Monday, September 28, 2009

Can You Say - Fiesole

Ah, Florence; we finally return. The genesis of this trip was late September, 2007. Kat and I were sitting like two hobos on the steps of the Duomo waiting for the newlyweds (Ed and Alicia) to make their way from the Accademia and David. For all our trips here it seemed we had never left enough time in the city to do what we wanted (like getting into the Uffizi), and wondered what it would be like to come to Firenze all by ourselves and spend a few days living in Michelangelo's world. He was a Tuscan by birth, and a Florentine at heart. We decided right then to make it a mission and here we are glad we didn't put it off to another day (as we are wont to do since retiring).

Monday - September 28, 2009 - Fiesole, Italy

Fee-ah-sew-lay (Fiesole) sits on a hill just north of the pietra serena and terracotta city of Firenze. The only thing that separates these two completely different worlds is a short bus ride. We picked this little town because we wanted to be near the city but not stay in it (for a reason I can't articulate).

The drive from Lucca to the outskirts of the city was pleasant and easy. Those last few miles through the city and up the hill to Fiesole however, were something to behold. A couple of things were on my mind. First you are not allowed to drive into the center of Firenze unless you are staying there or have a business reason. To enforce this the city has installed a number of cameras that take a picture of your license plate if you stray onto the wrong street and magically transmit a nice fat fine to your car rental company. You have no choice but to pay it (It amazes me that the Italians have figured out how to do this so efficiently). The second was the locals drive like maniacs in this city. After Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, this is the worst city I've driven in. Left sided Ireland was a breeze in comparison.

As you crest the hill the road opens onto the very pleasant Fiesole town square bordered by a bus stop, a church, and a museum. It was love at first sight. We had no idea where our hotel was (Villa Bonelli) so it was a pleasant surprise to see a sign for it shortly after we passed through the square. It seemed to be pointing directly up an almost vertical cobblestone alleyway that looked about 3 inches wider than my tiny Skoda with both mirrors folded in. I dropped Kat off at the bottom and searched out a parking spot on the main road. There were none and I'd wager that there are still none. I buzzard-circled for a while but realizing I couldn't drive forever screwed up my courage, folded in the mirrors and made my way up this "street." The clutch in this poor little diesel vehicle cried for mercy. There is no place to stop on the street, never mind park, so I negotiated a 12 point turn and headed back down. Halfway down I encountered my lovely wife who had us checked in and was in possession of directions to a real parking lot.

So children and grandchildren (or whoever is reading this and wants to stay at Villa Bonelli (which is quite lovely by the way)) do what we should have done at the start. As you exit the main square of Fiesole turn left at the gas station, follow the blue signs, and park your stallion in the big (free - 2009) parking lot down the road a few hairpin turns. Grab your stuff and hike up the road until you see an impossibly steep set of stairs on your left; take a deep breath and start climbing. At the top of the stairs you are directly opposite the little cobblestone road upon which Villa Bonelli is perched. The walk probably won't kill you if you take your little 5 day suitcases like we did. If when you read this you use a cane or walker, stay in Florence - it's worth spending the inheritance, and the kids shouldn't begrudge that.

Our host was gracious and helpful, and showed us to a comfortable room with a view to the north that the Florentines would never see from their valley. It had an interesting shower/bidet combination that I found fascinating for some reason. Like a peanut butter and mustard sandwich. Who would have thought to combine the two?

Armed with a good map of the town, we made our way from our aerie to the local tabac for bus tickets, then to the town square and bus stop. As luck would have it (for the first and only time on this trip - more later) we were 20 seconds early for the departure of the four times per hour bus to the center of Florence. It was crowded but we found seats opposite an older couple who were gabbing away in French. We smiled, they smiled. After I made some comment to Kat the gentleman mentioned they were also Americans, and asked where we were from. Us Virginia, they Montreal. (See what I mean about the Canadians being a little "prickly" about the US/Canada thing). They were very nice, had been renting a villa in Fiesole for almost a month, sorry to see it ending. The bus we were on goes right through the middle of the city before heading to the station and was a favorite for pick-pockets, he told us. It gets very crowded as you approach the Duomo. In fact he had his wallet taken from his belly/fanny pack on this very bus shortly after their arrival, and had quite a time recovering from the episode. We thanked them for the forewarning and I felt to make sure that my money and credit cards were securely lodged in one of my front pockets (tipping off every watching pick-pocket, and wondering if our new found friends were conspirators).

We exited the bus into a throng of people, moving as a mass around the Duomo being bumped and jostled as we went. I could see how a quick fingered lifter could work his magic, and were thankful for the forewarning.

We immediately headed to the nondescript Casa Buonarroti (because it closes early), the home of one of Michelangelo's nephews. It has been turned into a museum and is not that easy to find. It was deserted and quiet and the perfect place to begin our experience.

What we sought was the first known work of the 14 year old boy artist - a small bas-relief sculpture of the Madonna holding the baby Jesus at her breast (generally called "Madonna of the Stairs"). It was on the wall of an unremarkable room on the second floor. The mother is seated at the base of the steps her child protected in one arm while her other hand seems to hold the cross on which her son will one day die. The look on her face tells us that she knows and accepts the future, and the sacrifice that each will be required to make. It was a moving experience to be alone in the presence of this sculpture. The "Battle of the Centaurs", the other major work in the museum, though much more complicated, intricate, and dynamic paled in comparison.

Leaving the Casa we headed to the piazza Santa Croce where we fulfilled the last major task we had set for ourselves in Italy: we ordered initial-engraved leather boxes for Jonathan and Danny (grand-kids numbers 7 and 8). They would be ready for pickup the next day. Excellent. So unless the kids decide to have more grand-kids for us, Luciano Leather has seen the end of our business. It's been a good run.

At the top of the square is the beautiful church of Santa Croce, marbled on the outside with the same green and white banding used at Santa Maria della Fiore. It seems so compact and clean and beautifully proportioned, with none of the traffic congestion, or diesel fume cloaking of it's more famous neighbor up the street. Of course it doesn't have a big dome, but we don't think it needs one. What it does have inside this very large church are some pretty cool tombs. We're generally not that into tombs, but our bud Mike is buried there and we have to admit he's got quite the impressive one. His neighbors include Galileo and Machiavelli (hero to one of my less scrupulous bosses when I was still employed), and a nice memorial to Dante (of Divine Comedy fame who is probably still laughing because he was banished from Firenze and his body is not here - who knew he'd be so famous?). We pass the heavenly frescoes of Giotto and linger only at the evocative "Death of St. Francis", for frescoes are for another day.

With so much success under our belts we decided to back-fill a little behind them. A short walk along the square was a small restaurant named "SO" that was ... just right. Our waitress was a feisty young woman named Sandra who treated us like family. She seemed particularly pleased when I acquiesced to her recommendation for a beer to accompany our lunch. It also, was just right.

Since we had limited our browsing to specific works of art we still had room for two or three more and those we found at the beautiful Duomo museum. The main draw are Ghiberti's gold clad "Doors of Paradise" which, until the mid sixties and the flood, were displayed on the baptistery across from the Duomo (now copies adorn the doors where crowds gather to gawk at them behind a large plexiglas screen). We stood alone with eight of the ten panels that were on display. It amazes me to think that the man worked for 50 years on their creation, and never got bored.

Farther along we found the hauntingly beautiful carved wood statue of Mary Magdalene which the aged Donatello carved as one of his last works. Switching from bronze and marble to wood (notoriously difficult to carve) may have been what did him in. She looks like a waif or a wretch perhaps, not the full spirited and bodied woman who was there at the last moments of Christ's life. The impact of what has been taken from her is evident. It is startling.

Finally we found what had drawn us here; Michelangelo's pieta. We felt we had spanned the lifetime of this great artist in the course of 6 hours. After viewing his first work earlier, here was his last great work, one he envisioned would be on his tomb. It is situated in it's own alcove and you can walk around it and even take pictures. The relationships between the figures change as you circumnavigate it. Michelangelo, his self portrait in the guise of the hooded Nicodemus, looks down on the dead Christ figure, and the sorrow is palatable. Christ's body is smooth and polished, where Michelangelo's face emerges from the rough stone an unfinished and imperfect human. You can see the cracks on Christ's long (and large) left arm that were caused when Michelangelo took his hammer to it in anger, or frustration or perhaps because he could simply sculpt no longer. It is a powerful and moving piece.

There are so many magnificent works in the three places that we visited and we saw very few of them. We've determined that if you try to see too much you end up really seeing nothing. People watching as we slowly walked around the Duomo, we could see our number 7 bus to Fiesole just departing about 20 seconds ahead of us. We caught the next one and sardined our way on along with school children and workers returning home after their day in the city. Since Fiesole is the last stop, there were only six of us, all tourists, left at the end. The square was quiet, the evening was warm, and the lights of Florence twinkled beneath us to the south. Quite nice.

Walking back to our hotel, we meandered through the local museum's outdoor sculpture exhibition. Some of the pieces were pretty dramatic and thought provoking (and a world apart from what we had been looking at all day). If you are over 18 you can see a couple of the works by clicking here and here. We wondered what the little kiddies thought as they walked by on their way to school. Probably that they are more well adjusted than the US kids of the same age.

Our day ended with a quiet dinner across the street from the museum at a restaurant called Fiesolano according to the sign but Perseus - a Rick Steve's recommendation that we had been looking for, according to the bill. The food and wine were very good and sitting outside on this beautiful evening was ideal. We were, as the French say, "complêt", as we headed off to the Villa Bonelli, our Tuscan retreat.

1 comment:

caro said...

dear Ed and Kathy,

I was acyually working as a receptionist at Hotel Villa Bonelli last year.
I saw your comment on trip advisor and ended on your blog.
I read your travel story with a great pleasure!
I hope that you'll soon be back in Florence!
regards, Caroline