Florence Walks

Florence walks.
The old center of Florence is full not only of wonderful historic places but also of signs which tell the tourist where to go. And yet it is not as simple as it seems. There are lots of little winding streets, turns and twists, arches and shortcuts, columns and wide open spaces, like the one in front of Palazzo Pitti. It seems that you are definitely walking towards the cathedral but then suddenly it disappears from view, to reappear after you take the next turn. Some sought after place may seem a bit difficult to find yet it is actually right in front of your nose. Thus I checked again how to get to Santa Croce, the church which is famous not only as a great architectural monument but also as the last resting place for many famous people. The statue of Dante stands in front of it on your left; the poet’s heart is buried there. So as not to lose my way I chose the simplest route: from Palazzo Vecchio, past the Uffizzi, towards the river; turn left and walk along the embankment seeing the greenery and the lovely mountains in the distance. The old bridge, Ponte Vecchio, stays behind you. When you reach the colossal building of Bibliotheca Nazionale, turn left and left. Visit the little souvenir shops, especially the one which sells Murano glass. The church is to your right, as well as the large square in front of it, the street vendors and the crowds of tourists. When I had my eyeful I turned around and immediately saw the unmistakable tall tower of Palazzo Vecchio in the distance, so I walked towards it along the narrow winding street, watched the restoration repairs ongoing around the Neptune fountain, made a small wave to Donatello’s David and walked on, through the bustle and hustle. The original statue dates back to 1430-40; it is kept in the Bargello Museum, which is itself a fine example of the florentinian architecture.

A short visit to the Disney store left me with a feeling of wonder and awe. There is a huge choice of products for kids of all ages, toys, clothes, shoes, games, all decorated with the familiar figures, from Mickey and Minnie on to the latest prince and princess. If you wish to buy a princess costume prepare to shell out quite a nice sum. If you only want to buy a simple dress or little pants, it will cost you €16-40. All the goods have labels which clearly state ” Made in China”. As the joke goes, these are probably the three most popular words in the world now. Or at least the words which one comes across often. The quality is fine.
This is one of the most attractive features of the flowering city. You see all the cultural places, marvel at the human genius lavishly displayed all around, but you also see the workshops where one can find Pinocchio’s figures in all sizes and see pictures of the little wooden boy with Papa Carlo. Then you can do some window-shopping at Prada and the other designer stores. If you find yourself in this lovely city just let your mind relax and absorb, take lots of pictures, make notes. Or do nothing. Settle down in one of the myriad cafes, sip your drink and enjoy the sights.

 

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Florence!

Finding one’s way.
Florence is beautiful, one can wander around staring at the many buildings each of which is an architectural delight besides being a historical monument. The number of churches, basilicas, museums, squares and parks is enormous. Every hotel seems to be located in a former palazzo, palace. The various epochs blend and merge into one continuous wonderful tapestry of human achievement, and yet each one remains unique. Somehow the city manages to create one harmonious image, to preserve its own inimitable style. I set off in the morning having consulted all manner of maps both real and virtual, determined to find Casa di Dante and pay my respects to the first poet of the Renaissance whose main opus La Commedia Divina is almost eight hundred years old. I walked miles it seems enjoying the sights, snapping pictures. I saw plenty of statues, fountains, parks, lovely historical buildings, domes, churches, palaces, museums and of course crowds of tourists everywhere. In spite of the heat huge lines wound around the cathedral, the Uffizzi Gallery, Palazzo Vecchio, Capella Medici, Palazzo Pitti… This is Florence, one probably needs a lifetime to study all it has to offer. Incidentally I found lots of supermarkets which eluded me the day before. I saw via Guibellini and Via Guelfi which I know from my university history course were the two main warring factions in Florence in Dante’s time. This showed me that his house was nearby, but I could not seem to find it. Finally I did the one sensible thing: I turned my mind off and just floated along. Et voila, as the French would say, I suddenly saw the sign which said clearly “Casa di Dante”. I followed the arrow and then the ubiquitous large group of Japanese tourists to the house, took some photos, saw an announcement that the little church nearby was closed for repairs, made a mental bow to Beatrice and her family, and walked back, or rather strolled along looking for either the dome or the bell-tower, or some other landmark which was to help me get back. I finally found one: it’s a large sign on top of a building which says MARTINI. I walked towards it and from there to my hotel.
Aha, but that wasn’t the end of my adventurous day. While the morning is best spent at trying to enrich one’s cultural awareness, the evening usually brings about the more mundane cares. I needed to find a good food supermarket. The thing is, I perfectly remember the one I liked, I know it’s somewhere nearby, but where? Blessed and cursed with zero topographic ability I can never find anything again. I walked along Via Giglio looking to my left, reached Via Mallarancio and luckily saw the sign CONAD very close. The entrance is really small and it’s easy to miss it unless you are looking for it. It’s a good supermarket with a nice selection of fruits and veggies, cheeses, hams and dairy products. Then I walked in the direction of the train station, towards Via Nazionale directly opposite the station, studied various menus in cafes and pizzerias, found a few supermarkets. Then I walked back, towards the cathedral. Rather than walking along the street which hosts Merkato Centrale, the street goods market and the large farmer’s market, I turned into a parallel street, saw the well-known baptistery ahead of me, strolled along – and wonder of wonders, I found that store I was looking for these three days! I realized that I must have passed it many times and never noticed it because I was walking from the cathedral. The entrance to the shop is small and it is easy to miss it. Coming from the opposite direction however I clearly saw the familiar CONAD sign. Inside the shop is huge, the food choice is really great, and there is a nice large counter where you can buy hot freshly made meats and chicken. Yay! I carefully memorized the location: if you have the Baptistery on your right, you have to take the first street to your left and walk along the left hand side. There is a store called Tiger, than one called Cover Me which sells all kinds of phone covers and more. CONAD is right next to it. I sincerely hope it will still be there today and I will be able to find it at lunch time.

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Florence in Summer

Florence in Summer.
The flowering city is in full bloom, the skies are blue, the sun is shining, the Arno River sparkles, the old buildings look very fresh. This week is very warm, 30-35C. There are crowds of tourists and long lines everywhere; one can hear all the languages and observe various customs and traditions all around. Being blessed and cursed with the absence of the sense of direction, this time I wander along the streets, peaking into nooks and corners, re-discovering the familiar sights and finding something new. The cathedral, Is Duomo is seen from practically any place so it is really impossible to get lost. I remember not to panic when I suddenly lose it, it is still there but happens to hide itself behind a building or a sharp turn. The famous Neptune fountain is closed for renovations; one of the numerous copies of David stands tall near Palazzo Vecchio. The original statue is safely displayed inside. I stroll past the Uffizzi Gallery, one of the most well-known art museums on the planet, and rejoice in the knowledge that I have been there several times. If you wish to see the grand masters of the Renaissance you should perhaps try to come to this city in January, off season. I did not yet try to find Dante’s House, Casa di Dante, with the adjacent little church where according to legend he first saw Beatrice when he was 9, and where she was buried. Nor have I managed to walk all the way to Santa Croce church which is a historic monument in itself. Rather than trying to get inside anywhere I simply enjoy that unique feeling, the sensation of being part of Humanity, no matter what language we speak. We are all human, and this magnificent city is part of our joint cultural heritage. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.

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The CDG Hilton Experience.

The CDG Hilton Experience.
There were several reasons why we decided to splurge on one night at the CDG airport HIlton. According to the information listed on site, the hotel is a few minutes away from the train stations and terminals; it has a sauna and a swimming pool; breakfast was included into our deal; bathrobes and slippers offered; free in room wi-fi for h-honors program members; airport shuttle if needed. Alas, we discovered as many a weary traveler before us that not all that glitters is gold.
We arrived to the final RER B stop at Terminal 2, walked around a lot looking for signs, found Sheraton and arrows to various hotels, and finally asked for directions at an information kiosk. Then we went up to Level 5, followed the signs to hotel shuttles, asked a very courteous bus driver and he waved to the small Platform 2 sign where we dutifully waited for the shuttle. It took us to the hotel in 5 minutes or less; it was definitely not a pedestrian route. We checked in relatively fast, asked a few questions. Free wi-fi, only in public areas, that is the lobby downstairs; in room connection was €25 per person per day. We don’t pay that much to our provider per month. We asked about hhonors and were coldly informed that as we booked on booking.com and not on hotel site our privileges did not mean anything! This rather stumped us. I mean, either we are some program members or we aren’t, regardless of where we happened to book from, because we still pay at the hotel. What about the shuttle? As we had an early morning flight, could we sign up for one? No, it was ” first come first served”, and since the shuttle had only eight (8) seats we could either come very early or use the CDGVAL, the airport train behind the hotel. Ok, we set out to check everything so as not to rush about madly in the early morning. It took us about twenty minutes to get to the Air France check in counters. When we went back by the same train we spent some time walking around trying to find the right exit and to get back to the hotel. Feeling quite exhausted we searched for bathrobes and slippers, found none in the room, decided not to bother, just put on our swimsuits and robes and went downstairs. There was not a soul inside the changing room, a bit puzzling. Experience taught me to take a shower in the room before going. I found the right door, went to the pool and smack into a shallow cold puddle, some sort of disinfecting little bath I guess. The pool was empty but for the guard lounging in an arm-chair. “Madame, it’s very cold!” He called out to me. Huh? It’s advertised as a heated pool open throughout the year! My husband emerged via the same cold puddle, got the same warning. We decided to go for it anyway. Heavens how cold, it was practically freezing! We managed a few strokes and jumped out. My husband tried the shower and told me it was icy cold. Well at least we felt invigorated.
Breakfast starts at 6 a.m. convenient for those who have an early flight. It costs €25 per person, but the choice is rather limited and in fact reminds one of a standard breakfast at a Holiday Inn. Overall impression, nobody cares about the customers.
It’s a shame because the building is really impressive, the rooms are spacious, it was obviously designed well.
Next time, we’ll stay at IBIS hotel nearby. It has free internet and breakfast starts at 4am. Hopefully the staff are a friendlier lot too.

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Palaiseau, France

Small Discoveries.
When you travel and find a nice residence hotel, the next item on your agenda is finding a good supermarket nearby. Going out is nice but one gets tired of eating at a restaurant every day, and of course it is much more expensive than home cooking. I was quite happy to see a large G 20 supermarket on Rue de Paris in Palaiseau, France in May. It has a large selection of foods and drinks, fruits and veggies plus all the usual household items. When I had some time while staying at the same convenient and comfortable Tulip Inn in August I walked all along the familiar street enjoying the sights. It is quite long and as I realized this time it must be the Main Street of this town which is well known as the home to various educational and research institutions. There are plenty of shops including a wonderful florist’s, an arts and crafts shop, some department stores, cafes and restaurants. The town hall which is called Hotel de Ville in French is also located on Rue de Paris. Walking past I reached a nice square with the fountain and a monument to Joseph Bara. He was the famous drummer boy who was killed in the Great Revolution of 1793. He was born in Palaiseau and died at the age of 13. His feat naturally became the stuff of legends, and many notable painters depicted his fate in their works. When you pass the square with its Georges Sand Mediatheque and museum you see the St. Martin’s church quite a distance away standing tall on a hill.
Walking back I saw the familiar Franprix sign; it is invisible from the other direction, hidden by a large tree. I found the entrance under a sort of archway which from the side-street looks rather like an underground garage, entered and discovered a very large supermarket with a great choice of all kinds of food. It is perhaps five minutes walk away from the G20 store on the opposite side of the street. My favorite Boulangerie is also nearby. What I did not realize of course was the fact that most shops are open weekends but closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Also August is traditionally the month when the French prefer to take their vacation. A very attractive bijouterie store has been closed for more than a week now. G20 and Franprix supermarkets though are open daily including weekends and public holidays. If you need anything else you can always take the train to Paris, it’s only about 20-30 minutes, depending on where you wish to go. Before leaving the hotel it is advisable to check the train schedule, and even then to be ready for the unexpected. All the stores around the Louvre, on Rue de Rivoli, Avenue de l’Opera and many other streets are open on weekdays including Saturdays; on Sundays only the souvenir shops are open.

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Parisian Walks.

Parisian Walks.
Any great city can be best explored on foot, and Paris is probably number one among them. Each time I find myself in Paris, for the first few days I am content to be in situ working or doing whatever has to be done there. Then the urge descends on me. I need to get out and about, to feel the pulse, to be jostled about, to listen to the never ending multitude of tongues, to stare and marvel. To be glad and sad, in short to feel alive! Thus it came about that I took my courage in both hands and braved the local RER train. Before embarking on my impromptu journey I Googled everything beginning with the train schedules. Not that they are always reliable but they do give one an idea, a focal point, like, do you want to start at 9:53 or twenty minutes later? I was unsure about my route and then Fate decided it for me. It started to rain heavily
while I was walking those five minutes to the station. I ran, swiped my Navigo ticket against the turnstile, waited a few minutes on the stairs, under the roof, then rushed into the train. The ride lasted about twenty minutes. I chose Luxembourg gardens as my destination for one very important reason: it has no changeovers. At many other stations one has to walk underground up and downstairs, along spooky passages, checking the signs. When you arrive to Luxembourg you just get outside. From there, since it was still raining, I took the familiar bus #21 to Rue de Rivoli and emerged near the Louvre. A very long thick line was winding around the palace slowly moving forward to visit the celebrated museum. I happily walked along the opposite side which has the great advantage of being an arcade, a nice passage with zillions of little and big shops. It’s the best place for a walk in the rain. The palace is really huge, so at some points one gets stuck in a crowd of Japanese tourists. They always travel in large groups. When they stop to take pictures or discuss something, it is quite a problem to get through them – they seem to be completely oblivious to passers by. Many shops have sales with prominent signs “TSHIRTS €5″; it was impossible to get close due to groups of Muslim women who were grabbing large piles of goods. Now that it is summer there seem to be more beggars and vagrants around, even in this area. The tourist stream never stops, it flows on and on like a parallel universe, everybody staring at their devices or following their guide. There is constant clicking; one has to watch one’s step and be attentive so as not to stumble right into a tourist who braked suddenly to take yet one more picture. As lunch hours approaches, more and more pedestrians get a sandwich and continue walking, sometimes forgetting their food and waving their hands with disastrous results for someone who happened to be directly in front or behind.
I don’t have any specific goals in mind but I do stop at a few real stores. C&A offers me nothing. A nice optician’s catches my eye, I remember that my eye-glasses need a new holder and walk in, to be greeted by a whole group of clerks who are obviously bored and happy to have at least one customer. The moment I say a few words in English they all disappear, leaving only one bright young woman, clearly their trusted rep for dealing with foreigners. A quick glance at some holders and cases, not to mention the glasses, shows me my mistake. But hey, they don’t charge you for asking and looking! I study a few cases, try to fit my eye glasses in; what do you know, they are too big. ” A bit old-fashioned”, the young woman murmurs. ” Would you like to try on some very modern models?” I politely decline and leave. Swarovski, yes! I wanted to look at some ear-rings for my daughter. I boldly walk in. Again there are no customers inside, just a very discreet clerk. I study all the displays and feel slightly disappointed at the absence of choice. There are plenty of wristwatches, bracelets, rings, pendants but not many earrings. Unexpectedly I find my old friend, a large crystal parrot sparkling and shooting rainbow rays under a carefully positioned light. Somehow I always saw it as a part of the airport life. Naturally any traveler rushing to departures with luggage, especially one who has to go through passport control, and all those who go on to security check, have just one burning wish: to stop by at a Swarovski counter and buy that parrot for €1,000+. By no means do I wish to say that one should not buy Swarovski crystals. I just wonder each time I encounter the parrot.
Time flies swiftly when one is enjoying oneself. It’s noon, so I get to another favorite place, the large Franprix supermarket in a side street opposite C&A. Cross the street from C&A, walk past Naf-Naf store and you will see it to your left. Inside, you may buy any food you like; there are also nice trays with hot grilled chicken legs and potatoes for €3.90. Turn right when you get out of the store and right again towards the river. There is a lovely little boulangerie with a few tables outside. Buy some bread or buns and a drink, sit outside and have your lunch enjoying the view, feeling like a real Parisienne.
The rain let up so I walked some more, past Notre-Dame with the crowds milling around, along Boulevard Saint-Michel. I stopped at “Marks & Spencer’s” to buy some soup and real oats. And what do we do about our juices after several hours walking in the rain? Just visit a “MacDonald’s”, there is one opposite the Louvre, corner of Rue de Rivoli and Rue Lechelle; there’s another one on Saint-Michel.
Then I walked along to Luxembourg and back to RER train.
Paris is always lovely, vibrant, full of energy.

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Speaking French

Speaking French in France.
There is a wonderful Boulangerie five minutes walk away from Palaiseau train station on Rue de Paris. I remember it from previous visits to the area. It is open 6:30 a.m. – 8:30 p.m. daily including Sundays, but it is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. When I saw it was open on Tuesday, Assumption Day in August, a public holiday in France, I went in to look at the goodies. The clerk asked me in French what I wanted; I asked back if she spoke English. “Non!” she said and walked away. I finished my exploration, made a mental list and left. Next day I went in, she recognized me and turned away. I called out loudly. ” Madame!” She stared with a very grim face. I said in my barbaric French: “Je veux beaucoup des tartes!” which I think means ” I want a lot of tarts!” This stopped her. I know how to say strawberry tart in a dozen languages; eclair is eclair and chocolate is more or less the same. Ah, but those petit-fours! I looked at the tiny little tartlets thinking of my children’s delight and said, “Un chaque s’il-vows-plait”. I believe it means “one each”. She gave me one, I shook my head, said ” Beaucoup” and pointed to a tray. She started placing tiny tarts on the tray, asking me after each one, ” C’est tout?” When the tray was full I nodded. She placed everything carefully into two boxes, tied them up with string and named the price. After a second I realized that since I didn’t get the number it must have been twenty. I can neither pronounce that French nasal ” vingt” correctly nor understand it, but I do know that if I hear a sort of empty clapping sound that must be it. I paid and she tried to push the two boxes at me while I tried to figure out how to ask her to tie them together for convenience sake. At which point another woman appeared from somewhere, took one look at me, my bag, the boxes, said something nice and long in French to the clerk, tied up the boxes, placed them into a large plastic bag with nice handles, gave me a charming smile and obviously wished me a pleasant day. I said the same to her.
A smile and some kindness go a long way and overcome any language barriers.

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