I turned back with my back towards the sculptures, the view was breathtaking. This place provides one of the most panoramic view of the entire City of Florence and is one of the most well-recognized and photographed images of Florence. Particularly prominent were the magnificant dome of the Duomo and the winding Arno that runs through the city.

Having enjoyed this beautiful image for a while, I climbed down the hill and made my way straight to the Tandoori. I ordered a plate of mix tandoori. The owner of this restaurant – right next to the Ponte Vecchio – is a Pakistani gentleman by the name of Mohammad Aslam. It was a refreshing change after a week’s worth of vegetarian sandwiches and pizzas. I would recommend the restaurant to whoever visits Florence and finds himself (or herself) in a similar situation as I did. With my tummy full, I began my walk back to the hotel from where I picked up the my backpack and then to the station to catch my train to Rome. On my way, I stopped at a local internet cafe to check my email. One thing I found particularly interesting is that the Italian Police has introduced strong measures to ensure identification of internet users across the hundreds of cyber cafes that are found in this country. Even for the automated ones, the kiosk has a camera installed that takes photograph and apparently verifies it (against I don’t know what) before giving you internet access.

It was 31st of December and the whole new year’s eve was ahead of me. I was hoping to have some in Rome which was the half-way point of my journey…

admin @ January 11, 2008

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