Sunday, September 28, 2008

Being tireder... and... tired...


And to continue the previous post... catch you up: we've seen quite a bit in Milan - the Pinacoteca Ambrosina and the Duomo and some really great "real" Italian life.

And we've made it back up to the train station exploring the wonders of the Milan metro system.

And arrive in Florence shortly before nightfall at the Santa Maria de Novella Train Station. With names like that, you know you're in Italy... EVERYTHING is named for saints and artists...

The piazza (plazas) and the via (streets)...

...where most eventually end at...

"It's only 5:30," said Tommy as we pulled into the train station, "the Academia (where the David resides) is open until 6:50... wanna try to make it?"

So we did.

We were there only 15 minutes later. Its half-way across the city... but the central Florence area is very small. Down close little streets and alleyways - more well lit than Milan, but probably done to make the tourists feel more safe - to this obscure, flat building a little less than a mile north of the Duomo. It took a moment to figure out where the entrance was... down a one lane, one way alley with a single 1ft.-by-1ft. sign marking the entrance.

It was shockingly easy... run your stuff through the x-ray machines and metal detectors, pay the 6.50Euro, and you're in...

The first room had the usual load of Roman Catholic art and an impressive (though a copy) of Giambologna's Rape of the Sabines. You quickly find that MOST (read: "almost all") statues in museums are copies - except the David. In all of its magnificent glory, the statue is one of the most awe-inspiring things I and my companions had ever seen.

It is not every day that 3 grown men will sit for the better part of an hour staring at a giant naked man... but Michelangelo's David is truly that powerful. He is portrayed as he decides to do battle with Goliath - and his powerful stare of confidence pierces through the room... and it is absolutely perfect.

Even the hundreds of pictures you've seen of it doesn't do it justice - you have to see it to believe it... so, sorry no pictures... this is one of THOSE places.

Then, we made a beeline for the hostel. Florence's only Hostel's International registered hostel. Um... okay... about that...

This trip was entirely an adventure. And this was one of those adventures... a hostel at the end of a long driveway, something like a mile long probably. It was a dorm-style hostel - 8 to a room. My companions and I were in a room with two other guys. One Chinese or Korean or Japanese and the other Asian but not the same kind of Asian the other was. So, that was interesting...

And FURTHERMORE... around 4am, the door opened and - me being a light sleeper - woke up to it. Well, it was a really really old man... he shuffled in and opened the windows. I didn't think it was too weird - the man who had checked us in was kinda old - but I didn't know why he may have been opening out windows. So, it didn't get weird until he went over to the Asian guy's bed and proceeded to undress and get ready for bed... until he realized there was someone in the bed he THOUGHT was his... he looked confused and realized the jacket hanging on the bedpost was not his.

"Hey!" said the Asian guy, "Hey! That's my jacket. Leave that alone!"

"Oh, sorry! So sorry!" the man shuffled out the door carrying his pants.

That was weird.

Otherwise, we had a pow-wow and decided NOT to stay at this hostel another night. And this is where the trip became complicated.

Shameless plug for my equipment: the little black backpack on the floor there is a LowePro CompuRover AW. Honestly, its the best backpack I've ever owned. Granted, its in the US$140 range, which puts it in the upper-mid range. However, it has compartments in the bottom for my photography equipment, and it has a large upper compartment for other stuff or, in my case, clothes. I have fit up to 4 days of clothes as well as all my camera gear (pro-body camera w/ lens, 3 lenses [even an 80-200/2.8], flash, batteries, film, Leica and lens) and any toiletries... AND a computer compartment in the back... AND an all-weather cover that is stored in a secret compartment in the bottom. All of this has weighed close to 25kg sometimes and really have had very few moments when my back has actually hurt or shoulders grown tired. Oh, and it fits in the overhead compartment on planes.

When other people are carrying full-sized backpacks, I put the same amount in this backpack. It is completely do-able.

Okay... I really digress that time.

So... I was saying... our trip got complicated... because we left the hostel. They fully refund us for our night that we did not spend there (minus the 6Euro reservation fee) and we departed back down that ridiculously long road.

Kinda remote, wouldn't you say?

To my friends who might want to stay in Florence: there are better and more accessible options. And if you're a couple of girls, I really wouldn't recommend it.

We made the decision that we would make it back to Milan before the Last Supper opened and we would make a valiant effort to get in without reservations... because it is frustrating to call a place where nobody speaks English... and then the pay-phone takes your 1Euro.

But for now, we decided to enjoy Florence.

Saturday morning Florence is nice, but definitely more touristy than Milan. The back-streets look similar, though, and all the normal Italians are doing their normal Saturday thing.

We stopped by the Orsanmichelle, a church converted from a granary in the 1300s and you can still see the grain chutes on the walls. It was rather impressive on the inside and a nice little free place to spend a few minutes.

First on our list of major stops was the Ufizzi Museum. If a painter was a master of the Renaissance, their works either hang here or the Louvre and very few other places and rarely as large of a collection as here. This is the castle that once belonged to the Medici family... it dwarfs the Ufizzi.

As you can see, the tourists were already out in droves and the wait at the Ufizzi was already approaching the two hour mark. Opting to return later, we still got to see the 2nd David statue, standing in the location of the original.

The Ufizzi is the windowed building on the right.

Our friend David here is intense. It is easy to see how he became the symbol of freedom and independence of the Florentine Republic. This one can be photographed to your heart's desire.

Inside the Medici's residence... smelled like sewage. We didn't stay very long. All that line and an x-ray and a strip search for this photograph - which was ACTUALLY before you go through the line.

So, leaving here and heading back toward the Duomo.

Kind of an odd place to have your wedding photos made... but alright... I kinda want to see how much Photoshop work the photographers did. The photographer was to my right a few feet shooting with an 80-200/2.8. So, I guess their rule is, "if the background sucks - kill it with focal blur!"

Something you'll notice fairly quickly on the streets of European cities is all the black jackets and dark clothing.

I guess some don't mind being a bit eccentric.

I like that one...

And finally, back at the Duomo...

I wish the other version of this shot had turned out... it was really really dark...

In all honesty, the Florence Duomo was not quite as impressive as I had in my mind. I think, after seeing an absurd cathedral like the Milan Duomo, you just tend to get expectations. It was cool - don't get me wrong - but not AS cool since I had seen the other one the previous afternoon.

The dean of my college's international program had warned us before we had left that the Duomo was cool but not THAT cool. I see what he meant. We passed on the 5Euro fee to climb to the top. Its free to just go in...

Right outside the cathedral is the Baptistery...

...and the famous golden Gates of Paradise.

Its definitely a cool thing to see... but its a little touristy for me... during the day! Little hint: go see the doors at night. Sure, your digi-cam pictures won't turn out as well, but at least you won't have to get an elbow to the face to see it.

But DEFINITELY go see the other side of the doors. Yes, go pay your 3Euro to see the inside. Its just an altar and some seats... but the view is pretty good.

Why else? Well... if you click on the larger version and check out the panel to the lower left of the Jesus circle, you'll see what has become the vision of Hell for most people. Complete with the rivers of blood and Satan eating people's heads.

Why is this the modern version of Hell? Nope... you won't find it in the Bible! Not even in the freaky parts of Revelation.

We all owe it to the talent of this man:

Dante. Yes, the writer of The Inferno. The epic that has shaped the modern world view - even Christian view - of Hell. He was baptized and christened here. Seeing this ceiling for the better part of his life, that lower right panel was where he got some of his inspiration and vision of Hell.


Moving on...

We went back to the Ufizzi and made a second attempt. The line was getting shorter... but not THAT much shorter.

And Tommy, in his restlessness and the shadow of David #2, tries his best impression... fully clothed, thank goodness.

We moved on to the other side of the Arno River across that famous bridge everyone's seen as one of those icons of Florence.

Which is where we had an oops. Paying 10Euro to see the Boboli Gardens at Palazzo Pitti. Well, we made the mistake of forgetting we're there in the MIDDLE OF THE WINTER and gardens are just a little out of season.


And here we have a little food break.

A little note about food while traveling like this: we did not eat a real meal on Saturday until dinner. Previously in the day, we ate bread that was mildly reminiscent of large croutons. It was good if you were hungry; if you're not hungry, it tasted just like... a crouton. Oh, and off-brand Italian Oreo cookies. Neither get stale in just a day or two of traveling...

After a while, they all kinda get un-tasty... and it goes to the birds.

The gardens were a bust... but the view was rather satisfactory.

Okay. So, we returned from the gardens BACK to the Ufizzi. We just sucked it up and hung out in the line for just a little over an hour.

No photos, of course. It was loads... gobs... hoards of Roman Catholic and Protestant art from the Renaissance. But it was cool to see Birth of Venus and the portrait of Rembrandt that has become the portrait that everyone knows of him.

Impressive stuff.

Leaving the Ufizzi, after probably 1.5hours inside, we wanted to see one last thing... which, unbeknown to us, is closed every something Saturday and every second Tuesday of every third month and the Wednesday after a cherry tree blooms in Thailand... but of course, today was one of those days.

It was not a complete disappointment. We saw a protest! Finally! But goodness knows its one of those that yell the word "Americano" a lot... and kinda makes one leery of hanging out too long.

Anytime the hammer and sickle's come out...

We took off down a side street back toward the Duomo and came upon an awesome little camera shop. It had a Leica M6-TTL and an M7 in the showcase as well as a beautiful Mamiya and a couple Bessa's - including a Bessa T. This was a beautiful little shop and I had to spend a few minutes enjoying it.

At this point, the day became very very long. The sun had not yet set and we went trekking back by the Duomo to the train station. We stopped by a GREAT pizzeria for our only meal of the day.

Okay, so... if you ever purchase your tickets on the automated ticket machines in Italy and there's ANY red on the screen - GO ASK! We almost didn't ask, and we found out that we needed to get to the OTHER Florence train station on the other side of town to make the train at 1:47am. Then, we changed trains at 3:13am and get on another train at 4:13am to Milan.

On the way to the other train station, serendipitously passed the bronze David. All three David statues? Check.

So we sat at the tiny Florence train station from about 9:00 on. Now that, my friend, is boredom.

Somewhere near midnight...

And now having been up for 18 hours at this point, the camera went into the bottom of my bag and didn't come out for a while.

In Bologna, Italy, there was a girl sitting by herself...

Here's how to make an American friend while in Europe:

"Hey, where are you from?" I say.

Then, I find out her name is Morgan and she's attending the College of Charleston in South Carolina and lived in the Raleigh/Durham, NC, area and is studying anthropology in Florence and is visiting her old roommate in Prague for spring break.

Seeing that we were just a couple good ol' boys from the south, she opted to ride in our compartment for the trip from Bologna to Milan.


We arrived in Milan at 7:05am. We booked it back to the Last Supper even though we had not yet been able to get tickets. All this... arrive there and they say...


No shower since Friday morning. No sleep for 24 hours.


They only let 25 through every 15 minutes starting at 8:15am. Here we were. The first 24 with reservations went through.

"Come here," she says to me.

Tommy and I go forward but Kyle comes slowly.

"Alright, two..." she says.

I hesitate...

"Don't worry about guys," Kyle says, "you guys go ahead."

He turns to go back out of the congested room.

She pauses.

"Okay, three. Go now," she sighs. I just put down a 20Euro bill to get out of there before she changes her mind and we go.

Through the triple air-sealed and light-tight doors, we emerge in the dimly lit room to the magnificent, immense fresco painted by Leonardo da Vinci over 400 years ago.

The oils in the paint have faded, there's a doorway in the middle of it, you almost can't see it all at once its so big. But if you see one thing in Milan OR Florence... make it the Last Supper.

Oh, and in the spirit of the da Vinci Code, whoever that is to Jesus' right really does look like a woman.


Just make sure you get reservations a month in advance. We were telling Dr. Hopper, the dean of our international program, about our adventure: "That's impossible. Its the first time I've ever heard of even one getting through without reservations let alone three at the same time."

Seeing both Duomos, all three David statues, the Ufizzi, the Baptistery and Gates of Paradise, the Pinacoteca Ambrosina, eaten Italian pizza in Milan and gelato in Florence, and countless other master statues and works of art and churches... capped off by the Last Supper... all in one weekend.

All takes its toll on me and my companions.

"Dude... you know you're tired when you leave a drool spot on your backpack," Kyle says.

So true, my friend.

We returned to Athens from Milan MXP shortly before 3pm Athens time.

If you really made it this far, I thank and applaud you.


When you have the opportunity to take a trip and have an adventure - even though it may be a little more expensive than you thought, or a little more tiresome than you thought, or if you have NO IDEA what you're doing - take that opportunity.

There were a couple times when we asked ourselves, "What the heck are we doing?"

That kind of thing makes for a good adventure.

Stay tuned...
~Noah D.

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