Please also visit my Miami blog, ¿Qué Pasa, Miami?. Gracias.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Confessions of a Europhile in Thirteen Volumes: VOLUME VI, Part C

I ♥ travel. I ♥ writing. When engaged in the former, I have no time for the latter, which makes me :o{

I've just spent ten days in San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest and am itching to post about all the bibliophile nerdiness that took place there. Unfortunately, a group of wily gremlins have tethered my wrists to the base of my keyboard until I complete ALL 13 VOLUMES of my Euro series. The longer I write, the more elusive the finish line becomes. I feel like the blogger version of this girl:


If you don't recognize the above image, this means you've never checked out the trippy 80s classic The Labyrinth. Shame on you.

Eager for those pesky gemlins to restore my freedom, I press on ... to Tuscany.

Touring Toscana

Six nights in Florence afforded us plenty of time for Tuscan day trips, of which Becca and I took four. Below are brief descriptions and accompanying photographs of each town.

SIENA:

Welcoming visitors to Siena is a statue of a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus – abandoned babies who were raised by a wild animal but somehow managed to found one of history's biggest empires anyway. Myth is crazy-awesome.


What first struck me about the town was the color palate: peach, brown, beige. The earth tones have a soothing effect.









Then, bang! Pink church. That's what's up.


Thought that was festive? Check out the bright blue dome from the inside.



Lastly, Becca and I were transfixed by Siena's pigeon fountain. I'm no particular fan of pigeons, and I don't know anyone who isn't either terrified of – Moira, that's you – or indifferent to the aviary rats. But watching these guys drink water spewing out of the mouth of a lioness sculpture was an entertaining sideshow as we enjoyed our daily gelatos.



Speaking of sculpture, I've often wondered what people are thinking placing valuable works of art outdoors. I love picnicking in a sculpture garden as much as the next pretentious Europhile, but, let's face it, those statues are asking for it (pigeon poop, that is). I mean, Italian pigeons have literally shit on Michelangelo.

VOLTERRA:

I did NOT visit this tiny hill town because it was heavily featured in the Twilight book series. (I did read the series, though. Don't judge me!) I chose Volterra because my research indicated that tour buses wouldn't take me there. Instead, they all head to the neighboring, touristy San Gimignano. (Say that five times fast.) To visit Volterra, Becca and I would have to take two commuter buses (like locals!). Excited to bypass the tourist trap, we:

1) hopped on a local bus in Florence,
2) happily rode to the middle of nowhere,
3) asked the bus driver which bus we should take next,
4) watched the bus driver point to it across the street,
5) watched it rev its engine,
6) ran like hell,
7) were left stranded in the middle of nowhere,
8) discovered that the next bus to Volterra would be arriving in five hours,
9) contemplated playing charades for entertainment and hunting for nourishment,
10) spotted another bus going somewhere (ANYWHERE!),
11) gleefully hopped on said bus, and
12) ended up in San Gimignano.

Still, we would not be deterred. We would find a way to Volterra from San Gimi-whatever-its-name-is. We would take a cab. Trying to take a cab from San Gimigimini consists in the following steps:

1) Wait at a taxi stand for 25 minutes.
2) Wonder why a town would have a taxi stand but no taxis.
3) Venture to a nearby bar and inquire about taxis.
4) Be assured that help is on the way.
5) Watch as a friendly Italian woman exits the bar, tilts her head up, and yells.
6) Be all confused.
7) Watch an elderly man pop his head out of a fifth-story window, yell back, and make a "give me a minute" signal.
8) Ask your travel partner, "Is this our 'cab' driver?"
10) Be greeted by the elderly man offering you a ride to Volterra.
11) Talk him down a whole 10 €. Go me!
12) Still feel like you're getting embarrassingly ripped off.
13) Become worryingly nauseous on the jet-fast, curvy, hilly "cab" ride.
14) Make it to Volterra, damn it!



It was all worth it. Luckily, I beat the Twilight film crew there; I would imagine there are quite a few more cameras snapping pictures of unsuspecting Volterrans these days. They don't like that, as is evidenced by this lady:



Having survived her icy glare, I wandered around for a few hours and was again taken by the nakedness of all the neutral tones, which serve as a wonderful backdrop for the occasional splashes of color.















Volterra's clock tower is widely considered to be perfection itself; so say the world's foremost clock tower experts.



When not trying to save vampires from their suicidal, emo selves at the clock tower, head over to the giant entrance archway. The structure, as well as the walls that still surround the ancient town, dates back to the Etruscans. Totally impressive.



Roman ruins your thing? Volterra's got those, too.



The town is also known for crafting beautiful ornaments out of alabaster, so those looking for an authentic Volterra souvenir should head to the large alabaster store in town.



We headed back to Florence with our heads held high, for in Volterra we had not been tourists, but travelers!

PISA:

What a difference a day makes. Not gonna lie. We went to Pisa, saw the leaning tower, took ridiculous pictures of it (or with it, or in it, or on it), and trotted back to Florence. Zero attempt was made to experience the "real" Pisa. Perhaps the Volterra mission had left us too weary to be true travelers anymore. Whatever the reason, we gave in and became shameless tourists for the afternoon.

On an extensive tour of Europe, giving in to this weakness is sometimes necessary, for delirium becomes a real danger after visiting the 17th or so historic cathedral. Once they all start to look the same and you can't tell the difference between Renaissance and Baroque anymore, you'd better find a way to unwind before you start losing it Kafka style.

Pisa was that moment for us. So here I am, mightily pushing the Leaning Tower of Pisa back into place:



Here I am, striking a nonsensical pose in front of the tower.


And here I am, making my way up the tower, a victim to the war being waged between my high-heeled boots and the tower's treaterous lean.



Shameless Tourist Day was a total success.

CORTONA:

Of all the towns we were fortunate enough to visit in Tuscany, Cortona was the highest (altitude-wise, not drug-wise). As a result, we enjoyed very impressive views of the surrounding countryside.





We chose to visit this little known town, though, for a less noble reason. This is where Diane Lane's character in Under the Tuscan Sun ends up when her marriage falls apart. Here, she meets colorful characters around the lively, central fountain; befriends Polish construction workers who are helping her to restore a rundown villa; and has mind-blowing sex with a tall, dark, and very handsome Italian man. We found none of these things on our visit.

Given the expectations, Cortona was kind of a let down. I mean, not finding a Tuscan villa to buy and friendly Polish construction workers to join you at the dinner table for pleasantries every night? That much I can accept. But I'm still disappointed about not having met a young, gorgeous Italian with black hair and blue eyes. Also, there was no fountain. Okay there was, but it was not in the central plaza and bore no resemblance to the one in the film, and there was a tennis ball stuck in its stone seashell sculpture.



WTF?

I'm joking, of course. Cortona was lovely. A few highlights below:







Still, it would have been nice if anyone in Cortona had looked anything like this.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Confessions of a Europhile in Thirteen Volumes: VOLUME VI, Part B

Fanciful Florence

Renaissance art, picturesque bridges, Italian wine, and mouthwatering ravioli. What's not to love? Florence is a truly enchanting city worth visiting more than once. My first trip there (in 2003) barely lasted two days – totally inadequate. This time around, I made sure to give myself ample time (six nights) to wander the cobble-stoned streets.

Our first objective upon arrival was lunch. Famished, Becca and I entered a nondescript little restaurant near our hotel, where I had a simple chicken dish with a delectable sauce.

Reinvigorated by our meal, we decided to pop into a couple of the shops lining the unembellished street while waiting for our crappy accommodations to be readied. "Hello, 30-euro shiny red pumps!"


I don't impulse-buy often, so I welcomed the serotonin high as I bounded into the city center, where Brunelleschi's grand Duomo (cathedral) was waiting to greet me.


"Hello, Duomo!" (I was still under a slight shoe-induced delirium at this stage, and all that green and pink marble wasn't helping). The Duomo's accompanying, equally colorful baptistry boasts the Ghiberti Doors (also known as the Gates of Paradise), a 15th-century work in bronze by Lorenzo Ghiberti. It is widely considered to be the first artistic production of the Renaissance (omigod!). Ghiberti built the bronze doors for a competition, which he of course won. The doors on display today are an exact replica of the originals, which are now housed in the Duomo Museum. The photograph below is of the replica.


Closely scrutinizing every detail of those door panels is an exhausting enterprise, so we later rewarded ourselves with fresh air and enchanting vistas of Florence at the Boboli Gardens, which are located behind the Pitti Palace, former home of the Medeci Grand Dukes.


The Boboli Gardens seemed to me notably different from typical French gardens in that they weren't as meticulously manicured. Although nowhere near wild, they did seem more natural. This held a particular charm for me, as I'm accustomed to the "pelouse interdite" (forbidden grass) signs of Parisian gardens. Speaking of which, there's no better infraction to commit in France than frolicking on "forbidden" grass. Ahh ... to have been a wayward child in Paris!

*Espranglais does not hold itself responsible for any reprimands incurred as a result of illegal lawn activities.

As the afternoon began to fade, it seemed the perfect time to stroll around aimlessly. We stumbled across a street market as we headed to the Piazza della Signoria. The famed statues on public display were especially captivating in the waning daylight.




Once night falls, I like to head to the Ponte Vecchio, Florence's beautiful medieval bridge. Pedestrians hop in and out of little jewlery shops full of glittery gold and ornate cameos; scooters swoosh by haphazardly; the Arno River reflects the old bridge's arches. This landmark is so remarkably charming that it wins Espranglais' first ever "Bestest Bridge In Ze World Award." This is ultra prestegious, as Espranglais is a bit of a "bridge whore." Congratulations, Florence! Espranglais' photographs celebrate thee.





























Also, there was food. LOTS of cheesy, sinful food. And wine! Grazie, Ristorante Il Latini, for offering us a free bucket of wine on Becca's birthday. We could never have taken silly pictures sitting atop other people's parked scooters without it.