Wheelchair Accesssible Florence, Italy
and the Amalfi Coast
(One More Time with Feeling, Part I)
by Albert Elias © 2004
In 2001, Albert Elias and his friend,Susan, visited two of Italy's jewels: the Amalfi Coast and Florence in Part I then moves on to London, England in Part II. Come along as they navigate the scenic beauty and the often inaccessible landmarks of Amalfi and Tuscany . Albert has Cerebral Palsy and used a manual wheelchair to enhance his travel mobility.
January was cold in New York when my friend Susan needed a break and decided to visit sunny Florida and me. January was also the month Susan celebrated her birthday, a good excuse for us to visit my favorite restaurant, Paradiso. I am very partial to Italian. And Paradiso, in my opinion, is the best around.
I hoped Susan would enjoy her meal as much as I knew I would enjoy mine.
Angelo, who not only owns Paradiso, but also doubles as chief chef, greeted us at the door.
“What can I fix for you tonight, Albert?” Angelo asked.
“Veal,” I said, turning to Susan. "Angelo can really do magic with veal and lemon butter.”
“I bet,” Susan said.
“Introduce me to your friend, Albert, “Angelo said. “Forgive me,” I said, “Where are my manners this evening? Angelo, meet Susan. Susan and I know each other from New York.”
“Pleasure,” Angelo said. “Likewise,” Susan said. “Albert and I have known each other since 1989, and we used to go to Johnny's Italian Ristorante when he lived in New York.”
“I see your friend speaks Italian,” Angelo said. “A little,” Susan said. “Language is one of my strong suits.”
“That could come in
handy in June,” Angelo said.
”June,” Susan said. “What’s Angelo talking about?”
“I do believe we have just been invited to a wedding,” I said.
“Who’s getting married?”
“I am,” Angelo said, “and you’re both invited. “Give me your addresses before you leave and I’ll make sure you both get invitations. And Susan, you keep practicing Italian. You’ll need it at the wedding. Enjoy your dinners.”
After we were seated and Angelo left us, a waiter brought over a small bottle of wine and we toasted Susan’s birthday.
I said, “ I hear from my friends John and Mary that Angelo is getting married in Sorrento in June. I don't know about you, but I would like to go.”
Susan took a sip of her wine and said, “Don’t make plane reservations just yet. After all, how well do you know Angelo? I for one don’t know him at all. This is the first time we have laid eyes on each other. Let’s wait and see. It might not happen.”
“But when he does actually send us an invitation? Would you consider going?” I took another sip of wine and continuing said, “I can't travel any more by myself.”
I know that,” Susan said. “I’m only saying let Angelo think about it. And if he does send us an invitation, sure, I'll consider it. But I must tell you that June is a busy month for me. She took another sip of wine and bit into a hard roll. “We should order. I’m really hungry.”
During dinner, Susan filled me in on what was going on in her life and the state of the New York theater scene.
If I could only walk without assistance, I would be enjoying that life, too. But that was yesterday. Today I can't travel outside the confines of my apartment without help.
We didn't speak of the wedding in Italy again that night. And as we left Paradiso, Angelo just said goodbye and hoped we had enjoyed our meals.
A week went by and Susan had gone back to New York. And then I received a call from my friend Jack.
“I hear you and Susan saw Angelo.”
“Yes,” I said, “he invited us to Italy for the wedding.”
“I know,” Jack said. That's why I’m calling. Angelo can't find your address or Susan’s.”
“You mean he was serious?”
“Sure he was,” Jack said. “Angelo is a man of his word.”
“I guess so,” I said, my heart beating fast. ”Gee, how about that?” I hadn't been back to Europe for six years and for Italy it had been 40. What if Susan couldn't or didn't want to go? Could I still go and manage on my own?
“Albert, “Jack said, “are you still with me.
“I'm still here,” I said, “I was just thinking if this trip is manageable, given the state of my mobility, or immobility, as the case may be.”
“Oh, come on Albert, “Jack said, “you’ll be fine. And besides Susan will be with you.”
“I hope so.”
“Enough!” Jack said. “Mary and I will come by around six and take you to Paradiso for dinner. Don't forget to bring your and Susan's address. You can give them to Angelo at dinner.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll refreeze my chicken dinner. See you at six.”
“You will indeed,” Jack said. “Don’t worry, Albert, I know this trip will work out for you.”
Hanging up the phone, I hoped the Jack was right. I longed to return to Europe but knew it all came down to Susan. If she couldn't accompany me, the trip wouldn’t happen.
Oh, Susan! Susan! What is it to be? Italy or no Italy?
At dinner that evening, I gave Angelo both Susan’s and my address and then wondered if he would really contact us.
I didn't have long to wait. Two weeks later, the invitation came. It was so fancily printed that I had trouble reading it.
I called Susan and asked if she had gone one and if so, could she please tell me where the reception was being held. My eyes are not what they used to be, and I couldn't make up the lettering.
Susan told me she did indeed get the invitation that there was nothing wrong with my eyes as she had a hard time reading it, too. Susan did think the reception was being held in Massa Lubrense Hotel, and if possible we should book a room there as it would save a lot of hassle with trying to get a cab,
“I agree,” I said, delighted. "So does that mean you will go to Europe with me?”
“I hope so,” Susan said. "I can't give you a definite answer yet, as I don't know if there will be a reading of my show during that time. When at the latest can I tell you?”
“The sooner the better,” I said. “ Europe and especially Italy attracts the crowds, and the longer we wait, the less likely it is that we will be able to get either the flights or the hotel rooms we want."
"That's crazy," Susan said.” It’s only the first week in March. The wedding isn't until June 24. Plenty of time."
"OK," I said, but I was still nervous, knowing the overseas flights get booked up very fast.
In the meantime, I had mentioned to my parents my desire to return to England, and that perhaps the wedding in Italy would be a good way of doing that.
The both thought it was an excellent idea and told me that through their points with American Express they might be able to get a deal on business-class seats. That would be great as the flights to Italy normally ran eight hours, and I could use the extra legroom. As it turned out, the seats on business-class also recline, which gave me extra leverage that helped my blood flow and my ankles from swelling.
My parents also told me they would treat us to part of the trip. It would be their gift to me for my 55th birthday. (Yes, I would be the speed limit this year. Will it be uphill or downhill from here on out?)
After thanking them, I sat down and drew up an itinerary. I decided that I might as well see as much of Italy and England as possible, for who knows what the future had a in store for me.
Florence was a must. I was there 40 years ago and still have vivid memories of both the architecture and the art. I couldn't wait to see the statue of David again.
I decided that I would let my trip, with the optimistic notion that Susan would indeed be accompany me. For I knew that if she dropped out the trip was off.
I went to a head with my planning and took out cancellation insurance. Plus travel insurance. I was prepared for anything and everything.
The wedding would be on a Sunday. So, Thursday, June 21 would be our departure date, returning either July 4 or 5.
Susan still was hesitant and thought 16 days was too long. Of course, I didn't think it was long enough.
I stood firm and the trip lasted 16 days.
It was touch and go for a long while, but finally Susan said, "Yes," and on Thursday, June 21, Jack, Mary, Albert and Susan were riding in a van to Miami International Airport to board on an Al Italia flight to Milan, where we were to change planes for a flight to Naples. From Naples, it would be an hour's drive from the airport to our hotel in Sorrento. If all went according to plan, Susan and I should be walking the streets of Sorrento .by 2 p.m. Friday afternoon.
But that wasn't in the cards.
Our flight to Miami left on time, and the eight-hour flight landed in Milan a full half-hour ahead of schedule. Great, I thought. Now there would be plenty of time to catch our connecting flight to Naples.
I was feeling good
as we deplaned. Being in business-class really makes a big difference. I
was able to have my feet elevated almost the entire time.
Being in a wheelchair means that on the first on the airplane, but the last off. The airports in Italy are set up a little differently from those in the United States. The flights in Italy don’t taxi to the gate, but disembark passengers a short distance away. Not only do people have to walk to the gate, but they also have to be able to walk down a flight of stairs. Two activities I cannot do.
Susan, and I had to wait for a special truck with a platform that was fitted to the door of the plane, so that I could be wheeled into the truck and driven to the terminal.
What a procedure.
After all that, we still had the time to spare before our connecting flight, but that's when the fun began.
We were sitting in
Al Italia’s business-class lounge when an announcement came over the
loudspeaker stating that the airport was to be experiencing the strike,
which would be lasting from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.. All scheduled flights were
canceled until that time.
Susan and I looked at each other. “Boy,” I said. “We’re in for a little adventure before our trip even starts.”
"It sure sounds like it," Susan said. “Well, if we’re going to get stuck here for hours, I might as well use the time boning up on my Italian." She opened a pretty knapsack and took out a small book. "I'm glad I brought this. It will come in handy right away."
A few minutes later, an Al Italia representative came over and spoke to Susan. "Well, here goes, Albert," Susan said. And using her Italian phrase book, Susan was able to find out that they thought our flight would be able to take off then since it was fueled and ready to go.
Jack, Mary and Susan followed the Al Italia representative, who was pushing my wheelchair to the gate. We us and we would be admitted to the plane and our way to Naples.
Boy, were we wrong! But we found at the gate was a crows of angry Italians, shouting airline personnel. One man was even standing on the counter, hands waving madly in the air. It reminded me of Roberto Benini in “Life is Beautiful.”
The flight didn't take off, and we were taken to the VIP lounge to wait out the strike .
Susan is a fast learner, and by the timely finally landed in Naples, around 6 p.m. some six hours later, she had learned enough words to be able to locate our limousine driver and tell him we needed help, not only with our luggage, but with the wheelchair as well. I was glad that the driver stuck around the Naples Airport for us. He didn't seem too upset about waiting, as he told us strikes of this nature happen frequently in Italy.
The driver informed us that his company takes people out on tours, and he would be happy to arrange one for us. Susan and I both thought that was a great idea and asked him what he would recommend seeing. We would only have one free day in the area and not a day and a half as we would have had if there hadn't been a strike.
"I think your best bet would be a tour of the Amalfi coast," the driver said. "You will really enjoy the scenery."
"What do you think, Susan?"
"It's a possibility," Susan said. "But I was wondering about Capri."
“Capri would be difficult for you Mr. Elias," the driver said. "I don't know how you would be able to fit the wheelchair onto one of the hydrofoils that you take to the island, and once there, the streets are very narrow and steep. I just don't think it would be doable."
The Amalfi coast it is,” I said.
“An excellent choice," the driver said. "You'll be in a car most of the time and on pavement that a wheelchair can easily be pushed on."
“That does sound good,” Susan said. "I pushed your wheelchair up steep hills and along narrow roads before, and I really don't want to do it again.” Susan looked at me and said, "Sorry, honey, I know how much you were looking forward to seeing Capri."
"Oh, well," I said. "I guess I'll have to use my imagination, just as I do with most of the rest of my life."
"I'll say one thing for you, Mr. Elias,” said the driver. "You certainly have a positive attitude. Well, here we are at your hotel. My name is John and I will go ahead and make the arrangements for Amalfi trip.”
"Thank you," I said.
"Check with the front desk tonight," John said. "I'll call and tell them the time I will come tomorrow to pick you up. But I expect it will be around nine."
After we settled in our room, Susan said, "I think I'll take a little walk to get the lay of the land and see if I can peek at the copy of the International Herald Tribune. I know how much you enjoy that newspaper. I'll be back soon.”
Susan left for her walk. Susan and I have a wonderful friendship, but we aren’t lovers and so we have a room with two beds, but more on that later.
For now, I was happy she was here to help me, and perhaps on her walk she will find a good restaurant nearby where we can have a nice meal. I didn't want to eat all my meals in the hotel. And I’m quite sure Susan didn't either.
An hour later, Susan returned and said, "Well, honey, the streets are very busy and the sidewalks are very narrow so I was unable to make it across the street to buy you a paper. But I did find us a nice place where we could have the dinner.”
"Great," I said. "But how are we going to maneuver the wheelchair along the narrow sidewalk? Remember what you said in the limo about not wanting to deal with steep narrow streets and sidewalks?"
"I remember," Susan said. "But the restaurant is only a block away. I can manage that all right. I just don't want to manage a lot of narrow streets. Okay?"
"OK," I said. "
"So let’s get your into your wheelchair and go out and have some dinner."
After Susan and I made our way down the small he'll not led from the hotel to the main street, Susan said, "See what I mean? Look at how fast the cars are going. It's impossible to get across the street to newsstand."
We started up the street that led to the restaurant. It was indeed narrow, but we managed and people were kind enough to move aside to let us pass. When we reached the restaurant, I was pleased to see that the entrance was on street level, and not up a few stairs as some are in Italy.
After we were seated, the waiter brought over two glasses of white wine. "Let's order," I said. "I'm starving. And besides, I have a bit of a surprise to show you."
"A surprise," Susan said. "This I've got to see. Let's order right away."
"Very good," the waiter said in perfect English. “What can I get for you?"
"Salmon," Susan said. "I hear the fish is wonderful and in this part of Italy."
"It is," the waiter said. "An excellent choice. And what can I get for you, sir?"
“I'll have the veal chop."
"Very good. I'll be back soon with your meal."
Susan lifted her glass and said, "A toast to you, dear. I still can't believe we’re really here."
Soon the waiter returned of our dinner.
"Sir, do you want the veal cut?"
"No, that won’t be necessary," I said. "Just give me a sharp knife." I looked at Susan. "That's the surprise. I now can cut my own neat!"
"Wow!" Susan said.
"I'll be right back with a sharp knife," the waiter said.
When the waiter returned, I wasted no time in showing off my new skill. Taking a fork in my right hand, I stuck it into the veal. Then taking the knife in my left hand, I proceeded to cut the neat.
"That's fantastic, Albert," Susan said. Looking up and noticing the waiter still standing there, she continued, "He never was able to cut his mate before, and now look at him."
"I'll leave you two alone to celebrate," the waiter said. "Let me know if I can be of any more help."
Walking back to the hotel, I noticed the street was still too busy for us to cross to get to the newsstand. I would have to wait till tomorrow when we were in the car and ask the driver to stop and pick up the paper.
When we got to the hotel, we learned that a car and driver would be picking us up at 9 a.m. for our trip to Amalfi coast.
Heading towards the elevator, we suddenly heard music.
"The music sounds great," I said. "Cole Porter."
"Your favorite," Susan said. "Let's check it out."
As we entered the hotel's lounge, we were each handed a glass of champagne and sheet music.
"Come join us," the pianist said.
Soon we were drinking, singing and making new friends. We were 10 couples who wallop along to a Swedish social club. They paid their club dues in order to go away for a long weekend every year. They were very nice to us and we exchanged business cards. We hoped that we'd run into then again, not only on this trip, but perhaps in Sweden, or even the good old USA.
The next morning, we met the driver at nine and started our tour. Susan was a little concerned because the company sent a different driver. But her fears were put to rest when he assured us that he not only spoke perfect English but would be willing to push the wheelchair in case Susan wanted to go off exploring by herself.
After stopping to pick up a newspaper for me and a disposable camera for Susan, we headed towards Positano. The drive along the Amalfi coast, with its winding roads that hug the cliff, was just breathtaking.
We stopped a few times to enjoy the view and have our picture taken. I was able to get out of the chair and stand next to Susan for one of them. It's a cute picture. I had one made for my parents, calling it "the Italian couple."
We couldn't get over the beauty of the miles and miles that ran along the southern coast of the Sorrentine Peninsula. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful stretch of coast in Italy. It has a wild, tumbling landscape of mountains, cliffs, rocky coves, and deep blue water, adorned by several towns.
Susan and I were intrigued to learn that the area was home to many artists, musicians and writers. Picasso and Nureyev are two who come to mind. Nureyev bought the tiny Li Galli Islands, said to have been home of the Sirens, who sang sweetly to lure Odysseus onto the rocks.
We stopped in Positano. It was a small town that had only one main road accessible by car. The many hotels and apartments have no vehicle access. Our driver told us that we would have problems if we wanted to stay in town for any length of time.
We did, however, find a place to park and the driver pushed me to an open area while Susan went exploring.
Susan just fell in love with Positano’s pyramid of sugar cube fishermen's houses that lead down to a sandy beach containing colorful fishing boats.
I was sorry that Positano’s vertical geology prohibited me from joining her. But no matter, forcing after she left, I was enjoying one of my favorite pastimes, people watching. The driver found a really good spot for me to do this.
A woman passed and then quickly turned around and smiled at me. "Albert," she said. "What are you doing here?" It was my friend, L.isi. We both couldn't believe it. She's one of the three Italians I know. And the last I had heard, she was living in New York.
"I should ask you the same question." I said. "I thought you were still back in New York."
I'm still there," Lisi said. "I'm just here for the summer, visiting with my friend Franco Zefferelli. Did you know he has a summer place here?"
"I know," I said. "Susan is with me."
"Oh," Lisi said. "Wait here." She left and went into a store and came back, carrying a sheet of paper. Handing it to me, she said, "Here's my phone number. Call me and we’ll get together. I must dash. My luggage is down at the dock." She kissed mean goodbye and said, "Don't forget to call me."
When Susan returned, she said, "I ran into Lisi and she said she gave you her phone number. Do you think we'll have time to see her?"
"We should have time after the wedding," I said. "If it starts at eleven, the reception should be over by four at the latest. We’ll meet for dinner."
"Well, what did you think of Positano? The driver asked when we were back in the car. We were on our way to Ravello where we would have lunch.
"It's very nice," Susan said. "But I see it would certainly be difficult for us."
"Don't worry about Albert," the driver said. "He does quite well for himself."
"I know," Susan said. "The minute I’m out of sight, there he is with another woman."
We all laughed. And I knew Susan had forgotten her initial fears about the driver.
Way passed the town of Amalfi, famous for the setting of the drama, The Duchess of Amalfi." Our driver told us that there are two main shopping streets in the town, but he said the real attractions were the alleys and passages leading to the many little squares, with pretty fountains.
We had to park outside Ravello, as most of the town is inaccessible to motorized transport. But what the views!
Again, Susan, and I were interested to hear that the town had been home to many artists, musicians and writers. Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, and Graham Greene are just a few of the writers.
Ravello, too, is noted for elegant courtyards and terraced gardens with incredible views. Every July, Ravello is home to the Wagner Festival.
Our day along the Amalfi coast was one we thoroughly enjoyed.
Returning to the hotel, we both noticed how light the traffic was. "If it's like this when we’re ready for dinner," Susan said, “I would still consider pushing year across the street to that outdoor cafe."
"Sounds good to me," I said. "And look, the cafe overlooks the Bay of Naples. How romantic!"
The traffic was indeed lighter than our first night in town, so Susan had no problems pushing the wheelchair across the street. There also seemed to be fewer people on the street. It was a far cry from the crowded streets in New York. We were even able to get a table outside that overlook the Bay of Naples. There was a guitar player that played music of the 50s, and it was a marvelous clear night, as well!
After we were seated and the waiter brought as each glossy white wine, Susan turned to me and said, "I'm glad you talked me into this trip."
"I am, too," I
said. "I can't wait till we get to Florence."
”I wonder if Jack and Mary are enjoying themselves," Susan said.
“I'm very surprised we haven't heard from them," I said. "I'm sure I told them the name of the hotel we would be staying at.
"It doesn't matter," Susan said. "We’ll see them tomorrow."
"I hope will be alright tomorrow," I said. "I got a little nervous when I heard that the hotel was inaccessible."
"Don't worry, dear," Susan said. "It will be OK."
The next morning, we arrived at the church at 10:45. The wedding was scheduled to start at eleven. Susan and I were the only to people in the church. Where were Jack and Mary? And where were the other invited guests?
Susan went inside and from someone who told her that this was the right church but that there was no marriage ceremony on the books for eleven. There was, however, a High Mass scheduled for 11:15 and we were welcome to stay for that.
When Susan returned, she found me talking to a couple who also flew in from Florida to attend the wedding. After hearing Susan’s news, it was decided that we would all stay and see what developed.
The High Mass, conducted in both Latin and Italian, was an enjoyable experience.
Halfway through the service, Susan got up and walked around the church. When she returned, she said she had spoken to a man who thinks there might be a wedding taking place here at 12:30.
"Let's hope he's right," I said. "I would hate to think that we traveled all this way for nothing.”
Around 12:30 Susan and I noticed that the church suddenly became very crowded and among all the people, there were Jack and Mary.
"Where are you two staying?” Jack asked. “I looked for you at the hotel. Angelo told us you checked out. It is everything OK?"
"Everything is fine," I said. “I guess we forgot to tell you that after we found out that Via Lubrense was not accessible for wheelchairs, other hotel arrangements were made. I thought I told you and Mary that."
"No, I don't recall you telling us anything about that," Jack said. "So I guess you didn't know about the change of time."
"No," I said. "What happened?"
"All I know is that the wedding came very close to being canceled."
"When did this happen?"
"Yesterday morning," Jack said. "Mary thought it would be a good idea if we drove by the church to see where it was so we wouldn't get lost."
"That was smart," I said.
"You better believe it," Jack said. "Why, if we didn't do that, we'd be here at the church at 11:00, as you were."
"So, how did you find out the change in time?" I asked.
"Well, Mary and I were walking around the square when we ran into Angelo and Bernadette, who told us that the ceremony came very close to being canceled. I'll never understand the workings of the Roman Catholic Church."
"Me neither," I said. "So you mean to tell me the church refused to marry them?"
"That's what I'm telling you," Jack said. "It took some fancy wheeling and dealing on Angelo's part to pull it off."
"I guess so," I said. "Imagine coming all this way, and then finding out there won't be a wedding."
"That is one of the points Angelo raised," Jack said. "There must be over 100 people who came over from the US. And I have no doubt that Angelo promised the church some kind of donation. But just remember, Albert, Lubrense is a small town, and even though Angelo was born here, he left for Bermuda when he was 16, and has only been back for short visits. And then, to top it off, he moves to Florida and becomes an American citizen."
"I still don't get it," I said. "Whatever happened to the old notion of local boy does good and returns home to be married?"
Jack laughed. "I'm afraid the church doesn't see it the same way you do. In their minds, the church is here to serve the local community, and even though Angelo’s family is still here and is active in the church, Angelo is not. They feel they shouldn't be obligated to help Angelo.”
“That's crazy,” I said.
"I know," Jack said. “And what's more, one priest thought so, too. That is why the ceremony was delayed. The church finally found another priest."
"I'm glad cooler heads prevailed."
“The wedding is just starting," Jack said. "I don't not how this will affect the reception."
"Don't worry, Jack," I said. "There's always time for a song and some wine."
Jack laughed and said, "You're right about that."
Soon the wedding ceremony started. I had trouble seeing from where my wheelchair was placed, so Susan wheeled me up to the front of the church where I was almost part of the wedding party. She stood next to me and we held hands. Once or twice, Angelo looked our way and smiled. Susan told me later that she felt Angelo liked the fact that we were holding hands.
The ceremony itself was beautiful. It was conducted in Arabic, English, Italian and Latin. There also readings from the Bible and the Koran. It was worth the wait.
After the ceremony, the bride and groom made their way up the aisle, stopping to shake hands with their guests.
Susan was able to get us a ride with one of the guests to the reception. She also arranged for Jack to push me down the rocky path that led to the hotel.
"I'm glad we didn't stay here," Susan said. "Not only because of the rough terrain, but we couldn't have met the Swedes if we had stayed in this hotel.”
One couldn't ask for a better day for a wedding. There were tables lining the grass, so that people could sit outside enjoy a cocktail. After they got me seated, Jack, Mary and Susan left to scout out finger food.
A man came up and introduced himself. I recognized him from the wedding party.
"We were lucky
today," he said.
"What do you mean?" I asked. "Lucky about what?"
"Having a wedding and reception."
I still didn't know what he was talking about. Jack, Mary and Susan returned with plates of food. "Hi John," Jack said.
"Hi Jack," he said. "I was just telling Albert about Sandra's and my experience."
"Oh yes," Jack said. "I almost forgot you guys had a similar situation when you came to Italy last year. I can't remember. How did that wedding turnout?"
"It didn't," John said. "The wedding was canceled. (I didn't find out if the couple got married a later date in, perhaps a civil ceremony.)
"Oh, that's what he meant by lucky," I said.
"Imagine," Jack said. "Travel all this way and then have the church cancel your wedding because you aren’t a "real” Italian."
"The Roman Catholic Church is tough," Susan said.
"You can say that again," I said.
At that moment, Angelo and Bernadette joined us.
"All pictured out?" I asked, smiling. "Thank you again for including Susan and me."
"Yes, thank you," Susan said. "This is quite an experience."
"Don't mention it," Angelo said. "We're glad you’re here."
"Yes," Bernadette said. "It took some doing but we pulled it off." She gave Angelo a kiss.
"Well," Angelo said. “I think they're ready for us inside. Shall we go in and have something to eat?"
After Jack helped me up the huge step that led into the building with a wedding reception was to take place, Susan said, "Thank you, Jack, I can manage from here."
As we made our way to the table, I noticed a young man dressed in a clown costume.
"Isn't that nice," Susan said. "On top of everything else they had to deal with, Bernadette and Angelo hired someone to entertain the children." She pointed to a large table by the window, decorated with balloons.
"You don’t think that’s the head table?" I asked with a smile.
“Maybe at your wedding."
When we sat down, I noticed there was a menu that listed an eight-course dinner. How am I going to eat all this? I asked myself. Looking at the courses again, I noticed that half of them were fish and rice. Two foods I don't eat.
I did, however, like the looks of the menu and started putting it in my jacket pocket.
Susan, noticing what I was doing, immediately stopped me. “Honey, there seems to be only one menu per table. I think it is only fair that the rest of us have a chance to look at it, too."
"I'm making a scrapbook of the trip,” I said. “And the menu would make a great addition.”
"I know," Susan said. "I'm sure the menu will still be on the table at the end of the evening."
As I put the menu back on the table, I knew in my heart that I would never see it again. It didn't take long before my heart was "broken." One of the other men at the table put it in his jacket pocket.
"Oh, well," Susan said. "That's what you get for being nice."
The first course was served, and with it two bottles of wine, one white and one red.
“The wine will flow tonight,” Jack said. “Angelo's cousin owns a winery.” He raised his glass and said, "Here’s to Angelo and Bernadette."
I let four courses pass by before I partook of the tomato salad, and then I filled my glass with more white wine.
Susan and I like wine but didn't drink as much as the rest of the table. With each course, new bottles of white and red wine were supplied an emptied.
Music came over the loudspeakers. One of the songs was Frank Sinatra singing "Love and Marriage."
Susan got up and started dancing by herself. I guess she needed to work off some of the food. After a while, she wheeled me onto the dance floor, and we “danced" together. I moved my feet and clapped my hands to be the music. It was lots of fun.
When the music became Middle Eastern, Bernadette and her sisters got up and belly dance. Soon, they were joined by Susan, who really entered the spirit of the dance.
Susan also led the Conga line around the building.
Little did Angelo and Bernadette realize that when they invited us we would contribute so much to the success of the evening. And we were not finished yet.
Back to eating and drinking. I did manage to enjoy the lemon sherbet and the steak, served in that order.
The steak was very tender, and, as a result, I was able to show off my new skill in cutting my meat.
A long time elapsed between the steak and wedding cake. I looked at my watch and couldn't believe it was 7:45. People were starting to leave, including Bernadette and Angelo.
"What, no wedding cake?" I asked.
"Relax," Susan said. "People just need a little break."
“Do you realize it's almost eight o'clock?" I said. "We can forget about meeting Lisi for dinner."
"Don't worry," Susan said. “We’ll see her in New York. I'm sure she'll understand. And besides, I would hate to come this close and miss them cutting the cake."
"I guess you’re right,” I said. “At least one thing is for sure: the kids are still having a good time." I looked over in the direction of the man who has still dressed up as a clown and was still in amusing the children.
The bridal couple,
in a change of clothes, returned around nine.
Susan must've been singing while we were dancing because Bernadette came over to our table and asked Susan to sing "My Way." The lyrics don't really fit the occasion, but I guess considering what they both had been through the last two days, the wedding was done their way.
After the cake was served, there was one last bit of drama. The groom, along with his mother, wheeled around a cart full of small gifts. They stopped at each table and gave each one of the female guests three little boxes. I've never seen that before, and I found it rather nice.
After that, people left and a wedding that was to start at 11 a.m. and had a reception that ended at 11 p.m.
Susan and I had just enough time to get back to the hotel and pack. We were leaving the next morning for Florence, the city I was longing to see again. The last time I was there was back in 1961 and a freshman in high school.
Early Monday morning, we said goodbye to Sorrento and bordered our flight to Rome. It was the first leg of the two plane rides that would eventually get us to Florence around two in the afternoon.
Both airplanes were small and Susan did a wonderful job in changing our seats, so that I wouldn't have far to walk and also get the needed room I required to give my legs a good stretch. Ironically, these seats were in the back of the plane and not in the front where I usually sat. The main entrance to the aircraft was also located in the rear on both flights.
We were about tired and hungry when our plane finally touched down in Florence. We were also grateful that the air Air Alitalia people decided not to strike that day. We had our fill of Italian airline strikes.
Our driver was waiting for us when we left the baggage area. After settling us into the car, he handed me a note from the hotel manager. He welcomed us to Florence and informed us that our driver's name was Tiziano and that the journey from the airport to the Grand Villa Cora Hotel shouldn't take more than 25 minutes.
Villa Cora has quite a history, dating back to the 1860s. It was originally Villa Oppenheim built for Baron Oppenheim in honor of his wife during the period 1865 --70 and Florence was the capital of Italy.
The Oppenheim residence, with its fascinating neo-Classical style, was very much admired for its grander, denoting the elegance of the period.
Some of the hotel's furnishings are authentic antiques and could be seen both in the hallways and in the apartments. The bulk of the furnishings, however, were specially constructed following original drawings.
Susan and I were in awe of the whole setup. Even the drive up to the hotel along the tree-lined road is simply breathtaking.
"This is the way it should be," I said to Susan. "A bit of nature with the city not too far away."
"Yes, it's lovely," Susan said.
When the car was parked in front of the hotel and Tiziano opened the door to let us out, I asked if it would be possible for him to take us on a tour later of the countryside.
I told him that the drive to the hotel was so beautiful that I was sure there must be other sites around that are just as spectacular. It would be a shame to miss them.
"No problem,” Tiziano said. "Just arrange with the front desk, and I will make myself available."
I looked at Susan and said, "How about tomorrow around nine?"
"Fine," Susan said.
"Let's get you registered," Tiziano said. "I'll tell the hotel manager that I’ll be back for you and Susan tomorrow morning at nine." He helped me into my wheelchair and said, "Don't worry, I will arrange a wonderful day for the two of you."
He wheeled me up to the front of the hotel. There were three huge steps leading up to the entrance.
There was a moment of silence, and then Tiziano said, "Let me go inside and see if I can get us some help."
It is not gone too long when he returned with another man who introduced himself as Stefano Celli.
"You're the person who wrote us that nice note Tiziano gave me in the car. "
"That's right. I’m chief concierge, Mr. Elias.” He extended his hand and I shook it. "Sorry for the inconvenience. We were hoping to have a portable ramp in place for your arrival here, but unfortunately, it won’t be here until tomorrow." He looked at then the steps and said, "Let's see what we can do."
"Why don't you lift up the front of the wheelchair, and I will do the same with the back," Tiziano said.
"Good idea," I said, and soon we were up the stairs and in the lobby. Tiziano arranged with the front desk to come back in the morning to take us around the countryside.
Both Mr. Celli and a bellman took us to our room. Susan and I couldn't get over the marble floors and the gold trim and frescoes that lined the hallways. This was one hotel we would both remember for a long time to come.
When we finally entered her suite, we were again filled with awe as the frescoed ceilings. There was even ivory-inlaid ebony furniture.
Susan and I each had our own space in the suite. I would read and do my exercise in the outer room while Susan did her thing in the bedroom. There were also two bathrooms, but only one bathtub.
Speaking of the bathtub, it was built in the old European style -- very high. And even though it looked beautiful, all done in marble, it proved impossible for me to use. I just couldn't lift my leg high enough to get in. I tried raising myself on every chair in the suite, even my wheelchair, all to no avail.
What was I going to do?
Mr. Celli called downstairs to see if there was another room available that had a lower tub. But sadly, all the rooms came with high tubs.
The simple solution would be not to bathe for three days, but I don't think Susan, or. anyone else for that matter, would want to be around me.
Oh, what to do you? What to do?
While I was thinking, the doorbell rang. It was the assistant manager with a bag full of different sized sponges that the management thought I could use to take a sponge bath.
"Thank you, "I said. "That's an excellent idea. How much do I owe you for the sponges?"
“They’re complements of a hotel, sir," he said. "We got you various sizes as we weren't sure which one would be right for you."
"Thank you again, " I said. "I've been in many hotels where the management wasn't that thoughtful!"
"I'm sorry to hear that," he said. "We at the Villa Cora feel our customer’s comfort is foremost, so please let us know if there's anything else we can do to make your stay with us a pleasant one.”
After he left, Susan asked if I wanted to bathe now.
“No,” I said. “Before dinner will be fine.”
“In that case,” Susan said. “I’m going out for a little walk and when I come back I’ll help you take a sponge bath.”
“That would be great,” I said. “Have a good walk and report back all that you see.”
“I will,” Susan said and gave me a kiss on my lips before leaving on her little adventure.
As I said before, Susan and I aren’t lovers, so her helping me take a bath is something new and very different. Still, I needed the help. Using sponges is very different from handling a bar of soap while lying in a tub of water.
Soon, Susan returned. She had made dinner reservations for seven o’clock and had managed to reserve one of the outside tables by the swimming pool. The pool is surrounded by marble statues of Venus, carved by Giambologna, which would be all lit up. And with a glass or two of white wine, along with a great meal, it would be the perfect way to end, what seemed to have been a long day of traveling.
But first I had to get really fresh and clean.
“Well,” Susan said, “are you ready for need to sponge you down?”
“Ready when you are, my dear,” I said, as I started to strip.
Once naked, my mind was free of all thoughts that I would never see Susan that way. It didn’t seem to matter. Susan was a true friend who was here to help in any way she could.
Walking into the bathroom, I found Susan, standing by the sink, washcloth and sponge in hand.
“Hi,” she said. “Why don’t you sit yourself on the bidet. If nothing else, you will have your fanny cleaned.”
Susan did an excellent job on me, and even gave my head a nice shampoo. However, I washed my crotch myself. The running water from the bidet felt good.
I was pleased that Susan wasn’t going to mind doing this all three nights we stayed at the Villa Cora.
After we were both dressed, Susan wheeled me to the front desk where we picked up some postcards to send to our family and friends and ask the manager again for his help with getting the wheelchair down the main steps. For some reason, both the hotel’s dining room and swimming pool could easily be reached by going out the front door of the hotel and then walking around to the back.
“It looks like we can do anything,” I said to Susan, and she wheeled me down the path that led to the dining room.
After we were seated, the waiter brought us each a glass of white wine. Susan took a sip and said, “Albert, this is so nice.” She put down her glass and took hold of my hand.
The night was clear, and with a gentle breeze blowing, the touch of Susan’s hand felt wonderful. I knew that no matter what, we would be friends for life, and that might even be better than being married.
The waiter returned with our dinners. Susan had to fish, and I had chicken. The chicken was tender enough for me to cut by myself. “That’s really great,” Susan said. “I don’t have to help you at all. Who would have thought it when we first met.”
“It’s a good feeling,” I said.
“Well,” Susan said. “We have a busy day planned for tomorrow. Where did Tiziano say he was going to take us?”
“Into Tuscany and to visit a winery.”
“I’ll bet you’ll enjoy that part of the day,” Susan said with a smile.
As it turned out, that was the one part of the day I least enjoyed.
After dinner, we ran into two couples from England, and after hearing where we were headed next, they gave us a few ideas on how to best spend our days in London. The men also helped me up the steps. I felt good about that, as it left the manager free to help other hotel guests.
The next morning, when we came down for breakfast, the manager was waiting for us with a portable ramp. The ramp was very narrow and proved to be unusable.
Once again, Tiziano and the hotel manager had to help me down the stairs in my chair.
“Well,” Tiziano said, once we were on our way, “how do you like the hotel? It’s good?”
“It’s wonderful,” Susan said. “And they’re very accommodating, helping us up and down those stairs and getting sponges so that Albert can bathe.” She smiled and put her arms around me.
“They’re nice people at the hotel,” Tiziano said. “I made reservations for us at the abbey I mentioned to you yesterday for 10:30.”
“Is it accessible?” Susan asked.
“The grounds are,” Tiziano said. “But I’m afraid the Abbey of the Good Harvest is not.”
“So typical,” I said. “Just think, if there were a few disabled monks back in the 11th century, I bet this whole country, including our hotel, would be accessible.”
We all laughed.
“You’re probably right,” Susan said. “But since there weren’t...”
“Since there weren’t,” Tiziano repeated, “I’m afraid Albert, you will have to endure my company for an hour or so while Susan tours the abbey.” He smiled at me, saying,” I’m really not a bad sort once you get to know me.”
The drive to the Abbey of the Good Harvest took us through a beautiful countryside of oak and fir trees.
We arrived at the Abbey of the Good Harvest a little before 10, with just enough time for Tiziano to give us a quick tour of the grounds.
He told us that the abbey itself was built back in the 11th century by Vallombrosan monks (I guess I knew what I was talking about when I mentioned 11th century monks back in the car.). It has been producing wine from the very beginning. When I heard that, I said to myself that over the centuries, a monk or two might have gotten themselves drunk, which should have created the need for an accessible building. Just think of all those bruises that could have been avoided if only there were grab rails for tipsy monks to hold on to.
Tiziano continued, telling us that Lorenzo de Medici’s family has owned the abbey for the last century and a half.
The parts of the abbey that I was able to view were just breathtaking, with wonderful views of the Tuscany countryside that will stand by memory for many years to come.
When the tour started, Tiziano wheeled me to a point where I could see too small lakes. on the land below. Then he took me to a shaded area where people could bring their picnic lunches.
“Wait a here a minute,” Tiziano said. “I’ll get something to drink.”
Soon, he returned with two glasses of wine.
“Drink up,” Tiziano said. “There’s plenty more where that came from.”
I enjoyed the wine. It was white and very dry, my favorite kind of wine. But I stopped after one glass. Tiziano had told me that I would be joining the others at the end of their tour for a wine tasting. I knew my limits and didn’t want to get sick. One drink would be enough for now.
While we were waiting, Tiziano told me that the abbey also made find cold-pressed olive oil, along with various flavored vinegars and floral honeys. All this was for sale at the gift shop (I wondered if the monks ran a gift shop back in the 11th century!).
I was told that the gift shop also carried beeswax hand lotion cakes in little ceramic dishes. It was a good thing I knew my suitcase was full and couldn’t hold anything else.
I thought it was too bad that Susan didn’t bring her camera, as Tiziano told me that the abbey also contained a lovely Renaissance stone garden, which I couldn’t see from where I was sitting. I hoped Susan took mental notes on the sights she saw. I always enjoyed her full reports.
Soon, we heard voices. “It’s time for me to get you inside with the others,” Tiziano said.
“I’ll drink to that,” I said with a smile.
When we were all seated, I learned that once again, Susan, with her witty remarks, had been the hit of the tour.
The room was dark, lit only by candles placed on picnic tables. The man started speaking while bottles of wine were placed on each table. One red and one white. His commentary was quite thirst provoking, so it didn’t take me very long to have a sip of the white wine that was placed before me. I passed on the red.
I also took advantage of the bread that was placed on each table. I thought that as long as I had some food in my stomach, I wouldn’t feel sick .
Was I wrong!
I was on my third glass of wine from the third set of bottles that were served to us. I only had one glass from each of the previous two bottles when it hit me, and I became nauseous. I don’t think it really came from the wine, but rather from sitting in a confined space with no circulation of fresh air.
As much as I wanted to stay and enjoy the moment with Susan and the rest of the group, I knew I had to get out of that room and fast.
Luckily, Tiziano, who didn’t stay in the room after he wheeled me in, was right outside, and Susan got him to come get me. Once outside in the fresh air, I felt fine, and Tiziano said that it was amazing how fast the color returned to my face.
Soon, Susan joined us, and the three of us are headed towards the parking lot and our next adventure.
Tiziano drove us to Monteriggioni, the tiny town 35 miles south of Florence. It proved to be a lovely place to have lunch. For Susan, it was another chance to first stretch her legs walking along some of Monteriggioni’s open countryside, admiring the poppy fields she found along the way.
I was surprised to learn that this sleepy little area was once a hotbed of activity. Back in the 13th century, Monteriggioni served as Sienna’s northernmost defense against impending Florentine invasion. Back in those days, I bet the townspeople spent many a sleepless night.
Of course, while Susan walked, Tiziano pushed me in the wheelchair. It was nice having time to explore the sights on our own and at our own pace. I was interested to see the town’s formidable walls are still in good condition, although the 14 square towers are not as tall as they seemed to be back in Dante’s time (1265 –1321) when he likened them to the four giants that guarded the central pit of hell..
After our walk, it was time for lunch. Once again, Tiziano knew just the place. He directed us to a little restaurant called Il Pozzo. It was located in the village square and had a pretty garden where we could enjoy our meal out on a shaded porch. My guidebook describes ll Pozzo as a rustic tavern that serves hardy Tuscan country cooking and savory wines. I really enjoyed their pasta dish. We each have a loss of cello, a very popular Italian dessert liqueur. But cello proved too strong for my taste buds. Tiziano, however, seemed to enjoy it and had at least three glasses. One thing I noticed, though, was Il Pozzo’s lovely white ashtray with its blue design of the Tuscan countryside. I don’t smoke, but I took the ashtray nevertheless, and now have it prominently displayed on a coffee table. Perhaps I should feel guilty, but somehow I don’t.
After lunch, we took the leisure he drive back to Florence through some very beautiful countryside.
Tuscany’s coast is blessed with the best of both worlds: steep hills flanked by evergreen forest and stretches of sandy beaches along with sparkling sea. I enjoyed every minute of the drive and was pleased to have a day in the country.
We arrived back of the hotel after five and made arrangements for Tiziano to come back for us the next morning at nine.
Once back in our hotel room, I could see that Susan was troubled by something.
“What’s wrong?” I
“I didn’t like the way Tiziano drank at lunch,” she said. “Did you see how many glasses of cello he drank? It was at least three.”
“Really?” I said. “I guess I was too busy cutting up my pasta to notice.”
“I’m not blaming you,” Susan said. “It’s just that Tiziano is our driver. I was really frightened that we were going to get into an accident.”
“Now that you mention it,” I said . “He did take some of those turns rather fast.”
“I’m going out for a walk and a swim,” Susan said. “And then on my way back to the room, I’m going to stop the front desk and say something to them about this.”
“Be diplomatic,” I said. “Tiziano has been very good to us.”
“Don’t worry,” Susan said. “I know what to say. We don’t want him fired.”
“No,” I said. “We certainly don’t want that. He’s been a big help to us.”
“I know,” Susan said. “I’ll take care of it.” She left her room, taking the hotel key from its special slot in the wall. At the time, I didn’t realize how what seemed to be an insignificant move would affect me. All the lights were on the room and Susan left, but within five minutes the room was dark.
Luckily, there was enough light from the outside so that I was able to see the phone and call the front desk and tell them what happened.
The person on the other end of the phone was very nice and explained that putting the key into the slot activated the power for the lights and that once the key was removed from its slot, the lights would automatically go off within five minutes. I was then told to wait a minute or so. Another switch had to be turned on, and that could only be done from the front desk.
I thanked the person for the explanation, and within two minutes the room became fully eliminated once again.
Once understood, I liked the idea of the key switch. The eliminated the need for wall switches. And it prevented the lights being left on when the room was empty. Those frugal Italians!
Susan returned and told me she had spoken to the people at the front desk about Tiziano drinking and that all was well.
I then told her what happened with the lights and that luckily, I was sitting on the bed and near the phone at the time they went out.
“Sounds like you’re in need of a good sponge bath,” she said. “After that, a glass of white wine. And a good meal wouldn’t be bad either. Right?”
The next morning, when Susan and I had finished our breakfast, Tiziano was waiting for us in the lobby.
“Good morning,” he said. “Ready to go? I planned a busy day for us.”
“We’re all set,” Susan and I said in unison.
As we reached the front steps of the hotel, the manager went to get the ramp. “No need for that,” Tiziano said. “I think if you just lift up the back of the wheelchair, and I’ll do the same with the front, we can get him down the stairs much more easily.”
I was pleased the hotel manager listened to Tiziano, as I really didn’t feel comfortable using the ramp the hotel had rented. After that, there was no more mention of the ramp during the remainder of stay.
Once in the car, Tiziano told us that our first stop would be Florence is famous Leather Guild.
My guidebook said Florence takes great pride in its leather products, and that leather guilds date back to medieval times. An interesting feature of Florence’s shopping centers is that each area has its own distinct feel to it, the same as it was in medieval times. I guess the city fathers wanted to keep Florence the way it was as much as possible.
As we drove along, I wondered if the hotel had spoken to Tiziano about his drinking. He surely was going out of his way to be kind to Susan and me. In the meantime, I was also thinking back to 1960 when my parents took my brother and me to the Leather Guild and bought me a brown wallet. I remember it was areally nice wallet, and I also remember using the oil at Boston University, but I don’t remember what happened to it after that.
The Leather School, as it is called, is wheelchair accessible. At least some Italians, I thought, have the wisdom to see that disabled people make great customers.
Tiziano had arranged for one of the school’s representatives to give us a guided tour. We first watched a guild member at work, where we saw their leatherwork was really an art form.
After that, it was on to the leather showroom, and, hopefully, some good bargains. I was told by the manager of the hotel to buy my leather goods directly from the Leather School as the prices were a lot lower than the department stores. He better be right, for not only was I on the lookout for a new wallet, but my mother had given me an “order” for a red leather purse. I knew I’d better not come back away empty-handed.
I decided to make the purse my first priority. As he had done from the moment we entered the school, Tiziano pushed me down the long hall where on either side were showcases full of various size persons. Again, as we went along, I not only look for a person my mother, but also couldn’t help noticing how nice and helpful Tiziano had been to us all morning, and wondered what was in store once lunchtime came around.
I did find my mother a nice purse. She had to settle, though, for a white one with red trim. The top, however, where you open the purse, was all red. I really liked it and knew she would, too.
Our guide informed me that the school could put my mother’s name or initials on the outside or the inside of the purse at no extra charge. I decided to have her name put on the inside. My mother’s name is Rea. I had to impress on the engraver that Rea was a name and not your initials, so they shouldn’t be any periods between the letters. He told me he understood and to come back a little later.
While that was being done, Tiziano wheeled me into yet another room where we saw nothing but men’s wallets.
I had only one problem: what kind of wallet did I want?
I remember that in the 1960s, I had the kind the kind that fit into the inside pocket of a suit or a sports jacket. A billfold, I believe they call it. My lifestyle has changed from the 60s, and today I rarely wear a jacket. There are times when I look back on those days of having to put on "the uniform" with fondness. But those days are gone. No, a smaller wallet, one that could fit into the pocket of my trousers was what I wanted. Tiziano must have been reading my mind as he wheeled me to the very section of the room that displayed exactly what I was looking for. Now the only problem was the color. My last wallet was brown. But what I booked at the brown ones, they didn't suit me. And the red ones were definitely out. I decided that the color had to be basic black. This was my first time in handling such a wallet, and I was pleased to see that there were two places where i can hide important items, such as a credit card. There were also different sections to separate the various denominations of money. The wallet looked good, and even smelled good. I was both pleased and excited about my selection. And since there was no extra charge to have my initials stamped on the wallet, I did that, too. I had fun with the engraver when I told him this time A.L.E. were my initials and not my name, so periods were very necessary. We both had a good laugh.
Susan was also buying wallets and eyeglass cases for herself and for gifts. I was so pleased with my wallet that when I got back to the states, I logged onto the Leather School's web site and have purchased a few more items via my computer and fax machine. Again, purchasing directly from the school, and with the favorable dollar exchange, makes the purchase not that expensive. For my brother's birthday, I purchased what I thought was a picture album, but when my brother received it, he turned it into a daily journal. However, as of this writing, I do believe he is still having fun smelling the leather cover.
After leaving the Leather School with our purchases, I knew at that moment that I didn't have enough room in my suitcase and should have packed less. Susan said, "Next time I'll do you are packing."
We both looked at each other and smiled. We've really do travel well together, as long as our health holds. Why not continue? It turned out that it was a good thing we went to Europe when we did, for a year later I was just getting over a stroke and Susan was suffering from stomach problems. We both seem to be on the mend, so if we’re lucky, the summer of 2003 might have another trip in store for us. We can only wait and see. But for now, this trip wasn't over, so on to more sights.
Pisa was our next stop, and once again Tiziano pushed me while Susan walked. When it was getting time for lunch, I still wasn't sure if we would have a repeat of yesterday's drinking. Tiziano was extremely nice to us this morning. What was he up to, I wondered.
We arrived at the restaurant, a lovely little place situated on the town square, and Tiziano said, “I’ll be back for you in an hour."
As we sat down, Susan said, "See how I handled the situation? Nice, with no bad feelings."
"Yes, I see," I said. "Nice and friendly."
Replaced our order, and as I looked around, I couldn't help noticing the lovely ambiance and the beautiful brown ashtray.
"I hope you are not thinking about taking that ashtray?" Susan asked.
"As a matter of fact, I am," I said. "The brown color will go nicely in my apartment."
"Remember," Susan said. "You have to get that ashtray home. You already have one ashtray you're bringing back. Will there be room in your suitcase for one more?"
"Don't worry," I said. "I'll make room. Besides, an ashtray doesn't take up much room."
There was a silence, and then I said, "I wonder if Tiziano know is all right."
"I'm sure he's doing just fine," Susan said. "He probably has a lot of friends in the area."
"I guess you're right."
"I am right," Susan said. "Don't worry about him. Just relax and enjoy your delicious lunch. You’ll need your strength when we tour Pisa this afternoon."
"OK," I said. "I'm kinda excited to be back here. My family and I were last here in 1960, and I have a picture of me and my mother, leaning right in front of the leaning tower. Of course, we didn't walk up to the top. The left that fear for my dad and William. Do you think you'll make the climb?"
"Oh, I don't know," Susan said. "I do like climbing, but something tells me with that scaffolding around it, I doubt if I’ll have a chance."
"A good excuse for us to come back here some day."
"That would be nice," Susan said.
We finished our lunch just as Tiziano returned.
"Your lunch was good?" he asked.
"Wonderful," I said. "Where to now?"
"Well," Tiziano know said. "I thought we could tour Pisa for awhile before heading back to Florence."
"Good idea," I said. "My city guidebook states that once you get beyond the pretentious atmosphere of the Leaning Tower, you will find Pisa has much to offer."
"That's true," Tiziano said. "Did year guidebook mention that Pisa not only has a lot to offer, but that its treasures are a little more subtle than Florence’s?" He looked at me before continuing, "And did it mention that Florence is often compared to Pisa as far as art treasures go?"
"It sure did," I replied. "It also stated that Pisa's Cathedral Baptistry-Tower complex is among the most dramatic in Italy."
"Well. Tiziano said. "You have done your homework. Let's go see if what you read this true are you both ready?”
We said we were, and as we left the restaurant, one nagging thought still remained. If Tiziano had, indeed, been spoken to, did he really stay away from the Cello, and if so, would he be as nice to us this afternoon as he was in the morning? I guess time would tell.
Again, Tiziano pushed me as Susan walked. I also learned by reading my guidebook that Pisa may have been inhabited as early as the Bronze Age. It was certainly populated by the Etruscans, and, in turn, became part of the Roman Empire. In the Middle Ages, it flourished as an economic powerhouse and was one of the Maritime Republics.
But the city's economic and political power ended in the early 15th century , as it fell under Florence's domination. Pisa sustained heavy damage during World War II, but miraculously, the Duomo and Tower were spared, along with other Romanesque structures."
Well," Tiziano said. "Time to explore. And I might add that Pisa is best seen on foot, and most of the sites are within walking distance."
As we moved along, Susan said her sights on the Duomo, Pisa’s Cathedral was one of the first buildings to use a horizontal marble stripe motif, which we found out later was borrowed from the Moorish influence of the 11th century , and became common to Tuscan cathedrals. Tiziano couldn't get me close enough to the Duomo because of the torn up streets, so I had to rely on Susan giving me a full report of what the Duomo looked like up close, both from the outside and then from the inside.
I enjoyed hearing Susan telling me that the Duomo's outer door was made up of Romanesque panels depicting the life of Christ and that there was a beautiful carved wood pulpit, dating back to the 14th century.
After that, Tiziano walked us around a bit more before saying, "It's getting late and I must get you to back. I have something special planned for you this evening. "
"What do you mean?" Susan said.
"I thought it would be nice for you and Mr. Elias to have a meal in a place other than the hotel."
"That's really nice," Susan said. "Just give us another 10 minutes to explore and we’ll be on our way."
Fifteen minutes later, our car left Pisa on its way back to Florence, with two very sleepy people in the backseat, but awake enough to wonder what Tiziano had in store for them.
When we reached our hotel, Tiziano told us to have a little rest, and then to dress in nice clothing, for we were going someplace special for dinner.
I thanked him and arranged for Susan and me to meet him in the lobby of our hotel at 7:30. After Tiziano left, I turned to Susan and said, "He’s sure being extremely nice to us today."
"Yes, he is,” Susan said. “I guess my little talk did some good." She brushed back her hair and continued, "it should be very interesting to see where he plans to take this after all of this." Smiling at me, she added, "If nothing else, it will give me a chance to show off to Florentine society the dress I bought for the wedding." She turned me, still smiling, and said, "And I know you really like the dress. Am I right?"
"Yes, I really do. I do.."
Tiziano met us in the hotel's lobby. "Ready to go?" he asked. He looked at both of us for a moment and said, "You both look very nice. Let's go. We have just a bit of a ride."
The Villa San Michele is steeped in fascinating history. The façade was designed by Michelangelo; white interiors are filled with exquisite antique furnishings and Italian works of art.
Reading some of the Villa San Michele’s literature, I learned that the villa was once a 15th-century Franciscan monastery. It's nestled in the hills of Fiesole, above the city of Florence. The Villa San Michele was, indeed, a wonderful spot for Susan and me to end our stay in Florence.
Tiziano again was kind enough to wheel me around the grounds before Susan and I went upstairs for dinner.
Once we received it, Tiziano said, "Now enjoy your dinner. I'll be back for you in two hours."
Susan and I were in awe of everything around us as we ordered our dinner. Then we sipped our white wine and looked out the open space of the monastery onto the mountains and trees below.
Susan took my hand and said, "This is so nice, Albert. I’m so glad you talked me into this trip."
"I'm glad, too," I said. “We may not be lovers, but I'm having such a good time just being with you and doing things with you that I wouldn't change it for anything in the world." I closed my eyes, hoping to hide my tears.
Susan seemed to be on the verge of tears herself and said, "That's the nicest thing any man has ever said to me." She gave my hand a gentle squeeze.
Our dinner was served. One chicken dish and one fish. The waiter spoke English and cut my chicken for me. I was too moved to do anything.
The food was delicious. It was one of the best meals we had in Italy. The ambience of our surroundings made for a perfect evening.
The next morning, we woke up early, as we didn't want to wait waste a moment of our last hours of Italy, especially in Florence. Tiziano picked us up around eight and drove us to the synagogue of Florence, Tempo Maggiore, or as the locals refer to it, the Major Temple. Whatever name it goes by, Susan couldn't wait to see it. She is rich in Jewish history and loves every opportunity to add to her knowledge.
The temple had too many steps for me to handle, so again Susan went on her own, but Tiziano kindly wheeled me around the local park.
My guidebook states that the Synagogue of Florence was built around 1874 --1882 by Vincenzo Micheli.
While Italy is a largely Catholic country, the Jewish Synagogue of Florence is a welcome addition to the Florentine skyline. Its huge copper dome fits in perfectly with the neighboring community. The synagogue is Moorish in design, but also includes healthy doses of Byzantine and Egyptian influence. The façade of the synagogue uses two distinct types of marble in order to harmonize with the surrounding buildings. That the synagogue has seen better days is evident from the patches found in its copper dome. The synagogue was used as a garage during World War II. The Nazis also mined the place, and it suffered much damage. Nevertheless, Susan fully loved seeing it and spoke of her experience to everyone she met.
Tiziano drove us next to the famous Pitti Palace, a place I haven't been in since my parents took my brother and me there in 1960. Susan had never been there. I knew it would be interesting to see what changes, if any, had taken place.
The Pitti Palace is one of Florence’s largest -- if not one of its best -- architectural and museum set pieces. The original Palace, built for the Pitti family around 1460, comprised only the main entrance and the three windows on either side. In 1549, the property was sold to the Medici family and Bartolomeo Ammannan was called in to make substantial additions.
The museum holds a largely forgettable collection of mostly Italian works from the late 18th through the mid-20th centuries, but the rooms themselves are of no interest. Painstakingly restored to their early 19th-century incarnation, they are a treat, particularly the bathroom with its low-hanging massive chandelier, and room 15, with its fanciful decorations that date back to their early 17th century. Another pleasant surprise were the two paintings by the French Camille Pissaro.
Most famous of all is the Galeria Palatina, which is home to a broad collection of paintings from the 15th to 17th century. he rooms of the Galeria Palatina remained much as the Medici left them. Their floor-to-ceiling paintings are considered by some to the Italy is most egregious exercise in conspicuous consumption, aesthetic overkill and trumpery. Still, the collection possesses high points, including a number of portraits by Titian and an unparalleled collection of paintings by Raphael, notably the double portraits of Angelo Doni and his wife, the saturnine Madalena Stronzi.
With so many galleries to see in such a short time, we got ourselves a guide to take us around for two hours before we had to leave for our flight to England. One of the first paintings we saw was a nude of the Virgin Mary painted by Titian. Susan and I smiled at each other from the for the guide's explanation that she lost her close in the desert. Well, I guess it's as good an explanation as any other. Still, Susan and I had a good laugh. I enjoyed being back at the palace after so many years. It brought back happy memories when I was 13 years old and visited the place for the first time with my parents and brother. I learned that the palace has a web site, and now see their artwork all the time, only this time it is in cyberspace.
Finally, it was time to end our stay in Florence. It had been a wonderful time, and I'm so glad we were also able to also get out of the city and see a part of the countryside. And, of course, the hotel was first-rate, along with its staff and management, who went out of their way to make our stay a most comfortable one. We said our goodbyes to Tiziano and promised to contact him on our next trip to Italy.
I couldn't wait to
get to England. It had once been my second home, having spent two years
there in the 60s and five in the 70s. I wondered how much of a change I
Check out Albert and Susan’s Italian journey at
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