Posts Tagged ‘florence’

Notes on 7 European Churches: 4 to See, 3 to Skip

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Going to Europe for the first time? The twelfth? You will see cathedrals, you will. And basilicas. And abbeys. And chapels. Despite what the guidebooks say, they aren’t all awesome, and they aren’t all worth seeing. Here are some that are worth seeking out. And some that… aren’t quite.

4 to See

The Weirdly Articulate Marble Feet of Dead King Francois I

Basilica Saint-Denis, Paris
Most visitors spend their churchgoing time in Paris winding around the nave of Notre Dame in a slow-moving river of tourists that runs about 10-deep on weekends, or annoying the priests at grim, cobwebby Saint-Sulpice with questions about The Da Vinci Code. Your first visit to Paris? By all means, go to these places. Your second? Take metro 13 to just beyond the peripherique and visit the incredible, and sorely overlooked, Basilica Saint-Denis. Flying buttresses? Check. Classic Gothic architecture? Check. Splashy stained glass? Check. You’ll see beautiful examples of all three, but the most important things you’ll see at Saint-Denis are the tombs. The entire French royal line was buried here from the 10th to the 18th centuries, and they’re entombed in everything from incredible marble sarcophagi (Francois I, Catherine de’ Medici and Louis XIV are given particularly grand treatment) to tiny gold boxes (what they could find of Marie Antoinette after the dust settled). Go on a weekday when the sun is out and enjoy this serene (and serenely uncrowded) place.

Muskrat Love

Thistle Chapel at the High Kirk of Saint Giles, Edinburgh
The church—located in the heart of Edinburgh’s famous (and famously touristy) Royal Mile—is just fine. It’s what’s in the back that really matters. It’s easy to miss, but don’t leave before you see the amazing Thistle Chapel, where Scotland’s Order of the Thistle convenes. Every inch of this shoebox-sized room is covered in ornate carvings, all of them symbolizing the members of the Order—Scotland’s oldest and most prestigious order of chivalry. Animals, ancient crests, and angels abound. Even the ceiling ribs are lined with thistles in full blossom. It’ll take you a minute, but don’t forget to look for the tiny carving of the angel playing the bagpipes—one of the only portrayals in Edinburgh.

From Those Who Were Shipwrecked

Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille
Here’s an easy way to find this wonderful church when you get to sunny, seaside Marseille: Look up. It is the most distinctive feature of this teeming city, crowning the hill just above the old city. The gold statue of the Notre Dame on the spire glimmers at midday and is visible almost everywhere. Take the bus to the top of the hill and visit this incredible place. A relatively small church, its insides are covered with glittering gold mosaics, and more, with the gifts and dedications of townspeople whose families have lived and died by the ocean. Model ships hang from strings on the ceiling. Tiny oil paintings portray men carried miraculously from shipwrecks. Prayers from seafarer’s wives and mothers are inscribed on plaques. Outside on the terraces, the view across the city, and the very blue Mediterranean, is incredible. From there, see if you can tell the difference between the real Le Corbusier, the architect’s iconic apartment building in the new city, and it’s many nearby imitators, or just watch the cruise ships lumbering by.

The Cathedral of Our Lady

Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp
There is something about this cathedral. It’s stuffed with famous Rubins paintings, yes. And the bells in its tower make a noise that glistens and shimmers like a fairy tale. But something beyond that makes this church so wonderful—a lovely combination of restrained and ornate. On the inside, its walls are painted white, and the light streams through on even the grayest days (like the one on which I visited, in March). On the outside, its single dark spire towers over the city, every inch covered in Gothic flourish. Have a hot chocolate at one of the cafes and admire the view outside, explore what’s behind the doors.

3 to Skip


Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican
Yeah, it’s big. And it’s famous. And you have to see it, right? Right? Well, no. Not if you have little patience for clamoring, camera-wielding tourists, who jam themselves into every corner of the Pope’s church and then conspire, I swear, to all shout at the same time in 15 different languages. Add that to the staff’s charming tendency to let three times as many people up to the top of the dome as should safely and sanely be there, and the basilica’s oppressive ugliness (It’s pink. And gold. Lots of gold.) and you have yourself a recipe for a frustrating, exhausting day in Rome. And oh yeah, you have to wait in line for three hours during high season to even get in the door. Take pictures from the square and ask a security guard where you can get good pasta and call it a day. Or a lifetime.


Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin

Really? This is the best Dublin can do when it comes to its most famous cathedral? Chilly and dark, this big stone church contains statues of dead people you’ve probably never heard of and some flags. For a better bet, grab a book and people watch on the lovely strip of green right outside the church. (Note: I took exactly zero photos in and around Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The snapshot above is from the graveyard at the way-more-interesting Saint Audoen’s church.)

Duomo at Sunset

The Duomo, Florence
If you see it for the first time at sunset, like I did, your heart will probably fall out of your chest at the sight of its unfathomable beauty and elegance. Its perfect (and perfectly constructed) dome is Florence’s signature; its colored marble seems too intricate and harmonious to be real. And then you walk inside and it’s just a big empty room with some candles in it. Really. Save your money and your time and don’t even bother going inside the Duomo. There is some art, yes. A venerable painting or two. But it’s not worth braving the crowds and the real wonder—the thing worth seeing—can be had for free just by looking around you.


Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008

Last night I had a dream that I was walking in the Cistine Chappel with Michaelangelo. He was looking very much like one of his statues, his Moses, that incredible beard. I don’t think he looked like that at all in real life, but for the purpose of dreams…

I woke up in a panic. I can’t remember what he told me.

For those who are inquiring, I’m going to be in Sicily on my birthday. I’m heading to Siena in an hour and have no idea if I’ll have a connection there. Literal. Figurative.

More to come. Definitely in reality. Possibly in blog.

I’m Exploding

Monday, April 21st, 2008

That’s what my family says when they’ve eaten too much. In Italian.

What do you do in Florence on a Monday when the weather is a disaster and all the museums are closed? You update your blog, yes. And go to churches, because God doesn’t close on Mondays, and take a three-hour wakling tour in the rain, of course. And eat until you’ve given yourself some sort of eating-too-much spraining of your inner organs.

I find this trattoria by accident because the other one I wanted to go to is closed, and it’s in an alleyway and seems kind of dark and cheery with spendy bottles of wine on all the walls and three courses costs 7 Euro.

On a Monday in Florence when all the museums are closed and the weather is a disaster, the best thing to do is eat. And walk. And eat more.

Grom serves the best gelato in Florence. Punchline, wait for it: Grom also serves the best gelato in New York City.

Grom opened its NYC branch last summer on the Upper West Side and in the weeks following, it was frequented by its handsome, wealthy, Italian, vinyard-owning-but-now-doing-the-gelato-thing Florentine owners. That was reason enough to show up, but the gelato was pretty good too.

Actually, it was the best gelato I’ve ever had. There was a Times piece, bien sur, and the lines spun around the block, but in Florence the place was empty and the flavors were better. And that’s basically Europe in a nutshell.

There’s no line and the flavors are better.

But at Grom, Florence, I got a single scoop of pear in a cone and walked around with it in the rain and was happy. Because I get sick of cathedrals, but I never get sick of ice cream. And walking.

As a footnote, I’m having a crisis about this blog and it is as follows: I feel like I have nothing new to say about any of these places. What can I tell you about Florence that you can’t read elsewhere? Answer: I don’t really know. I’m bad at making my blogs Informative! or helpful in regards to the discovery of new things, or insightful in any sort of philosophical way. I can only write about what I see: peeling paint, statues pale like the morning sky, that dome that people call a lantern because it looks like one and is one, metaphorically. But you’ve been. You’ve seen it. Or you’ve read about it. Or you’re hooked up with some actually Informative! blog somewhere that is actually useful to you in some concrete way. Or you’ve seen Under the Tuscan Sun and you think you know and that’s good enough for you, for now. Until you actually go. Which you will.

And I can’t divulge CRAZY TRAVEL ANECDOTES because the people who would be sorely incriminated in such anecdotes are… reading this blog.

And so the spiral continues. Truth vs. Good Reading. Honesty vs. Hurting Everyone’s Feelings. Not that it would, but I’m assuming. The Ugly Realtiy vs. What Should Go in a Blog.

Also problematic? I type poorly on European keyboards and internet access here is limited and spendy. Example: Note that there are no parentheses in this post and that none of this has been spell checked? Why? Because of what I have just stated. Parentheses? I don’t know where the keys are. Spell check? Takes too long.

I live in a hundred different cages as a writer. But if you know me even a little bit, you know this all too well. And if you don’t, then you should just trust that I am having a good time. And learning. And putting together all the pieces of all the art in all the museums I’ve ever seen, and all the factoids I learned in history class, and all the stories I’ve seen on CNN. And learning how to not be scared. Because that was the whole point of this.

Well, this had a lot of points. But that was a big one.

This meaning moving to France. And going. And doing something that I really wanted to do. In spite of the fact that it scared me in a lot of ways. And tore all my precious safety nets to shreds.

So if you can trust all that, maybe you can read this, whatever this is, and be OK with it. And take something from it. And if you can, then I’ll just write. And we’ll see where it takes us.

Thin Cities

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

Florence is tile-roofed and nuzzled into a valley and cut across the middle by a muddy river and it is art itself, the duomo in the middle its heart, its pinnacle.

I saw the Botticellis this morning. I saw.

You can see Botticellis everywhere, in New York. The most splendid one, my favorite up until this morning, is in Boston in the Gardner Museum with no plaque and tucked into a strange little corner and it is resplandant. A Madonna and child and a single angel, smiling, eyes closed, his robes so delicate, detailed.

But today. Foret it. Forget it all. I have always read in art books, and you see in the captions. All the really good ones, the really famous ones, are here. In the Uffizi. The Venus, Primavera, the two important Madonnas. It is hard to describe what it’s like, seeing your six favorite paintings all in one room.

I could turn cartwheels right now. I have a sunburn. More sunburn. It started in Venice two weeks ago, just across the bridge of my nose and now it’s rather everywhere. I am tomato-y. A little. I will be in fine shape, tan-wise, for the Amalfi Coast. But that’s not this trip. That’s another one. One Italy at a time.

Read Calvino, some of the chapters twice, in a splendid garden on a hill across the Ponte Vecchio overlooking the green Tuscan hills and the orange villas perched on their peaks. And the city below. A garden of fountains and laid paths and grottos and an arbor of splendid hanging flowers, a blanket of them, each blossom attended by a fat bee.

I am so glad I bought the Calvino. It’ll still be on my Visa two years from now, and I don’t even care. Cities as living, breathing, thing. As coffer. As magic trick. As phantasm. The exact right thing to read while I’m here.

Wherever here is.

Saw the David. There’s nothing to say about the David that the David cannot say himself.

Ate what is allegedly the Best Gelato in Town and it was rad. I admit. Like the best ice cream-that-isn’t-ice cream, smooth on the palate, rounder. I don’t even know what that means, but that’s what I want to say. Round. I think they use that word for wine. I know nothing about wine, so let’s mix culinary metaphors, then. I ate it in a square with twenty other people eating the same gelato, the same people who formed a line around the block. As intimidating as those lines can be, that’s how you know.

I’m going to wash my hair. More words later.