Great beauty in unkind city By...

A MEMORABLE PLACE

September 30, 2001|By Special to the Sun

A MEMORABLE PLACE

Great beauty in unkind city

By Michael Purdy

SPECIAL TO THE SUN

I did not like Florence, and Florence did not appear to like me.

A small Italian city, Florence pulls in tourists at a rate comparable to that of Paris or Rome. They flood the museums, churches and piazzas, great gaggles of people from all over the world, bobbing along behind tour guides.

It didn't help that I'd been in Europe on my own for a week, and was starting to feel lonely. Walking into Florence alone and trying to find a hotel was such a smack in the face that I nearly got back on the train.

For days, Florence and its mobs of tourists batted me about like a bothersome insect. The city's most famous church, the Duomo, or cathedral, was so consistently flooded that I didn't even try to get in until Sunday, when I needed to go to Mass.

I went hoping for the same sense of welcome that I find at every Catholic church. But the doormen told me to come back later. I was allowed in only after a bitter argument that left me choking back tears through the Mass.

That afternoon, the first words out of the hotel manager's mouth were, "We're full tomorrow. When are you leaving?"

I went to several hotels to look for a room for the next night, and often before I said a word, the clerk would glare at me testily and spit, "We're full!"

I resolved to leave in the morning, and to chalk Florence up as a failure.

A light rain fell as I walked across town and up the hill to the Piazzale Michelangelo, where several copies of the great artist's works are displayed. Shortly after I reached the piazzale, the setting sun shone down through the hills and hit the rain as it moved away, lighting a shimmering curtain of fire behind the city's steeples. For 10 minutes, a master painter seemed to work the air over Florence with great swatches of red, orange and pink.

Walking back, I crossed through the piazza in the middle of the Uffizi, Florence's biggest art museum. A roofed colonnade runs along the edge of the piazza, and the tourists line up there in hordes.

A lone violinist was the only person there when I passed through that night. He had set a chair near a corner and was practicing, taking advantage of the beautiful acoustics the empty colonnade provided.

I listened to his sad, sweet song, and it was overwhelming. Florence, that cranky, stingy, overcrowded city, so unkind for days, had in a few hours granted me not one but two solitary moments rich with beauty.

Michael Purdy lives in Baltimore.

MY BEST SHOT

Island reflections

Edward J. Smith Jr., Crofton

On the northern end of North Carolina's Outer Banks is a jewel of a village called Corolla. Two of its landmarks are the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and the Whalehead Club. The lighthouse was built in 1875 and is still functioning today. The Whalehead Club, built in the 1920s, is being restored.

READERS RECOMMEND

France

Donald Miller, Bethesda

"My wife and I visited the spectacular Port du Gard, a Roman aqueduct west of Avignon. Built around 19 B.C., it provided water to the town of Nimes for over 400 years. A cloth from Nimes was imported by Levi Strauss in the 1800s, which was called denim."

Michigan

Brenda Blackburn, Joppa

"Facing Lake Michigan on Mackinac Island, the Grand Hotel, built in 1887, has one of the world's largest porches. With croquet games and afternoon tea, Mackinac reminds one of the Victorian era. No motor vehicles are permitted on the island."

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