When you go to Rome, you are supposed to throw a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder into the Trevi fountain if you want to return to Rome.
I tossed a Euro and made the wish, and while I loved Rome and hope to go back there again, the city I most want to revisit is Florence.
Since we went to Italy on a guide tour, the itinerary was already planned. We didn't stay in Florence, but drove there from Montecatini. Once we arrived, we met up with a tour guide who walked us through the city.
We stopped at the Florence Cathedral (the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiori) and the Baptistery,
but since we were there on a Sunday we couldn't actually go inside the buildings. (People were going to church there.) After taking some photos and getting us each a copy of a city map, the tour guide showed us more of Florence. She pointed out monuments, buildings, museums, and bridges with historical importance, giving us an idea of the city's layout, and then led us to the Accademia, where I had my moment with the slaves.
Then we had some free time.
Most of the people in the group decided to go to the leather market. I was sorely tempted to join them, as I had visions of finding a belt for Nathan (belts being one of his favorite things, ever since he was little) and a gorgeous Italian leather backpack for myself. But Becky and I had other ideas. We had someone show us where we would all meet up (as well as the location of the leather market, just in case we had time), the San Lorenzo basilica, and then we were off on our own adventure.
We wanted to climb the 414 stairs in Giotto's Campanile.
Having already earned our title as the "straggler sisters" (a story in its own right), we didn't want to be late to the meeting place. So we hustled. We stopped at a little restaurant on a side street, where we scarfed a delicious pizza and a thoroughly disappointing cannola. (One of my wishes for my trip to Italy that wasn't realized: eating some delicious and amazing cannoli.) Then, as we walked to the Campanile following our handy map, one of the street vendors stopped Becky to tell her she'd dropped something. When we looked behind us and saw nothing he said, "You dropped my heart, beautiful lady." This was her third Italian admirer, but alas, we did not have time for her to be wooed.
But it did make us laugh all the way to the Piazza del Duomo.
Giotto's Campanile is the free-standing bell tower of Florence Cathedral. It is absolutely breathtaking even before you start climbing the stairs. (I cannot believe I didn’t take one photo of the tower itself.) Dark pink, white, and green marble in geometric patterns, hexagonal relief panels depicting biblical scenes and scholarly ideas, rows of lozenges, niches, and statues. Like the cathedral, it was designed to look like a painting. Very ornate, of course, but so beautiful. The top three levels are each built larger than the lower one, so that when you look up at the tower, the effects of perspective cannot be seen. It took 25 years to build the tower; during part of that time no work was completed because of the Black Plague.
Oh how I wish I could hear the history stories those old stones could tell!
Becky and I laughed, talked, and breathed fairly heavily going up those stairs. It's a sort of a spiral staircase, sometimes curving but mostly turning sharply, very narrow and steep, with a low ceiling.
As we climbed, I thought about the people in the past who would've done this as part of their lives. The people who rang the bells, or priests I suppose. The stairs are worn smooth from people's feet, but the high reaches of the walls are dusty. It is like breathing in history.
At the top, we wandered around.
(The tiles on top of the tower. I prefer to think that white stuff is patina, not bird poop. Please do not disabuse me of this notion. Thank you.)
There was a procession of some sort, winding its way through the narrow streets.
I really, really wish I would've taken more pictures. I wish I would've handed my camera over to a stranger for a photo of me and Becky on top of the tower. I wish I would've crouched down at the bottom of the tower and photographed it that way. I wish I would've taken more pictures on top. I have some pictures—but not enough, and that is an exact reflection of my frustrated feeling that day. I tend to get impatient with photography when I am in a bad mood.
I was in Florence...and I was in a bad mood. How dumb of me. But it felt like being given an entire box of chocolates and then having time to eat half of one. I wanted the whole box! I wanted to have time to see all of Florence. So it's not that I was grumpy. Just highly frustrated.
Once we stood on the top of the tower, and admired the view, we climbed back down, and set off to find the Ponte Vecchio.
This is a bridge that crosses the Arno River, and was the only bridge not destroyed by the Germans when they retreated from Florence during World War II. Florentine bridges used to all have those buildings on top—they were places for shopping and gathering. Only the Ponte Vecchio still has them. They used to be butcher shops, but now they are little shops where you can buy jewelry and souvenirs.
By this time, we were seriously racing to beat the clock. We crossed the Arno on the Santa Trinita bridge.
This is a bridge that was destroyed during the war. On each of its entrances, it has two statues, and they were destroyed as well. Each of the four statues depicts one of the seasons. After the war, the bridge was rebuilt and the statues pieced back together (their parts mostly lying in the river until they were restored). I wanted to stop and admire each statue, but since we didn’t have much time, I settled for photographing each of them. The light was bad and I was hurrying so even that “settling” was disappointing as the pictures aren’t great.
(I had to convert them all to black and white. Otherwise they were too awful to look at.)
The best photo I took of the statues was this one, which is the back of the summer statue:
It is so moving to me—the clear lines of where it was pieced back together are evocative of my Mary figurine and what it still means to me.
After crossing the bridge, we speed-walked down a small side street to get to the Ponte Vecchio. This is one of my most vivid memories of Florence, for some reason, the small shops with their lighted windows and food, the heavy grey skies, the hustle of the crowds, the slight scent of the river. We turned a corner and there it was, the Ponte Vecchio. I wanted to stop and linger but we had like eight minutes to get to San Lorenzo. I crossed the Ponte Vecchio—but I didn't get to linger or really experience it.
We started to sprint. And then the weirdest thing happened—I slowed down. You have to know this about me: I am seriously a fast walker. But for some reason, I just could not walk fast. Or at least not as fast as Becky was walking. My feet were hot and my ankle was throbbing (I had my brace on) and I felt like I was walking through mud.
As I got slower I got more and more frustrated. What was wrong with me?
We passed the leather market and I looked at my watch, but there was definitely no time to shop, so my perfect Italian leather backpack and Nathan’s favorite belt stayed in Italy. We kept walking and we made it to San Lorenzo with three minutes to spare—and no one was there to see the Straggler Sisters' early arrival! Or, at least, no one from our group. All that hurried rushing only to discover we could have lingered for just a bit.
San Lorenzo is one of the oldest churches in Florence. It’s surrounded by an enormous square of crumbling stone steps. I sat down on the stairs of the church and I took off my boots so I could get rid of my ankle brace. I actively did not take any photos. Even though I want one now, so much, even just of my boots on the steps. Of that ancient church and my Eeyore self. I'm pretty sure Becky sat ten feet away from me, because she didn't want to be inundated by the waves of frustration rolling off of me. There we were in Florence, with a ridiciulously small amount of time to actually see much, and I finally realized why I had been walking so slow: I needed to pee. SO BADLY.
One thing about Italy: they don't really do bathrooms. Probably if you know all of the secrets, you know where the bathrooms are. But in that square, I couldn't find one. And I was in serious pain. I walked (slowly) around the square, hoping to find a bathroom. I didn't dare ask anyone "dove e il bagno?" because there was no way I could understand their quick responses. So I looked (in vain) through the belts a small merchant was selling. I saw no leather backpacks. Becky stood watch for me as the tour group members started trickling back, and then I just gave up. I sat down right there, on the steps of a church that seemed beautiful in such a simple, striking way, in a remarkable city full of history, architecture, art, and beauty, and I felt such a combination of annoyance, frustration, and desire for more that it was like I was sitting in a black puddle.
I might as well have just gone ahead and peed my pants.
And then I had my Florence Moment.
A nun, walking toward the church but from a different angle from where I was sitting, changed directions. She walked right over to me, patted my shoulder, and touched my forehead with the thumb of her other hand. She said something in Italian, squeezed my shoulder, and walked into the church.
My puddle evaporated.
I don't know what she said. Maybe it was "you're acting like a giant baby right now." Maybe it was “Yes, you didn’t get to see everything you wanted, but you are here, right now, in Italy. Cheer up.” Maybe it was “there’s a bathroom around that corner.”
But to me it was a blessing. A benediction of sorts. I thought about the feeling I had had while in St. Peter’s Cathedral, standing in front of the statue of St. Peter, which has a foot that, if you touch it, is supposed to give you a blessing. The foot is worn thin from so many centuries of touch, and it made me think about how powerful touch is, how it connects us and yes, blesses us. How we give a small portion of ourself in that touch, too. Being touched on the shoulder by the nun was the same feeling, only better because this was real.
My frustration drained away.
Eventually, everyone from the tour group arrived. In fact, I think they all thought I was the late one holding everyone up. I wasn’t late though. I was sitting on the ancient steps in front of an ancient church, thinking about how moments with God are not limited to time in churches or temples. They are not narrowed by religious denomination or gender or nationality. They are a thing you can find anywhere, even when you have blocked yourself into a black emotional corner.
The spirit is everywhere if you watch for it. Or maybe you sometimes have to sit still enough in your darkness for the light to find you, but it will.
I won’t say everything was magically better. I still had tons of walking left with my stupid aching bladder holding me back. (Our tour guide finally stopped at a bathroom in a tiny alleyway and I have never been so grateful to hand over money to pee.)
I still wanted to shop and explore. Not getting to examine statues in the Loggia di Lanzia in the Piazza della Signoria (Perseus with the Head of Medusa, The Rape of the Sabine Women, the Medici lions…) felt like ripping my heart out.
Walking past the Uffizi without going in—the Uffizi where Bottecelli’s “Birth of Venus” is hanging?—was physically painful.
But I had more of a peaceful heart (even if it was ripped out of my chest) and a lift to my feet. I tried to savor whatever I had left of Florence—walking past the city hall,
at least seeing those statues, listening to the tour guide talk about Santa Croce, a Christian church designed by a Jewish architect who included a Star of David. (This is where Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli are buried.)
I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to Florence. There wasn’t a fountain to throw a coin into along with a wish. But it’s there, on the top of my list: revisit Florence. See all the churches. Go to the Uffizi. See more of the Accademia than just the Slaves and David. Walk slowly along the Arno, cross all the bridges, shop at the leather market.
Find my Italian leather backpack.