I started out thinking I would demonstrate that Europe has become quite manageable. How? By driving around parts of northern Italy as effortlessly as one might cruise through Texas or Maine. No bus tours. No itineraries. No escorts. Just guidebooks, maps, passport and credit card.
And yet . . . about the third time I steered the little Fiat past Piazzale Michelangelo, I began to doubt my wisdom.I had started the day in Venice after an overnight Sabena flight from Chicago with a stopover in Brussels. Picking up a rental car at Marco Polo Airport, I immediately steered onto the autostrada network for the 157-mile drive to Florence. Up to that point, the system was working pretty much as it would during a routine trip to Seattle or Des Moines. English was spoken. Italian signs could be deciphered. Plastic was gladly accepted.
But the autostradas are not your typical interstate. Tolls average about $1 every 10 minutes; gas costs around $4 a gallon. And during the next three hours, I scarcely dared to look past the weaving trucks ahead. My rear-view mirror almost always reflected an impatiently flashing Mercedes with a glowering driver. The green and pleasantly rolling Tuscan countryside was out there, somewhere, but the harrowing traffic allowed no time for scenery.
Conditions would get better, I assumed, after my arrival in Florence, where I had booked a room in a small hotel on the south side of the Arno River, just opposite the gloriously carved church and cloisters of Santa Croce. Florence would be my initial base of operations for a weeklong tour of Tuscany, a dream I had been harboring since my first visit in 1993.
That '93 glimpse had been part of an extended vacation - riding the rails through Europe for nearly a month. This time I was on an assignment emanating from the world headquarters of Tribune: See if a novice can negotiate a section of Italy without relying on government tourism offices, guides and elaborate planning. Just let the country wash over you, the same as you would during a drive, let's say, around Lake Michigan.
I did fax ahead to reserve a room in that first hotel, the Silla, and to rent the car from a subsidiary of National. On Day 1, I planned to settle in, spend the afternoon looking around Florence. On Day 2, I would renew acquaintance with my favorite sights and sample some neighborhoods away from the tourist routes. Then I would head for the countryside.
But the car kept passing that impressive copy of Michelangelo's "David" on Michelangelo's spacious plaza. The big stone hero (a reproduction of the genuine "David," who is kept indoors) is centuries older and just as famous as Miss Liberty. He stared triumphantly toward the northern horizon, like a naked sentinel. In less-hectic circumstances, that would have been an ideal place to pause and share David's splendid view of central Florence - a Renaissance wonderland of domes, spires, bridges and turrets, softened here and there by trees and lovingly tended gardens.
Those thousands of tour bus passengers swarming over Piazzale Michelangelo surely would attest to the unique grace of the skyline that they so casually gazed upon during the allotted minutes they were given to walk around. I began to envy their regimentation. A guide would tell them when to leave the plaza, when to eat, where to sleep. Meanwhile, I would be thrashing gears and scrutinizing maps.
Ah, freedom! That's the reason I was sitting there behind the wheel, lost and bewildered. I almost for-got.
Florence deals in beauty. It's a sublime experience to lose yourself in the grandeur of its paintings, sculptures, frescoes, plazas and intriguing architecture. But it's a nightmare to get disoriented by its contoured maze of angled and twisting streets - all of them awash with motor scooters, cars, trucks and buses and most of them one-way.
According to my maps and the people who graciously gave me directions - the woman at the refreshment stand, the hostess at the restaurant, the policeman and the gas station attendant - my hotel should have been just below and slightly west of David's left foot. They said all I had to do was descend the winding road from Piaz-zale Michelangelo, and there I'd be! But that route always led to streets that shunted me back up the slope.
This exercise took more than an hour, until I decided to go in exactly the opposite direction from every piece of advice received so far. If someone told me to go left, I went right; north instead of south. At one point, I looked over my shoulder while passing a taxi, and there it was - my hotel!
The Silla should have been completely foreign to me. A friend had recommended it only a few days before I left home. But now it represented a safe haven, practically family. Looking at its 16th century-style stucco facade, its gray shutters and limestone archways, I felt a sudden rush of warmth.
Strangers going to a strange land should book a suitable hotel for at least the first night and make sure they can find it. I got it only half right.
The street, Via dei Renai, was marked with yellow lines for short-term diagonal parking on the south side - the hotel side - and blue lines for longer-term parallel parking on the north. An attendant slouched against a wall, halfway down the block. I would learn that people in his line of work collect fees and attach little receipts to the car - human parking meters plumping up the country's employment stats. I parked between yellow lines in front of the hotel, near a door marked GARAGE, and decided to take advantage of hotel parking, even though it would add about $10 a day to the $104 room rate. If I had this much trouble finding my hotel, a search for the Florentine police auto pound might send me over the edge.
I would linger in Florence just long enough to enjoy it a bit and then set off for other nearby parts of Tuscany, returning to the Silla at night. That was the plan, anyway. The only plan.
My 1993 European rail excursion had left me with an urge to wander around the region. I wanted to visit picturesque medieval hill towns, soak up green mountain vistas, take side roads past quaint farms and precise vineyards neatly defined by windbreaks of slender cypress. And I wanted to do this unfettered by schedules, appointments and touristic shepherding.
Once I had stumbled upon it, the Hotel Silla seemed ideally suited to serve as my first base of Tuscan operations. I could walk to most of the city's sights, and when I was ready to range further, the highway system wasn't far away.
The Silla lobby requires a climb up two flights of stairs and contains little more than a reception desk run by a series of polite (not to say chummy) English-speaking clerks. A few offices and apartments share the building and its fern-shaded courtyard.
A young bellhop helped me resettle the car into the garage and then toted my bags up the stairs and into my narrow and efficient room with a view. From the single window, I could see the park across the street, the Arno beyond and the historic city on the opposite bank.
Apparently, Silla earned its three stars for location, a handsome exterior and cleanliness. Austerity ruled the interior decor. European hoteliers are quite literal about single accommodations. Mine was furnished with a narrow slab of a bed, a tiny night stand just big enough to hold the telephone, a combination desk/TV table, one chair and a phone-booth-size shower in the minuscule bathroom. The European lodging industry apparently assumes all single guests are monks or nuns.
On Day 2, after a cold breakfast (included in the room rate), I scurried across the river, intent on seeing all the glorious treasures that I had come to think of as my Florentine touchstones.
The line of people waiting to see Michelangelo's "David" (the real one) at the Galleria dell' Accademia wound around the block. So I walked over to nearby San Marco, the convent with interior walls beautifully adorned with 15th century frescoes by Fra Angelico. The rooms there felt even smaller than my digs at the Silla, but the walls, of course, proved far more entrancing. Many of the cells displayed frescoes depicting the life of Christ, a decorative touch intended to inspire the Dominican friars who slept there.
I felt my jet-lagged spirits lift during the stroll around San Marco's tranquil cloister, buffered from the snarling scooters and roaring buses just outside the doors. Tour groups had not yet arrived at San Marco. Presumably, they still awaited their turn to look at the "David," queuing obediently on the hot sidewalk behind tour guides waving little flags. I no longer envied them.
After my cloistered hour, I finally did walk over to Galleria dell' Accademia and saw that the line had dwindled to a mere half-block. In no time at all, an attendant was waving me inside, and I shuffled with everyone else along a familiar corridor lined with several magnificent Michelangelo sculptures. And then I reached the David statue, looming with marble grandeur in its special atrium. A few straggling tour groups heard their leaders lecturing about the masterpiece (circa 1504), a colossal depiction of the Goliath slayer, a work commissioned by the city of Florence to enhance the Piazza della Signoria (where another reproduction now stands).
Cameras strobed about every 10 seconds, despite the uniformed woman who yelled, monotonously, "no flash" each time a bulb went off. She evidently lacked enforcement powers and only added to the echoing noise - the polyglot recitations of French, German, Spanish and British tour leaders, the squeak of Nikes, the murmurs of appreciation. I suddenly realized that the David and his throng of admirers all looked exactly the same as they had five years before. I couldn't help but yawn. David, the second time around, un-der-whelmed me. No flash.
I drifted off in search of a double espresso.
Enthusiasm returned with the jolt of caffeine. I spent the rest of the day under the spell of Botticelli, Titian, Francesca, et al., art of the Middle Ages, art of the Renaissance, art of the Mannerists. I marveled again at the captured light and stunning dimensions of the plazas, the neo-Gothic marble excesses of the Duomo, the intricate reliefs on its giant doors.
After awhile, I began pursuing little nuggets of culture mentioned in the back pages of the guidebooks and deluding myself into thinking that I was getting at the city's essence.
My midday meal was a small salad and huge bowl of limp spaghetti with pesto sauce in a scruffy little trattoria around the corner from Santa Croce. The church, a Gothic wonder built in 1294, somehow provoked both hunger and profound thought. Santa Croce's sanctuary, it seems, holds the tombs of practically every prominent Italian in history - Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli . . . even Enrico Fermi, father of the chain reaction, occupies a niche in Santa Croce.
The luncheonette soon filled up with a distracting crowd of Italian high school students. They had weird hair with colors never seen in nature, and they teased each other unmercifully. For a moment there, I felt as if I had been jerked back to the states. The kids blew smoke at the no-smoking signs, yelled a lot and jiggled their pierced belly buttons at the owner, who, inexplicably, kept humming "Never on Sunday" as he cheerfully replenished their Cokes.
That carbo-loading helped me slog on, but I was tiring fast. I made the rounds of more statues, more churches, more plazas and after that, the markets and little side streets dotted with cafes and shops selling handmade goods ranging from shoes to toys.
That excursion took the better part of three hours and most of my remaining energy. I retreated to the Bar Vivoli Gelateria, reportedly the best gelateria in all of Italy. A late-afternoon cluster of locals and tourists lined up at the counters. More people stood in a small church courtyard across the street, dipping plastic spoons into cardboard containers and looking blissed out.
After making my ice cream selection, "melon," I paid a cashier, waited in line and then handed my receipt to one of the dispensers. She scooped out a large portion into the container (no cones available). I found a small table in the rear of the bar, where I ate and sipped another coffee, hoping to revive. The gelato tasted more melon-y than any melon in memory. It was sweeter than honeydew, a more subtle shade of orange than the ripest cantaloupe and, of course, much creamier.
From there, I moved on to Ponte Vecchio and its string of jewelry stores and gold-chain shops. Teen-agers who looked very much like the ones in the spaghetti joint sprawled along the balustrades or tried out their insolence on the African peddlers of arts and crafts who were hustling pedestrians all along the bridge.
I walked back toward the hotel, longing for sleep and fearing I might be coming down with Sten-dahl's Disease.
Stendahl, the 19th century French novelist and biographer, announced that the abundance of visual delights in Florence nearly made him swoon from artistic over-load. Santa Croce had been especially overwhelming. He had to sit down for a spell.
Those who try to see everything in Florence within an unrealistic time frame (less than five days) occasionally collapse with what the local physicians knowingly refer to as Stendahlismo. Emergency rooms keep smelling salts handy for just such crises.
At dusk, I came upon a small terrace at the Hotel Lungarno. From there I could stare across at Ponte Vecchio from the river's south bank. The bridge looked like a graceful ambassador from centuries long past, a soft yellow arch of history with the city beyond it resembling a Renaissance painter's vision - those pastel buildings, those distinctive narrow cypress trees and silver-green pines, everything burnished by the fading light and framed with angelic pink clouds.
The next day, I woke up exhausted and barely mustered the strength to explore the immediate neighborhood. So much for day trips. I discovered impressive homes and gardens above the hotel, on those very slopes that had confused me on my first day in town.
I slowly moved along the pathways of Boboli Gardens, the backyard of Pitti Palace, most of which was closed. The cleaner air refreshed me, and the peace of it all served as a reminder that a more bucolic Italy awaited. That part of the journey would fill other notebooks and future stories, but I can reveal this much now: If you want to do Italy with complete independence, the country will not put up much resistance. Simply try to avoid fighting yourself. And allow ample time to savor Florence.
If you go
By Robert Cross
Find a travel agent who knows Europe well and book a few things in advance.
Most of the major American car-rental companies have European branches, and from them you may get better rates if you reserve a vehicle before leaving home. My Fiat four-door cost $369 a week, including insurance and unlimited mileage. It would have been suitable for two people who pack light; its trunk could handle a couple of medium-sized suitcases and not much else. Leaving luggage visible on the back seat of an unattended car is always a risk.
You're also courting trouble if you fail to reserve a room, at least for the night of arrival. Hotel Silla, comfortable but not luxurious, has 32 modern rooms costing around $100-$150 for a double. Not many others offer that level of accommodation for that price. A lot of hotels will charge slightly to considerably more, pensiones and hostels significantly less.
Hotel Silla is at Via dei Renai 5, 50125 Firenze, Italia (do not burden the already overwhelmed Italian postal service by using Anglicized place names). Phone: 39-55-234-2888 or 2889. Fax: 39-55-234-1437.
In guides such as "Rick Steves' Italy" (John Muir, $14.95), the Silla would be categorized as a "splurge" for budget-minded travelers, but not an unreasonable indulgence. Sandra Gustafson's "Cheap Sleeps in Italy" (Chronicle Books, $10.95) doesn't mention the Silla, but her other recommendations are reportedly reliable.
After you get oriented and more familiar with things Italian, it's often possible to find lodging on the spur of the moment through tourist offices at airports, train stations, central city locations and - occasionally - near major attractions. Agents there can direct you to a vacant room in the preferred price category for a slight service charge and a deposit (later subtracted from the room charge).
Information: The Italian State Tourist Office, 500 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 2240, Chicago; 312-644-0990; fax: 312-644-3019.