23 April 2010

It wasn't the volcano that almost trapped me at the airport

Musings from Florence: Part 4

In praise of Mussolini, people always say, "he made the trains run on time." It always seemed an odd thing to praise a dictator for, but after a week in Italy, I can see how it would be a trait that caught people's attention. Nothing is quite on time in Italy, but it doesn't really matter. The culture has a relaxed--a "tomorrow" way--of looking at the world.

It's a wonderful attitude, until you face it in the airport at 5 in the morning.

On the outward journey, the woman who checked me in messed up my final destination. My bag was going to go to the right place, but not me. When we realized the error, she pressed a few buttons, then shrugged.

"They will straighten it out in Frankfurt."

Uh? "Can't you..." I started but she was already waving the next person up.

Fortunately, the tomorrow-mood is infectious. "OK," I said and walked away. I'd deal with it in Germany. The Germans are nothing if not efficient. However, the tomorrow mood lifted by the time we landed in Frankfurt. Iceland was erupting, security lines were longer and more rigorous than I'd seen in years and I couldn't find a cup of coffee to save my soul.

So I went to the USAirways desk and asked about my final destination. They looked at my records, muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, "Italians," and said that they could get me to Chicago, but they couldn't print a boarding pass.

"You will have to get it in Philadelphia."

"But can't you--"

"No, we can't."

Knowing better than to argue with anyone before my first cup of coffee, I simply nodded and went to my departure gate. Eight hours later, we land in Philadelphia. Custom lines are short, security lines are long AND I cannot go through security to get on my next flight without a boarding pass. So I got to the USAirways gate outside customs. After explaining the problem, the woman called up my records. Her supervisor leaned over her shoulder, shook his head and sighed, "Italians."

"We can't print a boarding pass," the woman said, "because you're on a codeshare fight with United, but the gate agent should be able to get you on the plane."

"But...security won't let me through without a boarding pass."

"We've developed a procedure for this," she said, and went to a cabinet, pulled out a stack of pre-printed forms and gave me a special pass to get through security. Clearly, I'm not the first with this problem.

At the United gate, the agent looked up my records and sighed.

"The Italians will never die of stress," I offered.

"Unless someone kills them for causing it," she muttered and handed over my boarding pass.

19 April 2010

Vacation photos

Musings from Florence: Part 3

A picture really is worth a thousand words. The first photo below is the Duomo (cathedral). It was named for the dome that caps the church and makes the cathedral a landmark that can be seen throughout much of the old city. The old saying: All roads lead to the Duomo is mostly true in Florence.

 This statue is in San Croce, and with a little digging I could figure out whose tomb she's guarding, but  that's not why I took the photo. I just love the way the light is pouring over her.

A street in Siena. The medieval wall still runs around the city center, and so walkways simply run beneath it. The passageway above smelled of damp stone, mold and plaster and was quite dark. I also had to use the flash to take the picture.

18 April 2010

Pilgrim's progress

Musings from Florence: Part 2

Quite by accident, we spent one fabulous day in Siena. We'd planned to go to Assisi, but didn't really looked at the train schedule until that morning. 9:38 a.m., to be exact. The first and only train to the birthplace of Saint Francis left at 8:52 a.m.

So we thought about Cinque Terra. The last train out was 9:10.

So we picked Siena because a through bus (rapido SITA) runs every hour at 10 past. Fortune favors the spontaneous.

Siena is a sprawling city with a beautifully compact center that hasn't changed much in 800 years. I'm sure the people who live there wish the streets were wider or the steps less steep, but for visitors it's a cleaned-up version of a medieval city steeped in grace and charm.

Like Roma, Siena was built on seven hills, but unlike Roma, the hills are steeper and less landscaped. There isn't a flat spot in the old city--not even the floors in shops, churches or restaurants seemed level--and it's anyone's guess as to why some inclines are simply paved and others are stepped. And shadowing all these uneven, winding passageways are tall, bricked buildings with shops that open onto the street. High narrow windows marking the "apartimenti" on upper floors.

And I think we walk each narrow street and slipped through each low-ceilinged passageway beneath the old city wall looking for a shop that sold saints medals to add to my charm bracelet.

We'd assumed that they'd be "hanging off trees" here in Italy, but not one shop--not even the cathedral bookstore--carried medals.

Back in Florence, we finally found a shop that sold medals, as well as robes, chalices, altar cloths, etc. (I'd always wondered where those items came from. Communion cups don't seem like something you should be able to buy at Wal-Mart).

The nun behind the counter oohed over my charm bracelet, and then quite emphatically told me who I needed to add for maximum protection. No Francis deSales for me. Instead, I walked away with Michelangelo (the arch angel, not the sculptor) and Saints Bernadetta and Jude gracing my wrist.

The additional protection must have worked. We managed to get out of Europe just before airspace began closing because of the volcano.

09 April 2010

Buon giorno

Musings from Florence: Part 1

OK, so it's been months since I've blogged...my only excuse is I've been busy. But as I sit here in a light, airy hotel room in Florence with a view of asymmetrical tile roofs and the dome of the Duomo and snack on Skittles, I feel a blog coming on.

And that the page pulls up in Italian only makes it better.

The trip out of Chicago was uneventful, although we heard on our arrival into Philly that ours was one of the last planes to get out before the weather forced delays. It was 50 degrees with snow forecast when I left O'Hare. Hot with expected temperatures in the 90s in Philly, and perfect sunny, 70+ weather here in Tuscany.

As always happens with international travel (unless you're booked into a business hotel) you can't get into your room until about 2 p.m.

We arrived at our intended hotel about 10 a.m. and after confirming everything, left our luggage to explore Florence, have lunch in the strong, spring sunshine and eye the fine leather goods in numerous shop windows.

When we came back, we were told the hotel had overbooked and would we do them the favor of allowing them to put us up in a sister hotel for the night, then we could come back in the morning and have the best room in the house.

Now this bait-and-switch has happened to me before. Several years ago, I booked a beautiful hotel in Dublin for my mother and I, but we got the overbooked song-and-dance and was sent to a sister hotel a few blocks away. The sister hotel wasn't bad, but it wasn't nearly as nice. It also was over a pub, which might have been a plus if I'd been traveling with my college buddies, but Mom wasn't so thrilled.

I know this happens legitimately sometimes. And sometimes it's a scam.

My gut told me the incident in Florence was a scam.

So as the desk manager sat there all apologetic and giving us directions to the other hotel, Renee and I looked at each other, then him and said, "Cancel our reservation. We'll go someplace else."

And a room was suddenly available.

Too bad, so sad. Your loss.

We left, with the hotel manager begging us not to put anything about the rare overbooking mishap on the Internet. And that depends on how soon the reservation charge is reversed in full. ;-)

So I am writing this from the wonderful Hotel Orto de' Medici. It's beautiful, and once upon the time the garden was the workshop of Bertoldo, who taught Michelangelo all he knew.

Not sure if that is true or not, but I'm embracing it because today  after much coffee we're going to see the David, both the fake one in "Piazza of the Fake David" as the college students call it, and the real one.

Also, you should know, I lost my friend and her daughter yesterday when I stopped to study the doors of Ghiberti. (I do that a lot, by the way. Wander off when something catches my eye without thinking to tell whomever I'm traveling with. In elementary school the habit drove my teachers to distraction. Whenever they took the class to a museum, one of the high school chaperones was always assigned to me personally. And they still lost me. Typically, one of the museum staffers would find me in a restricted area, sitting in front of some obscure sculpture or painting. They loved my interest and questions. So...I'd then get a personal tour and in-depth lecture on whatever and when they returned me to the group an hour later, the teachers would threaten to leave me behind next time.)

I eventually found Renee and Liza again.

Michelangelo dubbed the doors "The Gate of Paradise." The photo doesn't do it justice. Ciao, ciao.