14 May 2011

the 18 hour trip north REVISED

May 13/14, 2011... the voyage north

Friday the 13th... after school I marched to Piazza Argentina and waited until 2 sharp for the Agenzi Viaggi (travel agent) to open and sell me train tickets to Firenze, and on Saturday Firenze to Orvieto to Rome, which they did. They also made a reservation for me at Hotel degli Orafi, which has become my/our favorite splurge in Firenze. It’s 4 four stars but feels like 10. Located literally at the foot of Ponte Vecchio... The Medici corridoio traverses the front of the building.

The corridorio was constructed by the Medici bankers back when the ufizzi (offices) actually WERE their offices, so they could walk back and forth unobserved and unmolested between the Pitti Palace on the other side of the river, and their uffizi, now The Ufizzi, the world famous art gallery. Once in a long while the corridoio can be entered and walked, but I’m informed the art inside is second rate... but just to be there and peer out the windows at the commoners below... would be something to do, I think.

Of course, having booked one day in advance, and wanting only a single bed/single room, I had room 204 with a view of the ventilator shaft. But still, it was the Orafi: all-marble bathroom, the best in shampoos and towels, just a very elegant, understated feeling. Actual, readable, books discretely placed on bookshelves...

I washed and walked 15 minutes to the piazza in front of the incredible Santa Croce (Dante is there, on a pedestal, but at the moment he’s under 360 degree wraps while some parts of him apparently are restored). Jane Corey walked into the square, looking like the highly lovely and confident solo traveler she is (“This wrinkled thing is the best dress I have... and the wrinkles are supposed to be there...”). We sat at an outdoor table at Ristorante Finisterrae on the square, squinting at the setting sun, catching up. Drank prosecco and ate bruschetta and a couple of the oranges and grapefruits that have been available for free in a pile ever since I first spotted this place in 2007.

Off to the incredibly fun and eccentric Teatro del Sale, not far from Santa Croce, on Via dei Macci.

I could write pages on this place, but to cover the main points – it’s run by and was invented by the chef Giuditta Pichi, who has one of the best restaurants in Firenze, on the same street: Cibreo. The Teatro feels like his living room, with enough space to invite a hundred people in for dinner and a show. You don’t just walk in, however. You have to be a member, and read the rules, which are all about honoring and respecting, and when you’ve joined (or they’ve found you in their computer from a previous visit) you then pay the 35E for dinner and the show, and you’re in.

They found me in the computer – this was a lot more fun and a lot more hectic than it might sound – and translated what they found as Anton Maksitov (close, I guess), written in silver ink on my burgundy-colored club card, good from last July 2010, to this July, 2011. I guess I better return soon.

Let’s run off a few things so you’ll get the feeling... Long line outside to get to the club window, where newbies receive a sheet of rules to read – handed out with all seriousness, no smiling – and then a return to the window with the filled out form and 5E. Then another long line entering the Teatro where at the front they take your evening’s payment.

In the first room, all wood, Giuditta is standing around, looking silvery and grandfatherly; there are rolled up T shirts for sale, plus: Teatro Aprons with double rows of buttons down the front; foodstuffs such as sauces, spices; the newsletter (5E to buy, free on the Internet, all proceeds to an Italian volunteer group bringing water to villages in Africa)... then the entry into the club. Small tables, folding chairs, a few couches, some theater-style seats... a roaring large kitchen to the right with something roasting that looks like (and turned out to be) lamb, pork and chicken turning on spits; a bakery in action... a table of help yourself hors d’oeuvres that this time included two sauces made of probably chick peas and something else, stewed beet greens with red chunks of beets, potatoes, lentils, rice, etc.

During the two hours of dinner new dishes came steaming out of the kitchen, each announced in an indecipherably shouted spiel from a cook leaning out the kitchen window into the room of diners. Sometimes you crowd at the kitchen window to get a plate of deep fried vegetables, or one delicious veal meatball in a sauce, or freshly baked bread sticks, and so forth... or half a large sardine deliciously cooked in fragrant oil, moist and bony. I got so full so fast I had to pass on several courses. At the end, a table full of whipped cream and crunchy biscuits and a flour-free chocolate torte and coffee...

Our table turned out to have, left to right, two women from Boston who were on a 10-day visit to Italy they won in a fund-raising auction (“I paid too much, but once I started bidding I wasn’t going to lose... We have to come back some time and pay regular prices...”) a mother and daughter from Holland, a couple from San Francisco who truly relished and analyzed each course – very good eaters; Jane, and myself. There was as much table wine and as much water, carbonated and not, as you wanted all night.

On the table, this sign:

.... Grazie

... which translates, very roughly, to please return dirty dishes to the kitchen...

OK... we’re stuffed, we’ve all met each other and wondered about the place... now two of the hosts stand in front and announce the evening’s entertainment as the tables are cleared and removed, the chairs lined up theater style, facing the elevated stage which holds one red velvet chair and two microphones. We are urged not to stand and walk during the 50 minute concert because “the floor squeaks, and we are recording tonight.” The flamenco guitarist was Juan Lorenzo. He played fast and well, but had an annoying habit of presenting never ending cascades of notes and rhythm – well played and sometimes exciting, but all variations and no theme, if you know what I mean. His nylon strings, not entirely in tune at the beginning, kept sliding south but he never stopped to tune except for a passing twist on the low E... I don’t imagine the audience cared, but it bothered me. His CD was for sale in the lobby – recorded earlier, of course.

After the Teatro disgorged us Jane and I took advantage of the cool night air to walk down to the Arno, talking all the way, and since we were so close, to my hotel and the rooftop bar (open to midnight; view of Duomo in one direction, river in the other) for a thrilling nightcap of a big bottle of water and some delicious free sweet pastry pieces... I sent Jane off into the night with abundant hugs – are we going to have stories to tell – and got to bed about 1 am, after checking out the 600 channels on the TV (TV – what an idea – hadn’t seen one since leaving California).

Saturday morning I enjoyed the lavish breakfast in the lavish breakfast room, then checked out and walked slowly back to the Teatro area to find my “family” before they left at 11 a.m. for a visit to Fabio’s mother, who lives in the center of  Chiusi (formerly the Etruscan capital, all those many eons ago). On the front door of Borgho Allegri 38 Fabio had left a handwritten note and map... he has a new workshop (laboratorio) two blocks away (due, quattro passi) where he works with an older Maestro making, repairing and refinishing furniture. Both were wearing gloves and smelling of fresh varnish. We shook hands by touching elbows.

It was fantastically fun to see Fabio again, ask about his wife and daughter (now as tall as him, plays clarinet in the school band which at this moment is visiting the band in Spain that had visited them here in Firenze). Before I figured out which hole in the wall was Fabio’s shop I noticed tiny, energetic Miu scampering in the street nearby. I knew then I was close. Miu, you haven’t changed a bit, and your humiliating doggy name still sounds like “meow” in English.

Fabio said in a dozen different ways that I was always welcome to look him up, that we are “family” in reality, that he would like to keep in touch and perhaps cook for Joselyn and I, and so forth. All real, all heartfelt, all just the best thing to experience on a sunny, fresh, Firenze morning.

I walked across town, paying respects to the Duomo along the way (newly auto-free streets make the neighborhood much more pleasant) and made my pilgrimage to the herbs and lotions store affiliated with the Sisters of Santa Maria Novella, officially Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella SRL. Hadn’t been there for three years, but I knew exactly which lovely room to enter, what to ask for (thanks to Joselyn for emailing me the words on the label) and I think I was served by the very same grand lady who was behind the counter several years ago. She knew exactly what I wanted – rose and geranium lotion for dry skin – with milk – all white– bianco – and went and got it. I then asked her for a second one, explaining I probably couldn’t get back for another three years, at least, and it had to last. Also picked up some sweet almond oil for the J (olio di mandorle dolci)... no more carry-on for me, however.

I stuffed it all in my backpack, and killed some time reading the Herald Tribune and sipping a caffe latte on the S. Maria Novella square; then caught the train to Orvieto.

Homecoming... I hadn’t been there since the 1960s and the amazing horizontally striped Cathedral hasn’t changed a bit. Walking slowly through town I stopped for a two-flavor gelato (casatta and ciocolatto) at La Musa, Gelateria artigianale, and soon realized photos were out of the question as long as chocolate ice cream was flowing over hands and fingers. At the amazing edifice itself spent 3E to get inside, for a long, leisurely look at the excellent mosaics and frescoes inside. Joined an Italian tour group with priests and nuns, following along as the guide described the major fresco panels – I didn’t need a guide to tell me those ecstatic humans being pulled out of the ground by Gabriel’s trumpets were different from the other humans over there, beaten down en masse by devils, and angels with lousy assignments... Usually this kind of hyperventilating garishly illustrated Bible stories well, both offends and bores me, but in this time and place I was captivated by the energy and skill of the work. Over the altar is a smallish piece by Fra Angelico, all the rest finished 50 years later by another hired painter, this time from Siena.

On the short train trip back to Stazione Termini in Rome, the woman facing me in our compartment carried on unending conversations on two mobile phones. She was called and made calls constantly, no respite. Seem,ed to be enjoying herself, too. Very entertaining for her, and for me, watching.

I am pleased with myself at such an eventful 18 hours, finally writing this at about 11 pm Saturday evening. I wish all days could be this interesting and fun and friends-filled. Maybe they can. We can make it so, as Captain Picard might say.

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