Sunday, October 10, 2004

Day 10: Florence

Overcast again this morning….the sun looks like it is trying to break through as we cross the Arno on our handy electric bus. We are going back to the train station to pick up the train for Prato…the third largest city in Tuscany, less than 20 kilometers from Florence. We are very unused to relying on public transportation in Italy since we generally have a car…but since it’s so unnecessary to have a car in Florence we are happily using buses and trains. For our trip to Vicchio yesterday, I was looking forward to trying to use the automatic ticket machines at the train station, but—even though the lines were short—the people using them were taking a lot of time. So I took our friend Jane’s advice and went to the newspaper kiosk and asked for four 50 kilometer tickets. I paid Euro 3.20 each…it couldn’t have been simpler. Today, I also intend to try the automatic machines, but the lines are long so I go back to the newspaper kiosk, ask for tickets to Prato, get two 20 kilometer tickets and pay Euro 1.60 each. Pretty easy.

The train to Prato’s ultimate destination is Viareggio and there are lots of people on the train going to the beach. It doesn’t much seem like a beach day. The trip to Prato only takes about 20 minutes and we get off at the Porta al Serraglio station which is only a couple of hundred yards from the Piazza del Duomo. The weather has taken a turn for the worse…the overcast has increased and we feel several drops of rain as we walk down the very attractive street that leads to the center.

The main piazza in front of the Duomo is also very attractive….the Duomo is a Tuscan green striped affair with a distinctive pulpit hanging out off the front corner of the cathedral. The broad piazza is ringed with stores and buildings…and in the middle today is a food exposition…..stalls from local food merchants selling their products; there are lots of opportunities to sample the cookies, fruit, salume, cheese, bread, etc. When these piazzas are not parking lots or filled with roaring scooters and cars, they are so appealing.

The main reason for our trip to Prato is to visit the Filippo Lippi frescoes in the central chapel of the Cathedral of Santo Stefano. They are now in restoration and tours are being offered “on the scaffolding” to see the frescoes face to face. We made our reservations by phone earlier in the week, but we now have to pay for our tickets (Euro 8 each) at the Duomo Museum. Before the tour, we have time to walk around the small museum which has statues, paintings and panels from the cathedral including the sculpted panels from the outside pulpit done by Donatello (it’s a reproduction installed outside), an early Botticelli and a Lippi altarpiece. All beautiful. We make a quick tour of the market…tasting some cheese and salume and buying some cookies…before we walk around the back of the cathedral to the bell tower to find the tour. The guide finally arrives, collects the tickets and escorts the group—ten Italians and us—into the back of the church and up three flights of stairs to the top of the frescoes.

The frescoes…scenes from the life of St. Stephen on one side and scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist on the other…are being restored from the top down, so this top level is almost completely finished. It is very striking to be so close to these frescoes, especially since they were created to be seen from a distance. But to be able to see the faces and expressions of the subjects and to see some of the techniques—like the use of candle wax to show decorations on clothing and fabrics—is fascinating. I later learn that St. Stephen was born Jewish and became the first Christian martyr. One of the scenes shows St. Stephen in a dispute with rabbis about Christian theology and another shows his funeral. The featured scene on the other wall shows the story of Herod’s Feast which features Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils and her asking for (and getting) the head of St. John the Baptist.

The guide’s commentary was in rapid fire Italian and we probably got about 50% of what she talked about….the history of the frescoes, the life of Filippo Lippi, the stories being told and the techniques used in painting the frescoes and restoring it. The experience may not have been as thrilling as when we saw the Piero della Francesca frescoes in Arezzo from the scaffolding, but it was definitely worth doing.

By the time the tour is over, it is raining harder. We look around the inside of the cathedral…there is a mass being said, so we sit in the back, in front if the chapel devoted to the sacred girdle (D: dear readers: if you really want to know, he’ll explain) ....and then head out to tour the town. We are approached by an umbrella salesman (we only have one small one) and we buy a large bright, multicolored umbrella from him for Euro 7.00.

Sightseeing in the rain is never much fun….especially trying to maneuver maps, guidebook and umbrella all at once. Diana is wearing sandals and her feet and shoes are getting very wet. Prato is such an inviting, pleasant town that we wish the weather were nicer so we could appreciate it more. Our curtailed stroll takes us through the Piazza Communale where another small market is being held….this square has a statue of the Merchant of Prato, Francesco di Marco Datini. He was a 14th century textile merchant, who made a considerable fortune and kept meticulous records. Iris Origo took his account books and journals and wrote a wonderful, fascinating novel–The Merchant of Prato—based on his papers, that paints a vivid picture of life in Prato and Italy during that time. We also pass his house on our walk, very grand and elaborately decorated; it now houses the offices of the charity that he established in his will and that is still active today.

The rain continues and when we turn the corner and see an open restaurant, we decide that it is time for lunch. The Pizzeria Ristorante San Agostino turns out to be just what we needed….pleasant service, an attractive bright room and good food. I have assorted bruschetta and wide pasta strips (called toppe) with clams, tomatoes and zucchini, which is quite good. Diana has a caprese salad—good mozzarella but so-so tomatoes and good ravioli with an “ortica” (nettles) sauce. She says that her pine nut cake dessert is outstanding. We have a refreshing, slightly effervescent local white house wine which is extremely drinkable.

Unfortunately the rain continues to come down so we decide to head back to the station and take the train back to Florence. First we buy some fruit at the market in the Duomo square….great Muscat grapes and a few tart green-skinned tangerines.

At the station, I get to try a limited version of the automatic ticketing machine. However, I don’t realize that the maximum amount of change that the machine can return is Euro 4.80 so I end up with two tickets to Florence along with a credit slip showing that the railroad owes me Euro 8.40, Someone tells me that I can claim the credit at any ticket office. We have about 45 minutes to wait for the next train to Florence. We notice that many of our fellow passengers are Asians…we had read that Prato had the largest Asian population in Italy and that there are some very good Chinese restaurants.

The train to Florence is slow….it sits in one of the outlying Florence stations (Rifredi) for about 15 minutes. When we arrive in Florence, the lines at the ticket window are long so we decide not to wait to get my outstanding credit. Our trustworthy bus is sitting at its terminal waiting for us to take us to our apartment.

The rain begins to let up and patches of blue sky and sun are showing as we watch from our window. I take a walk to arrange our social schedule for the next few nights….friends from Maine are staying at a hotel down the street and I run into them after I have left a note at the desk. We arrange to have dinner on Monday or Tuesday. Then I walk to San Frediano to confirm our dinner tonight with Mindy and Anthony (Pokey from the message board Slow Travel) who are staying at Residenza Il Carmine. On the way, I check out a possible dinner place near Piazza Il Carmine, Il Brindellone. I visit with them for a while in their apartment and we agree to meet at the restaurant at 8 pm.

Walking back to the apartment, the neighborhood around Santo Sprito is busy….all the stores are open on Sunday afternoon and people are out walking, talking and shopping. I stop for some bread at our regular bakery, which is (unusually) open on seven days a week, but they are sold out at 6:30 pm.

Dinner at Il Brindellone is a lot of fun. We enjoy the company of Anthony and Mindy. The food is very good….a traditional Tuscan antipasto of ham, salume and crostini, a ribollita for me, ravioli for Anthony, stracceti (pasta strips) with a béchamel sauce for Mindy and gnocchi with a rucola pesto for Diana. They order a bistecca fiorentina for three…..before it is cooked, the waiter brings out the steak for our approval—it is amazingly thick. When the steak returns to the table, it is as a “bistecca” ought to be—crusty on the outside and beautifully rare on the inside. The steak eaters enjoy their dish and we realize that ordering the “bistecca” for one person just doesn’t have the same result as ordering a larger portion. I have some spinach and try a few bites of the bistecca…which—even to a non-steak eater—tastes very good. Mindy and Anthony share a piece of chocolate cake for dessert, which they like very much.

We say goodnight to them at their street and have a pleasant walk back to the apartment.


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