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Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 3/22/2003

No longer do we forswear souvenirs of our travels

Remember when one of the most popular gifts to bring back from abroad was a T-shirt that said, “You went to (fill in the blank) and all you brought me was this lousy T-shirt”? Or something to that effect.

Well, in our pre-grandchild days, we would have heaped scorn on such purchases. In fact, gifts of any kind were generally nonstarters - unless something really special caught our eye.

As far as tchotchkes for our own consumption were concerned, those had to be really light, really cheap, and eminently packable. Prints. Antique maps. Postcards. Or, best of all, postage stamps.

Several years and two grandchildren later, things look a wee bit different. And our recent trip to Florence bears ample testimony to that change of heart.

There's a soccer T-shirt for somebody's upcoming birthday. A jigsaw puzzle of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. A couple of wooden, pointy-nose Pinocchios that flap their arms and legs when you pull on a string. Notepads featuring medieval knights on horseback and a pen disguised as an arrow. As well as several clever kids' books about Florence itself.

Oh, yes, and for us, an 8-inch statuette of Michelangelo's David.

As we write, he's standing on a bookshelf, clutching his sling and stones and surrounded by model cars, an old cricket ball, a NASA flight patch encased in clear plastic, a Polish mirror (no jokes, please - this was a special gift from Krakow), several wooden buildings, and a Siennese tile depicting the Palazzo Pubblico.

This is not your average David figurine, mind you. Not some plastic knock-off or crude ceramic. No, sir. This is a signed alabaster model bought in the gift shop of Michelangelo's very own house, Casa Buonarroti. Created by sculptor Giannelli from Volterra, the home of Italian alabaster, it comes with its own “Certificate of Guarantee” and was much praised by the saleslady. Well it would be, wouldn't it? After all, we paid almost $15.

It's a pretty piece, translucent almost - but in the final analysis, still just an icon destined to gather dust on the shelf until one day, like the marble original, it'll break an arm, have to be put back together with Superglue, and eventually end up in some garage, on sale for a buck.

Until then, however, our special statuette will be a reminder of a fabulous walkabout in Florence, a day when, for the very first time in our lives, we got up close and personal with David. An almost private audience. And all the better because it was so unexpected.

We were out walking the town following one of the tours described in our Cadogan guide book and had done the usual things. Crossed the Ponte Vecchio. Poked our heads into the rather stark 13th-century Duomo - all inlaid with pinks and whites and greens. Studied Giotto's Campanile and the ancient Baptistery.

We had reintroduced ourselves to the statues in the Piazza della Signoria and looked in at a very nice bookshop in the arcaded Piazza della Republica.

Then, while passing the Accademia, where the real David hangs out, we noticed a sign out front announcing free admission. And, even more astonishing, hardly anyone waiting to get in.

Being somewhat impatient tourists, the very long lines in front of this museum had always put us off in the past. But now, being able to simply stroll in - for free - and quietly study Michelangelo's magical masterpiece from every angle. Wow.

Perhaps just as exciting for us were Michelangelo's so-called “slaves” - unfinished figures struggling to free themselves from their marble slabs. It was Charlton Heston and The Agony and the Ecstasy all over again.

After all that, there was nothing left to do but go back to our hotel and decompress emotionally. It doesn't hurt, of course, to be staying in one of the city's nicest small hotels, where the spirit of an old-fashioned pension blends with excellent service and modern conveniences.

The Hermitage is the kind of place to dream about when thinking of Florence. It has location in spades, tucked around the corner from the busy pedestrian streets, and just 50 steps from the Ponte Vecchio. The views from the sunny breakfast room and the roof garden are stunning - across red roof tiles in one direction to Brunelleschi's triumphant dome and the stately tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. In the other direction, the river and the highly picturesque Ponte Vecchio itself.

All 28 rooms are tastefully decorated and filled with antiques. And in their latest renovation, they now have Jacuzzis to take the knots out after a long day of sightseeing.

There's a relaxing sitting room reminiscent of a British club, with deep leather armchairs and sofas, and a well-stocked bar. But best of all is the Hermitage's hospitality and staff, as friendly and efficient as we've encountered anywhere and the very embodiment of our favorite travel maxim: “The answer is yes. Now, what's the question?”



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