Saturday, September 16, 2006

Escapade in Florence

Day One in Florence is full of flavor – medieval prisons, Renaissance masters, domed cathedrals, sheltered cloisters, rustic pasta and the best ice cream in Italy.

Using my most reliable form of transportation, I set out on foot for the Bargello, built in 1255 as the town hall for Florence. In the 16th century, it became a prison, and some notorious Florentine criminals were executed in the court yard. Today, it’s been handed over to the arts and is home to a collection of Renaissance sculpture, where there are a number of pieces by Michelangelo and Donatello. There’s an outdoor sculpture garden of classic figures that makes an interesting contrast to the infamy of the court yard.

Next, I head to Bar Vivoli on Via Isola delle Stinche to investigate the rumor that one can get the best ice cream there, not only in Italy, but the world. Is it hyperbole? Is it story perpetrated by the proprietor? There is, in fact, some truth to the tale. You might almost miss Vivoli if you’re not looking for it. There is a small neon sign above the door, and inside it has the trappings of a traditional ice cream parlor like wooden paneling and marble countertops. But, behind the glass freezer cases, Vivoli does keep a Renaissance treasure. A number of tourists have ducked in to avoid a few raindrops and are placing orders. There are several rows of hotel pans hand packed with deep chocolate tones, and pink, yellow and green varieties. I notice that there is not a single ice crystal marring the velvety mounds. I select Crema gelato for 2.5 Euros which I learn is Vivoli’s most-requested flavor. I let the first spoonful dissolve on my tongue. It is cold, smooth and luxurious, with strong flavors of pure cream and fresh eggs. I make a resolution to return each day during my visit to sample a different flavor.

My next stop is the Gothic church Santa Croce, where one can find the tombs of Galileo and Michelangelo. There are two quiet cloisters and some interesting frescos. Since I’m not on my usual exercise routine, I then decide to climb the 463 steps to the top of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral, or Duomo, of Florence. It is the tallest building in Florence, and the journey up is a work out. The reward is expansive views of the surrounding city and the Tuscan hills beyond.

I visit the cathedral museum. All of the key sculptures that once adorned the outside of the building are now housed here to protect them from the elements. The actual cathedral now has copies. I gaze at the Evangelists, The Virgin Mary and other Biblical luminaries who stare back at me with a slight look of detachment. There is also Michelangelo’s Pieta, which he actually intended for his tombstone, and used his self-portrait for the face of Nichodemas.

It is now dinnertime, the rain is constant and I am ravenous. Since it has been a sculpture day, I take a seat at a restaurant called Le Botteghe di Donatello, and order a serving of Tuscan Bread Soup and Spaghetti with Fresh Lobster. The soup is a thick, hearty stew of soaked bread, flavored with beans and vegetables. The pasta is brought to the table on a large platter, and there are actually pieces of whole lobster – in the crimson shell – scattered over the mound of spaghetti. There is a chucky tomato sauce which is seasoned with olive oil, garlic and red pepper, and it is a dramatic contrast to the sweet lobster meat. It looks like a challenge, but I manage to finish each strand of spaghetti and extract every piece of succulent lobster flesh from those shells.

© 2006 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

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