Leaping into history in Firenze

Meandering along the cobblestoned pathways of medieval Firenze is akin to jumping feet first into a picturesque art history book, enabling you to traverse (and perhaps even converse) with the artistic geniuses of yesteryear.   Even if you haven’t a clue as to who Michelangelo, Botticelli, Dante or Machiavelli are, you will be besotted and mesmerized by the sheer magnificence of the incredible artwork that is virtually plastered all over this gem of a city.  Every nook and cranny is either ornately carved or painstakingly handcrafted by long gone artisans, their creative energies visually seeping out of any and all buildings that your eye happens to gaze upon.  Whether it be architect Filippo Bruneschelli’s masterpiece - the gilded dome and marble panelled cathedral in centrally located Piazza del Duomo - or a generations old family run trattoria, one cannot help being overcome with an achingly poignant sense that you are surrounded by the stuff that history books are made of.  It was this powerful yet intangible feeling that accompanied me on my promenades whilst in the birthplace of the renaissance.  Having studied medieval history, it felt as if the pages of my beloved books had miraculously sprung to life, gifting me the opportunity of a glimpse into an era that I had not been born into, but one which I had now become an integral part of. 

Ambling across dusty and ancient Ponte Vecchio, with its multitude of jewellery shops, food stuffs and tacky souvenir vendors, I pondered what it would have been like to be a medieval Florentine woman bartering for sustenance to feed her family.   Consumed by managing daily household tasks and grueling physical chores, was she oblivious to the stirrings and rumblings of emerging renaissance and humanist thinkers such as Francis Bacon, Erasmus and Copernicus,  whose achievements helped alter man’s perception of the world? 

Gazing across the Arno River on a star-lit night, I wondered whether that Florentine woman would have possibly been as wonder-struck by the twinkling stars as was the astronomer, Galileo, who perhaps was standing on the same bridge as her, transfixed by the yet to be discovered distant galaxies.

Had she any idea that DaVinci was about to portrait the Mona Lisa, or that Michelangelo’s “David” was on the cusp of emerging from a slab of yet formless marble?  Had she any inkling that the cobblestoned pathways on which she trod would one day be trampled by masses of humanity – from tourists to students to historians to stragglers – all eager to immerse themselves in the creative soul of Florence, hopeful that they too might be blessed with even a glimmer of the artistic genius that inspired the great renaissance thinkers?  

Or am I just getting way ahead of myself once again, lost in my thoughts, almost forgetting to appreciate the here and now, surrounded by the breathtaking beauty, wonder and architecture of magnificent Firenze?

Come leap into history and discover the renaissance in Florence with me….
Next week – What adventures lie ahead?  Stay tuned!!

ATM Reject – not banking with the Medici in Firenze

As much as Paris and all things French are at the top of my favourites list, it is time to journey elsewhere,  set my pink-sneakered feet in another part of the globe and discover what gems and treasures (of the travel kind) lie ahead. After all, the possibilities are endless and the world is my oyster, where enticing picturesque travel guides invite me to stop by, visit and linger for a while.  Something must have triggered my current obsession with all things Italian, as all of a sudden I was bombarded with images, words and advertisements proclaiming the magnificence of this jewel of a country.  Watching the film “Under the Tuscan Sun” did me in, as the writer/traveller in me desperately wanted to be able to also leave the rat race behind, jump on a plane and purchase a villa in Tuscany, enjoying “la dolce vita”  while living in a picture perfect postcard.  Only able to afford perhaps a paltry doorknob or window and not an entire villa, my limited funds permitted the luxury of only a few weeks in the boot shaped country.  Did someone say boots? If there are boots, then there would also be handbags, and my inner shopaholic was salivating at the prospect of yet undiscovered handbag acquisition opportunities (a slight obsession of mine, if you hadn’t already noticed).

And so Italia it was! The perfect marriage of being able to acquire an abundance of small leather goods while at the same time enriching my soul, contemplating Michelangelo’s “David” while sipping vino at an outdoor pizzeria, gawking at centuries old masterpieces housed in the Uffizi Gallery, and shopping for one of a kind olive oils along Firenze’s medieval Ponte Vecchio bridge. Could it get any better than that?

Enveloped by the Arno River, Florence is a showcase of medieval cathedrals, palaces, renaissance architecture, and the birthplace of Dante, Machiavelli and the Medici princes, a veritable magical fountain endlessly spewing out some of the greatest thinkers, artists and creators of all time.  Visualising ambling along the same cobblestoned pathways that Galileo gazed up at the heavens at, as well as perhaps sitting in the exact pew that Botticelli worshipped in the magnificent Duomo, my imagination spun out of control,  zealously anticipating the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of history.

Responsible for revolutionizing the banking system by creating the gold florin coin, the powerful Medici banking family singlehandedly propelled the city of Florence into a privileged position of economic and political dominance.  Patrons of the arts, the Medici invested heavily in promoting and encouraging artistic expression, catapulting Firenze into a flourishing cultural centre, the birthplace of the renaissance.

It therefore seemed quite ironic then that my bank card was continuously being rejected at almost all of the bank machines (ATMs) in Firenze.  My 2nd day in Florence and I had already run out of Euros,  dizzyingly seduced, intoxicated by the laboriously designed “one a kind” pumps, sandals and satchels artfully stitched and handcrafted by the skilled artisans who had perfected their craft generations ago. Down to my last 5 Euros, barely able to splurge on a slab of pizza and a cappuccino (heck, it’s just way cheaper to consume vino, at 2 Euros for a small carafe), I was in a bit of a pickle, desperate to access my bank account, and maintain my “shop till you drop” Italian purchasing frenzy.  Or, as in my case, “no Euros, no shop” unfortunate predicament.

 Squandering valuable shopping hours, I raced from bancomat to bancomat (bank machine), in a futile attempt to extract moola from any of the big name financial institutions that cared to spit out a couple of colourful bills to an increasingly frantic shopaholic. Saying a silent prayer to the “gods of prosperity” I slid the card into the “Plus”  labelled bank machine, punched in my 4 digit code, pressed “English” for my choice of language and keyed in the desired amount of Euros required.  And just like clockwork, the same “error” message appeared on the screen, instructing me to contact my bank, denying me access to my funds.  This can’t be good. Having now frequented at least five of the big name bancomats, from the Deutsche Bank, BNP Paribas and Banco di Napoli, I was at a loss as how to successfully infiltrate the Italian banking system and liberate my cash. 

Desperate measures called for desperate actions and I was consequently forced to place my pink-sneakered foot inside an actual bank. What is the problemo, you ask?  Just open the door and walk right in, non?  Not quite. The entrances to most of the Florentine banks are secured by a Star Trek glass/plastic tube-like vertical structure that you have to step into, which then locks into place, swivels around, and deposits you on the other side, where you then find yourself inside the bank.  For the claustrophobic in me, this was not a do-able task, as the thought of having to enclose myself in a tube in which I might somehow end up permanently stuck, trapped, unable to escape from, was neither a viable nor rational option.  So, not only was I now on the hunt for an agreeable bancomat willing to fork over some cash, but also to try and locate an “entrance friendly” banking establishment.  Like, seriously?

When I did eventually stumble across a “tube-free” bank entrance, some several hours later, the bank manager politely informed me that he was unable to help, as I did not have a European based bank account and that I should just keep trying to access my money at random ATMs.  Offering the incredibly enlightening explanations that “sometimes the bancomats work and sometimes they don’t” but “perhaps tomorrow the bank machine will work” to “many tourists have complained that they have also experienced the same issues” ending the conversation with “that’s just the way it is in Italia”. Oddly enough, these phrases were immensely comforting, giving me a sliver of hope that somewhere out there is a random ATM that “will go all the way” and hand over my cash.

Luckily for myself and especially for the economic revival of Florence, I successfully tracked down a lone bank machine that spewed out Euro after colourful Euro, and faithfully trekked to this very same bancomat each morning, in order to replenish my continuously dwindling Euro stockpile.  That was my cash cow.  After all, I couldn’t risk taking any chances, as one never knows what type of foul and mischievous mood Signore Bancomat could be in tomorrow. 

Yikes!! That would be an awful lot of pink sneakers to have to replace!

Come jet off to Italy and discover the intricacies of Florentine banking with me…

Pink Sneaker Helpful Tidbits of Info:

·         Do not forget to let your banking institution know that you will be out of the country so that your Visa card and/or bank card is not declined.

·         European PIN numbers are always 4 digits.

·         Banking hours are sporadic, from 8:30am to 1:30pm and 3:30pm to 4:30pm.

·         If, perchance, an ATM refuses to spit out money and rejects your card, don’t despair or get discouraged and just keep searching for one that will.

·         Look for Bancomats that accept the CIRRUS and PLUS symbols.

·         On the very odd occasion, especially around a holiday, the bank machines oftentimes run out of cash, requiring restocking the following day.  I would suggest extracting your money on the Friday evening as opposed to waiting to take out money late on Sunday before a holiday Monday.

·         My Visa card was able to give me a cash advance and was not rejected at any Bancomats.  My bank card, on the other hand, did not work in those very same bank machines.  Go figure.

Next week – What other adventures await in medieval Firenze? Stay tuned!

Life's a beach (Paris Plages), the flame torch and gold rings

It’s been a whirlwind 12 days in the City of Lights with the kid and her Auntie Nora (that would be me!!) and even though our pink-sneakered feet rarely tired of traipsing up and down the cobblestoned laneways, our sojourn in this magical metropolis was drawing to a close.  From hanging out with the Mona Lisa at the Louvre to pretending that the Batobus was our own private yacht and fantasizing what it would have been like to have been ladies in waiting in Marie-Antoinette’s regal court, our Parisian escapades were nothing short of splendiferous.  Yes, cliché, but nonetheless true.  

We had accomplished quite a bit in our adopted city and it was now time to wrap up, scamper around town, and immerse ourselves in as much French culture as a 24 hour window of opportunity would allow.  From having discovered the Liberty Flame at the foot of the Pont d’Alma tunnel, frolicking in the man-made beach fronts that littered the expressway thoroughfares of the Seine and encountering gypsy gold ring scammers along the way, our last day in Paris was an action packed exhilarating adventure, to say the least. So, here you go…a snippet of a glimpse of some of our memorable highlights.

Meandering along the tree-lined Seine on a hot and humid mid-August day, the pink-sneakered kid and I happened to inadvertently stumble across palm trees, chaise lounges and sandcastles playfully scattered along the banks of the river.  Say what?  Who knew that Paris had beaches?  Paris Plages (Paris Beaches) is a month long event celebrating sand, water, beach and the lazy, hazy days of summer.  Initially conceptualized in 2002 as an experimental venue, it quickly morphed into a much beloved yearly event, held from mid July to mid August.  More than 3,000 tons of sand is trucked in, palm trees planted, volleyball nets set up, miraculously transforming the riverbanks of the Seine into a French Riviera Mediterranean resort where boardwalk bistros seductively invite you to lounge around and indulge in a cool and refreshing beverage.  Spanning over 2 miles of boardwalk, Paris Plages is accessible at 3 separate locations along the Seine, each offering quite the assortment of “fun in the sun” activities.  Whether your passion is kayaking, row boating, rollerblading or even attempting to scale the walls of the river bank, you will not be disappointed, as there is something to be found for everyone.

If, perchance, frolicking in the sun and building sandcastles is not your thing, you can dance the night away, swaying to the beat of rhythmic guitar strumming hip and cool musicians crooning into the wee hours of the night (that is, at least until midnight, when Paris Plages shuts down for the evening for a bit of shut-eye, re-opening at 8:00am the following day). 

Sifting the white sand out of our pink sneakers, the kid and I reluctantly sauntered away from the banks of the river, anxious to cram in as much activity as possible into the remainder of our last day in the city.  Weaving along the café strewn avenues, we somehow ended up by Pont d’Alma, overlooking the tunnel where Princess Diana tragically lost her life.  Standing guard a few feet away, a massive bronze flame torch towered over the top of the underpass, a visual marker of what appeared to be a monument dedicated to the memory of the late royal.           

 Erected in 1989, the Liberty Flame (La Flamme de la Liberté) is a replica of the flame that lights the Statue of Liberty’s torch.  Originally designed as a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the publication of an English language daily newspaper in Paris, financed largely by donations, la Flamme de la Liberté was presented to the city of Paris by the International Herald Tribune.  It seemed quite fitting that the Statue of Liberty, being of French descent herself and also marking a centenary of her own, was the model for the bronze flame replica that eventually found its’ way back home across the ocean, taking up residence at Place de l’Alma.  The proximity of the bronze marbled torch to the now infamous tunnel has led many to mistakenly believe that the monument is a tribute to the late princess, drawing hordes of tourists, gawkers and curiosity seekers alike.  Covered in graffiti, love notes and flowers, the once largely ignored pristine torch has instead been transformed into a makeshift shrine, a memorial to the people’s princess. 

Having spent the morning playing in sand dunes and the afternoon milling about Place de l’Alma, the kid and I reluctantly wandered away and headed towards the vicinity of Pont Neuf.  Lost in our thoughts, we paid scant attention to a youngish woman who ran up to us, inquiring whether or not we had accidentally lost a “gold” ring.  We should have clued in right away, as she approached us not from behind, as one would expect, but from the opposite direction from which we were coming.  When the kid piped in and yelled “this is a scam!” she succeeded not only in startling her clueless ol’ Auntie but the gypsy scammer girl as well.  Having read in her guide books to be suspicious of these types of unscrupulous cons, my fearless 12 year old niece promptly threw the ring back, where it bounced off of scammer girl’s body, rolling and ricocheting along the pavement, temporarily stunning Mademoiselle con artiste. Screaming “run Auntie Nora, run!”, we bolted across Pont Neuf, huffing and puffing, not daring to glance back at the tirade screeching vagabond who was now on the receiving end of a totally unexpected reaction, halted in her tracks by a “wise beyond her years” 18th century obsessed Canadian youngster.  Way to go, kid!!

Safely reaching the far end of the bridge, standing confidently on safe territory, the photographer in me desperately longed to snap a few photos of “le scammer girl”, but the rational Auntie in me thought it best to err on the side of caution and not take any digital imprints.  That would most definitely not be cool on the off chance that any digital documentation could further infuriate Mademoiselle scammer, causing her to become even more belligerent and perhaps chase us all the way back to our digs in Le Marais.

Would we have envisioned any other way in which to spend our last day in Paris? Mais, non!! After all, this is the stuff that memories are made of…n’est-ce pas??

Come build sandcastles and imagine the possibilities….come adventure with us….

Next week – What new adventures await? Stay tuned!

The colourful snaking tubes of Le Centre Pompidou…an original “inside-out” Parisian structure

The claustrophobic in me was not looking forward to snaking my way through the clear plastic/glass tubes that lined the outside of le Centre Pompidou.  Located in the 4th arrondissement, in the area known as Beaubourg, the massive industrial looking structure appeared to be a melange of a little bit of everything;  glass piping, steel beams and colourful tubes randomly thrown together, the confused brainchild of an Italian and British architectural team.  Conceptualized as a fusion of  over the top” modern and art nouveau, the eclectic building seemed to push the envelope by relocating the placement of water pipes, air conditioning ducts and escalators on the outside as opposed to the inside of the building.  Housing a library, music and acoustic research centre as well as one of the largest modern art museums in Europe, the edifice is a visual representation of artistic genius, an attention grabber of the highest calibre, the ideal repository to showcase art nouveau.

To be brutally honest, the imposing structure was somewhat of an eyesore, as it was quite the visually unappealing landmark, conveniently located on the right hand side of the street, a few doors away from our rental apartment in Le Marais. The pink sneakered kid and I would traipse past the colourful plexi type glass tubed steel curiosity every single day, never giving it a second glance, dismissing it as a weird and strange structure located on the corner of our street. It certainly made for a great landmark though, as having gotten lost for the first couple of days in our neighbourhood, the Centre Pompidou was our new guidepost, a visual indicator that we were just steps away from our home away from home.

Even though we regularly frequented the large square in front of the Centre, hanging out in the cafés and shops that littered the surrounding area, amused and delighted with observing the street performers, mimes and musicians enchanting old and young alike, it didn’t occur to us to actually step inside this massive complex.  That is, not until the day before we left Paris.

Having traipsed all over this gem of a city, our pink sneakered feet weary and tuckered out from tripping over cobblestones in hilly Montmartre to sprinting all over town in quest of discounted designer leather goods in pursuit of satisfying my handbag addiction issue, the kid and I just wanted to chill and not venture out of our neighbourhood. Observing that there were people actually walking inside the clear snaking tubes visibly located on the outside of the building, the kid begged and pleaded for the thrill of also being permitted to do the same.  Threatening to throw a hissy fit by the entrance doors if she didn’t get her way, the kid’s inner brat kicked in, successfully succeeding in entertaining pedestrians by her wailing and snivelling, and crumbling “meanie” Auntie Nora’s “cold cement heart” (kid’s words, not mine) in the process.

Paying my 12 Euro admittance fee, therefore gaining entrance to the museum and exhibits, I was immediately awestruck by the sheer magnitude of the place.  Even the kid perked up, all hugs and smiles, tickled to finally have placed her mini pink sneaker in this colourful edifice, a unique smorgasbord of steel, glass and brightly hued tubes, a  visual playground for the senses. 

There was a method to their madness, those crazy architects, as the water pipes, air conditioning and electrical artifices were colour coded, each colour representing a separate functioning structural element. Air conditioning was blue, water was green, yellow was electricity and red was for the elevators. Pure genius! Now it all made sense. The piping, steel and glass tubing that initially appeared to be haphazardly thrown together to create a building, were instead meticulously placed in the appropriate location, allowing the building to function as an efficiently operating unit, a well-oiled machine.

Named after Georges Pompidou, the president of France from 1969 to 1974, the Centre attracts over 25 thousand visitors per day, more than 3.6 million visitors per year and is a top tourist attraction for old and young alike.

And how did claustrophobic “can’t live in a tin can” Auntie Nora make out? Surprisingly well, as a matter of fact. The open-air feel of the plexi-glass tubed escalators wrapped around the structure did not feel stifling or entrapping in the least. Able to view the incredible skyline of Paris and even catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, I thanked my lucky stars that my French Revolutionary obsessed charge had the presence of mind to pretend to throw a temper tantrum in front of clueless spectators; a ruse to convince her narrow-minded ol’ Auntie to agree to tour the spectacular complex, seizing the opportunity to discover a quirky “inside-out” original Parisian landmark.

Come snake along the brightly coloured pipes of the Centre Pompidou and attempt to discover your inner “artiste nouveau” and really cool one of a kind buildings with us...

Next week:  A little bit of everything…Le Tour Eiffel and much more