As the tourist season starts in Italy, the savvy visitor knows to keep in mind that one of the Italian national pastimes is to go on strike. Some years see more of lo sciopero than others, but in these difficult economic and political times in Italy it is certain that 2014 is predicted to be a year of delays and inconvenience.
Just last month, I was on my way to France via trains from Florence to Milan and Milan to Lyon. The day of my travels, the Italian national railways went on strike for eight hours. Lucky for me I was traveling to Milan with the fantastic private rail company Italo and then on to France with the French TGV. But this is what the schedule board looked like in Milan. Note especially the cancellation of trains to the international Malpensa airport.
Lo Sciopero is a strike or temporary work stoppage. A sciopero can be national or regional or local and can affect only one service sector or many. They inconvenience everyone and help no one, but Italians keep exercising their right to strike.
The most common strikes are local, usually lasting from four hours to one day. Strikes often involve the transportation sector. They are almost invariably announced in advance, which at least helps alert travelers to plan around the dates of strikes and arrange alternative modes of transportation. Occasionally, to make things more complicated, they are cancelled or postponed at short notice.
There are many rail strikes in Italy. They generally take place at the weekend, from Saturday evening until Sunday evening. The law guarantees a minimum service, so some trains should still run. There are also frequent strikes of urban transport. These scioperi are generally announced in advance, and many city transport authorities will try to negotiate continuation of service during the rush hour to help commuters.
A large proportion of Italy’s air travel strikes have involved Alitalia, the perpetually troubled Italian national airline. Sometimes there are more wide-ranging strikes by ground staff or by air traffic controllers, and unfortunately there’s not much travelers can do about this, other than be patient. These strikes usually last several hours; sometimes they simply delay flights, at other times they can lead to cancellations.
Other strikes in Italy – by schoolteachers, students, taxi drivers, garbage collectors, tobacco sellers, even bloggers (2009 to protest a restrictive bill in Parliament) add to the ever-growing variety of Scioperi Italiani. Strikes may even occur in sympathy with strikers from other countries.
Work stoppages by state employees may affect museum openings. Strikes at individual museums will almost always be timed to back up against the weekly closed day.
Strikes in any industry happen almost every year in the week leading up to and after the national August 15 holiday.
The granddaddy of all strikes is the national strike (lo sciopero nazionale), all transportation may be stopped or experience a slow-down, garbage won’t be collected, museums will be closed, and many stores, including supermarkets will be shut. National strikes are fairly rare, but it’s a day most Italians know it is hopeless to try to get anything done, better to stay home and catch up on sleep, read a good book or try out that new recipe for slow-cooking peposo di cinghiale.
Among my friends and family, they know how much I hate Italian Post Offices. Some have described it as a phobia: ufficiopostalefobia (postophobia (var. Italian)).
Actually, it is not the post office building that I object to. There are many incredibly beautiful post offices in Italy.
It’s the people who work there.
Actually, before the byzantine numbering system was put in place, I disliked everyone I came into contact with at the post office, because when we all had to stand in a waiting line, Italians (men or women) seemed to think the closer they were pressed to the back of the person in front of them (me), the faster they would get to the window. Or they (mostly the wily pensioners) would cut in front of me with “solo una piccola domanda” (only a short question).
Actually, it’s also that computerized numbering system, now in place in most of Florence’s post offices, I loathe. Because although it has been explained to me that it was the fruit of a scientific study that determined that the pattern of letters and numbers it spits out is the fastest and fairest way to get people served at the post office, I can (in the hour that I am sitting waiting for P178 to appear) unscientifically observe that there are only two windows serving P (for postal) clients, including those with fifty registered letters to have stamped, inscribed, digitally recorded, and sent, and one or the other of the employees behind those two P windows will step away for a pausa (break) at frequent intervals.
Actually, I don’t dislike the people behind the windows (well, except for one or two, and those who live in Florence know to whom I’m referring), I abhor the bureaucratic system in which they have their secure jobs-for-life and I assume they are as unhappy to be there as I am. They sure seem sad. Not a smiley face among them.
Actually, I didn’t mean to disgorge all of the above because today, I got a present.
But first, a little background. I follow (mostly lurking) the Italian Reflections Group (IRG) on Facebook. It’s a fabulous group of about 1,042 English reading/writing expats living in Italy. About a week ago one of the IRGers posted a diverting story about how on her third trip to the post office to try to mail her EU-bound holiday cards, she was informed that they were smaller than standard size so the postage for these too dainty missives would be 2.50 euro ($3.44) each, instead of the standard rate of 85 centesimi (cents) ($1.16). She, being more polite than me, did not stomp off cursing. She asked if the postage would drop to .85 if she put each holiday envelope into a standard envelope. The answer was “Dipende …” It depended on whether the weight of the combined envelopes and card exceeded the maximum weight for standard postage.
I then told this postal story to Francesca, the Florentine, in an attempt to justify my fobia. She snorted and said, “Well obviously she does not have a “Bustometro.” “Huh?” I said.
Soon after I was the proud owner of the two-sided document seen here:
On this side is the measurement guide so that the sender can verify the size of the “corrispondenza” before she sends it. It’s easy! Just place the envelope or post card on the bustometro so that the right lower corner fits and then find out if it is “normalizzata” or, in other words, if the upper left corner fits inside the area colored red.
If you are still confused, the other side of the bustometro shows you exactly how to use the form, with added info about how to address and stamp your envelope. If that wasn’t enough, there are also warnings not to include keys, pins, and paperclips in the contents of your mailing. (If you click on either of these photos you can see all of the fine details.)
You may not find as much comfort as I do from this gift. (OBTW it was issued in the late 1970s or early ’80s.) But I got a tremendous amount of validation that I am, and always have been, correct about how much joy and satisfaction can be gotten from the Italian Post Office experience.
Italian Life Rules (the book) is coming in Summer 2014. Italian Food Rules by Ann Reavis is available now. You can buy Italian Food Rules by using these links:
Firenze Card vs. Amici degli Uffizi Pass Revisited
Attention: Effective as of June 15, 2015, the Regional Secretary of the former Superintendency of the State Museums of Florence stipulated that Amici deli Uffizi members, holding valid membership and ID cards, are eligible for the free entrance and the priority pass to the Uffizi Gallery only. This severely limits the benefits of the card.
It allows me to return again and again to my favorite museums (i.e. re-entry).
The organization uses the money to restore art and to promote free exhibitions of art not usually seen in Florence museums.
It has a family offer that allows families with up to two adults and two children under the age of 18 to get cards for a total of 100 euro. The definition of “family” is inclusive so grandparents and grandchildren, multiple generations, and couples of all sorts can qualify.
But then I slowly came to see the value of the 50 euro (no family plan) Firenze Card for my clients and visitors because:
It is accepted by twice as many museums (state- and city-run). This includes the Galileo Museum, Palazzo Strozzi and the Palazzo Vecchio.
It has a Wi-Fi card that works at most spots around the city.
It is accepted as a city bus pass.
I did not like these aspects of the Firenze Card:
It expires after 72 hours.
It does not allow re-entry into a museum.
I could only see the value for people who were in town for three or four days, no longer.
I even did the math to see who should get a Firenze Card and who should get the Amici deli Uffizi Pass.
HOWEVER, two things happened in May/June that changed my mind.
First, the city raised the cost of the Firenze Card to 72 euro, but still no discount for children or elders (except minors and over 65ers with EU passports) and no family plan.
Second, the Italian state government decreed that all of the world’s children under the age of 18 have the right to enter the state-owned museums (Uffizi, Accademia, and Bargello, among others) for free. (If you are over 65 and have a U.S. passport, apparently you still have to pay full price.)
I think 72 euro for 72 hours is much too expensive for the number of museums a normal person can fit into three days (this does not include my friend Barbara, who is normal, but who could get her money’s worth). To just break-even you would have to see the the three most expensive museums – Uffizi, Accademia, and Strozzi – as well as the Bargello, Galileo, Palazzo Vecchio, Brancacci Chapel, Museo San Marco and at least two of the museums in the Pitti Palace. (To be fair, if I add the cost of the reservations to the Uffizi and the Accademia (4 euro each) because you get in with the Card just as fast as those with reservations, then you can cut off one museum to break-even with the card.) This includes my assumption that “free” bus rides and “free” WiFi are basically worthless to the three-day visitor to Florence.
If you have kids with you (even teenagers, or especially teenagers) you are probably only going to visit the Uffizi and the Accademia on a three day visit. Since those tickets are free, you do not need to buy a Firenze Card for them. But should the parents get a 72 euro Firenze Card? The question that I can not find an answer for is: If the parents have a Firenze Card, can their kids skip the line with them or do the children need a reservation? (The museums still charge 4 euro per child for the reservations.)
Presently, I think families should get the Amici deli Uffizi Card (for a family of four the math works out to 25 euro per person with no questions about reservations). Individuals who love to power through museums, only have three days in Florence, and hate to pay their hotel 9 euro a day for WiFi should get the Firenze Card.
But What About The Duomo?
Just to make it a bit more confusing this summer, the Opera del Duomo decided that they wanted to “simplify” the ticketing process for the the various sites at the Duomo. The so-called Grande Museo del Duomo was created in July (always fun to try out a new system in the middle of the high tourist season). Now you do not have a choice of paying only to climb the dome. Instead, you have to buy a 10 euro ticket that includes entry to Galleria dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore (the museum), Brunelleschi’s Dome, Giotto’s Bell Tower, Baptistry of San Giovanni, and the Crypt of Santa Reparata (inside the cathedral).
Entry for the cathedral itself is still free and the Grande Museo del Duomo ticket does not get you through the line any faster.
Holders of the Firenze Card do have free entry to the Grande Museo del Duomo, but must stop by the ticket office for a pass to enter the venues. Holders of the Amici degli Uffizi Pass must pay to get into the sites in Piazza del Duomo (except the free entry to the cathedral).
Ticket offices are another change at the Duomo. If you want to climb Brunelleschi’s Dome you do not get into line at the north door until you buy the ticket at one of the four ticket offices (bell tower, crypt, museum, or in the “Art & Congress” building across from the entry door of the Baptistry (very poor signage, but good bathrooms for a fee).
One final note: The Galleria dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore (the museum behind the Duomo) is virtually closed until 2015 (the ticket office is open). The only exhibits on display are the original Ghiberti “Doors of Paradise” from the Baptistry and the “Deposition” by Michelangelo, as well as a couple of lesser-known statues, one of which was damaged by a guy from Connecticut a couple of weeks ago. I wish they would add the “Mary Magdalene” by Donatello to the small collection, but maybe there is not enough space to protect the statue.
Florence is a living museum, a museum that reminds us that not everything changes even in this age of Google and smart phones.
The early Renaissance orphanage Ospedale degli Innocenti in Piazza SS. Annunziata had a foundling wheel known as culla per la vita (life cradle) where unwanted newborns could be left anonymously to save them from a watery death in the Arno. Today, a society that honors Padre Pio has a modern culla per la vita, located across from the small church of San Remigio in the Santa Croce neighborhood. Its purpose is the same – to give foundlings a safe haven – in a special spot, cared for by special people.
The statue of Dante in front of Santa Croce reminds us of the great literary achievement of a medieval genius, who is being celebrated today by Roberto Benigni in Tutto Dante and is getting another kind of pop culture fame in an international bestseller.
The Santa Trinita Bridge owes it design to Michelangelo and Ammannati in 1567 and was so important that it was rebuilt with the same stones to the same design after the German troops blew it up in 1944.
Piazza Signoria contains one of the largest collections of original sculptures available for public viewing free of charge. The Neptune by Ammannati, the copy of Michelangelo’s David and Pio Fedi’s Rape of Polyxena and Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women are all favorites.
The Baptistry and the Duomo are at the heart of the city and have been in the hearts of residents and visitors for seven hundred years.
But Then Came The Study-Abroad Programs
An estimated 7,000 Americans, 80 percent of whom are women, come to Florence every year through about 40 study-abroad programs. This and the advent of Snooki and her gang from the Jersey Shores in 2011, and another hundred short tours by American high school and college student groups, have resulted in a bad rep for Americans in Florence, basically undoing any good opinion, left over from World War II, held by Florentines over sixty, and the respect once held by everyone else regarding American ingenuity, intelligence and drive.
On July 25, 2013, at least two sloppy drunk American college students wandered into Piazza San Remigio. For some reason one young man decided to test the door of the culla per la vita and when the four-foot high, two-foot wide, door slid open he stuffed his intoxicated female friend inside. As the glass door closed, she proceeded to treat this climate-controlled, pristine haven for babies as her own disco cage and commenced singing and dancing to the amusement of her friends. What they apparently didn’t notice was the sign in four languages that warns that once the door closes it will lock until the medical volunteers arrive.
Arrive they did. The Catholic Church volunteer service, known as the Misericordia, received the automatic alarm from the culla per la vita and they pulled up in an ambulance within minutes to find the drunken twosome. They did not immediately release the performing girl. They called the police. The young man ran off to get his friends. They returned and started to rain abuse down on the heads of the medical personnel. One American claimed to be a lawyer and threatened legal proceedings. The Misericordia volunteers asked for names and phone numbers. Those were refused. Because the police did not arrive in a timely manner, and in fear that the foundling window would be damaged, the volunteers felt they had to release the inebriated girl. The story was reported throughout the local newspapers, including here, here, here, here and here. The unifying points in each of these articles is that she was American and she was drunk.
In June 2012, among the wheels of the scooters, parked at the foot of Santa Croce’s statue of Dante, two drunk randy American students decided to partially strip and engage in intercourse on the pavement. They were filmed for YouTube and immortalized via smart phones. Their parents and grandparents must be proud of this educational experience gained in the Renaissance City.
At least once a month when it’s warm the vigili chase Anita Ekberg wannabes out of the Neptune Fountain in Piazza Signoria. The fine is 160 euro. In 1991, a man in his underpants scaled Neptune and tried to remove the spiky pigeon deterrent ring from around his head. In 2005, drunken youths managed to break off the diety’s right hand, a toe and a seashell, just to get a cell phone photo.
Tourists and students have tried to climb on the copy of Michelangelo’s David and the statues on the Loggia dei Lanzi. Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women was damaged in 1971 and 1987, and Fedi’s Rape of Polyxena was defaced in 1971, 1982 and this year.
Last month, one night around midnight, I was reading The Paris Wife about the bad behavior of Americans Ernest, Scott and Zelda in France, when I heard a group of people yelling in English in the street outside my open window – not an uncommon occurrence since I live in the shadow of the dome, a half block from the cathedral. First, an American girl was asking her friend if they should urinate “right here.” Then, the two drunk twentysomething boys laughed and did just that against the wall of the jewelry shop across the street. They seemed somewhat miffed when I yelled at them to leave my street before I called the police and that they made me embarrassed to be an American living in Florence. I admit that I also opined on their behavior, their upbringing, and their parentage until they turned the corner.
Unrelated, but still in my neighborhood, three weeks later, graffiti reading “Shotty#1 crew” was scribbled on the 800-yearold marble facade of the the cathedral’s Baptistry with black permanent marker (perpetrator unknown).
Not a New Problem
Certainly, all of the uncivilized, disrespectful behavior that occurs in Florence can not be laid at the feet of American students, but the number of alcohol related events and injuries: a student severely injured from fall off apartment balcony at party (2003); Arizona high school student at disco (with group chaperoned by teacher) has permanent brain damage after being assaulted with a golf club (2007); and finally, young American soldier, drunk and apparently role-playing the video game Assassin’s Creed fell to his death from a rooftop in Piazza della Repubblica (2011), make the naysayers’ arguments weak. Moreover, a 2012 study abroad student shared a maddening set of stories from the first couple of days of her Florence program and ended her post with: “All in all, Italians do enjoy a good drink and having a fun time. But in a whole semester of studying abroad, I can’t remember a single time I saw an Italian stumbling around drunk and making a scene on the way to a club. As for Americans… there are more times than I could ever count.”
Moderation One of the most fundamental rules of Italian culture is moderation. At first glance, Italians might seem to drink a lot, but upon a closer look, quite the opposite is true. They do drink – spumante to celebrate, limoncello to digest, aperitivo to taste and vino to mix with food – but with moderation, not in order to get drunk. In fact, the quickest way to lose the respect of your Italian friends and neighbors is to get drunk in public. Drinking on the streets is also considered very disrespectful.
However, not much seems to change. The mayor has weighed in on the problem with pressure on both the the school programs and the bars, but found he could not do much to influence the schools and got a major push back from the establishments making so much money off of the sale of alcohol to American teenagers and college students.
After fifteen years living in Florence, and almost as many writing about it, I’m not sure why this constant irritation has finally burst forth to a point that I had to write about it before I could sleep well again. Maybe it was the thought of the stupid girl dancing on the baby’s bed, but more likely it was the two Americans who were planning to pee on my doorstep and the other two who, in fact, did so in full view of my window. Heaven knows this isn’t the first time a drunk has stunk up my street, but it is the first time I’ve had to listen to them talk about it first.
And, of course, don’t get me started on the group of eleven Americans who made a reservation at a small Florentine restaurant and did not call to cancel, but never showed up …
They say a combination of heavy rain, strong winds and warmer than usual temperatures have put Italy under water this week. But I know the truth. My friend – let’s call him Giorgio – arrived in Florence this week after causing that wet thing called Sandy a couple of weeks ago in his hometown of Washington, DC and his other place out in Virginia.
Now the Arno is getting to the highest level since the flood of 1966 (nobody knows where Giorgio was that November). Be warned! Giorgio plans to stay in Florence until December. He’s also scheduling a side trip to Rome for the Vermeers (luckily the Scuderie del Quirinale are on a hill).
Giorgio has lived many places. One of which was Florence, a decade ago, where his apartment was below the water table, cut into a hill in the Oltrarno. To add to the problem, his upstairs neighbor’s 100-year-old pipes broke and leaked through the bedroom ceiling.
Something similar happened in his apartment in London and although they blamed it on climate change, the rain in central England during the years of Giorgio’s sojourn there reached record levels. He sold up and moved. In Washington, he lives in a once-famous place with an H2O name. There, his plumber broke the pipe to his bathroom sink causing the building to have its water cut off for repairs. (I may not be remembering this accurately, but somebody, besides Giorgio, was very angry.)
When he left Florence for London, he kindly gave me his sisal area rug. Two months later, the workers repairing my roof failed to cover it properly on a weekend when it rained continuously. The livingroom ceiling (200-years-old, made of terracotta bricks, plaster and insulated with straw – thus, yellow- and siena-colored water poured through) caved in, ruining Grigorio’s carpet.
I have posited the theory that in a past life Grigorio got on the wrong side of Neptune and he has been paying for it since. Just two days before the recent rains brought the high water in Florence, the residential water was turned off (ostensibly for for street repairs) in a two block radius around the apartment building he is staying in near the Duomo Now the Arno, which still has a riverbed as shallow as it was in 1966, is rising.
In Venice, visitors expect to see water – but not this much of it. This past week tourists have been wading through waterlogged cafes and swimming across St. Mark’s Square after heavy rainfall caused some of the famous Italian city’s worst floods in years.
Authorities say 70 percent of Venice was underwater this week. Water levels rose as much as 5ft above average in the past few days, which makes it the city’s sixth-worst flood on record.
Even before the storm (and to be fair, before Giorgio arrived in Italy), Venetian waters have been higher than normal for more than two weeks now. The seasonal “acqua alta,” or high water, periodically occurs when high tides coincide with strong prevailing winds.
The same bad weather caused floods and mudslides across northern Italy, with some 200 people evacuated from parts of Tuscany, including the neighborhood below Orvieto and in the Maremma region.
Italy is the country that found the scientists guilty of manslaughter for failing to predict the earthquake in 2008 that leveled L’Aquila. Giorgio, or whatever his name really is, should be worried if the Arno continues to rise. (I should be worried because he is taking care of my cats.)
We weren’t there for the celebrations, but in August the town of Predappio, Italy, seemed haunted by Benito Mussolini, all the same.
Most Italians just try to forget about it, but they have just had to face up to this tricky subject again, as October 28 is the 90th anniversary of Mussolini’s “March on Rome” (1922) that brought the Fascist leader to power and enabled him to stay there for 23 years.
For many years after the fall of fascism, Italians turned their backs on their recent history. The fascist party was banned, the history curriculum in Italian schools even stopped at World War I. But gradually in the 21st Century old taboos are being broken.
The dress code for the celebration is rigorously black. The chants nostalgic, a medley of Fascist truisms peppered with clipped bursts of “Duce, Duce, Duce” will be hushed when the parade enters the cemetery in this central Italian town this week to arrive at its mecca: the tomb of the former Fascist dictator.
It’s always thus in Predappio, three times a year, a strange and scary group of odd fellows gather – the older black-suited Mercedes owners, the young tattooed skinheads, military-styled (also dressed in black) middle-agers, who unload black SUVs of pretty Stepford wives and two to four children, all coming to commemorate the day of Mussolini’s birth (on July 29, 1883, in a house not far from the cemetery), his death (at the hands of partisans on April, 28, 1945) or the March on Rome, which brought Mussolini’s party to power in Italy in October 1922. This year, on the 90th anniversary, the crowds are sure to be bigger and more strident in these time of economic turmoil when the trains do not run on time.
Mussolini’s tomb gets between 80,000 and 100,000 visitors a year, with peaks during the three commemorations.
After Mussolini’s corpse was hung upside down on meat hooks on April 29, 1945, in Piazzale Loreto in Milan, where citizens vented their fury at their former leader, he was buried in an unmarked grave in a nearby cemetery. A year later, neo-Fascist loyalists dug up his body and hid it in box in a convent in Lombardy until 1957, when the remains were returned to Mussolini’s widow, who buried them in the family crypt in Predappio. Supposedly, the brain took a separate path, but was eventually reunited with the corpse.
Such veneration weighed on Italy’s leaders in 1945. After Mussolini was killed, a decision was made to obscure his grave site, much the way military officials in the Transitional National Council of Libya chose to bury Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in a secret location last month and American commandos buried Osama bin Laden at sea in May, to avoid creating a shrine for their supporters.
In fact, Italian authorities’ efforts to hide the burial site backfired on them, as its location rapidly became a matter of intense interest. “The vitality of Mussolini’s afterworld life was great as long as the mausoleum didn’t exist. A corpse that is nowhere is everywhere,” said Sergio Luzzatto, a historian at the University of Turin who wrote The Body of Il Duce about the corpse’s travels. The popular documentary Il Corpo del Duce was inspired by the book.
“Italians lived the absence of the body as a presence, so continuing the love story between Italians and their leader, which was very carnal in many ways,” Luzzatto wrote. That story ended when the body was returned to the family and “it became fixed and sepulchral,” primarily in the guest books at the tomb, where visitors can sign and leave comments. New commemorative, adoring metal plaques, dated 2011 and 2012, keep getting attached to the walls of the underground tomb where Benito is not alone – he is surrounded by the long past and recently deceased Mussolini family members.
Still this October other admirers will come to glorify an epoch in which they believe that Italy, in contrast to today, counted for something in the world. Some today think that Italy needs a distinct change – that it is the laughingstock of Europe, especially after the Berlusconi bunga-bunga years.
A museum of Duce memorabilia opened in 2001, curated by Domenico Morosini, a successful Lombardy businessman, in what was once a Mussolini summer home. The registers are shelved under a beam inscribed with a Mussolini citation: “It is not impossible to govern Italians, merely useless.” The museum gets between 2,000 and 3,000 people a year.
On Predappio’s main street, bordered by a jarring number of gargantuan Fascist-designed buildings, on a steaming hot day in August we toured a handful of shops doing brisk business in Fascist memorabilia, selling everything from truncheons to bronze busts of the long-dead leader to Mussolini calendars and authentic German helmets, circa 1945. Ever felt a cold chill climb the back of your neck on hot summer day?
This is just the kind of tourism that Predappio’s center-left mayor, Giorgio Frassineti, would rather avoid. “We refuse a vision of Predappio of the few, of the people who attend the commemorations, but also of those from the extreme left who want to cancel its history,” Frassineti told a New York Times reporter, apparently straddling the divide that splits this tiny haunted community.
To see what happened October 28, 2012 view the videos in this article.
I have a friend who recently visited Florence for a week with a to-do list that didn’t allow for standing in line for hours – too much to see, too little time. Unfortunately, Florence is the city of lines and, although with some planning a resident or visitor can reserve spots (for a price) in a shorter line at some of the museums, there was no way to avoid the queue at the Duomo. My friend solved her problem by signing up for a 15 euro tour of the cathedral that she didn’t want to take, but this saved her from standing with hundreds of people, waiting to get in the front door.
I have another friend who is one of those “it’s Tuesday so it must be Florence” type of traveler. He has to see the Uffizi, the David, the Duomo and the Baptistery between 9am and 7pm – no time for lines.
To the rescue comes the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and a Milan-based company called Key Fast. In partnership, they are trying to give visitors (tourists and citizens, alike) the option to skip the lines at the Duomo (visited by over 25,000 people per day), Brunelleschi’s Dome (approx. 2,000 climbers/day), Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Baptistery, the Duomo Crypt and the Museo Opera del Duomo. The cost? A mere 7 euro for a Priority Pass that is good for unlimited expedited entries for an entire year. (To be clear: this card does not get you free entry, just fast entry (see below).)
For the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, this is forward thinking, unexpected of the 715 year-old lay organization that is charged with the conservation of the cathedral. For Key Fast, operating as ARTFAST, it was “simply” seeing a need and providing a solution.
One wishes that listless Ministero per I Beni e le Attivitá Culturali and bureaucratic Polo Fiorentino Museale, which are charged with solving the dual disasters of the never-ending lines at the Uffizi and the Accademia, take note of the ingenuity of the spry Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.
ARTFAST is a gem of an idea of the folks behind the year-old SKIFAST smart card. (SKIFAST allows skiers to get on the slopes faster by skipping the lines at the lift ticket windows.) ARTFAST, using the various sites in Piazza del Duomo as a trial operation, eventually hopes to aid visitors in Rome, Milan and Venice, to move more quickly into venues to marvel at the art and history, rather than roast slowly in the August sun. And, hopefully, ongoing negotiations will result in the service being offered at other museums in Florence (there may be hope for the Uffizi and Accademia, yet).
Visitors (and residents) can choose to buy the card and then go directly to the Priority Pass entrance (it may be a different door, it maybe a different speedy lane to the original entrance). Once inside, if there is an entrance fee (as with Brunelleschi’s Dome or the Baptistery) the Priority Pass holder will go immediately to the kiosk to purchase an entry ticket. If there is no entry fee, as with the main sanctuary of the Duomo, those with the Priority Pass will merely show their card to the attendant and enter (later, this activity will be mechanized with a swipe of the smart card).
ARTFAST hopes that soon the visit to the ticket kiosk will be unnecessary because of plans to install (at the cost to the Key Fast company of over 100,000 euro) a wi-fi smart card system that will allow ARTFAST cardholders to pay the fee by swiping the same card that allows them expedited entry.
All aspects of the service are not in place yet (wi-fi repeaters and smartcard readers need to be installed in very wi-fi-unfriendly ancient stone structures (something the prescient Brunelleschi never envisioned), therefore ARTFAST is testing parts of the system by using a simple plastic pass that is being sold by company representatives outside the door to the ticket office at the bottom of the stairway to Brunelleschi’s Dome. They can take all credit cards (except Amex), as well as debit cards. In the first ten days of the trial period, ARTFAST has been surprised and gratified by the popularity of the service. The initial supply of cards has run low some days.
As an American, I could tell them that my compatriots, on a hot (hitting over 100 F this week) museum-filled day in Florence, would be happy to pay 7 euro to be spared 30 to 45 minutes in line. (Today, I counted 408 people in the queue outside the Duomo just before the door opened at 10am.) This is especially true since the card works in five locations and can be used over and over (by the same person) for a full year. Reportedly, tourists from Spain, however, are outnumbering Americans in purchasing the pass.
Italian newspapers, trying to work up a bit of controversy, argue the card discriminates against the poor who can’t afford to expedite entry into the cost-free Duomo. This is an accusation without basis. The ARTFAST service actually shortens the line for those who don’t take part by getting Priority Pass holders out of the queue. When, in the near future, tour operators and their huge groups use it, the pass will make the Duomo line a thing of the past.
Reportedly, the priests are concerned that the marketing the ARTFAST pass makes it look like the Duomo is not open for free visits (please note that fees are charged at Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella and San Lorenzo…). Hopefully, they will soon realize this is merely a time-saving service that allows hundreds of people to be amazed and awed at the wonders of the third largest cathedral in the world, rather than be forced by time constraints (and perhaps, lack of patience) to forsake a visit the Duomo because of the incredible line.
So I cheer myself up by the realization that the taxi situation in Florence has, hopefully forever, been changed for the better by a new cooperative of all-female taxi drivers – inTaxiFirenze.
As most visitors to Florence know taxi rides are quite expensive. However, they are also one of the only ways to get home if you’re out past bus hours and far away. Going in groups is one way to cut the cost, but night time rates include an extra fee.
Also, in most instances you can’t just flag down a cab; you must call by phone for one or go to a taxi stand (in front of the train station, in Piazza della Repubblica, Piazza San Marco, Porta Romana, behind the Duomo, etc.).
Two months ago, I had to call for cabs for ten clients in the rain. To call, you give the address where you need to be picked up to a phone operator and wait for the dispatcher to give the name of the taxi which is coming to pick you up (e.g., “Parigi 23”). The dispatcher will also tell you how long before the taxi arrives, which usually is within three to five minutes. To get three cabs, I had to call three times. On the second call the dispatcher, who had caller i.d., argued with me about whether this was the first cab or an extra. On the third call the operator refused to answer.
Supposedly, women traveling alone in a taxi are entitled to a 10% discount between the hours of 9pm to 2am. There is also a discount of 15% for hospital destinations between the visiting hours of 1pm-3pm and 7-9pm. These discounts will not be applied unless you insist on them.
But back to the good news. There are nine women who have formed an all-female taxi service in Florence that operates from 5am to 11pm daily. All of the drivers in this new taxi cooperative speak English. Word is that they are becoming quite popular and are getting a lot of negative pressure from the good-ol’-boy network in the taxi union. More information about this service (in Italian) can be found at: www.inTaxiFirenze.it, Their telephone number is longer and not as easy to remember as those for regular cabs, but in a cell phone’s memory it is just a click away: 055 200 1326.
InTaxiFirenze also offers a frequent-rider program. After ten rides you get a discount of 5 euro off the fare for the next trip. “Service with a smile” has never been a thought that entered my head when I entered a Florentine taxi until I met the ladies at inTaxi.
The mayor says he’s going to fix it, but he doesn’t seem to have time while he’s throwing White Night festivities and Blue Night parties and stopping the bus system in its track by creating the fabulous pedestrian zone around the Duomo. He’s having equal trouble with potholes. But potholes and graffiti aren’t sexy and aren’t likely to disappear. So I will stay Burnt To A Crisp about the graffiti destroying Florence.
The mayor granted a permit to OPEN YOUR EYES TO comics DAY –maybe to glam up graffiti. But it was for only for one day and now the artwork has been vandalized.
Florence has a long history of graffiti. But the graffiti of the 16th century now peeks out from behind the graffiti of today.
Scrawls flank my front door.
The most famous ugly graffiti in Italy is in Verona – along the wall to the fake balcony of Shakespeare’s fantasy Juliet.
Most of the graffiti in Florence is attributed to teenaged dweebs. Gangs aren’t tagging boundaries inside the historic center. English proficiency isn’t common, which doesn’t necessarily let the thousands of American students off the hook. Italian is the language of choice for these vandals.
But not always … In 2008, a Japanese television crew filming on top of the Duomo caught some familiar scribbles and broadcast them. Unlike the justice system of Florence or, in fact, anywhere in Italy, the Japanese found in this a moment of national shame and came down hard on a high school teacher for expressing his love in ink on a wall.
A 19-year-old fashion student from Japan’s Gifu University was caught in another incident. She offered 600 euros ($950 in 2008) to repair the damage.
“We accept the apologies (and) we accept the money exceptionally for the gesture’s great sense of civility,” said the Duomo’s chief curator Anna Mitrano, flanked by the university’s visiting rector, Yukitoshi Matsuda.
Except for Ms. Mitrano, Italians have expressed shock and amusement over Japan’s attitude. Perhaps a little more shame and pride and a little less official complacency and public cynicism would help bring Florence’s center back to its historic beauty.
I’m not a big “no-global” proponent; so if someone in, say, Vermont, is making great ice cream, I think it should be shared with the rest of the world. Therefore, when Ben & Jerry’s (full disclosure: I have eaten hundreds of pints of B&J’s in my lifetime) was scheduled to open a store in Florence that wasn’t a major issue for me.
But when that storefront is just a few feet from the façade of the Duomo and my favorite flavors (Vanilla Heath Bar Crunch and Triple Caramel Chunk,) of the Vermont ice cream have turned in to a frozen substance made by Unilever in Holland, renamed Caramel Chew Chew and Vanilla Toffee Crunch (because evidently there are no Heath Bars in Europe), then I’m just a little bit burnt to a crisp under this Tuscan sun.
Ice cream is an important part of the American culture, but here in Italy, it is a religion. On a weekly basis more Italians enter a gelateria than a church. They argue about gelato more than religion, too. Florentines, especially, can debate long and hard about their favorite gelateria: describing the benefits of local gelato-masters vs. the new “foreigners” (from Turin or Bologna or Sicily); asserting that creamy cioccolato fondente is better than cioccolato extra noir that lacks both eggs and cream; and despairing that not only do foreigners commit the sins of eating semifreddo in the summer, granita in the winter, but the tourists also request a 5 euro cone (way too big) from any so-called gelato stand that stacks the factory-made blocks of ice cream, sculpts them into a hill, and drapes fruit all over the mountainous mass.
‘Gelato’ means ‘partially frozen’ or “icy” in Italian and the various kinds of ice cream served throughout the country are all known by that name. You can order gelato in any little town, in any region and basically know what you will get. But it is important to keep in mind that Italy has only been a unified country for 150 years, so each of the former city states is justifiably proud of its own recipe: in the mountainous North, where it’s cooler, the gelato is thicker and creamier, often made with cream and egg yolks – chocolate, zabaione, and hazelnuts prevail. In the South, the gelato tends to be lighter, using milk as well as and fruits, such as Sorrento lemons, and nuts, like Sicilian pistacchios from Bronte.
Florentines have had a 500-year love affair with gelato. Bernardo Buontalenti – architect, engineer and theatrical set designer – supposedly invented churned-over-ice, milk-based gelato for the court of Francesco de’ Medici to impress a visiting Spanish delegation in 1565. Today, there is a rich creamy gelato that bears Buontalenti’s name.
But getting back to Ben & Jerry’s … it’s one of America’s premium ice creams. If gelato is Italian ice cream, what is the difference? First of all, there is the percentage of butterfat. B&J’s clocks in at around 17%, whereas most Italian gelato averages 5% to 9%. Also, handcrafted gelato is served same-day fresh so binders and preservatives aren’t necessary.
But there’s more … David Lebovitz, chocolate maven and world-reknown ice cream aficionado, author of The Perfect Scoop, explains it best. “… for the most part, the machines used to make gelato move very slowly as they churn, introducing little air into the mixture so the finished gelato is dense and thick. Unlike standard ice cream-making machines, usually the ‘dasher’ (paddle) moves up and down while the canister turns, so little air is whipped into the mixture while it churns. Also the storage freezers used for holding gelato tend to be kept a few degrees warmer (up to 10 degrees F) than a normal ice cream dipping cabinet, so the gelato keeps its silky, creamier texture. Sometimes there are no egg yolks or cream in the base, so the gelato will highlight the highly-concentrated taste of what’s been added, like chocolate, coffee, or whatever flavoring is used, with less taste and texture of fat to intrude.”
Okay, so now you know what gelato is, but what happens when you walk into a Florentine gelateria? Yes, there is a lot of gelato, but you also see semifreddo, sorbetto, and granita. Generally these are all classified as gelato … remember? … frozen/icy. Here is a handy guide:
gelato – most everything offered, but there is also …
semifreddo – means “half cold” and is made from the same base as gelato, but has whipped cream folded in to create a frozen mousse.
sorbetto – is a sorbet, usually made with any kind of fruit, but chocolate and caffé flavors are making a strong showing, as well as herb-infused (basil, rosemary, etc.) offerings. Great as a palate cleanser between courses in an extended multi-course meal.
granita – shaved ice, made with water, sugar and fruit flavors – strawberry and lemon are favorites – or coffee (great with a dab of whipped cream), mint or almonds. Served in a plastic cup or glass, but also on brioche in Sicily in the summertime.
Tuscan Traveler and Friend in Florence join the debate by claiming that not only does Florence have the best gelato in Italy, but that these are the best gelaterias in Florence:
Grom– Via del Campanile – corner with Via delle Oche – Piedmonte-based, consistently great, only the best ingredients, innovative, monthly flavor list online, best cone. Try: Zabaione, Crema di Grom, and Caffè
Gelateria La Carraia – Piazza Nazario Sauro, 25r – Ponte alla Carraia – owned by the Florentine Innocenti family, creamiest gelato, best tangy yogurt, one euro cone heaped high (best value). Try: Yogurt, Pistacchio, and Nutella
RivaReno –Borgo degli Albizi 46r – newcomer (owners rumored from Milan and Great Britain?), most innovative mix-ins, great fresh fruit flavors, good cone. Try: Lampone (raspberry), Otello ( chocolate with zabaione, brownie, and coffee), and Sweet Alabama (chocolate with peanuts)
Perché No?– Via dei Tavolini 19r – best name, traditional favorite (started in 1938, surviving war and flood), fresh fruit and nut flavors, best semifreddo. Try: Stracciatella (chocolate chip), Cioccolato Semifreddo, and Nocciola (hazelnut)
Gelateria dei Neri – Via dei Neri 22r – long-time Florentine owner, fantastic fruit flavors, creamy yogurt, best variety of chocolate flavors. Try: Chocolate with candied orange, Chocolate with hot red pepper, and Mandarino (tangerine)
Carabé – Via Ricasoli 60r – Sicilian owners, delicious fruit and nut flavors (ingredients brought from Sicily), best granita. Try: Cassata Gelato, Lemon and Raspberry Granita together, and Coffee Granita with whipped cream.
Carapina– Via Lambertesca 118r – young Florentine owner, trendiest, posts a calendar of ripe fruit and only makes those flavors when they are at their peak. Try: Menta (mint), Ciliegia (cherry), and Chocolate with ginger.
Vestri– Borgo degli Albizi 11r – superb chocolate shop with the best chocolate gelato and incredible thick hot chocolate (served cold in the summer) – mix the two for affogato (gelato drowned in chocolate). Try: Affogato with Chocolate, Pistacchio or Vanilla gelato.
Those visiting Florence at the end of May are in for a treat. The First Annual Firenze Gelato Festival will turn Piazza S. Annuziata into a giant gelateria where artisans of the handcrafted gelato will compete for the hearts and taste buds of Florentines and foreigners from May 28 to 31, 2010.