After feeling like a total loser in Monte Carlo, I hoped for better things in Italy. We awoke to sunny skies but a gale force wind in the port city of Livorno. In Italian that was way worse than our French, we managed to find a taxi to the train station. Livorno’s stazione was unspectacular but it was easy to navigate and the cappucino was cheap and delicious. But of course it was – we were in Italy at last.
We had vowed even before coming on the cruise that we were going to avoid (if possible) any excursion or tour through Royal Caribbean. Although going off on your own is discouraged by the cruise line, they can’t stop passengers from doing it. However, they do warn that if you miss the boat, too bad for you. Duly warned, we had to plan our independent forays accordingly.
The hour and a half train ride from Livorno to Florence travels through the Tuscan countryside which you really don’t see until about halfway to Florence as Livorno seems to be a rather industrial, non-picturesque area (at least from the train). As we neared Florence, we began to see the Tuscan hill towns with their lovely ochre coloured buildings and church towers. Fields of sunflowers and olive groves could be seen in the distance. I also spied the weirdest trees that looked like giant broccoli. The kids were unimpressed; hubby dozed.
Once in Florence, we walked through the large, busy train station and out onto the street. We had only the vaguest ideas of where we were, having forgotten our map. I knew from previous research that Florence was an easily walkable city so we just kind of wandered. Not fifty feet from the train station, we fell back into the Middle Ages. The streets were narrow and winding; the buildings around us contained large carved doorways and every window had tall wooden shutters.
As we walked, we heard voice after voice speaking the worlds most beautiful language: Florentian Italian, the root of modern Italian. I looked at my husband. I am SO taking Italian lessons when I get home. Even the taxi drivers having a dispute in an intersection sounded good in Italian.
We knew we were headed in the right direction – towards the famous Duomo – as we approached a typical tourist shopping street lined with booth after booth of Italian leather goods, ceramic ware, and Florentian lace. Hanging on to our wallets, we kept walking although some of the leather was hard to resist. We ducked into a charming small cathedral. “Is this it?” my son asked. “No, not yet,” I whispered. The church was dark and cool. An old lady sat silently in a back pew, her head covered in a shawl, a rosary entwined in her fingers. Feeling like we were intruding on her private moment with God, we tiptoed out.
Within another 5 minutes, I saw the distinctive tiled facade of the Basilia di Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly known as The Duomo. The street we were on was so narrow that we could only see a slice of it; the full effect was dazzling as the street ended and we entered the Piazza del Duomo. The cathedral consists of the Dome (brick), the campanile or clock tower, and the cathedral itself (sheathed in marble tiles of white, pink and green). The kids stood rooted to their spots, mouths open. As we made our way around the square, which is beautiful as well and surrounded by incredibly ancient buildings, we noticed the equally stunning lines snaking around the cathedral.
Upon closer inspection, the lines were not that bad mostly because two lines for two separate things had sort of melded together. One line was to get into the Duomo itself; another line was to climb to the top of the bell tower. The line to get into the Duomo moved very fast considering it went all the way down the side of the building.
Inside, the Duomo felt strangely empty. We all got sore necks because once you looked up at the painted ceilings, it was nearly impossible to tear your eyes away. The place made me cry. All beautiful churches do but there’s something about a dome (St. Paul’s made me cry so much, a kindly priest glided over to see if I was alright). It’s beauty and architectual wondrous-ness makes the heart soar. If only I could say that in Italian…
After seeing the Duomo, the kids wanted to climb the bell tower, all 414 steps. I declined. This banshee is afraid of heights and tiny, twisting, narrow staircases packed with tourists. I remained below and people watched in the piazza, thoroughly content. I was shocked at the footwear some women chose to wear to ascend the clock tower; I was also impressed by the age of some of the people who emerged. Wow.
Afterward, we wandered a bit more and found a nice looking restaurant somewhat off the beaten path. Although we complained about the uneven cobblestone streets, I said that we were treading on the same ground as Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo once did. That made it a little easier. Over lunch, we discussed the liklihood of getting into the Uffizi Museum (home to many works of the Renaissance Masters). Me: not a chance in hell; Hubby: maybe; son: we are going I don’t care how long the lines are. Wow. This from an 11 year old.
I won but I wasn’t happy to. The Uffizi Museum is gargantuan, as were the lines to get in. The disappointed look on my little boy’s face was heartbreaking. Outside the museum are a number of replicas of famous statues including David. This helped ease the disappointment. However, I was surprised to learn how easily heartbreak is mended by a whopping, towering cone of gelato. We strolled onto the Ponte Vecchio (a medieval bridge lined with about a hundred jewelry stores) and contentedly ate our gelato overlooking the River Arno. A good day so far. Who cares if we see priceless masterpieces? We’re eating delicious gelato all together on a medieval bridge in Florence, Italy!!
A little concerned about time, we pondered a 250 Euro cab ride back to Livorno. Hell, no. That’s ridiculous. So, a bit more strolling, loads more pictures of statues, fountains, lovely buildings and carved doorways then it was off to the train station. We got there a bit late and missed one train. We (ok, just me) panicked a bit when we saw no more trains listed for Livorno. That would be…um, inconvenient. After closer reading of the departure board, my husband figured out that there was another one in 25 minutes but Livorno would not be the last stop…he was almost 97.682% sure of this (he’d say 100% but he was just trying to keep me from flying into a 100% screaming panic).
It was rush hour. That meant hundreds of commuters rushed the doors of the train, tourists who have to catch a boat be damned. Silly us, we forgot not everyone was on holiday like us. We ended up sitting outside a train car in the little ante-chamber where the doors were. There was no air conditioning out there but at least we were on the train and (hopefully) headed for Livorno. With every stop, our little perch got more crowded and hot. We got a taste of Italian driving in the taxi back to the ship. I was too tired to care. Still blowing a gale as we made our way onto the ship. It would be rough passage to Rome that night.
I fell asleep rocked by the waves, dreaming of gelato.