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30 May 2020 - Day 49 – Florence, Day 1

Another lodging booking without breakfast, I was out of the room at 8:30, checked out and on the street 5 minutes later and on my way to the Pisa Centrale train station. Once I rounded the “eye”, I stopped at the Bar Gambrinus and got a coffee and cornetti (Italian croissant) to go before continuing to the station. I was early for the 9:12 train to #Firenze Santa Maria Novella, so I could leisurely get out to the platform and not spill my coffee. Another relatively quick ride, the train pulled into Florence’s New Santa Maria station at ten.

#Florence SMN is an end-of-the-line type station, where all trains reverse direction to leave. I’d used to make my reservation at the Hotel St. James, less than a kilometer east of the station.

Following Via Nazionale past countless eateries, shops and hotels, I arrived at the hotel on Piazza della Indipendenza. Barely 10:30, it was too early to get into my room, by they did allow me to register and leave my bag.

What to do? It’s Saturday, and an unplanned day, however, Elisa had worked with me and my next four days should allow me to see a great deal. I opted to get out of town, to see a cathedral nearby that wasn’t counted on my itinerary. Seven minutes’ walk from the hotel, I boarded a #7 city bus bound for Lavagnini. Eighteen stops later, I exited at Fiesole Piazza Mino. Sitting on the far side of a street divider was the southwestern face of the #Fiesole Cathedral, Cattedrale di San Romolo.

With a simple Romanesque stone façade, and plain windowless sides, it was difficult to conceive that this was a 900-year old church. Columns, supported the light-giving clerestory, creating side aisles. Advancing towards the eastern apse end, the main altar sits before two levels: the high altar above, with a beautiful triptych, and a crypt below, with a gated-off altar hosting a jeweled reliquary. The vault is dark wood, trussed. There is little decoration, save the chapels at the east ends of the aisles. While there, I read about an earlier cathedral to St Romulus in Fiesole, at the site of his martyrdom. About a kilometer away, I decided to walk to the Badia fiesolana. When the present cathedral was consecrated in 1028, the old cathedral’s façade was preserved in the front of the replacing monastery. Sounded like another ex-cathedral to me.

My route took me through an s-curve passing La Villa Medicea a Fiesole, a suburban villa built by Giovanni, second son of Cosimo il Vecchio (Medici) in the 15th century. While closed to visitors on Saturday, I was able to walk briefly in the gardens and enjoy the view of Florence below in the distance. The ex-cathedral was down a side road, and my visit was short. Back to the road the bus had brought me up to Fiesole on, I descended 100m to make a quick visit at the Convent of San Domenico, with its pale frescoed vault and an Adoration of the Magi. Another 100m beyond and I was at the bus stop. A ten-minute wait, and I was heading back into Florence with only 2 hairpin turns.

Getting off at the Stazione Nazionale (across from the SMN train station), I had a 10-minute walk to the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore.

My approach brought me to the northwest corner of the Piazza del Duomo, near the north side of the octagonal Battistero di San Giovanni, which sits due west of the main entrance to Santa Maria del Fiore. I headed to the Campanile di Giotto with a 13:00 entry ticket, which would close at 14:15.

Free standing and to the south side of the cathedral entrance, there are 414 steps to the observation area. The outside viewing area at tile roof level is caged, with just enough room for my camera lens. Views are spectacular. And at 15€ with timed entry for 16, it doesn’t get too crowded. Round trip with picture taking was 60 minutes. Half an hour free, as is my wont, I made an exterior circuit of the building, viewing its Gothic Revival façade. The cathedral itself had open at 13:30, and my gratis cathedral entry ticket was for 2:30.

A neo-Gothic wrap was placed on the exterior of the cathedral in the eighteenth century, using green, pink and white marble in a geometric design. Similar cladding of the campanile and baptistry pretty much directed this for a consistent look. The #Brunelleschi dome is made of bricks, without buttresses for support, octagonal in shape, and is the largest brick dome ever constructed. Work is being done on the dome, so the tour, including circling the lantern wasn’t available until mid-June.

Entering the front’s south door, the space is open and light. There are tall side aisles and a wider nave with round clear clerestory windows. Thick blocky Romanesque columns support rounded arches. Walls are relatively bare, with tan plaster that extends to the vault. The floor has been tiled in geometric patterns using red, black and gray marble. Advancing down to the crossing, wooden pews are set up under the dome around a raised hexagonal platform with the main altar. The octagonal dome, set on a drum gallery with round stained-glass windows, has a fresco begun by #Vasari in 1568, and completed eleven years later by Zuccari. Admission is gated off here, so examining the 3 altars in the transepts and apse isn’t possible. As the ticket is “free”, you’re getting what you paid for. It’s definitely a letdown after St Mark’s and Milan. At least the crypt was interesting, although access was also limited given the possibilities shown on the map.

Leaving, I went to check on availability for visiting the Baptistry. I could get into the building in 15 minutes with their entry on the quarter hours, so I ponied up the 5€ and hung out in the piazza. It took a bit to be able to get a shot of the “golden” Gates of Paradise. Once inside, the fresco on the ceiling was impressive, and the raised altar has a intriguing design behind it. The memorial to the Anti-pope John XXIII was different, but the history of the Western Catholic Church in the early 1400’s is hard to follow. The actual baptismal font, to the side on a raised pedestal behind iron gates, seemed neglected.

Maybe 5 minutes away is the Basilica di San Lorenzo, which served at the site of the Florence Cathedral from 393 to 700 before the transfer to Santa Reparata, which is now under the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. This is the third church on this site. In addition to this large domed church, built in a cruciform layout with a transept, behind the apse is the Cappella dei Principi, with the sarcophagi of 300 years of Medici family.

Diamond patterned marble floors, cylindrical columns, good natural light, the altars in the transept and apse are tasteful. Two large carved red marble sarcophagi on marble columns stand just short of the crossing. On the left side of the altar, access to the rear of the apse and the Cappella dei Medici, a sensory overload if there ever was one. Probably every shade of green, red, gold and gray marble is in use. About half the room was blocked off, with scaffolding raising nearly to the base of the highly colorful illustrations on the dome.

At this point, it was about 10 minutes before 5. Saturday vigil Mass in English at the cathedral is at 5, or I could attend 6pm in Italian. I opted for the former, and scooted over to Santa Maria. Tomorrow is the feast of Pentecost. Eleven years ago, at St Edwards in New Fairfield, CT, we celebrated Mass in my mother’s memory – she had died that February and we would be burying her remains in Massachusetts 3 days later. “The Lake” was probably her favorite place. So Mass this evening was tough, with me sniffling and tearing up. But it was good to remember her while I was in Florence. I even went up to get blessed when Communion was offered.

The couple next to me had seen me struggling, so hung back after the dismissal. We sat and listened to the organist perform a postlude that I think was French. Getting up to leave, they asked if I was okay, and I explained. With hugs and offers of prayers for Mom, they again checked, and set off. I needed to get back to the hotel to change. I needed to dress up as tonight I had a ticket to the Festival del Maggio. An old maestro from my past would be conducting.

In 15 minutes, I’d reached the Hotel St James, and they gave me a key to a room on the first level. With my bag, I rode up and began to settle in. I took a quick shower, put on a dress shirt and tie with the all black walking shoes. As spiffed as possible, I headed out to walk around the train station and then north and west to the Opera di Firenze. For tonight, I was attending the Festival del #Maggio, with Zubin Mehta conducting the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. A very modern house, I was in Row O and seat 39, off to the west edge where I’d be sure to have the double bass viols pointed my way (I hoped, and lucked out.)

The stage began filling with musicians. When they all seemed to be in place, the chorus filed in solemnly, from top to bottom. The concert master came in and called for the final tuning note. Four soloist came in and took their positions around the conductor’s podium. Mehta entered, to a standing applause. I recalled back to 1970 when he had come to Rutgers to lead the NY Philharmonic and the #Rutgers Chorus for performances of a Krzysztof Penderecki piece they had premiered at the United Nations 25th Anniversary, and this same Beethoven symphony. Fifty years. Amazing.

Already with the tear ducts primed, I was glad that I came with tissues. This is a favorite piece, and I consider Beethoven to be in my pantheon of composers. I was again moved to tears, and joined the audience at the end in standing for a brilliant performance. I slowly prepared to leave, letting those who needed to be elsewhere bust out of the hall. I was able to slowly stroll back. Coming up on 10pm, I knew that I must find somewhere that would be open for dinner for another hour or more. Within a block or two of the hotel, feeling I couldn’t be fussy, I found La Cocotte.

A hamburger place, they’re open until midnight. I started with Stick di Acciughe “Anfosso 1945” con burro al profumo di Arancio and ordered a cheeseburger with fries. Just keep it simple. The anchovies came with a vintage aged olive oil, orange-flavored butter, sticks of toasted bread. Something to nibble on while the burger was fixed. The burger was pink, just as I had ordered it. Good beef, lots of cheese and sharp! Potatoes were somewhere between chips and steak fries, but they were crispy so I was happy. A healthy wine selection, but I only needed a glass; their specials were cheap, so I got a bottle of the Morelliinno di Scansaro, a #Tuscan sangiovese . Good burger wine. I’ll probably sip on it while I write blogs for the next few nights. They have a whole display case full of little tartlets and custard cups, but I decided to pass.

Back out onto the street and soon to the hotel. I collected my key and headed to the room. As I’ll be here for 5 nights, I pulled on several pairs of slacks and hung them as well as my jackets and parka. The bag with dirty clothes is in its own corner. Started the nightly ritual, plugging stuff in to charge, download the pictures. I got some journaling done while at dinner, but needed to finish before I started writing this post.

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