Monday, September 27, 2010

Un fiume viola: a purple river

The crowd in Piazza della Signoria before the race

Un fiume viola...the headline in today's giornale (newspaper) describing yesterday's Corri la Vita. By all counts, it was an extraordinary event, and for me, even more so. I was happy to be included in the crowd of more than 20,500 people, mostly fiorentini (Florentines), united in an effort to raise money for the fight against breast cancer. More than 270,000 euros ($363,555) were raised. (Note: Each year, a different color of t-shirt is chosen for the event, and this year's color, purple, also the color of Florence's beloved soccer team, La Fiorentina, was especially popular.)

Crossing Ponte Vecchio

I was at the front of the walking group, and walked fast, so was able to finish the 5 km course (3.5 miles) in an hour, ahead of most others. I even had time to stop and view a few churches and palazzi along the route. Most people took a more leisurely pace, walking with friends and family, talking all the way. People of all ages participated, from infants in strollers to octogenarians. I was impressed to see so many children and teenagers running: overall, this was a very fit group of people!

Walking through the Boboli Gardens

It was one of those times where I realized how many things I would miss out on in life if I waited to have someone to do them with. In this particular case, I would have enjoyed it more if I'd had someone to share the experience with, but I'm glad I wasn't afraid to do it on my own.

Arriving at the finish line in Piazza della Signoria

I was very impressed with the exuberant participation of the fiorentini in this event. I've never experienced anything like it at home, except when people fill the streets after winning a basketball championship. But in that case, people aren't participating in the challenge, they are celebrating the victory. This event demonstrated wholehearted commitment and effort by the entire community, and it was exhilarating to be included in that number of purple-shirted participants.

After that, I decided to head to Fiesole, a small town in the hills above Firenze. On the way, I stopped in at the Museum of San Marco (free this weekend), where I was able to see frescoes painted by Fra Angelico in the 1400's. Here's a link to the museum site, with photos of what I saw:


They were easily visible on the walls of the monk's cells, as San Marco was once used as a Dominican convent. There were many paintings by Fra Bartolomeo and Ghirlandaio as well. Incredibile! There is also a room that showcases illuminated manuscripts and how they were created by the monks.

Then I took a 10 - minute ride on the No. 7 bus to Fiesole. Fiesole is usually a quiet town, but yesterday many tourists were there, so I didn't stay long. But before leaving, I was able to capture this view of Firenze. Then I headed home for a long nap, well-deserved after a tiring, but exhilarating day.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Stendahl Syndrome, or just crazy?

If ever I had a chance to experience Stendhal syndrome, this weekend should have provoked it.

From Wikipedia: "Stendhal syndrome, hyperkulturemia, or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place. The illness is named after the famous 19th century French author Stendhal, who described his experience with the phenomenon during his 1817 visit to Florence, Italy."

This weekend the state museums and gardens are free, so I made a schedule to see as many of them as possible: the Uffizi (famous paintings and a Caravaggio exhibit), the Palazzo Pitti and Palatina Galleria (famous paintings, more Caravaggio, and the rooms where the Medici lived), the il Giardino di Boboli (Boboli Gardens, the vast gardens of the Medici behind Palazzo Pitti.)

and the Porcelain Museum,

the Bargello (famous sculptures and other items),

and l'Accademia (where Michelangelo's David is). I'm hoping to see some more Sunday after the 5km walk across town, if possible. So far it's saved me about 50 euros.

As for the Caravaggio exhibit, though there were some Caravaggio paintings, most of the paintings were by cohorts of Caravaggio, called Caravaggeschi. One happy surprise was the inclusion at the Uffizi exhibit of seven paintings by Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the few women painters from that era, and a favorite of mine.

I also went to another annual festivity today. The Bacco Artigianato Carro Matto is the traditional post-harvest ceremony of blessing and offering of wine to Florence's gentry by Tuscan farmers. The officials from the town of Ruffina bring their wine to be blessed in Piazza della Signoria. It was another procession through town, in medieval costume, with a carriage containing @500 casks of Chianti wine.

The "Carro Matto" is a work of exceptional skill in construction. The pot-bellied glass containers, covered with straw, are stacked and interwoven with straw and natural ligaments to restrain one another. This ingenious system allowed the wagon to transport large quantities of wine from the countryside to the city. Pretty cool. I was able to buy one of the wine casks (1 liter) for 6 I need someone to share it with!

And at the end of the day, another rainbow (view from my bedroom window)!

Well, I didn't have time for fainting or hallucinations...but I came away with very tired legs and feet, and I still have the Corri la vita (5km walk) ahead of me tomorrow!

For more photos of the day, click here: Musei

Monday, September 20, 2010

Semplicità, bellezza e ricchezza

Simplicity, beauty, riches

I love my life here...there is so much to do and see, but underscoring everything is the beauty of simplicity. What I mean is this: I have brought few clothes; I have few dishes to use; the apartments is small, with little furniture; my chores are few, etc. The trappings and duties of my life here are simple.

morning sky from my bedroom window

On the other hand, la ricchezza surrounds me everywhere. I never tire of walking by the Duomo and being dwarfed by its majesty. At any time of day or night, it commands respect and awe.

The Duomo

Piazza della Signoria reminds me of the rich history and events that have influenced not only Italian life, but cultures around the world for millennia.

Palazzo Vecchio in Piazza della Signoria
And la bellezza! Beauty is everywhere: in the art, the landscape, the faces of young and old, and certainly, the fashion. I've become fascinated with the endless variations of shoes gaze is often focused on people's feet as I stroll the streets of Firenze.

Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza della Signoria, home to many famous scuptures

My life here suits me, as there is some new treasure to find every day. Last night I went to a concert in the famous church, Orsanmichele, just down the street from my apartment. The atmosphere and attire was casual, but the music (pieces by Haydn and Mozart, featuring a reknowned cellist) was superb. Today or tomorrow I will cross the Arno river to visit Santo Spirito, where a crucifix by Michelangelo was recently returned to the altar in this church, and a week-long schedule of events has been planned in celebration. Even in these events, there is simplicity: no fancy tickets or attire are needed: it's the music, the art and the setting that commands and deserves our attention. Indeed, music, art, beauty are embedded in every facet of life here: it's no big deal. It simply IS. And I feel no loneliness in attending these events, as I often do at home. I am not singled out as a woman alone: instead, I am one of a community who enjoys being inspired.

I do not even mind the crowds here, for I know we are all here to witness something extraordinary, and the emotions that are evident on everyone's faces merely reflect what I feel in my heart at being here: JOY! EXCITEMENT! AWE!

Si, this life suits me. I can already see that three months will be insufficient: how about three years...or three decades?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Magic in Lucca

Along the bike path atop the city wall in Lucca.

Lucca is one of my favorite small towns in Italy, and I've stayed there several times, once for a stretch of ten days. I always stay at Ostello San Frediano, an expansive, beautiful hostel. I usually stay in a dormitory room with other women, but this time I had a private room, and it was just like staying in a hotel. In previous incarnations, the building served as a monastery and a school, and there are marble floors throughout the vast building.

Many tourists come through Lucca for the afternoon, but do not stay overnight, so it's a very different experience to be there at night and in the early morning hours, when the city streets are empty.

A view of the back of the hostel, beneath storm clouds.

One of the main features of Lucca is the mura, or medieval wall that surrounds the city, which also serves as a 2-mile bike/run/walk path that is constantly in use by both the cittadini (citizens) and the tourists who frequent Lucca.

A view of the wall, outlined by trees.

A view of the wall/path from my room at the hostel.

When I was in Lucca two years ago, I happened upon the annual Volto Santo, a religious procession that proceeds from Chiesa San Frediano (a church near the hostel) to Cattedrale di San Martino, the Duomo across town. Along the processional route, the streets are lined with luminaria, candles in glass vases, which outline every building along the way. It was such a magical experience that I wanted to see it again this year.

Luminaria in Lucca

In the afternoon, a storm blew through town, bringing a drizzling rain, and I wondered how the evening would turn out. At one point, half of the sky was dark with rain clouds while the other half was bright with sunshine, which provided the perfect ingredients for an arcobaleno doppio (double rainbow) to appear. It must have lasted for nearly an hour, giving me plenty of time to take photos and videos of the incredible vision it created.

The photos simply don't do justice to the vision I saw: the colors were quite vivid and distinct.

I needn't have worried about the storm: rain or shine, the festival goes on, as many Lucchesi (people from Lucca) who have moved to other parts of the world return to celebrate this special event together.

Chiesa San Frediano lit up with luminaria.

I had watched the procession from beginning to end two years ago, and since it was still drizzling, I decided to walk across town to the final destination, the Duomo, and wait inside. The procession is a two hour affair, so it was a long wait, culminating in a 15-minute moving performance by the church choir. By this time it was about 11 pm, and I headed back to the hostel, only to be reminded by the loud noise of exploding shells that fireworks were still to be seen. Fortunately, I had a perfect view from my hostel room of the 30-minute display, one of the best I've ever seen.

With perfect weather the next day, I enjoyed tooling around Lucca for several hours on a rented bike, climbed the Torre Guinigi, and then walked along the bike path.

Torre Guinigi

I visited the Orto Botanico, a quiet garden that many people pass by. I came across a huge city market in an area outside the wall, with a wide variety of items for sale, including food, clothing, birds, plants, even rugs. I discovered Buccellato di Lucca, a sweet bread, flavored with anise seed and raisins, made during the festival season, and quickly became addicted to it.

Anyone need a bird?

The Lucchesi love their candy! There are stalls like this all over town, which feature a kind of peanut brittle, also made with sesame seeds, almonds or hazelnuts.

My stay in Lucca was all too short, but I know I will return again and again to this lovely Tuscan town.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Bellezza e Bruschetta

Bellezza (beauty) in Piazza Duomo

I had a mission today: to make bruschetta for the first time, and pesto. I've made pesto many times at home, but as I only have knives on hand in the apartment to slice and dice (no food processor), it was a challenge. Bruschetta is bascially grilled bread, often topped with chopped tomatoes, spices and olive oil. Pesto is a blend of basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and parmesan cheese, also used as a topping, or as a sauce on pasta.


First, I needed the right ingredients. I had basilico from the plant on my terrace, pomidori (tomatoes) and aglio (garlic) from the market, as well as olio d'oliva (olive oil) and Parmigiano Reggiano (parmesan cheese). I still needed pane (bread), spezie (spices) and pinoli (pine nuts). I went to the Mercato Centrale early to see what I could find. Shopping in Firenze is often like a scavenger hunt, and I enjoy the process of exploring the city to figure out where things can be found.

As a rule, I don't much care for Mercato Centrale, as many of the merchants are not Italian and the prices are often steep, plying to the tourist trade that frequents that part of town. The only thing I bought was some ground pepper, for 2 euros. The woman who sold it to me encouraged me to try a tiny bottle of salt flavored with truffles....for 9 euros. No thanks! (The non-Italian merchants often try to push the sale of other items in their stalls, something I really don't enjoy.)

On the way, I came across a special exhibit of ornamental plants in Piazza del Duomo. Many merchants had colorful of their plants on display. I lingered awhile to capture the beauty.

I was unlucky in finding pine nuts at the market, but when I ventured into a casalinghe store (things for the home), in addition to pots and pans, I discovered bins of dried beans and jars of nuts. I asked for half of an etto (about 2 ounces) of pinoli, for 2,90 euros, and the merchant was content to sell me that and no more. Grazie mille!

Still in a walking mood, I made my way across town to my favorite market, Sant'Ambrogio, where I prefer to shop. I found the bread I needed and returned home per fare pranzo (to make lunch).

Slicing il prosciutto (ham) while I wait to buy bread.

I grilled the bread in the toaster oven, then slathered it with the tomato concoction I'd made. I had a few tomatoes left over to eat with the pesto. L'ho fatto! (I made it): bruschetta e pesto! The perfect pranzo for a Saturday afternoon in Firenze. Buon appetito!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Casa mia

It's still a new feeling to come "home" to my apartment in Firenze. After three days of traveling to Bologna and Lucca, it was nice to have a place of my own to return to. As is often the case, even the elevator seemed to welcome was standing ready, with its doors open, to escort me upstairs.

I started a work project as soon as I returned, which will occupy my attention for several weeks, but it's a thrill to be working here almost as easily as I am able to work in the States. I have created a comfy workspace for my computer near the door to the terrazza, with a view to the open sky. I have my mornings free to go to market and enjoy the city streets before the crowds arrive, then work in the afternoons when it's best to avoid them. I have a lovely view as I work, and the sound of church bells throughout the day reminds me that I'm in Italy.

my work space

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


On Sunday, I caught an early train to Bologna, to spend the day with Massimo, Sofia, their daughter Erika and Milly, their energetic puppy. I met Massimo earlier this year through the language exchange site, but this was our first chance to meet in person. He's been a great help in teaching me the "Italian" way of saying things.

Massimo knew that I was interested in the 4 km sentiero (path) that starts in the city center and climbs a hill up to Il Santuario della Madonna di San Luca (The Sanctuary of the Madonna of Saint Luke.) The path is often used as a pilgrimage route, and the panoramic view from San Luca is magnificent. Bologna is a town of many porticos, and the page to San Luca is composed of 666 porticos. We had used the story of San Luca as one of our language exchange exercises.

San Luca

Walking down through the many porticos.

Massimo shared this story with me:

"This Madonna is linked to a famous event: in 1433 the spring was extremely rainy and threatened to cause a severe famine. The icon of the Madonna was taken to the city to plead for an end to the rains, and as soon as the icon entered the city, the rains ceased. There was a great festival of thanksgiving, which included carrying the picture of the Madonna around the city for three days, then taking it back to the Sanctuary. From that day, each year the icon comes down for three days to Bologna: this custom represents a great religious time for the city. The interesting thing is that each year during this time, it invariably rains!"

The view from San Luca

After our climb, and descent back to the city, we returned to their home for pranzo (lunch). I had once mentioned to Massimo that one of the most delicious meals I've ever eaten was in Bologna several years ago, when I had Tortelloni di zucca (Tortelloni stuffed with pumpkin). In honor of my visit, Sofia had prepared Tortelli di zucca! Nuts are often used in the stuffing, and Sofia had used some biscotti made with almonds, which added an exquisite flavor to the tortelli.

Quick lesson: Tortelloni are large squares of pasta stuffed with various ingredients. Tortelli are smaller squares of pasta, used in a similar fashion. Tortellini are ring-shaped pasta, which in Italy are ALWAYS stuffed with meat.

Sofia had prepared an elaborate feast and had set the table with great care. First we ate verdure fritte (deep-fried vegetables), tortelli di zucca, tacchino ripieno con spinaci (turkey stuffed with spinach), and pomodori con pangrattato (tomatoes with bread crumbs). The crowning touch to the meal: an elaborate torta (cake) made with layers of chocolate and vanilla cream filling, topped with tiny cigne (swans) that Sofia had created. (She worked for some years in a pasticceria (pastry shop) and still enjoys being creative with dolci (desserts). I know she spent many hours preparing these dishes, including a search for the right type of pumpkin for the tortelli di zucca, and I felt honored that she went to such trouble.

Sofia's torta

Does anyone still wonder why I love Italians? I always feel humbled by the thoughtfulness, openness and generosity that they bestow on me during my visits.

After our feast, another passeggiata (stroll) was called for. This time we walked from their flat to the city center and climbed la Torre Asinelli, a leaning tower that is higher than the tower of Pisa or the campaniles in both Venice and Florence. We climbed 498 wooden steps to the top, where we had an incredible view in every direction of many Italian provinces. Sometimes it is even possible to see the Alps in the distance, but not that day.

There are two famous towers in Bologna. We climbed the taller one (the Asinelli Tower, 97 m, which is shown leaning behind the the Garisenda Tower, 48 m).

A view from the tower, with San Luca in the center of the far background, on the hill.

Another place we visited was the Sette Chiese (seven churches) of Piazza Santo Stefano, an interesting complex of ancient churches that interconnect with each other. By this time, Erika was eager for gelato, so we walked to their favorite gelateria, where only the freshest ingredients are used daily (80% fresh fruit). I tried fico (fig)....meravigliosa! (wonderful)

It was nearing the time for my departure, so we headed to the train station, where they waited with me for 30 minutes until my train arrived. I had a wonderful time in Bologna, grazie a Massimo and his family, and I hope they can visit me in Firenze so I can play tour guide for them in return. Sadly, I won't be able to create a feast that will compare with the one Sofia made for us today.

Massimo, Erika, Sofia

Bravissima, Sofia per la meravigliosa cena! Grazie a Massimo e tutti per la vostra gentilezza!

Friday, September 10, 2010

La vita quotidiana a Firenze

Daily life in Florence

It's another beautiful day in Firenze and I've settled into a quiet daily routine. In the mornings, I sit in the sun in my soggiorno (living room), and write while I drink un caffè. About 10 am, I usually venture out to walk for an hour, often stopping to shop on the way home. I hang out at home most of the day, then go out for another 1-2 hour walk in the late afternoon or evening. There's always something going on in the evenings, and it's fun to be part of the vibrant city life. I usually chat with one or two friends on Skype each day, but so far have only had a few chances to meet with friends in person.

Yesterday I ended up at Piazza D'Azeglio, one of my favorite parks in Florence, just a 10-minute walk from my appartamento. Tall trees fill the park, and many locals come here to walk, chat, run, read or just hang out. In 2006 I walked through this park twice a day on my way to and from the school where I was taking an immersion course in Italian for several weeks. I stayed with an Italian signora on Viale Gramsci, and had a good 30-minute walk from the flat to the school. I was always happy to return to this park at the end of the day. Piazza D'Azeglio is one of my favorite spots to go in Firenze when I need to be in nature, or to feel grounded.

Piazza D'Azeglio, novembre 2006

In the park, there's a playground, as well as a large enclosed carousel for little ones.

I've resumed a full schedule of meeting with my Italian friends on Skype, talking with many of them for an hour at a time each week. They include Marco (Modena), Massimo (Bologna), Lucia (Trento), Domenico (Grottammare), Enzo (Salerno), Claudio (Rome) and Alberto (Genova). I have other Italian friends that I correspond with frequently by email. I've known most of them for 2-4 years, and will see many of them while I'm here. In the past, I've visited many of them in their homes. I met all of them through a language exchange site, appropriately called

On Saturday, a friend from my home town, Lawrence, will be in Firenze for the day. We had arranged to travel together to Lucca and le Cinque Terre next week, but she changed her plans, so I'll be going to Lucca on my own. I'd been looking forward to seeing le Cinque Terre again, but prefer to wait until I have someone to share it with. I was there in 2006, on my first trip to Italy.

On Sunday, I'll be spending the day in Bologna with Massimo and his family. I'm eager to fare un giro (take a tour) with a native Bolognese. Then on Monday, I'm headed to Lucca for another festa, one I happened upon two years ago and want to see again. I'll spend two days there at a delightful hostel I've stayed in several times in the past. Once I return to Firenze, I'll have several weeks of work to do, so I'm glad to have the chance for an adventure first. I'll have a lot to write about when I return!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

La mia città

Palazzo Vecchio (left) Duomo (right)

Duomo (left) Santa Croce (right)

Here are a few photos I took yesterday from Piazzale Michelangelo, where there are panoramic vistas of Florence. It seems that many tourist buses stop there, and that will be the only experience many people will have of Florence, to see it from a distance. But what a view!

to the east of the city

Update: The technico arrived yesterday and fixed la caldaia (hot water heater) only took ten minutes! But it still takes several minutes for the water in the bathroom to warm up. I've been heating water on the stove to wash dishes, and kind of enjoyed that habit. Utilities are expensive here, so it's best to learn how to conserve energy in any way possible. I'm thankful I have many windows that can soak up the sun: when it's cool outside, I can heat the place with the sun and it lasts a long time, because of the thick walls of the building. We'll see how that works in November....

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Festa della Rificolona

Well, I just had too much fun tonight. I had heard about an annual event, la Festa della Rificolona, that occurs every September 7 in Firenze, so I decided to check it out. What was once a religious procession from Piazza Santa Croce to Santissima Annunziata is now a lively parade of families with children carrying many colorful lanterns around the centro storico (historical center) of Firenze.

In the past, the event was to celebrate the birth of Mary on the eve of September 8: people came to Florence from neighboring towns, carrying lanterns to light their way in the night.

I joined the group, led by a band playing American Jazz (they started off with "When the Saints Go Marching In"), going from Santa Croce to Piazza della Signoria. We boogied our way across town for the next hour.

Sound Street Band in Piazza Santa Croce, with due bambine (two little girls) getting into the spirit.

Piazza della Signoria, , where more people joined us, along with the Florentine gonfalone (a banner with a red fleur de lis), carried by men in red tights. Note the paper lanterns carried on poles.

When we arrived at Piazza Duomo, even more people and another band joined the group.

Piazza Duomo

Via dei Servi

Piazza della Santissima Annunziata

At Santissima Annunziata, the piazza was already filled with people, who were being entertained by yet another band. By this time it was after 10pm, but the crowd was still going strong. I felt privileged to have been part of the procession: a very unique Florentine experience for my first week here. And tomorrow night, there will be a parade of lanterns on il fiume Arno (the Arno river) which will start from the Arno Rowing Club, near the Ponte Vecchio. I hope to see that, too!

For more photos and some rockin' videos, click here: