Crowds and tourism almost broke my Italian spell

Barbara Mader is one of five reader columnist for The News Tribune.
Barbara Mader is one of five reader columnist for The News Tribune. Tacoma

My husband and I recently returned from Italy, where we spent most of our time peacefully hiking in the glorious Tuscan hills. But before going home, we went to Florence.

I had visited there before, in the summer of 1985, when I was 24 and on my first trip to Europe. I was traveling alone, equipped with a Eurail Pass and a copy of “Let’s Go: Europe.” I had seven weeks in hand, no schedule, and was thrilled to pieces. My budget was $150 a week.

I still remember walking in from the train station and my excitement as I caught my first glimpse of the cathedral’s red-tiled dome, a potent symbol of Florence and the Renaissance. Nearby, directly across from the Baptistery, I found a room, small and spare, with a shared bath. The cost was L18,000, or just over $9. Rather a stretch.

But by leaning out my window, I could see not only the Baptistery, with Ghiberti’s famous doors, but Giotto’s Bell Tower, and yes, Brunelleschi’s dome. I could watch the locals as they sat, talking and smoking, on the steps of the Duomo. Some evenings I joined them, listening to the flow of talk, understanding nothing, thinking how Florentines had been sitting and talking on these same steps through the centuries. Brunelleschi himself. Michelangelo.

I lived on bread, fruit, cheese, coffee and gelato. I used my tiny bit of Italian, and a lot of pantomime, to obtain food, find a laundromat and order coffee, which came, black and strong, in absurdly small cups. I roamed the city, climbed the bell tower, visited museums.

Nowhere did I encounter big crowds or long lines. At the Uffizi, I stood alone in front of Botticelli’s Primavera. When I went to see Michelangelo’s David, I simply walked into the Accademia Gallery, bought my ticket, turned right, and, past The Prisoners, at the end of a nearly empty hall, there he stood.

So when my husband and I arrived in Florence a few weeks ago, I was stunned by the constant stream of people overflowing the sidewalks and spilling into the streets. The sheer number of tourists strained the city, changed its nature. I wondered how the locals coped.

I was sad to see the Duomo steps fenced off. Has it ended, that long tradition of Florentines gathering there, hailing friends, spending the evening in conversation?

The doors on the Baptistery are copies now, the originals safely installed in the Opera del Duomo Museum.

I was eager to revisit the Uffizi, but entrance lines were long and the most popular rooms were packed. It was difficult see the artwork, sometimes even to move, and the general babble so loud museum guards had to constantly shush the crowd. Dismayed, we moved to another floor. In a much quieter room, I stumbled upon a series of portraits of the Medici family and was soon engrossed, resolving to learn more about this complex family.

I was ambivalent about going to the Accademia next day, as it, too, is now jammed with visitors. But we went, waited in line, shuffled through security. We entered the hall, turned right. Past The Prisoners.

And there he was: David.

Even more lovely than I remembered.

My heart lifted, and I wondered, had I seen before how vulnerable he was? How young? How poignant? I felt a rush of sympathy and tenderness for youth, thought wistfully of myself at 24, and marveled at Michelangelo’s skill.

I am grateful for my earlier experience of Florence, when it was a city predominantly of Florentines, with Italian, not English, in the shops and streets. And to have seen it all with fresh, young eyes.

But I am grateful, too, for the chance to visit again with some years in hand. To see Florence and her treasures from a new perspective. To have my heart touched in new ways.

Barbara Mader of University Place is a specialty bookseller selling collectible children’s books. She’s one of five News Tribune reader columnists in 2019. Email her at bmader6@comcast.net