Italy - Day Nine (Duomo & the panic attack)

Our first (and only) full day in Florence started at 7:00 am (gotta squeeze it all in)! We were at the Uffizi Museum by 8:30am, having planned our day around using the most efficient and logical route to ensure the most sites seen. Here began our descent into the before-unknown depths of just how many paintings one can see of “The Annunciation” and “Adoration of the Magi.”

They had one Michaelangelo painting, which we dutifully saw and ooh’d at, several da Vinci’s, and after seeing my 87th Lippi painting I found he was growing on me. We also got to see the original Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” (c. 1484), which I found really breathtaking. There was a small wing of Caravaggio, who is one of Ron’s favorites, however I found him a little dark, literally and figuratively, not to mention his “Medusa” painting is rather horrifying. (The photo above was taken surreptitiously in the Uffizi corridor, however not surreptitiously enough as I was scolded afterwards and took no more.) Considering our time limitations, we pre-set a three-hour limit for the Uffizi. So we took a brief respite from exploring every possible rendition of “Adoration” paintings, and headed over to the Duomo (Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore).

Unfortunately it was raining today (oh right, we’re still in Italy), so I was disappointed about my exterior photos. However, we did enter and found a cavernous interior with a few paintings around, some beautiful stained glass windows, but overall a simple Gothic design and as far from Baroque as you could get. It was built between 1296-1463, with its famous dome designed by Brunelleschi, and the interior dome frescos of “The Last Judgment” being painted by Vasari and Zuccari (1572-74).

We had the option to climb up into the dome, and without any hesitation we bought our tickets and headed on up the 463 steps (well, Ron climbed 463 steps…). As we headed up the winding spiral stone staircase we would periodically get glimpses of rainy Florence outside. And obviously as we climbed higher, we got higher and higher views. All was great. No problems. Until we hit the dome and were suddenly staring into the Duomo, almost 300 feet in the air, at a stone walkway that crept around half of the dome. Now, there was a very sturdy stone banister, as well as a thick plexiglass shield reaching easily to seven feet, however, logic has no bearing on a really good panic attack.

So, as life putters on we come upon times where we have to face our fears. And that’s exactly what Ron did. He faced me; tears streaming down my face, begging him to let me go back the way we came, trying not to hyperventilate. He held my hand, while I gripped his other arm, and he slowly, ever so slowly, led me, with closed eyes and panicked breaths, around the inside of the dome. I could never ask for a better husband (we won’t even mention how a year earlier he had to perform a similar task when my dormant fear of fish staring at me manifested while snorkeling on our honeymoon in Maui and he dragged my crying, hyperventilating butt back to shore while I tried unsuccessfully to ride on his shoulders).

We made it around the top, however his Duomo task wasn’t 100% complete yet. While I waited in the stone staircase and tried to calm my breathing, he continued up to the top where he was able to stand outside and see all of Florence (he gets full credit for all those photos). Then, as we descended, me with a song in my heart, Ron suddenly stopped and said, “Uh oh, we have to do it again.” We were lower on the dome, but we had to go around half of it one more time. I managed to do it without tears this time, but I still shuffled around it holding on to Ron with my eyes squeezed tightly shut. Oh boy, how I love this man!

By the time we got down to the ground I was exhausted (never underestimate the energy required to have a full-blown panic attack). We took a break and grabbed some wonderful pizza at a local spot and watched the rain continue to drizzle.

Fully fortified, we returned to the Duomo and entered the octagonal Baptistry located next to it. Next to the exterior of the Duomo, this was my favorite site in Florence! It was built between 1059 and 1128 and has three sets of very famous bronze doors created by Ghiberti, depicting scriptural stories that Michaelangelo called, “The Gates of Paradise.” Up until the end of the 19th century, all Catholic Florentines were baptized here, including Dante and members of the Medici family (very influential and powerful Florentine family from whom came three popes and the start of the Renaissance movement).

Inside, the ceiling is covered in 13th century mosaics that took my breath away (in a good way, no need for Ron’s help here). I found myself just standing in the middle of the floor, staring up for long periods of time, at the intricate glittering scenes depicting Biblical stories. There was some restoration work going on, but luckily the ceiling was fully visible and in remarkable condition.

From here, we found ourselves wandering. I had been expressing a desire to purchase Italian pottery pieces since the day we landed, but Rome proved to be unhelpful. However, to my great luck, we came upon a little shop selling pottery a few blocks away. We spent a little while there, speaking with the owner who creates works based on old designs, from the 13th, 15th century, etc. After perusing his goods, we chose four pieces. Initially three, but I expressed interest in a beautiful pitcher and he dropped the price enough to convince us to take it as well.

Next on our “How to See Florence in 48-Hours” tour was the Santa Maria Novella church. It’s a huge complex that was started in 1279 by the Dominicans, however I found it a little too Gothic and empty. Or rather, my energy levels were dropping significantly therefore any possible interest I would normally have in such sites had been dwarfed by apathy and exhaustion.

Our next church stop was the Church of San Lorenzo. It was consecrated in 393 AD, was the parish church of the Medici family and housed the last known works of Donatello.

From here I was rapidly becoming whiny and cranky, so we grabbed a bus back to the hotel and dropped off our ceramic goodies. Mildly refreshed, we walked over to Santa Croce church to attended mass. (At one point during the service a cell phone went off and I noticed one of the priests in the pews started to snicker. Finally the main priest realized it was his phone, smiled sheepishly as he turned it off, and continued the service. Interesting juxtaposition of a cell phone in a 700-year-old church.)

Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan church in the world and is believed to have been founded by St. Francis himself. The current building was built in 1294 to replace the older structure. Many famous Italians have been buried here, including Michaelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. There’s also a statue dedicated to Dante, although he’s buried in Ravenna. Sadly, for us, the church was under significant restoration when we saw it, so other than scaffolding and plastic tarps, little impression was made.

As we exited the church we spotted a restaurant across the way lit with strings of lights. As our attraction to these lights had not led us astray yet, we opted to try Baldovino for our last night in Florence. The lights were right! It was by far the best dinner we had had in Italy. It was a rustic, family-type restaurant, with half locals and half non-Italians. The family across the way from us brought their little dog who sat quietly under the table awaiting pizza bits. The food was fantastic, the homemade focaccia with olive oil and tomatoes was astounding, and my gnocci sent me into a happy little carb coma I was content to wallow in. Had we found this in Rome, we would have eaten here again and again. We did note that they also have Villas in Tuscany and offer various vacation packages – filed away for future planning.

On a high from our foray into the Italian kitchen, and taking advantage of the lack of rain, we strolled the streets, did some window-shopping and people-watching. We eventually found ourselves back at Baldovinos, walking back to the hotel. We were passed by a motorbike (they’re all over the place, and considering the cobbled streets and narrow alleys I can see why). Suddenly there was a crash and the bike seemed to hit an imaginary wall, throw its rear wheel into the air along with its second passenger, and the driver flew over the front wheel. Without even thinking we found ourselves running towards them, but luckily (for them, truly), others beat us to them. They were both conscious, but definitely hurt and the bike had taken some damage too. We realized that the people around us were calling for help, so we backed off and continued our walk. While our initial reaction was to help, we both realized that our lack of ability to communicate thoroughly, even utilizing Ron’s, “I don’t need a blood transfusion,” sentence, wasn’t going to be of much help.

A few blocks away we saw a young couple get out of a car and walk off down the street. As we passed their parked car, I noticed that their passenger window was down and their car was packed full of stuff. Immediately Ron’s Italian-gene kicked in (finally), and without hesitation he yelled for the man and told him, in Italian, that his window was down. The man ran back, thanked us profusely, and put up his window. Now, Ron may have thoroughly redeemed himself linguistically, however, have no fear, I will never let "No worko" die.