Thursday, September 16, 2010


Yesterday we rented a car to see some countryside, specifically the Casentino Valley, which is reputed to be one of the most beautiful places around, home place of Michelangelo and Dante.  We went to the monastery at La Verna, the place founded by St. Francis, where he received the stigmata.

We rented from Europcar, a big chain, that had the most convenient location, and deliberately did not shop around for rates.  This is vacation.  We got  a Fiat Panda.  After reserving it, I realized I had forgotten to ask for a manual transmission, which is often hard to get in US rentals, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a five speed manual.  It was a real pleasure to drive, very responsive to controls and very solid feeling.

(This picture was not taken in Florence!  It is at La Verna.)

Traffic in Florence is different from other places I have driven, more like Boston than Lynchburg, but quite nice.  Everything flows smoothly, no sudden jerks or surprises, but you just have to move with the flow.  I was reminded of bubbles floating down a stream, drifting in little swirls and eddys sometimes, chaotic and random on large scales but always smooth and predictable over short times and distances.  The motorcycles make their way through, going about twice as fast as the cars, passing through narrow gaps to weave between cars, but all smooth and predictable.  Don't jump when one appears at your bumper and in an instant he is past and gone.  The lanes marked on the streets represent guidance, not fixed requirements.  One area reminded me of a square in Sommerville, Mass., where before the traffic engineers went crazy with dividers and such there was just a big area of two or three acres, all paved, with seven streets coming in at odd angles and directions, and no painting on the road to confuse people.

When we got out of town, the traffic was fairly light.  The roads we went on had speed limits of 70 (kph, =50 mph) but I mostly went 30 to 50.  The corners are (mostly) not marked with maximum safe speed, and I enjoy the cornering on winding roads, but there were sections where I didn't get up to the posted limit for a long time.  Much of it was reminiscent of highway 501 over to Buena Vista, and then suddenly it was like Montana or someplace in the Rockies.  And one especially nice stretch was like the road to Hana, in Maui.  This is the general view of the valley

The monastery at La Verna was very nice.  I don't really know what term to use.  Civilized.  Calm.  Peaceful.  Encouraging of contemplation  They have had a lot of visitors over the last few hundred years, but it isn't a tourist trap.  They are serious about their religion.  You can just wander around as you like, no guides, no admission charges, maps on some walls and explanatory plaques.  Here is the monastery from part way down the mountain

And here is a section of the cliff face where St. Francis liked to meditate.

The cliff face, and some other small chapels and chambers, are all a ways from the main monastery, and are reached through a corridor that has windows overlooking the valley on one side and frescoes of the life of St. Francis on the other.  The frescoes have all been redone this century, but I especially thought this one captures the spirit of the whole complex.

Some of the new frescoes already have graffiti scratched into them.  I think the graffiti in this one actually add to the general forlornness of the image.

Back at the main monastery there is a basilica, which looks like many churches in Italy except that it is largely dedicated to San Francesco and has a lot of large della Robbia glazed terracottas.  Among them, of course, is an Annunciation, a very nice one.

So it was a good day, and we returned to Florence without incident.  We had a map of how to get back to the rental agency.  You need to take the right roads to get there, because it is in the restricted traffic zone, and all license plates are photographed as you enter, and the agency needs to be able to explain to the police why it was OK for you to be where you were when you were.

We were sailing along fine in a broad boulevard that loops around the center of town, recognizing landmarks as we went, no problems until it turned out that we had to go around three sides of a square, which functioned as a kind of giant traffic circle, and I lost count.  We were in 4 or 5 lanes of traffic all going the same way, and I was in the left, ready to make the left into the center of town.  I thought I saw our road go off to the right, and I had to get right to get out of the traffic square, so I got out and thought I was headed back where we came from.  But then I saw an old fort go by on the left, and knew we were on the right side of town but too far out.  Then we passed the train tracks, and I took the first right.  But that street had no left turns, because of the traffic, and no rights because of the tracks.  All the street signs are for pedestrians, too small to read from a car, and we were going too fast anyway, being rush hour.  I finally made a U-turn when there was a gap in oncoming traffic, and Pat spotted a street sign she could read and find on the map.  We were just about where I thought,  so we worked our way through some of these triangular and otherwise "squares", taking roads in generally the right direction and studying the map and catching signs as we could, until we got to the side of the train station.  One block over to the right was the street we were to take into town (Via della Scalla), so I took a right and got to Via della Scalla only to find out that here it was one way the wrong way.  So we went back out, using stop lights to consult the map and finding two ways back over to the station.  It's a good thing there were two ways, because the first was blocked off from traffic and only used by trolleys.  But we made the second and went back down by the station.  I was trying to read and remember street signs, and started to make the same wrong turn again, but Pat stopped me so I just kind of looped into the wrong street and back out, and popped into a gap in the traffic.  When we got to the street we needed, I waited for pedestrians as people always do here, but they looked puzzled and the bus behind me blew his horn (very unusual).  Oh, a traffic light.  Go.  So we got back to la Scalla and here it went both ways, so we turned into the center of town.  There we counted streets and saw the bridge and were doing fine, but in this part of town there are very few cars and the tourists don't watch for them, so it was a little slow.  But we got back to the car rental 15 minutes before it closed.  Good thing I allowed over an hour in case something happened on the way back.

I told the rental agent it was an exciting town to drive in, and she just smiled.

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