A Long, Self-Indulgent Dispatch From a Vacation, Part Four: Florence

And then we come to the end. The final part of our Italian trip, and the last of my excuses to prolong my return to the Danny/Gwyneth Project. (Actually, I have already returned: Last night was fish tacos, and holy shit was it an interesting meal. We had some special guests, but you’ll have to wait to hear about it.) It was fun while it lasted, though, right? But we flew too close to the sun, and now we must fall back to Earth. Or something. This portion of the trip, I assumed, would surely be less insane than the previous three — surely falling in a Venetian canal would have to signal the end of the insanity, right? Of course, that’s never the case in Italy, as Florence had a few surprises up its sleeves.

Anyway, we were in Venice, if you recall. I was semi-shattered and semi-doped, and Eddie had extended his vacation by a couple days to come to Florence with us. Nikki, Aunt Dana, and I woke up early and walked down to the Venice fish market, to do some last sightseeing before catching our train. The market was very cool, and made me jealous that I couldn’t stay in Venice, buy some of these strange things, and attempt to cook with them. I mean, what do you even do with something like THIS:

HOLY SHIT.

Outside the hotel, we said goodbye to Nikki (she had to return to the U.S. early for a wedding), swapping her out for Eddie. We boarded our last waterbus and arrived at the train station. Unfortunately, our train was booked — as were the next two — so Eddie would have to be left behind in Venice for three hours. Sorry! We gave him directions to our hotel in Florence, agreed to meet at a certain time, and took our last Italian train ride.

At this point, my body was feeling slightly better, although sitting and standing were still fairly painful ordeals (and I’m not even back at 100% today), and Eddie thankfully took over my duties of carrying Grandma’s suitcase. If he was going to be tagging along with us, at least we could treat him like a servant, right?

Here’s something strange about Italian trains (which, I should note, ran perfectly on time on all but one instance, in spite of what everyone says about them): You get free drinks and snacks, but only based on the whims of the train equivalents of flight attendants. Sometimes they ask if you want a drink, or sometimes they ask the person next to you while not even glancing in your direction. Sometimes they ask where you boarded the train, and then if they don’t like the city you came from (I assume), they move on and you go thirsty. The trains are staffed by Italian Soup Nazis, essentially. And if you ask for water, you get a thimbleful. If you ask for champagne, on the other hand, you get a whole glass. So, whenever I passed the arbitrary series of tests required to merit a drink on a train, I had champagne, no matter what the hour. So, early in the morning, traveling from Venice to Florence, I had a glass of champagne. I’m just being economical.

Our hotel in Florence was in an extremely old building in a tucked-away courtyard mere blocks from the Duomo. The building itself seemed to be of interest, as we would often return to the hotel and have to press through ogling tour groups just to get inside. I never found out what the big deal was, but it probably had something to do with the cast of “Jersey Shore,” since that’s all anyone from the U.S. knows about Florence anymore. But however historical the exterior was, the interior was designed like a spaceship. Everything was metallic and boxy and far, far too complicated. It took two of us to figure out how to use the sink. It took four of us and 15 minutes of failure to figure out how to open the corkscrew. We resented the hotel’s snobbery and considered stealing the corkscrew out of spite, even though the thing was much too complicated to be of any use.

But I don’t want to sound like a whiner (probably way, way too late on that account). We were in an ideal location, yet in a secluded courtyard, so we could be removed from the crowds. And, by this point, we had become something of hotel snobs. Going from a shower overlooking the Pantheon to a shower and terrace overlooking the Mediterranean to a 600-year-old maze of a hotel, we were bound to be let down at some point. The world has to have a finite amount of unbelievably stunning hotels, right? Surely we had hit the maximum allowed on one trip.

While checking in, the concierge informed us we had arrived during the Festival of St. John, and that there would be a parade through the city, followed by the final match of an ancient local game, which he described as a mix of “soccer, rugby, and boxing.” This, of course, sounded incredible. However, he told us tickets were sold out, and I could actually hear my heart snap in two. Was I really going to miss out on the most amazing-sounding sport of all time?

We needed to wait for Eddie, who had managed to finagle his way onto an earlier train, so to pass the time we got lunch at I Fratellini, just around the corner from our hotel, and by far the best lunch I had on the trip. Possibly the best lunch of my life, even. The “restaurant” is barely more than a window in the side of a building. They have a menu with 39 sandwiches, and a shitload of wine. You get your sandwich and a glass of wine, and then you either stand in the street to enjoy it, or you find an open stoop or windowsill to perch on. I had a ham sandwich with truffle sauce that I’m still dreaming about, and a glass of Chianti. I don’t know if I could have been happier.

As we stood and finished our wine, we heard drums and trumpets. And then, just like that, the beginning of St. John’s parade passed directly by. This was serendipity at its finest, as we were able to see the entire parade, while standing and enjoying some of the best wine we’d had in Italy. The parade itself was fascinating — everyone walked very, veeeeery slowly, and were decked out in strange Renaissance garb, carrying ancient weapons. Oh, and there was a cow in the parade? Weird stuff.

And then, we saw the warriors. There were four teams, each representing one quarter of the city: blue, red, white, and green. And these guys were HUGE, covered in tattoos, and probably could have killed me with their bare hands. I don’t think I’ve ever seen guys that big in my life. They had the height of basketball players and the girth of linebackers, and they strutted and preened as people cheered and women threw themselves at them. Some of the men even had fresh blood on their face. One guy, on the red team, carried his toddler son (also decked out in red, presumably training to be a future warrior), while blood trickled down from his mouth. What was even going ON? Everything began to feel like we had fallen through a wormhole to Ancient Rome. We knew we had to see this game, at all costs.

Gigantic monsters.

We rushed back to the hotel, breathless with excitement. We greeted Eddie, brought his things up to the room, and hurriedly tried to explain what the hell was going on in this city. We rushed back out the hotel in a flurry of activity and raced down towards the piazza where the action would start. Somehow, we would find a way to see these brutes beat the shit out of each other.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t even get within two blocks of the stadium. The streets surrounding the piazza were PACKED, and it became quickly apparent that no amount of Italian-style line-cutting would get us in. However, Sara noticed a bar just around the corner from the piazza that had two TVs on, which looked to be showing footage from inside the arena. So we hurried back, grabbed a table in the bar, ordered a round of beer, and settled in to watch.

Now, how do I describe this sport (known as Calcio Fiorentino)? For starters, it is by far the most brutal event I’ve ever seen. At one point in my life, I naively thought rugby held that honor. Then I was introduced to Aussie Rules Football, rugby’s evil cousin. But this? Blows those both out of the water. (No offense to any Australians reading. In my defense, the Australian guy sitting next to us verified that this sport was more insane than anything Aussies would attempt.)

Here’s a little taste of what we watched. Just confusing mayhem.

The main point of the game, from what we could gather, is to get a ball into the goal at the opposite end of the field. Each team has 27 players, and they are all on the field at the same time. Adding to the chaos, there are seven referees on the field (plus ten more on the sidelines), and there are also several medics running around. Any sport in which medics are needed on the field at every second of the game is a sport I can definitely get behind.

The reason medics are needed constantly is because anything goes. Well, almost anything. The “official” rules (first published in 1580, centuries after the game had been invented) declare that anything is legal, with the notable exceptions of sucker-punching and kicks to the head. Choking, head-butting, and regular punching, however? Totally acceptable.

This results in 50 minutes of total mayehm. Half the time, fights break out on the field where the ball isn’t even near. On more than one occasion, players were taken out of the field on stretchers, the medics dodging other battling genetic freaks, since gameplay never seems to take a break. We saw some amazing hits, especially a particularly nice jab delivered to some poor fellow’s chin, causing his legs to fly out from under him. Within 10 minutes, the sand-filled arena was covered in writhing, bruised, muddy bodies. This is as close as you will ever get to a real gladiator battle anymore. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a live lion had been released into the arena at some point.

Gradually, with the help of other bemused, astonished tourists in the bar, we began to piece together the basic rules. The scoring system was particularly tricky, as sometimes a team would appear to get the ball into the endzone, which would give the other team a half point? I’ll spare the gritty details of the rules, but there are few things more entertaining than sitting in a bar and trying to decipher the complicated rules of a bizarre foreign sport. I suggest you try it sometime.

Everyone stares at the TV, completely baffled.

We did learn that this was the final game, between the white and blue teams, after the red and green teams had been eliminated in the previous two games earlier that week. And the mysterious cow in the parade was also explained: The winning team earned it! I never managed to learn what 27 huge guys were going to do with one cow. Did they kill it and divide the meat 27 ways? To me, that doesn’t seem worth the risk of breaking every bone in your body. (It should be noted that during last year’s game, one player alone sent six men to the hospital.)

Words simply can’t do Calcio Fiorentino justice. So here’s a video I found with footage from this year’s match between White and Red. (Um, don’t let the strange music and editing distract you from the brutality.)

The entire thing was just fascinating, and was a delightfully unexpected welcome to Florence. After the match was over (Blue won, for the curious), we decided to walk down to the arena and see if we could get a closer look. Surprisingly, the second the match was finished, the gates were opened and anyone was allowed to wander onto the field! This would never be allowed in the United States (of course, this whole EVENT would never be allowed in the United States). We walked onto the field, passing no less than 15 ambulances parked nearby, and took a few cheesy photos beating each other up. Then, like magic, an actual warrior appeared! A member of the Blue team came jogging by to retrieve his shirt from the field, so Sara stopped him and asked if she could have a picture. He kissed her on the cheek, and now Sara wants to marry a gladiator. And he was very charming, for someone who had just spent 50 minutes kicking the living shit out of 27 people.

Young love!

————–

No day could improve upon an afternoon spent watching Calcio Fiorentino, but we still had a pleasant enough final evening with Grandma. She would be leaving the next morning for her strange writers’ retreat in Tuscany, so we did some light sightseeing, making sure to stop at as many bars and restaurants throughout the evening as possible, and just generally enjoying a lazy day, our second-to-last day in Italy.

The next morning, we headed to the Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo’s David, of course. We had four tickets reserved, to avoid waiting in long lines, but we needed a fifth for Eddie. We thought he would have to stand in line to get his ticket, forgetting for a moment that we were in Italy. So, of course, he was just able to skip the line and enter with us, because no one in Italy really gives a shit. And then we spent the next while marveling at David, which is larger and more impressive than you would have thought. You stare at him, and it is very easy to trick yourself into thinking that he flinched, or that his chest expanded with breath. It’s astonishingly lifelike. I’ve seen it twice in my life, but it really never gets old. The veins in his feet are perfect, for Christ’s sake. But I’m not very adept at describing or even fully appreciating art, and thousands of people far more qualified than I have spent countless years analyzing this statue, so I’ll stop embarrassing myself by trying to describe it. Needless to say, it’ll make you feel pretty inadequate about anything you’ve accomplished in your lifetime. Especially when you consider that Michelangelo, that magnificent, selfish bastard, has both this AND the Sistine Chapel on his resume. It should be impossible to be that talented.

David. Photo definitely NOT allowed.

Illicit rear photo. That guy on the right must really want to caress David’s ass.

After marveling at the greatest sculpture to ever exist, we took Grandma to the train station, where she would be picked up by a bus to take her to the retreat. It felt a lot like we were sending Grandma to summer camp. She nervously eyed the other people waiting outside the train station, trying to figure out if they were a part of her program, and immediately judged them. “Oh, God, not the smoker,” she lamented. “Oh no, look at that one’s clothes. I hope he’s not coming,” she said about another. We reminded her to be nice, to make friends, and not to wet the bed.

Eventually, the bus driver found us, an overly excited man who was most definitely once a hippie. Grandma was introduced to the other member of her program who was leaving from Florence, an older woman with a large, floppy hat, and they immediately became the best of friends. We hugged goodbye, thanked Grandma for everything, and nervously watched her go, feeling way too much like parents. “Call when you get back to New York!” Aunt Dana yelled after her, but Grandma just chattered away with her new friend, not even looking back, already lost in her summer camp.

The rest of the afternoon, Sara and Aunt Dana spent shopping. Eddie and I tagged along for a while, but quickly grew tired of entering every single store and listening to how “cute” every dress and shoe was. Plus, you do not want to get in Aunt Dana’s way when she’s in Shopping Mode, especially in Italy. I’m pretty sure she made a saleswoman cry. Eddie and I escaped from the mania and walked around with a beer. We had seen other people wandering with alcohol, so we joined in, even though I’m still not sure about the legality of it (although, for that matter, are there even laws in Italy?). But, coming from America, a place where all fun activities are ruined for the many by a few idiots, I felt like a total badass walking down the street with an open intoxicant.

Our last dinner in Italy was fairly perfect. We even got free champagne, to make up for the fact that we had to wait for our reserved table to be ready (which, really, took less than ten minutes). We ordered massive amounts of antipasti, as well as copious amounts of primi and secondi dishes. It was all ridiculously delicious, particularly my pork dish. I don’t even want to think of it, or I may burst into tears.

Seeing as it was our last night in Italy, we decided we didn’t care how exhausted we were for our flight the next morning — we needed to stay out all night. So we went in search of the famous Florence nightlife, strolling around from club to club. Strangely, they were all completely empty. In fact, the entire city seemed to have cleared out. However, we had seen advertisements for the “White Night,” a music festival happening across the river, and had originally decided not to go, because it sounded like it would be a boring, slow jazz festival. But when we discovered Florence drained of its nightlife, we decided to head towards the river.

Crossing the bridge, we were immediately assaulted by crowds of people. Virtually all of Florence had crossed to the other side of the river, and the entire population was attempting to pack itself into one stretch of road, which had a different band performing at every intersection. Some bands were small and more mellow, others had full stages, lights, and were surrounded by massive crowds. It was, in a word, insanity.

So we did what everyone else was doing: Wandered and got drunk. The festival had practically every kind of music you could think of, so finding a genre you prefer was only a matter of wandering far enough. We eventually settled down near a Gogol Bordello cover band and, well, got drunk. It was all very fuzzy, but a lot of fun was had by all. I think.

Our departure from Italy was rather inglorious — we woke up after an hour and a half of sleep, most definitely still a little drunk, and somehow took a cab to the airport. I don’t know, I don’t remember. Things passed in a blur, and a few hours later we were spit out in Paris, completely hungover and miserable. We had the worst meal of our lives in the airport, which cost a staggering 80 EURO for two salads, two sandwiches, and two Cokes. We alternated between laughing and moaning in pain.

Eventually, I arrived back in Portland, after what felt like a decade away. I had a giant bandage on my arm, I couldn’t lift my suitcase without experiencing intense pain in my back, and if it weren’t for my physical injuries and my still-throbbing hangover, I would have assumed it had all been a dream. I saw some of the most incredible places on Earth, I gained ten pounds that were VERY worth it, I spent quality time with family and friends I don’t get to see that often, and I came home with too many stories to ever have the time to completely tell. Can I go back?

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14 Comments

Filed under Italy, Non-Gwyneth

14 responses to “A Long, Self-Indulgent Dispatch From a Vacation, Part Four: Florence

  1. Freddie

    I don’t know, I feel something’s missing… like a copious amount of PHOTO CREDITS.

    Just kidding, I’m owed nothing after that vacation.

  2. I’ve been reading your blog since its inception, for the Gwyneth BS, of course, but… I just wanted to say that I absolutely adored your posts on your trip. I couldn’t stop reading them. You are a brilliant and funny writer and you managed to make me want to visit Italy even more than I already did. Thank you for telling your tales. 😀

  3. Kate

    Ditto what Melissa said. You have such a fresh and funny voice: your descriptions of the Italy trip recalled my own, twenty years ago, and really made me laugh. Thank you!

  4. PBD

    Wow, you almost get into more trouble than I do on a trip. I think we would in fact get arrested in a foreign country. Therefore, if I don’t get to come on your next family trip and help you get into some kind of trouble I will hunt you down. Hunt. You. Down.

  5. Entertaining!!!!. I have really enjoyed the Italy trip.

  6. Ever thought about being a travel writer? : )

  7. chick110

    I am extremely covetous of all of your experiences. Even the painful ones because somehow they seemed fun in your recollection of them. Thanks so much for sharing your trip with us even though I agree that next time, you need to take a more prolific photographer with you.

  8. Karo

    In college my best friend and I translated David Cassidy’s “I Think I Love You” into Italian. That’s almost as cool as going there…right?

    Did anyone say va fancullo to you? That’s mostly what I remember from 2 years of Italian.

  9. Sara

    ooooh now I’m sad and want to go back. look at that beautiful gladiator.

    now go back to the stupid gwyneth crap, I guess.

  10. Favorite Aunt

    We must marry Sara off to a gladiator or 10 year old future awesome restaruant in Capri owner soon so we can all go back. And then maybe I can get some shopping in too! Thanks Favorite Nephew for all the stories and all the Italian fun too xxooxx

  11. Your grandmother has always impressed me as a fantastic lady, and to take you on this trip, was pretty great. How did she like her Tuscan summer camp?
    I agree that you should consider travel writing, you are so good at explaining things that people can visualize.
    And leave it to the Italians to have a religious festival together with a violent sport.
    But, that gladiator. Mmmmm.

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