Wednesday, November 6, 2013


As usual, I was up before the dawn and standing on the top deck, Deck 12, as the Serenade of the Seas docked at La Spezia, Italy. It was an overcast morning and comfortably warm.
The whole docking procedure is fascinating – like watching someone try and park a building – and painstakingly slow. I grew up on the water and have docked my fair share of boats, but when you watch the nuanced skill required to navigate a behemoth cruise ship into a marine shoebox, it’s hard not to applaud as the lines are cleated and the show comes to a safe and happy end.
La Spezia twinkled in the dawn’s early light and slowly revealed itself like an invisible ink landscape coming into view. Large soft-yellow limestone buildings with orange tiled roofs hugged the shoreline in orderly rows. Gently rolling green hills rimmed the back side of the city, with snowcapped mountains looming in the distance.
La Spezia is nestled in the Gulf of Spezia between Pisa and Genoa on the Ligurian Sea. It is a major base for the Italian Navy and a busy commercial seaport. It is also the gateway to magical Tuscany and Pisa to the south; fair Florence to the east; and to the west, along the rugged Italian Riviera, lays the long-fabled Cinque Terre “The Five Lands” where five brightly-colored villages dating from the 11th century cling to steep hillsides above the Ligurian Sea, all part the Cinque Terre National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site. While La Spezia’s maritime history predates the Romans and is replete with momentous events, it is probably most famous for being the port where many of the survivors of the Nazi holocaust escaped to Palestine. The people of Israel still refer to La Spezia as the “Gateway to Zion”.
Our destination later that morning was Florence, about 75 miles to the northeast. We had hoped to just wing it, but discovered that the trains were iffy at best, and there was a transportation workers strike. The bus service was convoluted because there were no direct routes. And amazingly, there were no companies offering cab or van rides. So, we ended up going with the Royal Caribbean ten hour shore excursion “Florence On Your Own”, departing at 8:15, and costing $103 per person.
OVERVIEW: If you have already been to Florence and want to explore this glorious city at your leisure, this tour is for you. HIGHLIGHTS: After a 1 ½ hour transfer, your escort will designate a meeting time and place and then you will have approximately 6 hours to see the sights, shop or enjoy a meal at your leisure and pace. NOTES: An escort will be on the coach to/from Florence to answer questions. This tour does not include lunch or entrance fees. Shoulders and knees must be covered at religious sites.

-Transfer to the Florence city center
-Approximately 6 hours of independent time to shop, dine and explore at your own pace

Full Description:
On your 2 hour journey into the city, you'll drive through Tuscan countryside, viewing valleys filled with the vineyards that have made this area famous. Upon arrival in Florence, you will disembark the coach at Lungarno della Zecca and be escorted to Santa Croce Square, an area close to the shopping district. Your escort will designate a meeting time and place and then you will be able to explore at your leisure for approximately 6 hours. In addition to its historical attractions, Florence has some of the finest shops in Italy, including those of the Ponte Vecchio which spans the River Arno.

A good guide can really make all the difference on a long shore excursion. Our Florence guide was the mercurial Luca Misuri, 0039 349 6001650, and he was simply incredible – part standup comedian and part cultural encyclopedia. He kept us laughing the whole time. Luca could make anything sound funny, fascinating, and vaguely erotic. And let me just say that it is no myth that Italians talk with their hands and speak with great passion.
Our luxurious tour bus was packed with older couples from all over the globe and everyone was excited to be on our way as we motored out of the very industrial area around the La Spezia seaport lined with many well-kept, but slightly rundown tenement buildings resembling American pubic housing.
The A12 highway between La Spezia and Florence – their equivalent of I-95 – is only a three lane, Jersey barrier divided road much narrower than a similar American highway. Along many stretches, there were no shoulders, just the occasional emergency pullout. They also have short sound barriers covered in what looked to be grape vines, and there were red SOS phones every mile or so.
Gas was selling for 1.75€ a liter, about $7 a gallon, at large AGIP stations. Attendants in blue overalls pumped gas at large truck stop stations along the motorway.
The highway was crowded with cars and trucks zipping along, but there were no backups, and like in Spain and France, the speed limit was 90.

We were traveling through the Liguria area of northern Italy, just north of Tuscany. Genoa is the biggest town around and world renowned as the home of Chianti.

This part of Italy is very agricultural with rich red soil and quaint little towns and clusters of modest homes spread across each hill like orange butter, but not running down the steep sides like in France. Small olive farms and vineyards with stone farmhouses dotted the passing landscape. And just like my home state of Maryland, the corn stood in stately rows, ready for the Fall harvest.
Interestingly, there was a lightly taller variation of invasive phragmites growing all over any vacant land and especially in the wet drainage areas. 
The snowcapped Apennine Mountains which run down the length of Italy like its spine, were no longer at a distance, but were crowding the edge of the highway. I’m talking serious mountains, ranging in height from 4,000 feet to 9,000 feet.
This is the home of Carrara marble and we passed hundreds of bustling storage areas stacked with huge flat blocks of white and grey marble. Each business had a large blue crane to move the heavy and valuable merchandise onto trucks for shipping around the world.

The homes in this part of Italy look a lot like the ones around Southern France, only a slightly darker beige – almost yellow. But they all had the standard orange tile roofs which is apparently obligatory around the Southern Med, no matter the country. Other than the occasional castle-like structure on a solitary hill, the houses were not very old, but there were hardly any new structures. Oddly enough, car dealerships were the most modern buildings and there were no buildings taller than three floors.  For the most part, everything looked a bit used up and rundown.
As we got closer to Florence, there were many tree nurseries, their yards filled with tidy rows of nude sculptures and short bushes and trees, most of which were completely unfamiliar to me, which was a bit disconcerting because I know my trees. Many were shaped and sculpted for ornamental planting.

It became highly industrial as we approached Florence, one of the largest cities in the region, with a population of 370,000 in the city center and about 1.5 million in the surrounding metro area.  We went from rural to urban in the course of about a mile as busy roadways suddenly converged with the highway from all directions.
Florence gave birth to the Renaissance and was the home of the Medici – Europe’s first bankers – and banking still reigns supreme in this grand Medieval city.  Florence was the Athens of the Middle Ages and during America’s Civil War, when Italy was a kingdom, rather than a country, Florence was its capital.
Florence's buildings are predominantly Romanesque and Gothic, cut from grey and beige stone with long green shutters hinged in the middle, framing large windows.  Unlike Barcelona, there were very few balconies. And there were no high rise buildings in the city center.  A two bedroom apartment goes for about $500,000.
Two of the greatest Renaissance artists, Michelangelo and Botticelli studied and later worked their artistic magic in Florence. Michelangelo conceived his divine Sculpture of David for the Florence Cathedral. And Botticelli created his two most famous works, Primavera and The Birth of Venus, for his fabulously wealthy patrons, the Medici family, who funded countless Florentine artists and their Greek revival masterpieces.
Our driver expertly navigated the serpentine cobblestone streets of the old city and managed to find a convenient parking place along the dirty brown Arno River, swollen from the recent rains. Rain clouds were drifting in from the north as we got off the bus and we were immediately accosted by amped-up Africans selling ponchos and umbrellas. I’m not sure why so many street vendors in this part of the world are young African men, but in every big city we visited they were hawking cheap Chinese crap in all of the major tourist destinations.
And that’s probably a good segue into another travel truism. Wherever we went in Italy and Southern Europe, we encountered huge groups of Chinese tourists being led around by chattering guides. I have never had strong feelings one way or the other about Chinese. They have always struck me as smart and hard-working folks. But now that their economy is rocking, and after centuries of living in their own crowded, xenophobic bubble, the Chinese are finally shedding their cultural blinders and traveling around the world like crazy. And I have to say that they are the rudest bunch of people I have ever seen. Say what you want about Americans – we’re loud and obnoxious; or about the Germans and Swiss, that they are arrogant and imperious. But the Chinese are totally oblivious to the rest of the world. They will bump you right out of the way on a crowded street and never even acknowledge your presence. They act like you aren’t even there. It’s really weird.
Old Florence attracts millions of tourists each year and is a World Heritage site, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful places on earth.  Few cities can hold a candle to its art and architecture.  And when it comes to fashion, especially Italian fashion, Florence is the place to shop.
After leading us through a winding series of alley-like streets, Luca delivered us unto the mother of all shopping districts located around Santa Croce Square where the 13th century Gothic Basilica of Santa Croce, with it’s white stone façade and perfectly geometric pointed roofs, towered over us like three Christian rocket ships.
The Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross) is the largest Franciscan church in the world.  Legend has it that Santa Croce was founded by St. Francis, and it is the burial place of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini, and Galileo.  For that reason, it is often referred to as the Temple of the Italian Glories.
Surrounding the outside perimeter of the bustling square were countless shops: The Gold Corner, Galleria Michelangelo, Old Florence Leather and Shoes Factory, Florence Leather and Other, the Misuri Leather Guild, White House Florence Leather Goods, and about thirty individuals in small booths selling paintings and other Florentine trinkets.
It was now 10:30, and time to start covering some ground.  Luca gave us a map of the city, highlighting the nine top nearby attractions and then offered to meet us in the early afternoon at an authentic restaurant right off the square, featuring local specialties.  He pointed to the restaurant and then said to either meet him there at 1:30, or if we wanted to eat on our own, to meet the group at 3, and then we would all head back to the bus.
Unfortunately, it was a Monday, and museums were closed, but we could still hit the churches.  In Italy, religion is big bidness, and the larger churches all charge admission.

They really push the leather in Florence – there are no brand names and everything is “one of a kind”.  When you walk the narrow streets, passing small shops selling leather goods, the air is rich with the smell of leather, like incense.  But I really have to say that pretty much everything we saw, whether in a street vendor’s stall or in some fancy pants boutique, was over-priced.  I wanted to buy a nice wallet I found in an upscale shop, but paying 90€ for a goddamn wallet just seemed like a rip-off.  And that was a good call because a few days later, I saw the same wallet in a small store in Venice for 20€.  So, watch what you buy in Florence.
Florence is famous for its incredible stone mosaics, and they are out of this world.  But they aint cheap.  They start at 300€ for a small picture – say, 5” by 7” – of simple design. You may have seen this sort of artwork before with the small earth globes sold by National Geographic, where the countries are comprised of different colored inlaid stones.
After most of the group scattered, Luca took some of us to see a mosaic shop where they were painstakingly making "paintings". We were greeted warmly by the Master and his dog, and then we watched one of his apprentices cutting stone with a long hand saw. We were then given a brief explanation about how the native stones of many different colors were cut into tiny pieces and fitted together with beeswax over top of a pencil drawing. There was a standard painting size work of the Duomo Cathedral selling for 250,000€.  It probably took the artist a year to make it, and in my opinion was probably worth every penny. This is a dying art, making these mosaics a very wise investment.

In order to accommodate the thriving tourist trade, most of the downtown area is closed to motor vehicles.  It remains as it has since the 5th Century, a pedestrian city.  Most of the key landmarks are clustered within reasonable walking distance, making it an easy place to navigate on foot.  But it is one of the few cities in Southern Europe where the on/off bus really doesn’t work.  The double-decker buses do operate around the city perimeter, but most of the best sites are located within the interior, so it’s kind of pointless.  In a city where cars, and even public buses, are at best an afterthought, motorcycles outnumber scooters and bicycles are by far the preferred mode of transit.  But with all of the crazy tourists walking in the narrow streets, rather than the ridiculously narrow sidewalks, it is still the sort of place where you always need to pay attention.  I saw several bike riders run into idiots who were mindlessly snapping photos in the middle of the street.  It was really quite entertaining.
The locals seemed completely oblivious to the incredible swarm of tourists whose numbers are not limited or controlled in any apparent way. It was like they we all shared the same space but were living in parallel universes. The Florentines weren't unfriendly; they just didn't seem to notice we were even there…sort of like the Chinese.
Given the hordes of tourists that invade the heart of Florence each day, we found the place to be incredibly clean.  This is due in large part to the street sweepers that are constantly brushing the grey stone cobbled streets that are laid out like giant mosaics in artistic patterns that change with each street.
The sheer magnitude of the ancient architecture will make your eyes hurt.  After about an hour, you need to stop and drink a beer and just people watch, because the astonishing buildings will start to give you a headache.
We headed south toward the Arno River.  The throngs of tourists were hard to deal with as we all converged upon the extraordinary Ponte Vecchio.  The stone arched Vecchio Bridge, dating back to the year 996, spans the Arno and is covered in shops – something I had never seen before, but which was once a quite popular venue for butchers, and bakers, and candlestick makers. Today these Renaissance structures are home to art dealers, jewelers, and souvenir sellers.  Essentially, it’s a Medieval tourist trap where you can spend ten minutes waiting for a spot along the railing in the middle of the bridge to snap a quick photo.

The Vechio Bridge led us over to the south side of town, past a million more shops selling essentially the same things – at super inflated prices – and eventually we arrived at Piazza Dei Pitti in front of the Pitti Palace. This 15th century, three-stepped building of brown stone blocks with Byzantine arched windows looks more like a prison than a palace.  It was the chief residence of the Medici family, and in the late 18th century it was Napoleon’s Italian command center, and after that the royal palace of Italy.  Today, it is home to a treasure trove of art collections and is open to the public as a museum.
Being about as far from the bus as we could get, it began to rain.  Inna had her umbrella and I was wearing my trusty poncho, so we actually welcomed the wet weather because most of the tourists sought shelter and it made it much easier to get around.
We re-crossed the Vecchio Bridge and checked out the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s City Hall.  It looked like a tall, brown, cube reminiscent of a Scottish castle with a crenellated battlement and double-arched windows, sporting a solitary bell tower in the middle and a big white clock.
All streets in Florence lead to the The Duomo Cathedral, a heavenly structure unlike almost anything else on earth.  The dimensions of the building are ginormous and the north end is crowned with a 375-foot-tall marble dome covered in ornate orange bricks.  Like Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Duomo will knock you back on your heels.  What makes it so stunning is its color scheme. The neo-gothic façade looks like the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle of white, green and red marble.  Unlike Gaudi’s melting stone, the Duomo is solid as a rock, and yet delicate, like a mosaic wedding cake the height of the Washington Monument awash in color, covering a square block and towering into the heavens.  It reminded me of a giant stone toy, and left me smiling long after we moved on.
We met Luca back at his friend’s restaurant where I had the best lasagna I ever ate; it was like eating lasagna for the first time. They should have another name for it.
After our late lunch, the rain stopped and we grabbed a marble bench in Santa Croce Square where we watched all the tourists make fools of themselves.  For instance, many of the men wore their backpack on their bellies like they were pregnant in order to avoid the pickpockets that we were always being warned about.
And while we never heard about anyone actually falling victim to five finger thieves, Santa Croce Square was home to menacing Gypsy women – usually in groups of three – granny, daughter, and granddaughter – begging in the plaza and following people right into stores, screaming like seagulls and pointing to a picture of their poor "bambino". 
It was all endlessly amusing, as was the ride back to the ship.  By the time we arrived in La Spezia, Inna and I felt like we had traveled through a time machine.  We were ready for a boat drink and a gourmet dinner.  And the following day, we would get up and do it all again.

Next Stop: ROME
It is not a myth: Well dressed Italian men of any age are very handsome.


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