Have I written about the bells? That every hour on the hour, or maybe on the fifteen, or maybe the half signaled by a flat clap after the harmonious tolling for the hour (that was in Lucca, I think), I hear church bells in every city and every town I’ve visited in the now two months I’ve been journeying.
I love the bells. I love marking time by the bells. I was at the top of Milan’s Duomo in and in Siena, high above the city near its Duomo, when the bells rang to mark the hour. What a glorious sound…resonating deep inside, touching an ancient way of being.
Just as I fired up my dutiful little net book in my drab, dark and dreary room at KattiHouse, a B&B in Florence, (I confess that after the splendour of Frances’ Lodge in Siena, nothing might have compared thus learning the lesson “save the best accommodation ‘til last”) the bells sang the hour. It was 9:00 am on Friday morning. Cool, cloudy and showery. So I passed a bit of time getting a bit of this post written before I checked out the train schedule and station, and visited some last sights before heading “home” to Germany Saturday morning.
As I hear the bells, I’m reminded of something Joseph Campbell had said about the development of a culture: that you can tell what it values by the placement and size of its buildings. In ancient times, the church was valued and so was the largest and occupied the highest, most prominent site. Later government, and now finances and business take precedence in size and location, at least in much of the “developed world.” I wonder why it is that here in a land that has undergone the same cultural shifts, the bells still ring and they don’t at home, unless to mark a significant occasion.
I haven’t written since my arrival in Siena over a week ago, on my birthday. I did have a most glorious and much needed rest. And as I predicted, I never ventured far, preferring to take in Tuscany’s sun, scenery and beauty sitting poolside. I read, painted, and walked the grounds photographing the signature cypress and olive trees, Franca’s wisteria, camellias and other blossoms. I ate every dinner under the open gazebo, watching the spectacular sun set over Siena (though, after that first foray into simple Tuscan dining, I asked for “una piccola cena“of salad and pasta.)
On Monday morning I finally mobilized my resources and took a taxi into Siena, both to satisfy my own curiosity and that of my host, Franco, a Sienese most proud of his heritage and city. Again, a remarkable Duomo, and Il Campo, the piazza that hosts Siena’s famous horserace, Il Palio, twice every summer and other sites.
I’d planned to take a bus to San Gimignano later in the afternoon, but my ambivalence played out by not thoroughly checking the schedule and just missing the 1:10 bus. Another would come in two hours. Hmmmm…where would I like to pass that time? Among the ever growing throngs of people or poolside at Frances’ Lodge, where cuckoo birds kept time reminiscent of my own clock at home? Within minutes I’d cashed my ticket, jumped into a taxi and was back in my version of paradise.
Tuesday’s highlight was the surprise visit by none other than the rather famous among North American travelers, Rick Steves! I’d heard Franca say to someone “and this is the white room” as I sat on my terrace, and then Franco came by to excitedly tell me “Steves is here!!! I wasn’t supposed to know but I have my spies. Come, I introduce you.” And so with that I had my chance to introduce myself (Rick: “My mother’s from Edmonton and that’s probably why I’m told I don’t sound American.”), thank him for the invaluable help of his travel guides, showed how I’d downloaded in onto the Kindle (note to himself: “How do I autograph a Kindle?”), and compliment Franca and Franco and their villa (another note to himself: “places to convalesce”) and inform him of their wonderful “pic-nic” dinners. A group photo later, and thanks from Franco for my spontaneous commendation.
Wednesday morning I was packed and ready to head into Firenze, Florence. Franca recommended I take the bus as it’s faster than the train; I wouldn’t need to lug the suitcase up into the car; and would slowly see more of the Tuscan countryside. For seven euro I had a lovely drive, seeing in the distance, the very towers from that one Tuscan hill town I’d missed. I arrived to yet again another sunny day, though comfortably cooler, making the trek to from the bus-train station to my well-situated (though drab and dreary, I know I’ve said it once already) accommodation, and subsequent touring easy.
My experiences confirmed what travelers along the way had said: Firenze is an easy city to walk, rich in art (someone said it possesses a hefty percent of the world’s renaissance masterpieces), palazzos and churches, with little gems of interest, bars and gelato cafes dotting most every corner.
On Thursday I’d reserved to visit the famous Uffizi Gallery in the morning and the L’Accademie in the afternoon. As with seeing the Last Supper in Milan, I find it difficult to put into words my impressions of the vastness of these collections, of their magnitude in size and impact on the world, of the pure artistry and skill in rendering such visions so many hundreds of years ago. To have the privilege of standing before these works, many of which I’d seen in print, some with colour as intense as they day they were painted, was breath-taking and humbling. A memorable moment was gazing at Michelangelo’s David (the real one). Surrounded by at least one hundred young Italian students, I caught in peripheral vision, a young woman sketch with pen a remarkable likeness. Fully present in the moment, oblivious to those crowding around as she held her seat and drew, light shining from her eyes, a smile…a memory captured for us both.
I finished this leg of my Italian journey in the best way possible. Friday morning I’d noticed that a market of sorts was being assembled in the Piazza Santa Maria Novella. I’d walked over that way to visit a very famous, very old perfumeria.
Later in the afternoon, after lunch among the locals at the Mercanto Centrale(insalata Calabrese and Tuscan white beans and sausage)…
…I returned, knowing there would be places to sit and “people watch” as the sky cleared and the sun warmed the day. Much to my delight, little café tables were set among the caravan of antipasto, wine, cheese, and pastry wagons. I purchased a glass of vino rosso, poured into a glass etched with the SlowFood snail, and found a chair at an empty table. I was joined by a lovely woman from Vienna, visiting for the day, enroute to a week seminar in Siena. We soon found ourselves immersed in good conversation, about life, relationships, the gifts of solitary travel, the importance of beauty, and what one does “with her one wild and precious life” after retirement. After an hour or so, we toasted my birthday, and my husband for his steadfast commitment to give me the space to grow into my own, took each other’s photos, exchanged contact information, hugs and “buon viaggios.” I sense this might well be another one of those “everything is possible” meetings, and a woman I will see again.
Within a few minutes, I met G and C, two amicable fellows from London, here for a short weekend getaway. More wine, more good, substantial conversation, sun shining bright, easy laughter and camaraderie. Joy. “La dolce vita.”