Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Italy Day 5 Florence: Piazzale Michelangelo, Great Synagogue of Florence, Accademia (The Statue of David), Chabad of Florence

The second day in a row of waking up early to take a train found my sister Ilana and I in a grumpy mood.
OK it wasn't so bad.
OK we were excited to go to Florence!
The first thing we did out of the train station in Florence was duck into the tourist information place to purchase our Florence Cards. The Florence Card is a 72 hour pass to all public transportation and most museums throughout the city. They're €50 each, so we wanted to make sure we got our money's worth. The great thing about the cards is that they let you skip the lines at any of the museums that accept them - so there's no need to worry about scheduling a specific entry times. 
From the tourist stand, we went to our hotel. This hotel was a disappointment compared to the rest. The Hotel Palazzuolo on Via Palazzuolo is a block South of the train station. The people at the desk rarely spoke English, and our room felt inexplicably damp the entire time. 
The view down Via Palazzuolo from the hotel entrance. Also Ilana!
Nothing could be done about it so there was no use complaining. We dropped off all our stuff and took the bus (using our Florence Cards) from the train station to the Piazzale Michelangelo.
The Piazzale Michelangelo is an elevated look out point on the Southern bank of the Arno River. In the center is a bronze copy of Michelangelo's statue of David. 
Que heavenly music.
More important than the copy of David, is the view from the Piazzale. Throngs of tourists are constantly snapping pictures from this vantage. We joined the throng for about a half an hour.
Florence.
Also Flornce - you know what? I'm going to save a lot of time and just say this is all going to be Florence.
We are photogenic.
A little bit afraid of heights here...
Down the Arno River.
So now we're across the river from central Florence, and are not sure exactly what to do next.
Hmmmmmm...
We went for our default - the Jewish attractions. We did get a little lost wandering around trying to find the Synagogue area, but we got to see some parts of Florence we probably otherwise wouldn't have:
Florence happens to be a beautiful place.
The Great Synagogue of Florence is on Via Luigi Carlo Farini which is about a quarter mile East of the Duomo. We tried to visit the Synagogue through the museum and sanctuary entrance, but were disappointed to find that they close in the early afternoon on Fridays to prepare for Shabbat. Next door to the Synagogue, there's a milchig kosher restaurant named Ruth's, so we had lunch.
If you ask me, the food was pretty so-so, but it's good to support a small Jewish Community that relies on tourism.
Yay! I'm supportive!
The very helpful waiter, restaurateur, and shamos of the Synagogue, Thomas Jelinkek, knew we wanted to enter the Synagogue and the museum before Shabbat started. He came to our table while we were waiting for our food to let us know that there was a wedding service going on in the Synagogue, and that they needed people to complete a minyan if we still wanted to go inside. Of course! Why not?

There were Italian armed guards at the entrance to the courtyard of the Synagogue. This is yet another sign that vandalism of Jewish holy places is on the rise, but it was nice to see that the Italian government is doing something to prevent these acts. Once again pictures weren't allowed but we sneaked a couple anyway.
From what we could gather, an Italian-Israeli wanted to have their wedding  in the Synagogue of their roots. Pretty cool, huh?
After our mediocre lunch and nice visit to the Synagogue museum, we headed in the direction of the Accademia Gallery (of Florence - there's also one in Venice). The Florence Card got us in front of the line and into the Accademia in about twenty seconds. Go Florence Card!

The Accademia houses Michelangelo's statue of DavidIf seeing The Goonies a billion times has taught me anything, it's that this statue is famous:
You've probably seen it before.
Seeing the David in person is kind of surreal. It's like seeing the Eiffel Tower, or the Mona Lisa, or any truly famous sight in person. You've seen pictures of something your entire life and then you're actually seeing it! It feels like your eyes are expecting the image to be in two dimensions and then it's not. Eerie...

The statue is of David as he is about to face Goliath. He's got the slingshot draped over his back from his left and he's holding the stone with his right. The detail of things like the veins sticking out of David's arm and stuff like that are so life-like... Michelangelo was a genius. David's head and hands are overlarge. The explanation for this is the statue was originally supposed to be displayed along the roof of the Duomo so details like those would've been hard to make out from ground level. Unexplained is why David decided to fight Goliath in the nude.

There's also a musical instruments section of the Accademia and some other remarkable renaissance and medieval pieces, but the second best reason to visit the Accademia is the collection of the unfinished Michelangelo sculptures. Michelangelo was such a genius, that his unfinished works could pass for masterpieces. Here they are:
Michelangelo would say that he could see the figures inside the marble and all he did when he sculped was chip away at the excess marble... what a guy. 
Next we strolled lazily back to our hotel on Palazzuolo taking in Florence.
So stylish.
Enjoyed some time in the Piazza del Duomo:
We spent an hour or two lazing around our hotel. I know that vacation time is very precious, but this was our fifth day in Italy. We needed a break during the day of some sort. The hotel was a nice enough spot to lay around and watch Italian-language television (mostly we watched television claiming that a salve if rubbed on the midsection could remove up to 5 inches from the waistline - crazy Italians...). 

For our Friday evening, we took a taxi back to the Great Synagogue. We participated in the Shabbat evening services at the Great Synagogue. Mostly the tunes of the prayers were unfamiliar to me, and the space itself with its extremely high ceiling and extremely small congregation - did not make for the best acoustics. The high ceiling and colorful (but dark) decorations did make for a very beautiful setting. The Synagogue itself has a lot of architecture reminiscent of Turkish Mosques. 
After the Kiddush in the courtyard above (provided by our former waiter, Thomas Jelinkek) we were invited to Shabbat dinner at the Chabad of Florence. Anyone familiar with Chabad would expect exactly what we got there: A traditional Shabbat meal (chicken was a bit iffy, but I suppose they must have obstacles in the way of obtaining kosher food on a regular basis), lots of Jewish tourists/students studying abroad, and a spirited sermon delivered from the Rabbi - Rabbi Eli Dovid Berenstein. 

When I say spirited I really mean it. He said he gives the same sermon every week, so if you ever find yourself there you're in for a treat. Basically, he more and more excitedly builds up to a point about why you (as a Jew) came to Florence for the sights (at this point which he reaches several times, he will list the sights of Florence in rapid succession - ThePonteVecchio!ThePalazzoVecchio!TheDavid!The...!), but since you came to see the sights, and are celebrating Shabbat here, you are also bringing another place in the world closer to an ideal level of spirituality. It was nothing if not entertaining.
Shabbat Shalom from Florence!

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