Monday, July 21, 2014

Tired? I should have been

She: "You should have the tires checked before we start on our trip."

Me: "They look fine. I'm sure they'll be OK."

Tires (2,000 miles later): "Let's blow this place."

Me: "Deleted."

I really did think the tires on the car looked fine -- until the orange light in the shape of a tire started glowing on the Prius dashboard.  Then, as we pulled into the hotel parking lot in Kennewick, WA, a man walked over and said "You might want to look at that tire."

I did.  And as I watch, it got flatter.
Tire-some shopping

The upshot is that a nice guy from AAA met us Sunday morning to change the tire -- partly because I found out the lug wrench in the trunk did not fit the nuts on the wheels.  Then we went shopping for black rings at a nearby Firestone dealer that was thankfully open. Many hundred dollars later (an a walk through the nearby mall while waiting), we were back on the road.

Cecile was very nice.  She didn't say "I told you so."  She didn't have to. Her look was very eloquent.

Hood ahead
But by afternoon, we had crossed into Oregon. The sun was out and so was Mt. Hood -- the majestic peak that sometimes peeks from the clouds around Portland.

The sentinel mountains in the Northwest never fail to impress me. The stand not clumped in ranges, but on their own like majestic beings.  I grew up seeing Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen on my horizons. Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier are often hidden in clouds, but anchor Oregon and Washington -- and Oregonians and Washingtonians.

For an Oregon expatriate, the sight of Hood over my hood meant I was on the path back to where attendants always pump your gas, not recycling is a mortal sin and Ducks don't just quack, they play football.  I'm feeling pretty Green.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Renewing the Idaho connection

How much friendship can you pack into an afternoon? Years. Years and years.

After spending the night in Missoula, MT, we called ahead to see if Nils and Mary Rosdahl would be home as we passed through Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
Nils and Mary

Nils and I worked together on the Coeur d'Alene Press back in the 1980s.  He was the lifestyle and business editor while I was the news editor -- and later managing editor. Nils left the Press to teach at North Idaho College long before I veered off to academia. He and Mary stayed in Coeur d'Alene when we headed off to Texas, Oregon and eventually Missouri.

But today, all the trips and the years out of touch disappeared and we lost ourselves in our many, many shared memories. Kids, grandkids, trips, pleasures and tribulations -- we went through them all. We also saw the hobby Nils took up in retirement.  He collects old type once used for printing and makes fabulous art with it.

Nils and Mary also took us on a tour of our old hometown. It's nearly doubled in population in the 26 years since we lived there.  More importantly, it has quadrupled in popularity among the tourists who flock there to enjoy the clean air and spectacular Coeur d'Alene Lake.

But behind all the new buildings, the Cd'A we remembered was still there. Including our old house on Foster Avenue. The house, like most everything in town, had been spruced up considerably to reflect the rising property values.  When I last stopped in Coeur d'Alene 14 years ago, our old house was for sale.  The flier offered it for exactly $100,000 more than we sold it for.

Our beautiful old house
The town has a spectacular new library complex and what was a big soccer field is now one of the nicest playgrounds I have ever seen. Nils made a typeface table for the library -- spelling out words related to reading across its top.

As we left town, Cecile looked out to where the city faded into the beautiful lake.  "We could move back here and drop right back in, couldn't we?"

Maybe in July. But Idaho is another place in February. I prefer to keep the good memories and conveniently forget the snow and ice.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

History writ big on a hillside

In 1966 I became a temporary Virginian when my father moved the family east for three months so he could attend a National Guard NCO school near Washington, D.C. On weekends, we would tour the myriad museums historical sites in the area -- especially Civil War battlefields.

My dad loved seeing the ground over which great military minds plotted strategy. One of my favorite memories is watching him standing in his khaki uniform, gazing from the Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg, where Union artillery snuffed out Pickett's Charge.

"The fool. The damned fool," he almost shouted, pointing to the large treeless field over which Maj. Gen. George Pickett marched a whole brigade of Confederates to their deaths. The Old Soldier could see the whole  battle before him and the absurdity of the charge.

Not me.  I could see a big field of grass and some old cannons with National Park Service signs. Battlefields look an awful lot like farms to me. Except for the one we visited today: Little Big Horn.

Better known as "Custer's Last Stand," this National Monument is where Sioux and Cheyenne arrows did to Lt. Col. George Custer what the Union canons did to Pickett.

Last Stand monument, from the Indian Warrior monumen
Custer was also on Dad's list as another "damned fool." Custer wouldn't wait for reinforcements, left his big guns in camp and told the supply train with ammunition to wait behind the hills.

The Montana battlefield itself makes it quite clear why the Old Soldier disliked Custer. To my knowledge, this is the only battlefield that marks the place where each soldier fell.

There is a big cluster of white markers on a small hill where Custer and a small band of soldiers made their famous last stand against a tidal wave of warriors. But the heart-rending story of futility is written in the dozens of other markers scattered across the scrubby hillsides.

When my son and I stopped here on a 2001 trip, the battlefield held Garrett in awe.  That's saying something: Garrett was 16. You go try to impress a 16-year-old guy (Hot cars and pretty girls excepted).

Scattered white stones mark where 7th Cavalry troopers fell retreating up the hillside

But the analytical mind that in time led Garrett to be a successful engineer clicked into action.  I saw in his eyes that same vision of the past that my dad glimpsed that day at Gettysburg.

Today it was Cecile's turn to be introduced to the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  The sagebrush was higher this time and the markers of the fallen harder to see.  Still, you could easily sense the desperation of the few hundred 7th Cavalry troopers pushed by an impatient Custer toward thousands of Indians. Indians he was trying to force onto a reservation. You can see where soldiers were picked off one by one as they retreated up a hill, or where four or five troopers were surrounded and slaughtered.

It's a stunning lesson that the land tells better than any movie or book.

The markers of the dead today look down from Last Stand hill
(Side note: I was surprised to find that the Sioux, like the whites, were interlopers at the Little Big Horn.  The battlefield is today on a Crow reservation and the Crow scouts fought with Custer.  A ranger explained that the Sioux was a big, aggressive tribe that had decided to push the Crow off of their hunting grounds. It's hard to find good guys in war.)

Friday, July 18, 2014

Those big guys on the mountain

I'm in awe of sculptors. How they can crack open a rock to release art is beyond my comprehension.  When I crack open a rock, it just cracks.

Michelangelo is no doubt the master, creating masterpieces so detailed and realistic they look as if they could walk off their pedestal.

But it is one thing to release David from a block of marble. It's quite another to release four humongous presidents from the side of a mountain.

The mountain and the presidents
We visited Mt. Rushmore today.  It was a return for me, bringing back good memories of the time Garrett, our whippet Saffron and I drove across country to start our new life in Missouri.

Garrett was in high school and, as is the requirement of all young men, not enthralled with his father's ideas.  But he agreed that Mt. Rushmore was worth the two-hour detour from our trip.

500mm - Photographic nosiness
Cecile was still working, so missed that edition of the Roadtrip. And she missed Mt. Rushmore.

Since Garrett and I were there, the National Park Service has expanded the parking and visitor areas. But the main attraction is still the four big guys on the hill.

Cecile was duly impressed, especially when she saw how high on the mountain the faces were.  From the pictures in books, the presidents might have been carved from a big rock bluff closer to ground level.  For my part, I got a bit carried away with a 500 mm lens and ended up looking up presidential nostrils.

It is beyond me how Gutzon Borglum looked at a mountain and saw Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln.  And then how he marshaled a crew of miners and loggers to blast bits of the mountain off with dynamite until they could see his vision.
Big George

Like the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Monument and the Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Rushmore is one of those icons of nationhood that every American should see at least once.

But you still can't expect me to look at a rock and see the next great piece. I'll leave that to the masters.

Yes, let's take a Rushmore selfie!
The gala entrance to the mountain overlook

The path to greatness is well-trod at Rushmore

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What's a road trip without waterfalls, buffalo and rattlesnakes?

The beauty of Florence overwhelms you like a bouquet from heaven just as its rich history soaks you to your soul. But even Michelangelo would have been impressed by the sights we enjoyed on the road today.

The sky was shockingly blue with a simple counterpoint of fluffy white clouds.  Below, the green grass rolled to the horizon.  This is the great American Prairie.

Our cross-country travels took us today from Sioux Falls on the eastern edge of South Dakota to Rapid City on the other side.  Between were sights, people and creatures that challenged my mind and soothed my soul.

Sioux Falls
After a quick breakfast at our Sioux Falls hotel, we headed out to see the cataracts that give the city its name. They are not tall, but are impressive.  The torrent has polished the bedrock in and around the falls to the smooth finish of sculpture. The ruins of a giant mill line a shore now swathed with well-groomed park lawn (upon which scamper cute little critters with a name longer than their bodies -- thirteen-lined ground squirrels).

We then went downtown to walk the Sioux Falls arts district.  Each May, the city picks artists whose sculptures grace the sidewalks for a year.  It's a spectacular way to give a city character.

Venus de Cello
The cornfields gave way to hayfields and eventually to rangeland as we headed west on I-90, listening to "The River of Doubt," the tale of Theodore Roosevelt's adventures in the Amazon. It was a nice contrast between Teddy's nearly-naked jungle Indians to the stately Lakota Sioux, whose museum we visited in Chamberlain.

The land grew wilder as we drove, especially when we turned off to the Badlands National Park. This moonscape of volcanic ash and fossil-laden rock was sculpted by wind and water. Beyond the landscape and the incredible population of wildlife at roadside, the park gave us another pleasant surprise.  We qualified for a National Park Service lifetime senior citizens pass. Damn.  I really am old. But give me the discounts anyway.

The park's rocky spires are unbelievable in any light.  But as the sun started to set and the shadows grew long, they were spectacular.

And the wildlife. Bison, big horn sheep, hundreds of prairie dogs, rabbits... and rattlesnakes.  We paid minimal attention to the warning signs until hearing an urgent rattle in the grass and watching a snake slither under the boardwalk trail. That's the "wild" part of life.
A big horn lamb, a rabbit, a 13-lined ground squirrel, a baby bison, a prairie dog and mamma bighorn

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

On the road again

Cecile is determined to make the most of her sabbatical, and I'm right there cheering her on. Or more accurately, traveling on.

Florence is now a fond, fond memory that has given way to an epic cross-country road trip.  We are on our way from Columbia, MO, to Portland, OR, to visit our daughter, our son-in-law and our genetically superior grandchildren. Today we finished the first 500 of our 2,000-mile road trip.

Happy Gillis makes happy diners
The road to Oregon is paved with food.  At least that is part of our strategy.  We have vowed to refrain from any chain eatery.  Smart phones make our goal a bit more obtainable.  We have a Diners, Drive-ins and Dives app, Yelp and the power of Google.

That first app is how we found Happy Gillis Cafe and Hangout in the Columbus Park area of Kansas City.  Columbus Park was once infamous as a haven for the Show-Me branch of the Mafia. The mob is gone, but the food only got better.

Happy Gillis is a former corner store turned artsy cafe.  Guy Fieri loved it with good reason. The sandwich menu was astonishing.  Cecile had a bacon and date melt while I had a pork comfit sandwich. Find that at McDonald's.

We rolled north on I-29.  A sign at Nebraska City caught our eye as a logical place to fulfill our other vow. You can't cross America just on a set of tires.  We promised each other to walk at least two miles each day of our trip.

We got a mile in earlier walking the quaint streets of Columbus Park.  But new we wanted to follow the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.

Explorers' selfie on the bluff
The Lewis and Clark Missouri River Visitors Center sits atop a bluff overlooking a stretch of the Missouri River that challenged the Corps of Discovery in 1802. There are similar centers along the route from St. Louis to Astoria. We started our admiration of the explorers in reverse order while we lived in Oregon. It's now nice to read their log entries when they were still pumped up with excitement. By Clatsop, they were tired and cranky.

Giant prairie dog
The upshot is that we knew most of the historical facts, but loved the wildlife displays. Can you imagine what it was like to first spot a buffalo? Or to catch the first cutthroat trout on record? My friend Jim Bird once said that the Lewis and Clark expedition was every bit as daring, every bit as great a scientific challenge and every bit as impossible as the first moon mission. And there are no grizzly bears on the moon.

Petrow's in Omaha
The center's river overlooks and trails gave us another two miles of wandering before we set off again -- in search of food.

All the DDandD spots in Omaha seem to close after lunch, but Yelp took us to Petrow's Restaurant.  It has fed countless Nebraskans since the early 50's, but proudly brags that "Over two billionaires served." Both Warren Buffet and Bill Gates have sampled the simple diner fare.  I'm not sure if there really is a third billionaire to warrant the "over." The fried pork tenderloin was good, but not great.  Great waited for the sour cream raisin pie.

And now we are in South Dakota's Sioux Falls for the night.  I was here for a conference once and was enjoyably surprised to find it beautiful art haven that also boasts a butterfly zoo.  Tomorrow morning we will drive down the the old downtown art's district, where sculptors are invited to place their works on street corners for a year of public admiration (and maybe a sale).

Then, like Lewis and Clark, we head west.  On to Mt. Rushmore and the hills where Custer learned what happens when you really tick off the Sioux.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

An alternate ending

The last few days of a trip are always a blur, as you try to see everything you might have missed, force all the souvenirs into the suitcases and gather last-minute memories.

Ours was all that, overlaid with a sad difference. After we flew from Florence to Paris to Cincinnati to  St. Louis, I left Cecile at the airport for another flight to Chicago and on to Sacramento so I could be with my brother at his wife's funeral.

Mark was once the blond; I was the brunette.  Now we share gray heads and lifetimes of memories.

Watching memories cut short by a death is hell. I can hug Mark, I can tell him I'm sorry and I can just be there in love.  But I can't really share the pain of losing someone who was is life for 35 years.

Ja'nice Bentley took her own life June 8 by driving to a beautiful mountain cabin and swallowing pain pills. She was depressed, as so many of us are at times. But I can't explain to Mark why on that day she chose to leave both the depression and all the stored-up good times. No one can.

The funeral was nice -- an oxymoron if there ever was one. A large, supportive crowd of neighbors, friends and coworkers from in and around Ione, CA, came to pay tribute to Ja'nice and share their love for my brother. Each family member was given a rose and we all placed them in a vase as a final present to her. The two preachers said words of comfort, we all exchanged hugs and then went back to the house for food and more shared memories.

That there were so many hearts opened to Mark took a burden from me. I know that he will survive, supported by the whole community of people I saw stand at his side.

And tomorrow I'll go home to the one who is always with me, and with whom I'll always be. And with a little rest, I'll refresh the good memories Cecile and I made in Florence and perhaps write a bit more about our Italian venture.

For what I learned so very well during this joyous month in ancient Italy and sad fews days in northern California is that there is no end. Good, bad and in between, life just is.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Final Flurry in Florence

Wrapping up a month of exquisite experiences is difficult in the best of circumstances.  But when you've basked in the Tuscan sun in Florence through June, the best you can do is dash from favorite place to favorite place to vainly hope you have taken it all in.

I visited with the faculty of the Florence University of the Arts (their journalism school) while Cecile took a lesson in gourmet Italian cooking. We took panoramic photos of our neighborhood streets and said farewell to Dafi Krief, wonderful landlady. One more walk to the Duomo and of course, several stops for gelato.

There was a spectacular sunset over the Ponte Vechio, then it was gone. It was back to our "real" life after what seemed only a moment of magic.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

I like bike

Bicycles, bicycles -- bikes in every flavor. Florentines love their bicycles - la bicicletta. For good reason. It is not only cheaper to peddle, but in some parts of the city, faster than driving a car.

The classic, utilitarian single-speed
I snapped photos of bicycles wherever I went in Florence. It was a delight, as something different was always rolling around the corner. Every imaginable variation on the standard two-wheeler was there. Some were as beautiful as a Ferrari, some were ready for the scrap yard and most were in between.

Like all bikes in Europe, they were equipped with lights and bells. That gave a somewhat musical touch to walking the narrow streets. Bicycles have the right-of-way, so you had to be ready to jump aside when you heard the "ching-ching" of a cyclist coming up from behind.

Some observations from snooping for spokes:

-- Most of the bikes I saw were single speed.  Many others used hub gears. But the terrain was flat with little need of low gears.

-- Neither age nor gender discourages Italians from cycling. It was not uncommon to see a grandmother on a bicycle (or a motor scooter, for that matter) and quite often you would see a mom with toddlers in both front and back child seat.
Flower vendor's trike

-- I could easily tell at a distance if the cyclist was an American.  We hunch over, leaning on the handlebars of the bike.  Italians ride upright with their hands lightly on the bars and the weight on the seat.

-- Electric-assist bikes were everywhere.  I was impressed by the variety of brands and the variety of people using them. I have a Chinese-made electric, but it is much noisier and less sleek than those I saw in Florence

Frisbee electric-assist

-- Florentines often park their bikes against the curb, using a pedal as the stand.

-- Bicycles are parked overnight at community racks. To deter theft, Florentine cyclists use chains that could shackle King Kong.

-- Almost all Florentine bicycles have at least one basket or similar carrier. This is not a city of Spandex-clad racers.  Bicycles here fill the niche of family cars and pickups in the U.S.

My full collection of bicycle photos from Florence is in a Flickr slideshow.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Bombs bursting and bursting and bursting in air

I think Florence may have spoiled my Fourth of July.

The Mayor's Parade
Tuesday was the big annual holiday in Florence -- the Feast of St. John the Baptist.  John is the patron saint of Florence and each June 24, the city toasts him. I watched the Renaissance parade, which was much the same as that I saw earlier for the Calcio Storico Fiorento - the "historic football" brawl.  The finals of the four-team match was supposed to be Tuesday, but the new mayor of Florence ruled that the game was more fist-fight than football, so cancelled it.
Got to get a selfie once in a while

The good mayor did, however, walk in a parade with and armful of candles, which he gave to the cardinal of Florence has mayors have for generations June 24.

But the big party was that night.  The city puts on a fireworks show to end all fireworks shows.

Fireworks next to San Mineato al Monte (right)
It is not enough that the show features one of the most beautiful settings imaginable.  The fireworks are lit at the Piazzale San Michelangelo next to the 11th century San Mineato al Monte Basilica. Most people watch along the banks or from the bridges of the River Arno.

Then there is the quality of the fireworks.  I've never seen so many colors, such unusual arrays nor the volume of fireworks blasting into the Florence air.

But the topper is the length of the show.  It went on for a good hour, during which perhaps a thousand or more rockets burst their red, green, gold, blue and even orange glare.

Taking photos of fireworks usually stumps me.  I got at least one passable shot with the camera.  But I have a lot more "mind photos" stored away in my organic hard drive.

There are monsters in the Arno

Thousands of people walk over the Ponte alle Grazie in Florence, never noticing the monsters below their feet.

Not long after we arrived, we were looking over the bridge and were astounded at what we saw in the murky water.  There were the expected large carp swimming through the weeds, but then this huge thing started undulating along the bottom like a massive snake.

Ponte alle Grazie
Actually, it looked like what I always imagined a sea serpent looked like. Very long -- six or eight feet.  Large head, smooth skin and a tail that came to a point rather than splayed like a normal fish.

In moments there were four or five of the beasts swimming beneath us.  It was too dark and I did not have a long lens with me, so I couldn't get a photo.

But Cecile and I watched in awe.

I've tried almost every day since then, but couldn't get a decent photo.  I would see snatches of the fish, but not like that first time.

I did look them up, however, and found they are truly what the Animal Planet show calls "river monsters."

The Arno is home to the Wels catfish, Silurus glandis. It's a native of Eastern Europe that is now in several Western Europe rivers.

Jeremy Wade of River Monsters
Big is an inadequate word for a freshwater fish of this size.  They will grow to 12 feet or more and have weighed in at nearly 400 pounds, though most caught this day are in the five-to-six foot range. They don't swim like a normal fish, either, but slither through the water like a snake.

They are not particularly friendly, either.  It takes a lot of protein to keep a critter that big healthy, so they gulp down copious amounts of fish, frogs and worms.  And also ducks, pigeons, mice and anything else that ventures near their cavernous mouth. Jermy Wade, host of River Monsters, nipped on the leg as he tried to release a Wels he had just caught.

I'll try at least one more time to get a photo of the mighty Wels, but I have little hope.  We were lucky to see them in even dim daylight, as they prefer to feed at night.

But I'm not stick a toe in the Arno, even at noon.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Days of discovery

Some of the most satisfying discoveries are those you make without trying.

We are down to our last week in Florence and have toured all of the key tourist magnets. Now what we do is wander the city and duck into interesting looking places. Along the way, you never know what you will find:
Antarctic map

Genoa's Christopher Columbus may have made it to the New World first, but Florence home-town boy Amerigo Vespucci got his name on the continents. Why? Florentines make maps.  Really great maps.

The map room in the Palazzo Vecchio is filled wall-to-wall with stunning maps. Less than 70 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, Florentine cartographers mapped the Gulf of Mexico so well Texans today can locate their spreads. But I was surprised to see maps of the arctic north of Greenland. Then I was floored by a set of maps not only showing the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America, but interior details of Antarctica.  It's one thing to sail past the icebergs, but quite another to plot the lines drainage from the interior glaciers.

The other Florentine that deserves homage is Leonardo da Vinci. But the public museums were pretty thin on Leo's work,  leaving the curious to two private "museums."

We avoided this until now because our previous experience with cheesy road-side private museums has been pretty disappointing. But our trip to Le macchine di Leonardo da Vinci was both fun and enlightening.

Masterpieces of exploration
Leonardo (di Vinci was his birthplace, not his name) was famous as a painter, but known in his day as a fabulous engineer.  This museum is packed with wooden models based on his staggering set of notebooks. Some of his notes were just reminders to pick up the laundry or shopping lists, but along the way he designed a tank, came up with an automated pipe drilling machine and made an exercise machine that would look right in most gyms.  Being a little boy at heart, I liked the fact that the museum let you play with the models. While I was on the exercise machine, Cecile read in the notecards that Leonardo didn't really pump sandbags.  He used the machine to test muscle response to different weights and leverages.

The other great discovery linked Columbia,  MO, to Michelangelo via Jackson Pollock.

Pollock sketch
A special exhibition at the Palazzo Vecchio displays some of American painter Jackson Pollock's early work. All were sketches based on the famous artwork of Michelangelo on the other masters. An interactive display let Pollock's sketches morph into the Sistine Chapel with eery accuracy.

But the surprise is that Pollock made the sketches at the insistence of his art teacher -- Missouri's own Thomas Hart Benton.  The exhibition literature said the Benton insisted that Pollock learn the details of Renaissance paintings to learn the fundamentals of composition and design.

Me and my bud Antonio
Last night at dinner I made an fun and calorie-free discovery at dinner.  It was the opening of a new restaurant on our block and the owner was excitedly pointing out his relatives and friends at tables.  One was Antonio Castiglia, one of the field captains for the San Giovanni Greens in that crazy Florence sport, Calcio Storico Fiorentino. Here was a graying guy not much younger than me but buff as an Olympian.  His tattoos alone would give an opponent pause.

I couldn't help going over and introducing myself as one who had watched the game. He was a bit confused until I showed him my green University of Oregon ring.  Then I was one of the family.  He gave me a worn keyring from his pocket and his daughter or maybe daughter-in-law translated that the would try to send me a T-shirt.

(When we got home, we found that the new mayor of Florence had
cancelled the final in the Calcio tournament because the teams were refusing to play by the rules. Castiglia's Greens took much of the blame when they lost their semi-final by default because a fouled-out player simply refused to leave the field.)

There are more discoveries every day -- a great gelato, "the" gift for relatives, a hidden view of the Duomo. But the best recurring discovery is of the grace, courtesy and gentle humor of the Florentines.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Interior design? Design on the interior

From the sidewalk, most older buildings in Florence are flat stone walls with small windows and dotted with ancient bits of iron. Doors are round-top portals of wood with big iron or bronze locks.

School sign on old printing stone
The open doors usually point to a "vault," which is a room as narrow as the doorway but that may go back 50-feet or more into the building. These almost always have arched stone ceilings. Small businesses occupy the front of these, using the rest for storage.

But occasionally you get surprises.  Many of these multi-story buildings have a central courtyard that is hidden from public view.  Sometimes these are gardens for the residents of the buildings, other times they are parking lots.

Vincenzo Burlizz
The other day, however, I wandered up a narrow lane near our apartment and peeked into a fabulous courtyard filled with antique wooden instruments and young people obviously absorbed in their work.   When I had time, I ventured through the portal and asked around until someone who spoke English could see me.
Horse stalls converted to cubicles
That someone was Vincenzo Burlizzi and the something was Il Bisonte Scuola International per  La Grafica  d'Arte, the Bison Foundation International School of Graphic Arts. This is a unique school that preserves the techniques of printing used by the Renaissance masters. Artist Maria Luigia Guaita adopted the bison image when she founded the school in 1959 as she believed the hairy beast was the first image etched by human kind.

Today it is a non-profit offering short courses and full degrees. And amazing sights.
Old press

Used litho stones and student bikes
Vincenzo gave me full access, so I wandered through the courtyard and alcoves with my camera.  The complex was once a stable. Some of the old hardwood horse stalls are still present and now used as cubical offices for the faculty. The names of the equine previous tenants are still on the walls in some cubicles.

Student at plate-cleaning station
The two most popular techniques in use the day I visited were stone lithography and copper etching.  Students were preparing the huge printing stones or drawing images on them.  In another corner, Vincenzo helped at student use an acid bath to etch his design on copper.

Very old press
The school has a combination of modern hand-turned presses and a beautiful set of centuries-old presses. Where new presses have chrome and composite parts,  the old presses stand out in hardwood and dark iron or bronze.  In both cases, students turn the big hand cranks to apply intense pressure to the inked plates.

This was what I really hoped for with this trip: An accidental discovery of a unique piece of Florentine life.  I like the museums, but I am ecstatic to see how the techniques of the masters are passed to young artists today.  In many ways, that was why I left the news industry to become a professor of journalism.  I hope I do as well as Vincenzo.

More photos.

Friday, June 20, 2014

A dome, a bar and an aria

We have but a week left in Florence, which leaves us caught between two flavors of tourism.  Do we rush to see more of the "big" sites or do we casually browse the back alleys and the Italian lifestyle.

The past few days have found us doing both.

The dome dominates the Florence skyline
No one can visit Florence without a trip to Il Duomo. Officially the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, it is the largest masonry dome ever built -- nearly twice the size of the U.S. Capitol. It looms over the Florence skyline and draws your eye from every vantage.

We put off touring the dome because of the long lines of tourists always waiting to get in.  But Thursday we got up early and found only short line before before 9 a.m. Tickets in hand, we entered a stone doorway that led 300 feet to the top.

It's breathtaking.  And the views are great. The 463-step climb up shoulder-wide stone stairs, though, was the the 15th-century equivalent to a stress EKG.

Down, but we went up
Dome art
Il Duomo was designed by Fillipo Brunelleschi in 1420 to cap the rectangular basilica that had awaited a top for nearly 200 years.
Brunelleschi was a goldsmith rather than an architect, but he was a true Renaissance man who believed -- with good reason -- that he could do anything. He stunned the backers of the project by saying he could build the world's biggest dome without propping up the pieces with wood beams during construction.  Good thing, too, because Italy didn't have trees that big.
View from the top of Il Duomo

He built mind-boggling cranes and used techniques that still amaze engineers.  National Geographic had a good recent article about Brunelleschi's Dome.

The interior dome is of course a canvas for spectacular art and the work of Renaissance masters fills every nook.

But the other masterpiece you have to see is a brisk walk away at the Accademia Museum.  Michelangelo's David is likely the most recognizable statue in the world.

Our "Uffizi friend" cards let us get in via a shorter line while the eager hordes waited along the street.  But any line would be worth seeing this once in your life. I know that I've seen hundreds of photos and drawings of David in my life, but none prepared me for the detailed beauty of the statue.

Michelangelo liked men both dead (as research cadavers) and alive (as romantic interests). He studied the male body in infinite detail. He gave David nuances of musculature, expression and pose that I know from personal experience are hard to capture with a camera.

The museum also houses his unfinished The Prisoners and Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine Women. One of the fun parts, however, is the reminder that the name Accademia meant that it was originally a school. In one room there are dozens of plaster casts of statues plus scores of plaster busts that were the capstone projects for students.

Our last check on the Florence Bucket List was the Boboli Gardens -- once the private rest-and-recreation preserve of the Medici family. We actually climbed through the hillside garden on our "casual" day Wednesday.  It was cool and sunny -- a change from the recent alternating oven or rain -- so we just walked out the door and discussed which corner to turn at next.
Boboli Gardens selfie

The formal gardens are pretty and the view wonderful.  But we were ready for something else so wandered to the backside of the Bobili. It's crossed with gravel lanes and punctuated by deteriorating ancient statues. There are plenty of nooks where you can rest and the rows of trees dampen the city noise.

From the rear exit of the Bobili, we wandered back streets.  And such wonderful backstreets.  We went through a neighborhood of artisans, filled with the shops of leatherworkers, book binders, graphic artists and jewelers. I don't think I've ever had such fun window shopping.
Just another day on Florence backstreets

When hunger overtook us, we stopped at the Bianchi Bar ("bar" means small cafe in Italian). Family restaurants here don't operate like McDonald's.  The waiter told us he had one baguette sandwich and a hamburger left in the kitchen. But if Cecile would take the sandwich, he would grill some ham on toast for me.  Good enough.  Especially with a Peroni beer.  Which became two Peroni beers as we sat, relaxed and watched the parade of both Italians and tourists go by.

Our other "stealth" adventure was to the opera Friday night.  Not to a huge opera house, but to the small St. Mark's Episcopal Church on a back street.  You don't get big protestant churches in Florence.

A company of singers has offered operas at the church for years, but you often only hear of them by word of mouth.  The venue is so small that it fills with ease.
Up close with Verdi

It was delightful.  We watched a somewhat-condensed version of Verdi's La Traviata. It was all done with four singers, two extras, a narrator and a pianist -- who were about 15-feet from us. The "playhouse" had domed ceiling, hanging brass lamps and wall plaques commemorating the Welsh, Coldstream and Scots Guards who fell during the Italian Campaign.

I'm not a great fan of opera, but loved this. I'd now like to see a full performance of La Traviata in comparison.