“Don’t you agree that, on one’s first visit to Florence, one must have a room with a view?”
– E.M. Forster, British novelist, essayist, and short story writer, from A Room with a View
We got back into our rented Fiat as early as we could and left Napoli with some trepidation. Back onto the bumpy road leading us out of Napoli and onto the autostrada, the Italian highway, and relying on our unreliable GPS with the British voice. But now we understood that we were not to pay attention to her wrong “take the first right turn” commands and instead to look at the map on the screen. I was told the speed limit in Italy is 80, and so that was how fast David and Mike drove. For Italians, the speed limit is meant to be broken by some 10 to 20 mph. I don’t know what’s worse – having an Italian bearing down behind you on the autostrada or being in a city street where three cars are converging into one lane. We took a stop at a rest stop, which is not unlike the typical rest stops in the States. The difference is better food, relatively speaking, and more tourists from different nations.
The drive from Napoli to Firenze was under five hours. As we headed into Tuscany country, I couldn’t help by attempt to sing Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro, the version sung by Kiri Te Kanawa from the motion picture soundtrack A Room with a View – one of my all-time favorite movies. Luckily the kids had their headphones on. David suffered a different fate. Then I attempted to spout off lines from the movie (I’d forgotten many of them, so I enlisted Google when I could get Internet access): “What is it that makes lady novelists reach such summits of absurdity?” (attributed to Cecil Vise); “In my small way I am a woman of the world. And I know where things can lead to.” (Charlotte Barlett); “Smell! A true Florentine smell. Inhale, my dear. Deeper! Every city, let me tell you, has its own smell.” (Eleanor Lavish); “A young girl, transfigured by Italy! And why shouldn’t she be transfigured? It happened to the Goths!” (Eleanor Lavish); “Mother doesn’t like me playing Beethoven. She says I’m always peevish afterwards.” (Lucy Honeychurch) “Naturally, one would be . . . stirred up.” (Reverend Beebe). “Women like looking at a view. Men don’t.” (Mr. Emerson).
I digress. Suffice to say, the drive through the Tuscan countryside – the lush green hills, the cypress and olive trees, and the stone palazzi rising from the landscape – made me realize how much I was looking forward to returning to Florence. The food, the history, the art, the Arno River, the Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi and the rest of the amazing museums. Just being in the city, anywhere, one has a view.
Back to our GPS system, which somewhat failed us in that it overshot us past our hotel, we drove into a restricted area of the city. Our friend Charles let us know that cameras catch you driving into these areas and send you a ticket several months later outlining violations you never knew you had committed – for him to the tune of $200. We did not want to repeat his mistakes! The morning clerk at our Hotel Giglio (85 Via Cavour), blocks away from San Marco Piazza and the Accademia, talked us into giving him our car keys and allowing him to move the car one step ahead of the polizia, which he assured us was 95 percent safe. With some misgivings, we surrendered the car keys.
We unloaded our luggage in our hotel room, which was very spacious with high ceilings, a large bathroom by older hotel standards, and one comfortable queen bed and two twin beds. Admittedly, I feel like I’m in a monastery, but I love the old world feel, the A Room with a View austerity with antiquity sensibility. We went in search of a restaurant for a late lunch and settled at Trattoria Za Za (Piazza del Mercator Central, 055 215 411). Of course, I ordered the ribollita, a traditional Tuscan hearty soup made of bread and vegetables. David ordered pappardelle with wild boar. While his pasta was good, if a bit gamey, my ribollita reminded me of how much I loved it the first time I tried it in Firenze 18 years ago. I feel obliged to say that David’s ribollita runs neck and neck with Trattoria Za Za’s classic soup.
After lunch, we took to the open-air markets for some shopping and then we made our way to Santa Maria del Fiore and its famous Duomo, which looks like a lavish wedding cake and which one can never take too many photographs of. We were assaulted, and I don’t use the word loosely, by hordes of tourist groups, mostly Japanese and surprisingly a lot of Americans. At times, ugly Americans. But enough about the tsunami of tourists.
For me, what I love about Roma and Firenze is turning a corner and running into a famous monument, so that your breath is taken away the moment your eyes meet marble, stone, a piece of monumental art. And so it was in Firenze. You could see the familiar yet other-worldly deep-orange, herringbone-patterned, brick and marble Duomo. It’s a comforting sight to see and the perfect touchstone and compass to let you know where you are and where you need to be.
We ventured to the Piazza della Signora, which is in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. Again, Kiri Te Kanawa’s voice swelled all around me as I took in the view of the famous statues on the square. How many different angles and number of photographs can you take of each statue? Again, an infinite number.
We took in the Palazzo Vecchio and all that art that Medici power and money can buy. It’s quite impressive. We ventured up the tower, which I believe consisted of 240 steps to the near top (the narrow winding steps to the very top was closed to the public, thank goodness). With every landing, I thought we had reached the top because every view of the Duomo was magnificent. But with each landing, there was yet another set of steps. Once we got to the top, the windy was whipping around and we had to catch our breath and rest our throbbing calves. But the view, the view. Breathtaking.
We ventured to the archaeological dig exhibit, which is beneath the Palazzo Vecchio. A Roman amphitheater was discovered there and work is ongoing to uncover it. That means the next time we visit we’ll see more of this amazing structure. We were tired and yet not that hungry after the museum visit. We made the unfortunate choice of settling for pizza and panini at a café right off a main street radiating from the Duomo. This was not real Italian pizza or panini. And the gelato was not gelato. I repeat: it was not gelato but ice cream, perhaps made this way to please the tourists. If you have to scoop it instead of using a spatula, if your tubs are mounded sky-high with so-called “gelato,” and if you don’t get a burst of intense flavor, I assure you, coming from this gelato aficionado, you are not eating gelato. I’m yearning for some Roma gelato. But I don’t want to end on a low note on our first night in Firenze. Walking out of our hotel and into the streets or vias of Firenze, I felt as if I were reunited with an old friend. And, indeed, I was.