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: Hacktreks in Italy - From Our Archives

One Bus Short of a Nightmare
Erik Van Bommel seeking contemporary Florence.

There comes a point in one’s role as a tourist, I believe, when enough is enough. Sure, there’s always another castle you want to visit, another date you may want to know or another painting you feel you must see, but really, the tiny question, ‘why am I here,’ will undoubtedly raise its ugly head at a certain time as you live life amongst the awed and awful.

Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio

This juncture in my life – or as I prefer to call it - the epiphany, occurred when I was visiting the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. back in ’95. After lunch in a poorly ventilated, overused, understaffed restaurant my girlfriend and I popped outside for a breather prior to continuing our tour of American Natural History (I think!).
‘Wow,’ I said to her as we lay on the grass.
‘Say that again,’ she replied, after a long slurp on her warm coke through a ridiculously thin straw.
‘Did you see the size of that grasshopper?’ I asked, remembering the most amazing thing I had seen in the previous four hours.
‘No, what grasshopper? I don’t remember any grasshopper. How big was it?’
‘You must have seen it. It was enormous, as long as my foot, over by the, er. . in the, um . . . Well, it was big anyway. You don’t remember it?’
‘No,’ she said, flatly, as if what I had asked bore as much interest to her as the price of whale flesh interests a Masai warrior.
‘Oh. Don’t you want to, like, see it? Just to know what I’m talking about.’
She rolled over, took that last gurgling suck from the bottom of her can, put it on the grass, burped, wiped her face, and said, ‘Get Real, Erik. I’ve seen more stuff, more facts, more anecdotes, more hair, and more mock-ups, more of anything this morning – no, this holiday! - than I ever want to see in my lifetime, and you want to take me back? Think again. Anyway, I bet you couldn’t find your way back there directly.’

She was right. I could not remember where I had seen it, or its name, what had appeared before it and what had come after. Maybe it wasn’t even a grasshopper, but an ant. And I thought about it, again. She was really right, particularly about that lifetime bit. I’d had enough.

Do you remember the last hung picture you looked at in a gallery? Who painted it? When? On what? Of who? What about that 13th century cathedral you visited in France in ’01, or was it 12th Century? Do you remember how many years it took to build, how many people it can hold, how old its bells are, or what its name was? What made it so different to other cathedrals? And in Florence on that miserable February morning, do you remember seeing the Statue of David after queuing for three hours surrounded by hung-over American art students, in the rain? Of course not. And I bloody don’t either.

So what a joy it was to turn up in Florence on a pleasant Saturday morning in May, having no recollections of being here before (except negative ones, it was only three years earlier), no do-or-die urge to see this gallery, that church, those murals. In fact, I didn’t want to be here in the first place. It just so happened that we had done the other highlights of Tuscany in the previous eight days and felt what harm could it be just to visit Florence. On a whim, you might say.

Florence by Night
We (myself, my wife, and our one-year-old) parked the car well away from the centre and walked the 1.5km into the centre. We had only a photocopy of a large-scale map of Florence for a guide, a couple of euros in our pockets and no camera’s. Well, just a disposable. For the kids, you understand. As we followed the Arno, large tourist buses passed us almost continuously. Staring out of the windows were faces on their way to nirvana (‘Day One: Arrive airport 6.30am; onto Florence and breakfast’), or to the prison farm (‘Day Ten: Lunch in Florence; Depart airport: 4pm’). These last faces only grew more grotesque the gaudier the liverage on the sides of the buses got; sun-beaten skin and dreary eyes were no match for corny, smiling, caricatured suns wearing sunglasses. By the way, would a sun really wear sunglasses?

Our map marked several of the main tourist attractions but just the mere fact they were mentioned disinclined us to search them out. Anyway, as we meandered the streets we would surely come across the magnificent structures we had traipsed past the last time. We were bound to come across a little church with that striking entrance or perhaps that piazza where we had been served such an unforgettably lovely lunch. Surely the bronze statues of whatzisface and thingamee would naturally materialize before our eyes on the opposing wall of a museum. And not forgetting that street full of Haute Couture, its clients’ Mercedes’ and BMW’s parked in their doorways. I fought to remember any particularly striking piece of Florence. I couldn’t, accept for one. What easily sprang to mind were seas of tourists, scurrying from portico to vestry trying to keep the 200mm lens, the flimsy straw hat from that legless vendor in Rome, and the 5ltr. fanny-pack (such a cute American word) full of God-only-knows, dry, as spring rains failed in dampening their ardour.

Aah, yes, the tourists. Did you know that if you put all the tourists in the world in the Grand Canyon the net result would be more tourists? It would be the ultimate attraction. Much like Florence. With its plethora of churches and museums and its encyclopaedic amount of history it truly is one of the great must-do’s on any tourist’s wish list, and in every Tour-package brochure. And so it appears: In three-day ‘Tour of the Tuscan Jewels,’ five-day ‘Total Tastes of Italy,’ or the behemoth ‘Marvels of the Med – six countries, thirteen cities of the majestic Mediterranean in 10 days, fully escorted by knowledgeable, experienced guides!’

The ‘escorted’ and ‘experienced’ are the parts that really goad me. Imagine paying a sizeable portion of my yearly disposable income, only to be dragged around a city containing 200-odd spectacular ‘things’ following a lethargic, little-flag-bearing guide I can’t hear, with people I would more often than not loathe, at a pace I can’t enjoy, taking photos I don’t comprehend, and all at a price that screams ‘value!’ What do we expect as tourists nowadays, what is it that drives us to be in such a hurry and demand a product that on the whole leaves us saying, ‘if only I had?’ and ‘If only I could?’
‘If only I could remember that church,’ Sue said, pointing, as we entered a Piazza swaying with Hawaii shirts and open guide books.
‘You know, I remember those stripes in the marble. They’re very striking. Very rare, too. What was its name?’
I looked at our map and made something up. ‘The Chiesa Del’Arno, built in 1899,’ I proclaimed. I had already spied two identically festooned churches at the opposite end of cavernous streets, lit up like gods in the sun.
‘"Chiesa Del’Arno," you say. 'Yeah, I think I remember. Just like the river.’
‘Quite,’ I replied.

We travelled on, stepping dexterously out of the way of another little-flag bearer. ‘And do you remember this?’ I asked as we swung down into a nondescript alleyway. ‘That café,’ I gestured, as we approached as yet empty chairs and tables outside on the cobbles, ‘was where we saw that mugging, remember?’
‘Mugging? Here? I don’t remember a mugging. Are you sure?’
She caught my eye and I had to smile at her.
‘That’s not the name of the church either, is it?’ she asked.
‘And it was built a lot longer than 104 years ago, too. Don’t worry about it. Just walk around and enjoy it for what it is. Drop the pretence. You’ll remember more, I promise.’

We continued on our way, turning left here, right there, at random, trying to get a feel for a city collapsing under the weight of socks-and-sandaled feet. Even stopping by three harried middle-aged backpackers, swollen day packs at their feet, and offering them partially misleading, yet confident advice on where exactly their present location was, did only a little to lift my spirits. They had got separated from the group and had to be at their bus in less than five minutes. It seemed to me a great deal further away than that.

‘Are we really that close to the river, Erik? And how do you know where we are anyway?’ Sue asked, having overheard my directions, and watched my confusing, if somewhat confident, arm waving.
‘Street signs, Sue, street signs. And no, we’re not close at all, but they hadn’t seen the Vecchia Bridge from the southern side; they had only walked over it quickly and then moved on. I just thought they should see it. With my directions it will take them longer to get to the bus, but at least they’ll have photos different from their tour-group. Plus they’ll probably end up buying some of those art prints those hawkers have lying on the footpath. Do you remember how bad they all were? They’ll love ‘em.’

With a public service performed I felt slightly better. Also, with their map I found out where we were. There was one thing I wanted to see again and that was the Pont il’Vecchia. This was perhaps because we have a fantastic photo in our house taken from halfway across it of the bridge upriver. Even though it was a miserable day the colours of Tuscany still came through, mesmerising me each time I looked at the photo. Crossing the bridge the memories came back: The lewd gold jewellers, the gawkers, the hangers-on, the lost, and the locals. They were all here, swarming and shoving, shuffling and hanging, and so we carried on to the south bank where we had failed to look at the first time.

As it contains features of Florence not so famous, this part of town is less marked by the blight of tourism. But wait, we are still encumbered by a tour group coming towards us following their lame little-flag, ears straining to hear the monologue drone of its holder, all the while heads in a pamphlet trying to ascertain where they are now, and therefore what they were looking at two minutes ago. Just down from them we come across an elderly couple frantically struggling to hold their oversized map the right way between them. I make to assist them in whatever way possible, but luckily for them Sue holds my arm back.
This breaks the spell and I stop. Dead. ‘Come on,’ I say. ‘Let’s get out of here, eh?’ Sue looks down at our little charge, dozing in her pram, then back at the bickering map-holders. ‘Yes, lets. It seems such a pity little Annie isn’t getting to enjoy it, though.’ I was about to correct her, but she shoots me a look and I renege.

In any case Annie woke up as we approached what seemed to us to be an abandoned Merry-go-round in a large, forgotten Piazza. Passing it, we jumped as the bells clanged and the horses juddered into life. Annie’s eyes lit up, we set her upon a particularly proud looking stead and proceeded to take photos of her tourism experience. But the carousel stopped after four rotations and we were wearily told to get down. It wasn’t broken, that’s just what we paid for.

Harangued enough we carried on back easily retracing our steps, all the while dodging diesel exhausts from the many buses parked up along the banks of the Arno, and just in time to spot a well-equipped playground on the other side of the road. Here, under enormous hanging olive trees and in tired grass, amongst real Italians and their kids Annie spent her best hour of the whole day. She got to practise her ‘ciaos’ with other bambino’s, as well as teach ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ to a patient father awaiting his son’s turn on the swings. The Dad’s apparent joy at conversing in English was touching. It also provided us with our best memories of Florence.

© Erik van Bommel Feb 2004
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