Thursday, August 20, 2015

Florence is worth all the hassles:The Italy Diaries, Part VI

Despite all the hassles of driving in Florence, this city was worth every bit of pain. (And there was pain.)It is without a doubt one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

For the most part we found ourselves returning to the places we loved rather than discovering new treasures in Florence—although we decided to skip the Uffizi this time. We’ve been there twice before and certainly haven’t exhausted it, but this time we just couldn’t deal with the long lines and the crowds.

We decided instead to revisit the Pitti Palace which is much more manageable. The Pitti Palace is a treasure trove of old masters; unfortunately, many of the paintings are hung so high on the wall, they’re impossible to see. Artemisia Gentileschi’s La Guiditta (fortunately hung at eye level) is one of my favorites, partly because it is by one of the very few women artists of the Italian Renaissance and because it’s a compelling, highly unusual take on a popular Renaissance /Baroque subject—the biblical story of Judith’s beheading of Holofernes. Usually there’s a grisly scene of Judith displaying Holofernes’ severed head dripping with blood. Here Holofernes’ head is not center stage but partially concealed in a basket. The focus is all on Judith.

For me, one of the great pleasures of travel in Italy is discovering painters I had never heard of but who are really, really good. There was so much artistic talent in Renaissance Italy and most of us have only heard of the most famous. Usually the ones who became famous are the ones who have pioneered a new style. The European tradition prizes innovation and those who are not trailblazers but who do wonderful work within established tradition are often forgotten. This time my "discoveries" included the frescoes of Allori in Santa Maria Novella and the portraits of Guistus Sustermann in the Pitti Palace
Portrait of Galileo in the Uffizzi

If there's a next time in Florence, I'll make sure to see the Susterman portraits in the Uffizi

facade of Santa Maria Novella

In addition to Santa Maria Novella, we revisited other beloved churches, including of course the Duomo. I could spend all day staring at the fa├žade of the Duomo, a confection of pink and white and green marble. The first time I saw the Duomo was on incredibly hot, hazy summer day. The second time was on a gray winter day--finally this time we saw the Duomo against the bright blue sky of a balmy October day.

Another church we had to see again was Santa Maria Del Carmine; the church’s Brancacci chapel contains a wondrous fresco cycle by Masaccio; his expulsion of Adam and Eve is one of the most haunting paintings I’ve ever seen.

I would love to spend a year in Florence taking it all in, but alas at this stage of life that is clearly not going to happen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Vacation Rentals in Italy--Some Things to Consider: The Italy Diaries, Part V

Most of our vacation rentals have been in the U.S., most recently in Block Island where everything always goes smoothly—no snafus, no unpleasant surprises. Not the case in Italy.

We wanted a base in Tuscany and chose Fiesole, which is close to Florence and a good base for exploring the Tuscan hill towns. We wanted a hilltop villa with a wonderful view of the Tuscan hills. We hadn’t considered that if the villa is on the top of a hill getting there just might be a challenge. Actually it was a nightmare. In order to drive into town from our hilltop house we had to make our way through through a maze of incredibly narrow—albeit incredibly picturesque—streets. We finally learned how to navigate the streets but not before doing some serious damage to our rental car. Moral of the story: if you are staying in a hill town, ask questions about driving conditions to the rental property, and if you are dealing with a situation like ours, by all means rent the smallest car you are comfortable with.

One problem with rental properties is that often you do not know what questions to ask. It never occurred to me to ask if there was a landline. When we got to the house, we looked around for a phone, and when we saw none in sight, I realized it was a good thing I brought my cell phone. If I had known there was no landline, I would have bought a European cell phone plan and would have avoided an astronomical cell phone bill.

Also, ask questions about bathrooms. Since an old friend was joining us, we needed 2 bathrooms. We rented our house both because it had a view over the Tuscan hills and because it had 2 bathrooms. I assumed they would be adjacent to the bedrooms, but to my surprise, the second bathroom was in the basement down a steep flight of stairs. The Italians don’t share the American predilection for at least as many bathrooms as there are people sharing a dwelling, and it turned out to be difficult to find an affordable rental property with 2 bathrooms. Moral of the story: if you are renting a place with more than one bathroom, ask questions about its location. In Italian houses, second and third bathrooms are often recent additions, and can be in very inconvenient places.

But despite all this complaining, I love, love Italy. It’s worth putting up with a few inconveniences.