The Italy Files: Heavenly Art, Hellish Heat, Missed Connections

An artist friend once said that it’s best to consolidate your disasters into one “inconvenient day.” Now I know what he means.

My Italian sojourn was going perfectly. Getting to Siena on June 1st went off without a hitch, the apartment assigned to me and my husband turned out to be beautiful—view of the Duomo out one window, the Campanile from another, and my studio was clean, light-filled and accessible at any hour. Lots of trips to the Siena Pinacoteca to see hundreds of  Sienese paintings, a day trip to Florence to see an exhibition, another trip, in the evening, to attend a concert of the wild Pogorelich playing Chopin, a few trips to the Tuscany countryside, including swims in pools, dinners under the June moon—man, this was what life was all about.

Eager to see more painting at the end of my residency at the Siena Art Institute, my husband and I headed off to Florence, where the temperature, unfortunately, was hovering near 100 degrees Fahrenheit. On the afternoon we arrived, I grabbed my umbrella (Japanese tourists have got this right) and my husband and I braved the hellish heat to walk to San Marco to see Fra Angelico’s Annunciation, one of the most moving paintings in the history of Western art. After staring at it in silence, we strolled around the corner of the old monastery to see the small, ascetic cell that hatched the wretched ideas of the Taliban-like Savonarola. By the time we got back to the hotel, we were too hot and tired to eat, so we simply fell asleep.

The next day, although the temperature was still stifling, we were rarin’ to go. Because we had been given a free museum pass by the Florence cultural authorities (reason: my husband is an art critic, and museums want to make it easy for art critics to see their stashes) we needed no reservations, and there was no waiting on the long line at the Uffizi.

You’d think that after nearly six hours of oggling paintings we’d have had enough. But no. Still not enough. The overwhelming feeling that we might never return to Florence sent us marching in the heat over to the Palazzo Pitti to stagger through the salon-stacked paintings—especially to find the spectacular Titians and Raphaels. (The Madonna with the fat baby Jesus—my title—is my favorite Raphael.) And at the end of the day, we grabbed a few peanuts before trotting over in the still oppressive heat to catch a free church concert of Bach choral works.

That night, I was sicker than a dog. Yup, totally predictable. My self diagnosis (helped by a Wikipedia search) was heat exhaustion. I was still too sick the next day to do much more than sip water and sleep. (We did get to see the Palio horserace on television—the way, we were told, a lot of smart Sienese who don’t want to fight the madness in the Campo see it.) On Tuesday, though still suffering from stomach cramps, I decided to brave the streets. Drifting like a wraith, I asked my husband if he’d lead me to an art supply store and one final church near the hotel (so I could see the Giotto crucifix and Masaccio Trinity) before we walked, ever so slowly, to the train station to go to Rome.

Of course, in my wooziness, I’d misread the departure time, and we missed the train by a couple of hours. After standing in a hot line, a nice clerk put us on another train leaving in just a couple of minutes. The train was a EuroStar bullet, stopping not at Rome’s Termine station but at Roma Tiburtina. Not a problem (what are taxis for?). In stupid fashion, we figured the trip would take at least a couple of hours, so when the train stopped (accompanied by an illegible PA announcement)—we calmly kept on reading. Wrong. Mistake. Too late. We realized we’d just missed our stop, Roma Tiburtina. I trotted off to find a conductor who laughed and said, “Vacationing in Italy? Time to enjoy Naples!”

After thirty minutes in Naples (we’ve now visited Naples—American style!) we took a two-hour local (an additional 40 euros, total, for this big boo-boo of mine) back to Roma Termine. Arriving by taxi at a hotel we love that we’d stayed in a few years ago (located in the Trastevere) at just before midnight, we dragged our sweaty selves to the reception desk only to find out that our reservations had been bollixed up. The hotel didn’t expect us until the next day, and had no extra rooms for us. The nice hotel receptionist found us a room in another hotel—four-star, sigh, more expensive—for one night. “A mere 700 meters away, signora.”

Not good, but what’s one to do? We stuffed a few necessities into a backpack, left the remainder of our luggage at the Hotel San Francesco, and, by now utterly soaked in sweat, schlepped in the dark to the Hotel Cattivo Gusto (the hallways and our room are decorated in Jackson Pollock drip paintings with lots of metallic gold and, in case you don’t think drips and gold are enough, a gold moon on the upper right) and checked in. The shower—please, dear Zeus (when in Rome, one must pray to the right gods) just let us have a nice quick shower before bed—turned out to be an overproduced plumbing monster consisting of jets and sprays and levers and buttons and nobs that I couldn’t figure out how to operate. My poor husband stood at the open door and told me what to push. Dutiful wife that I am, I followed his instructions.

Fortunately, his clothes are almost dry this morning.

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