Rogue Carver on the Loose in Italy
Part 17, Florence; a Tale of Two Cities
Here’s a cautionary tale of innocence lost on the day I returned to Florence just one month after I had walked its relatively deserted streets at the beginning of April. At that time I had no idea just how fortunate I was. Having survived a long and arduous flight from Aspen I had arrived at the city’s airport earlier in the day and checked into my hotel where I took a brief nap during the afternoon. After an hour or two of blissful sleep I felt sufficiently recovered to stroll into the city center at dusk and happened upon a scene that is now etched on my memory; the cathedral square was almost deserted, with just a few tourists meandering across the flagstones. Vendors were busy closing shop and heading home. The evening sky held a purplish glow. Children chased one another, and as twilight descended and the glimmer of electric lights gradually imposed upon the warm night air I became aware of an all prevailing calm and distinctly Mediterranean mood that so contrasted with the world that I had just left. I was utterly spellbound.
In fact, such was my fascination for the street life I discovered that all thoughts of museums, galleries… even Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome, completely vanished from my mind. I would, after all, be in Italy for three months, there would be plenty of time for the indoor stuff, or so I thought!
When the day came for me to see the David, climb the dome etc. etc., I got a good early start from Pietrasanta and arrived in Florence early enough to feel fairly confident that whatever crowds I might face I would hold the edge on the majority of them and be safely positioned in line while the majority of them were polishing off the last of their continental breakfasts. How wrong I was.
I suppose I should have known better than to revisit Florence during the Mayday holiday but however naïve such a decision may seem in hindsight nothing could have prepared me for the sheer number of human beings crowding into every nook and cranny of the city. I mean, never ever in my life have I witnessed so many people crammed into such a tiny parcel of land. Tourists were quite literally everywhere.
I realized quite soon after leaving the station that something was amiss. For a start I found myself marching lock-step with a veritable legion of tourists, all headed for the cathedral square. It wasn’t yet nine o’clock in the morning and yet a tidal wave of humanity was marching in unison… in the same direction, like some vast protest movement, or perhaps fans descending upon a football match. Onwards we went, growing stronger with each intersection of streets, until finally the cathedral came into view – and what a sight confronted my eyes. A vast, seething, seemingly endless horde of people mingled and swarmed around the square… the same square I had crossed many times just a month ago, but now invisible under a sea of humanity. It just didn’t seem possible – how could so many people possibly cram themselves into such a tiny space? It was practically impossible to traverse. It made my head spin.
Gradually I came to realize that the great melee actually included two vast queues, one to visit the dome, and the other to enter the cathedral.
Making my way to the head of the dome line I recognized the door that I had blithely passed numerous times when the queue had been all of twenty or thirty people, and I looked on in horror as the unbroken chain of tourists stretched down the length of the cathedral, on past the baptistery, and beyond, and from the body language I got the indelible impression that this was indeed no fast moving queue.
Now, I know what you are thinking: what a dolt, what did he expect? And I’ll concede that you are right, what did I expect? Well, in all honesty not the ‘Blade Runner without the rain’ scenes of churning humanity that met my eyes that morning – I didn’t even know it was physically possible to assemble so many human beings in one spot to be honest. I’ve visited many a megalopolis in my time, many a ‘tourist hotspot’ but nothing of this scale has ever previously presented itself, this was tourism of an epic proportion to which this innocent lamb has never previously been exposed.
I have traveled plenty in my lifetime. During the 1970s I Interailed, hitchhiked, and cycled my way over a large swath of central Europe. I have bused my way through Central America and navigated public transport systems in metropolises around the globe, but the sheer density, confusion and swirling mass of humanity I encountered on that fateful day trumps anything I have ever witnessed.
Back in the seventies I remember sauntering around the Coliseum and Forum in Rome accompanied by more cats than people. And my memories of Pompeii are that it was practically devoid of living human beings both times I was there. Lucky me. Now, after witnessing the scenes in Florence I dread to think….
And so, resigned to the fact that I had blown my chance to climb the dome (my main reason for returning to Florence) I set about looking for alternatives, but each and every doorway leading to, well anything, came complete with a snaking line inhabited by people who looked as though they had been standing still for quite some time.
After a while I began to suffer from a slight queasiness brought about by being eye-level with so many, many human beings… all swarming and milling and changing directions and bumping into one another and eating ice cream and turning this way and that and unannouncedly yelling and stopping to look at things and turning on the spot and… and then there were the tour groups! Vast herds of brightly clad older people barging their way through the crowd in elongated snakes. Then there were the students – loud boisterous teenagers, pre-teens and inbetweenies jostling and cajoling each other with reckless abandon and scant regard for fuddy duddys like me. It all came to be just too much. I developed a mild case of anxiety… a paniky attack that my instincts told me could only be assuaged by removing myself from the situation, but how? I was trapped in a heaving, churning, broiling broth of humanity.
Suddenly I remembered catching a fleeting glimpse of a business that I had passed on my way in – a place that my instincts told me would offer an oasis from the utter madness that I was entangled in, but where, just where had I seen it? I remembered the name… very catchy too: Eataly. All of a sudden I wanted nothing more than to walk through its inviting doorway and partake of whatever it had to offer.
It was at this point that the cold hard realization kicked in that although I had walked these streets many times I no longer recognized any of it – everywhere now looked the same. Once in a great while I caught a glimpse of some vaguely familiar building that I remembered from my arrival in the city back at the beginning of April, but a mere month, and a million people later I could make neither head nor tail of it. I didn’t recognize this city, even though it was the self-same one I had walked practically every square inch and knew inside and out less than thirty days previously.
But then, as these things happen from time to time, I just chanced to stumble across it, not by any particular skill of navigation on my part, but because the gods looked down upon me and felt some sort of pity – clearly at this point I was on the brink of losing it. Relieved, humbled and repentant I crossed the threshold and entered a world of tranquility, of calm, of quality, and best of all space, lots of it.
I didn’t even notice the isles stuffed with amazing Italian delicacies as I was hell-bent on finding myself a table at which I could partake of food and drink and begin to calm my frayed nerves. Ordering a delicious salad, a glass of wine, and feasting like some ravenous beast on the fresh bread brought straight out of the bakery I slowly began to regain my senses. Clearly the day was for all intents and purposes over. All that was left was to find my way to the station in order to scamper out of town and extract myself once and for all from this anvil… this red hot crucible of 21st Century mass tourism.
However, as I was ordering my early lunch from the hip looking waitress I happened to mention the vast numbers of tourist I had managed to untangle myself from and was met with a look of ‘what did you expect?’ Given that this was Mayday I ‘expected’ that she would show some sympathy for my plight but in fact she was thoroughly none-plussed; “It’s like this every day – for me this is normal.” Normal? Really? I told her that I would be returning at the end of June thinking that it might be less crowded being that it won’t coincide with a national holiday. “No, it will be more crowded”. More crowded – how? How could it be more crowded than the scenes of mayhem I had just witnessed? She shrugged, clearly the conversation was becoming tedious.
Before I left ‘Eatily’ however I took a little time to explore the place further and I’ll say this – if you ever find yourself passing one of these fine establishments just make sure you nip inside as you will not be disappointed; not if food is, as it is with me, a passion.
The place was a veritable treasure chest of all that is good about Italian cuisine… which means practically everything! Honestly, if you have the remotest possibility you owe it to yourself to check it out. There is one in practically every major Italian city… and I can only wish that I will ever live in close enough proximity to frequent such a heavenly food and drink emporium (in my dreams perhaps).
And so, just three short hours practically to the minute from the time I stepped off the train I was back on the platform boarding a westward bound express that would whisk me back to Pietrasanta by early afternoon. However, disappointing as the whole experience was it taught me a valuable lesson; timing is of the essence, for just as the saying goes about never stepping into the same river twice, the same can be said when contemplating a visit to Florence… just be careful which city you choose to step into.
Until next time, look before you leap.