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.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Shop till you drop or eat till you drop?

This is where folks come for clothing bargains
We celebrated our anniversary by taking look at the non-tourist side of Florence, then experiencing the culinary skill that tourists and natives alike cherish.

Advertise, advertise, advertise
Armed with our shopping bags and cameras, we jumped on a bus to Florence's central railway station, where we took the electric tram to Le Cascine park. Every Tuesday morning, the huge park becomes a huge market. This is not one of those cutesy souvenir emporiums, but the real market at which real Florentines shop. The normal fresh produce of a farmers market is there, but so is everything from hardware to pets to cheese to undies.  Clothing, in fact, dominates the market. Much of it is cheap every-day stuff, but here and there are racks that appeal to the fashion maven.

Checking the India (guinea) pigs
Cecile bought a very nice linen blouse and we got a "deal" on a big block of Sardinian sheep cheese and two equally big blocks of nut-filled nougat.  We really wanted just a thin slice of each, but language and appetite got in the way.

After we finished shopping, we realized that we could walk a short-cut along the river in the same time it would take us to hope the tram and bus. "Short-cut" in Florence is really an oxymoron. The distance between cathedral towers is either longer than you thought or mined with wonderful little side streets that you just have to check out.

The upshot is that it was a nice walk, but we returned home pooped. But we had time to rest up for our anniversary dinner out. Our reservations were for 8 p.m., but that was still early by Italian standards. The restaurants here go in high gear from about 9 p.m. to midnight.
After 42 years, we are at the garden gate 

Our landlady, Dafi, told us about a great restaurant within walking distance -- but on the condition we would not tell others of our find. So you don't know about Beppe Ristorante down the hill from Piazza Michelangelo

Oh, but if you did... Traditionally in Italy, you have three courses plus desert. The antipasto is what the British call "starters," and can range from salami and cheese to soup to the chef's latest creation. The primo is the course best loved in Italy -- the pasta, polenta, soup or rice. Then there is the secundo, or main course. A favorite here is Florentine steak -- a T-bone that looks like it comes from an elephant. But you can also choose seafood (frutos do mar) or culinary creations of veal, rabbit, beef or vegetables.  You can also get a vegetable course (contormo) if you don't care about leaving room for a sweet ending (dolce).

And this is at 10 or 11 at night.

We made it through the antipasto -- a 2-foot cutting board piled with cheeses, salami, proscuitto, and a large bowl of pâté. I could (should) have stopped there. But Cecile had a risotto while I had a rabbit pasta. And wine -- the size of bottle of which was as deceptive as a Florentine short-cut.

But no steak. I simply couldn't make it to a secundo. But dolce? Si! I had a ball of lemon gelato wrapped around a frozen ball of limoncello. A cannolli for Cecile. A very big and very rich cannolli.

And then, about 11 p.m., we waddled home. And at 2 a.m., I was looking at the ceiling wondering if my belly would go down before dawn.  I don't know how the Italians do it.

But ... I'm game to do it again.

Andrea sings while Florence shines for Cecile

Today is our anniversary, so last night I had Andrea Bocelli sing to Cecile from the moonlit banks of the Arno River in Florence.

Well, he didn't sing Puccini's Gianni Schicchi just for Cecile, but she didn't mind sharing with the several thousand people who gathered near the river to see the re-lighting of the famous Ponte Vecchio.

Sunset lighting, the old way
The Ponte Vecchio (the "old bridge") is the span that the Medici family used to get from their offices in the heart of Florence to their Pitti Palace across the river ("Oltrarno"). While a crossing has been there since Roman times, the present bridge has been there since 1345. It was the only bridge in Florence not blown up by the fleeing Germans in World War II.
Fireworks and new light bulbs for the Ponte Vecchio

And that's a very good thing, as we were left with a beautiful piece of history. Back in the 14th century, the roadways on bridges commonly shared space with shops and houses.  The Ponte Vecchio was lined with butcher shops so they easily cleaned up by dumping their trimmings in the river.

When the Medici began making the trek to their newly-acquired palace, the stink of a pre-refrigeration meat market just wouldn't do.  So they kicked out the butchers and installed goldsmiths and jewelers. They also took over the top floors to give themselves a private passageway home.

Still festooned with windows, roof and telltale jewelers, the bridge today is a major photo op and shopping magnet for tourists. When the sun sets over it, cameras and tripods sprout like mushrooms on the upstream Ponte alle Grazie. After dark, the bridge lighting was better than it was with 14th century torches. At least a little better.

The floating lady floats, the guy runs on a treadmill
This week is the 60th anniversary of the Florence Fashion Center, so the Italian fashion designer Stefano Ricci celebrated by funding a re-do of the bridge lighting system with "green" and bright LED lights.

There is some irony in having a blind tenor throw the switch for the lights, but it didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd nor our enjoyment of his singing in the cool Italian evening.

The build-up was a little strange, though. A French art troupe put on an "aquatic spectacle" that was as confusing as a French art movie. It was a parade in which the floats floated -- way out in the middle of the dark river where you couldn't really see them. I liked the waterborne old Fiat 500 and the 20-foot lady in white wig and elegance -- propelled by a man on a treadmill. Most of the others were either too vague in design or too far out of sight to appreciate them.
Amore mia, Cecile

The troupe, Illiotopie, seemed to have overlooked both perspective and timing.  Their worse faux pas was motoring/paddling the floats back upstream to the starting point past the entire curious crowd -- with all of their lights turned off. Why in the world they would want to sneak past several thousand people who didn't get a good look the first time, I'll never know.

But I can't complain. I spent an evening under the full moon on the river in historic Florence as Andrea Bocelli serenaded the girl of my dreams for the past 42 years.

Happy anniversary, my darling.

Monday, June 16, 2014

They call it football, but some things just doesn't translate

To the SEC gridiron jocks who think they are tough: You are a bunch of wimps compared to the church boys from Florence.
The parade and entertainment before the game

Sunday we watched a sport that puts WWF wrestling, arena football and demolition derby in the "fit for preschoolers" category. Calcio Storico Fiorentino. Each year in Florence, just before the June 24 St. John the Baptist holiday, the four neighborhoods with cathedrals get together for no-holds-barred "football" in the piazza of the Santa Croce basilica. Saturday, the Whites from Santo Spirito beat the Blues from Santa Croce. Tonight we had tickets in the Green section, rooting for San Giovanni Baptistery against the Reds of Santa Maria Novella.

Big, mean Green machine
The "sport" that dates back at least to the 1400s (or maybe to Roman times) is more a mini war than a game. But it is so engrained in Florentine culture that in 1530, they sent a "screw you" message to the attacking Holy Roman Empire and played the game instead of going to battle. Florence proudly continues both that sentiment and the game.

Enthusiastic Green fans
That ancient background lends itself to pageantry, something the Florentines are very good at. Period-dressed musketeers, crossbow archers, horsemen, nobles and others Galileo would know march into Piazza deal Signoria and then on to Piazza Santa Croce to the sound of massed drums and bugles. A highpoint for me was the company of flag bearers who toss their flags high into the air, then catch them with aplomb. They even toss them in wide arcs to each other -- and no one missed.
Simon said, in English

We watched San Giovanni (the Greens) lose to Santa Maria Novella (the Reds), who now will go to the finals against Santo Spirito (the Whites) who beat Santa Croce (the Blues) the night before. Simon, an English-speaking student sitting next to us, explained the rules. Which really can't be explained unless you are Florentine. Basically, no murder. If you kick someone in the head -- while they are down -- or rabbit punch from the back, you are expelled.

The basic strategy is to send out a line of big, tough, tattooed guys for the first 20 minutes and try to knock out the strongest competitors. Then the teams run the round ball while trying to not-quite kill each other. Put the ball in a stadium-wide net and you get a point. Go over and the other team gets half a point.

It's just a game. Or a brawl, or maybe a war
We got into the game fever and jumped up to shout "Picchia Verde, Picchia Verde Eh, Eh!" while shaking our fists at the Reds. It means something like "Go, Greens and beat the crap out of the other guys but don't let the refs see you and toss you out."Keith Greenwood, a fellow Mizzou prof here teaching arts journalism to a band of our students, was with us in the stands (and later for vino and good food). He is a photo journalism professor, so we got to talk shop (his camera is much cooler than mine, but I also had a 3-D camera in my bag.)

Keith Greenwood
You only had to look at the end of the game to see how seriously Florence's neighborhood tough guys treat the game. A Green player was ejected for kicking a Red guy while he was down. But instead of glumly shuffling to the sidelines, he refused to leave and played on. This caused a referee to suspend the game and give it to the Reds by default. And then, of course, another referee tackled the first referee.
We were in the stands

The Greens were upset for a few minutes, but then reverted back to the 1530 attitude. The all walked toward the Green fan section pumping their arms and saying something that needed no translation:

"Screw it."

(There was so much to see that I created a special Flickr album of photos of the game.)

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Touring Tuscany: Siena, San Gimignano and Pisa

How do you pack nearly 9,000 square miles of history and art into a single day? With a big bus and a couple of very animated guides.

Not me. But what I was afraid of.
Friday we signed on for a bus tour of Tuscany with Walkabout Tours, a small tour company that has carved a niche with very entertaining people and out-of-the-box ideas.  One of their other tours assigns people to tiny pre-1970s Fiat 500s. The guide drives in front and the tourists zip through Florence in line behind them, ala The Italian Job (with cuter cars).

We have been avoiding bus tours here and elsewhere for years.  We had a vision of a mobile geriatric ward of ornery old folk.  OK, so I'm an ornery old fart now -- but I didn't want to live the stereotype.

As it turned out, the tour drew people of all ages, from kids to a few older than us. Lots of 50-something couples. And an incredible on-bus guide, Elisa. (If we didn't like her, she said to write about her as "Christine."). Elisa was Florentine, but spent years in London with her Spanish husband (I got lost there, too). She managed to weave textbook history into a multi-cultural patter that kept smiles on every face. During the last few miles of the trip, she walked up the aisle to talk to each passenger about the trip.

The tour went from Florence to Siena, then to a winery and farm near San Gimignano for lunch, a pop over to San Gimignano and then on to Pisa.

Siena is often considered the most beautiful town in Italy. Especially by the Sienese -- and never by the Florentines. Florence was the capital of the wool trade and then went into high finance.  Sienna skipped the sheep and went straight to banking. Allegedly, they took their money-changing skills to London, where they asked passing Brits to come over to their banco -- workbench  or counter.

Olivia explains Sienna
That's one of the many stories told with eye-rolling gusto by Olivia, our Siena guide. I could be happy skipping the antiquities and just watching Olivia for the day. Her hands pumped more air than an aerobics instructor's.

Sienna's cathedral and inside its dome.
Siena won the major military battle of the medieval age, but lost the commercial war in the 19th century. Between those dates they put together a city that makes even major art museums look second class. The order of the Siena-Florence wars gets some credit. Siena had hundreds of years as the wealthy victor in which it could lavish its riches on the art world.  When it finally lost, there were no bombs or pillaging -- just deficits in those work benches.  That left the opportunity to recoup by inviting tourists and their euros into town.

The cathedral
Siena is picture perfect. Not just in the postcard way, but as if a team of designers who would later work for Architectural Digest had control of the town. Every bit of the artwork seems to fit exactly with every other bit. Stepping inside of the cathedral is like watching a great scene in a Francis Ford Coppola film.  All the lines converge perfectly and every color merely accents all the other colors. Look up inside the dome and you would swear you see hundreds of carved and gilded panels -- yet it is really a tasteful illusion,  painted with masterful 3-D perspective.

Onward! Better yet, onward to lunch.

We wound through the Tuscan hillsides to an organic farm/winery within sight of the San Gimignano towers.  The old town once had more than 70 tall towers -- a sign of wealth in medieval days.  Even with the 14 left, its skyline lives up the its nickname of "The Wall Street of Tuscany." We had a hillside view of that skyline as we ate fine pasta and cured meats and drank wine.  Lots of wine. A San Gimignano-local white, a chianti, and Tuscan red and finally sweet Vin Santo into which we dipped our cantuccini cookies.
San Gimignano.  Cecile has become a wiz at panoramic photos with her iPhone.  I just have to stand still and wait.
A very happy crowd boarded the bus for the short ride to San Gimignano.  Its tiny by tourist-town standards (pop. 7,000) and all contained within massive stone walls.  It's pretty, but I think all of those 7,000 people are in the shops and stalls along the medieval lanes, selling ceramics, leather, artwork and trinkets for every budget. We spent more time than usual inside those shops because a sudden thunderstorm dumped a deluge on all the folks with expensive cameras.

Finally, a longer trip to Pisa, with scenery unremarkable enough the we could take naps without guilt.

A little to the right.  No left...
Pisa is a gritty manufacturing and maritime city with white marble heart that is instantly recognizable in the western world.  It's tourist central.  Your bus parks on the outskirts and you board a German-made Tschu-Tschu "train" that carts you through the streets to the epicenter of leaning monument land.

I did it.  And yes, I'm proud...
Elisa reassured us that it was not only OK, but expected that we each take a "cheesy" photo of ourselves holding up the tower.  She even gave us photo hints. Once we got to the central piazza, there were hundreds of people on lawns and walks, holding their hands up, kicking a leg up karate-style or leaning into nothing.

I, of course, couldn't resist.  So here is my Pisa with extra cheese.

There are two major surprises about Pisa.  First, almost every building leans. The cathedral square is on squishy ground, so it looks a bit like Bacchus drew the blueprints.

Pisa cathedral for all artistic tastes
Second, pizzas taste good, but Pisa isn't big on good taste.  This has been a hustling commercial city for centuries (the Roman's called it the "old city.") It has the same new money feel of Dallas -- "I've got cash -- what can I put my name on."

Unlike in Siena, the cathedral in Pisa is a mishmash of millennial styles. The nave has a Byzantine back dome surrounded by Renaissance paintings overlooking a 21st century abstract altar piece.  And there is a saint in a glass coffin over to one side. Maybe it is the leaning, but it also seemed that none of the lines in the church matched up.

So I've seen Pisa.  'Nuff said.

We had a pleasant ride back to Florence, where we walked from the bus station to Piazza della Signoria for a light supper at an outdoor cafe near the Medici's sculpture garden. A street musician played classical guitar while the Palazzo Vecchio loomed over us and the nearly full moon rose.