In those winter nights next to the Duomo, life came back to me.
It’s an 88 step climb to a week I now carry with me always.
Paolo opened the door of my taxi. “Ciao, Anna. Your trip was good?”
He took one of my two small bags, and we mountain-goated it up the seemingly endless flights, Paolo chatting to me the whole way. Where was his oxygen coming from? I had no breath for talking. I worked just to make it look like the stairs and the suitcase were not too tough. Then we were there. The terrace and sitting room so close to the Duomo — it seemed I could reach out and touch it.
Mid-December was cold, and dark came early. The lights for the cathedral popped to life. I sat in the upstairs room with a glass of Chianti hardly able to take my eyes off of the beautiful giant. I put on my coat and went out and watched the people and looked down towards the Christmas tree in the piazza.
On this trip, I fell in love with Florence so deeply that it only takes an image of one of its streets to make my heart skip and beat more vigorously.
My husband, Drew, died in July of 2013 after a long fight with cancer. That November, I began to think about Christmas; the idea of putting up a tree was overwhelming. I had an extra week of vacation that year, while my daughter Catherine was still in school. She would be with her Dad then and I began thinking about taking a week long trip by myself. No one would give me a hard time if there wasn’t much Christmas.
I considered New York . . . San Francisco. I even thought about taking the train across the Rocky Mountains. Nothing was compelling. Europe? Drew and I had visited London and Paris the previous year, his final Christmas, and I had no interest in returning to those cities anytime soon.
When I was seven, my mother began getting a series of Time-Life books on the great artists of western civilization. Each month, when a new book arrived, we would sit together and look at it. The images of the Duomo have been with me — deep inside of me, almost since I can remember anything. I went on to get a degree in Art History and I have always had a particular love of the Italian Renaissance. So when visiting Florence occurred to me, my heart leapt up.
I looked at hotels, but then I thought, Drew and I had talked about trying apartments abroad. After looking at several apartment websites, I saw this one place — I was transfixed.
The apartment interior was lovely, and it was next to the Duomo — the terrace right there — the cathedral seemed to touch it. It is owned by Ron Blitch, a well-known architect from New Orleans. What a small world, since I had grown up there.
Cheap — oh, no. The cost of a very nice hotel. And it was an 88 step climb to get there. Okay, not a problem for me really; besides, it’s a built in pasta burner. And the view! With no hesitation, I booked it. I spent the remainder of Thanksgiving reading about Tuscany and starting Rosetta Stone for Italian.
I exchanged several emails with Paolo and his wife Sonia, who manage the apartment, to make arrangements for my arrival. They offered additional services for a fee, of course. Would I like to have some wine and cheese at the apartment when I arrived? Would I like to hire a driver? What about cooking lessons? Yes!
Where would I like to go the day I had the driver? Hmm. I had been to Siena, San Gimignano, Pienza, Montepulciano . . . I looked at a map of Tuscany and found Montalcino. When I googled it, up popped the small Abbey of Sant’Antimo. What an exquisite Romanesque church! Paolo’s next email said, “well, if you’re going to Montalcino, you must do a Brunello wine tasting.” I had a reasonably good knowledge of California wines. Italian? Past Chianti and Pinot Grigio . . . I’d had Barolo, but I didn’t really know much about Italian wines.
The weather was sunny and cold for the trip to Montalcino. I had a wonderful driver, Ewan — a Scot who had moved to Florence a dozen years earlier. Many people have the reaction to Florence that I have. We just — we just don’t want to leave.
Brunello. May I just say, had nothing else happened all day, it would have been a perfect experience. I discovered Brunello, and I love it — it is now one of my favorite wines. The wine that day ignited a new passion, and I have been reading about Italian wines, tasting, and making vineyard visits ever since.
Caparzo did a nice job with the tasting. The three reds that I particularly liked were their Brunello Riserva — wow, what an amazing wine. (I’ve found it fairly easy to get in the U.S. — here is a link to reviews). I also really, really liked La Casa, their single vineyard Brunello. La Caduta is their single vineyard Rosso de Montalcino — I liked it very much, particularly for the price. Their regular Rosso di Montalcino — no, not for the price. Their regular Brunello, very nice, I enjoyed it, but particularly since that point, there are just others I like much more. I have not been able to find La Casa here in Houston; I would consider shipping some back the next time I visit.
Following a late lunch in Montalcino, Ewan took me to Sant’Antimo.
There are spaces — holy, quiet, and they fill us with a deep peace. Sant’Antimo is one of them. A small community of monks lives there, and they filed into the Abbey for None prayers — the mid afternoon, 3 p.m. service.
Ewan and I took seats midway down the nave. We were the lone visitors. Then the sound of monophonic, unaccompanied male voices, in stepwise progression through the phrases, resonated in the air.
The thick stone walls held us all together; the monks, Ewan, myself, this space, the chant, we became something else for a time.
I did not, would not, take pictures during the service. The photograph of the interior is from before the monks filed into the Abbey. I’ve put a Gregorian chant below to help you imagine the sound.
Each night, I returned to sit next to the dome. With my massive companion, it was quiet. I had time to think, to begin putting some perspective to Drew’s trip through the final months, through hospice, into dementia and finally into death. Each morning, I came up for coffee and listened to the cathedral bells ringing from the campanile.
This is, well. I love this place, with all of my heart.
And when I returned home, I was so ready to make Christmas. Catherine came home from her father’s and we headed straight out for a tree. We took on a bit more tree than two short people can handle — it was quite a struggle, but we woman-handled it into place.
I look forward to sharing more about this trip, along with the two other trips to Florence over the last year and a half. Ciao!
Interested in learning more about my room with a view?
You’ll find Ron Blitch’s apartment on VRBO – Home Away. It’s pricey, but amazing — I returned six months later to stay again, and brought my daughter and sister with me.
I have become friends with Paolo and Sonia, and they now have two apartments in the center of Florence that they lease to visitors.
One is a small, but very lovely apartment a block from the Duomo, called Divina. While it does not have a view, it is gorgeous and very reasonably priced. I am making more frequent trips to Italy, and I have stayed in Divina — lovely space and perfect location just steps from the cathedral. Oh, and it’s on the first floor (in America, we would call this the second floor), a short set of steps.
They now also have a a larger apartment they call Milord, with a fabulous view — I think even better than my first ‘room with a view’ because the terrace is larger, the apartment can sleep up to nine people, AND it has an elevator:
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