To Florence with Love

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Florence is a love letter to the secret artists, tentative writers and hopelessly romantic wanderers of the world. She is gently rolling hills and curving waters; she holds cathedrals of art and temples of religion with equal care and love.

It’s easy to fall in love with Florence but it doesn’t happen immediately, at least it didn’t for me. On that first day, I entered the city from high above it – took her in all at once. The view was familiar, I was clearly standing in the same spot as myriad photographers before me, and perhaps that’s why I didn’t fully trust it.

To get from my perch to the banks of the Arno, the beautifully pristine river that bisects the city, I followed a path through flower gardens filled with playful, large bronze sculptures, allowing time and space for us to slowly introduce ourselves to one another.

I was one of a group wandering together in a pack. We were on a mission so once we selected which bridge to cross, our pace accelerated. I felt hurried, off balance. My flirtation with Florence cut short, hand slapped away. I tried snapping photo after photo to come back to it somehow but it caused me to lag behind so I slung the camera over my shoulder and stuck with the group. I would be coming back to this town two more times without the group so I gave into the flow and followed along.

We went to museums, the Uffizi among them, walked ancient streets, waited for each other, wandered off a bit, passed by the Duomo then all met back to return to our accommodations. It was lovely. I had done Florence and it was … nice.

But I was wrong; it was so much richer than that. It helped tremendously to be guided for that part of the trip, but the real gifts were revealed when just one friend and I had time to wander our own way.

For the first half of the day we saw what we felt we missed: a more thorough examination of the Duomo – we walked its looming circumference and marveled at its stunning beauty, but never entered; a more leisurely stroll along the banks of the Arno; and an extended stay at a cafe sipping espresso and people watching. We chatted up street artists, purchased a few souvenirs and took some photos.

As we sat for lunch, al fresco, with a view of street life, the magic began to reveal itself. It’s fun to get swept up in the activity of the city, to be guided this way and that by shiny things and crowds, but to truly know a place, one must become still. Lunch gave us that opportunity.

Seated in one spot, resting, taking it all in, Florence began to open her arms, show us her heart, share her pulse. We ate in near silence as we chewed slowly and simply observed life around us.

Get to know Florence slowly, romance her, seek out her treasures, ask her the right questions and follow her leads.

It’s important, as a traveller to have some objectives – some points of interest you’d like to see or experience. But it’s far more important to let go of plans when a city, such as this one, invites you to linger in secret little places you didn’t even know existed.

There are many ways Florence invites one slow down and notice life. The river, the Arno, hosts rowing clubs on weekend mornings. Street artists set up along the same river to work and sell their efforts. Any bridge across the river will offer you the most magnificent sunset on the water, but the preferred perch is the infamous Ponte Vecchio, full of its padlocks of love and star-crossed lovers with selfie sticks.

On Sunday mornings operatic choral music can be heard throughout the city but most notably, and perhaps most suitably, near the Duomo.

The gardens are never as crowded as they should be which is an especially nice secret and the best shops are off the main thoroughfare.

Unlike any city I have been to in Italy, Florence is perhaps the most welcoming and accepting. But you must invite her in. And if you close your eyes, you can feel her hand in yours as you wander her streets.

Island Time

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As the sun begins to set over turquoise seas, the energy at the outside bar begins to rise. A band sets up, red rum drinks decorated with slices of local tropical fruit occupy most hands and a breeze gently combs through the hair of visitors and curls around skirts causing them to dance without their owner’s involvement.

A night on Long Island in the Bahamas.

This island can only be reached by boat or small private plane – there is no runway adequate for a commercial flight. The island, as one may deduce from its name, is long. One main road runs it’s length with a few streets that branch off toward either shore.

There are no proper grocery stores or dress shops here. In our quest for a straw hat we drove the length of the island and stopped at various homes with pop up stores on the front lawns of the artist’s home.

What this island lacks in modern conveniences it makes up for in pristine sugar sand beaches and rocky white cliffs. A secluded cove invites us to swim its waters and meet the locals; sea turtles, brightly colored fish and corals alive with movement are visible from just below the surface. Near our house the remains of a poorly planned marina now forms a natural swimming pool fed by the sea itself, complete with tiny tropical fish.

A short drive – all drives are short on this long island – takes us to the rusty wreckage of a big ship, the remains of a wooden church and a monument to the aboriginal people.

On this island there is time to explore. There is time and a desire to listen to the stories of the locals about a recent hurricane that somehow slipped the notice of the news in the states. People here are neighbors, not strangers that happen to live next door. No one was lost, they took care of each other, moving those on lower ground up, helping each other rebuild when it was time. They took care of each other. They still do.

No matter where I travel, no matter what my experiences are or what I see, it’s the people that stick with me. The sunrises and sunsets are magnificent, the turquoise bellies of the seagulls as they reflect the water beneath, diving for conch and dancing with stingrays and starfish provided some truly magical moments, but it’s Miss Sue and the woman from whom I bought a hand-made hat that stay with me.

Miss Sue and I still email one another. She makes the most beautiful wedding cakes.

 

At Home in Ljubljana

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Old, historic downtown Ljubljana was the most pleasant surprise. I fell in love with it immediately.

We arrived at twilight. Our hotel was a short walk from the train station and easily found. We had the option of walking through the bar or taking the steps to the lobby. We took a moment to imagine the path of destruction we would likely leave with our coats and suitcases and opted for the stairs.

Once settled in our room we headed out on foot. Less than a mile, maybe even less than half a mile, we found the center of this welcoming city. Its fringes felt very urban and clean with modern office buildings and hotels, but these structures seemed to respect the ancient and medieval architecture just a block away by not towering over them, not stealing the spot light.

As we walked down a side street in the direction we hoped would lead us to some restaurant options, the city slowly came into view. Lights shimmered along the river,  artfully lighting the buildings on its banks. We took a moment to take in our surroundings. To take a breath. Then we set our sights on dinner. Our options seemed limited where we stood so we crossed one of the many bridge to investigate what options the other side may have.

A few steps over the river we found restaurant row. Every restaurant offered outdoor seating. It was early Spring in eastern Europe, just a stone’s throw from the Alps and the temperature on this evening was in the high 30s. Fahrenheit. Blankets are placed over each chair and some patios were warmed with torches, but mostly it was cold. We opted for an indoor table.

The next day we explored in earnest. Beginning with the famed Saturday morning market. It felt like a street festival. It was huge and bustling, full of music and dancing and life. There were sections of local crafts, clothing, flowers and especially food. Mostly it was produce from nearby farms, rows and rows of it, but there were also packaged goods, like local honey or butter. We learned the entire history of Slovenia from a very animated local goat’s milk butter and cream guy. Moving away from the center, we found a bank of food trucks for additional fortification, alongside the many cafes that flank the river.

There are many distinct bridges, each with their own personality and story, that cross the Ljubljanica River bisecting the city. Three of them exclusively pedestrian. But that hasn’t always been the case. About 8 years ago the new mayor closed the downtown area to vehicles. It apparently created a small uproar and some traffic snarls, but this city of 250,000 quickly adjusted and now the area is vibrant with commerce and entertainment.

The bridge or bridges we crossed the first night, known as the Triple Bridge, all had the same balustrades, creating an almost Venetian feel. The center bridge was much wider than the two adjacent; it was meant for cars when they were allowed. Aside from the Triple Bridge, there are two others meant for pedestrians: The Cobbler’s Bridge and a much more modern span whose name I can’t recall. The Cobbler’s Bridge, while nice, is relatively plain, but just a few steps away from it, at the top of an alley, sits an art installation of hanging shoes. The more modern bridge boasts railings made of cabled wires that are full of the padlocks of lovers. The edges of the bridge itself are made of glass  to view the river below as you walk.

The driving bridges are also quite beautiful. The Dragon Bridge is made spectacular by the giant verdigris bronze dragons that guard either side.

This is a country that celebrates its poets and writers. They love their wine and coffee – and are quite proud of their number three standing among coffee consuming nations – and hike for fun on the weekends. They are kind, open people who enjoy being outside with friends.

Geographically, Slovenia is nestled between Austria and Italy, whose influences can be felt in the architecture of old, historic Ljubljana. A touch of the contemporary can also be found in recent repairs or refurbishments. It has all been added with care, layered in a way to blend and appreciate the history without disrupting the past. Old gas lamps still post sentry from the buildings.

Did mention the castles and views of the Alps?

It would be easy to try to compare Ljubljana to another country or city, but it has a definite personality all its own. It is fresh, youthful and inviting. It is familiar enough to welcome the most timid traveler and unique enough to entice the most seasoned. I would go back tomorrow. It felt like home.

 

 

A Natural Friendship

Today I met an alligator. A new one.

A little over a week ago I had met a few others here at the Orlando Wetlands Park; a pile of babies, some smallish – maybe teenagers – at a safe distance and one a little larger and closer than I was comfortable with. I quickly took his picture then pretended to be invisible.

I came upon my new friend today peeking through the water grasses. He at me, me at him. When our eyes locked he asked if I had a minute. I said, sure, but I’m going to stay here on the land and I ask that you stay there in the water. He agreed.

He wanted to teach me a few things. He shared some information about himself and offered quite a bit of advice on his observations of me. Terribly talkative and opinionated, but I listened nonetheless.

About himself, he shared that he was perfectly happy sitting in the cool water with just bits of him visible to the world and the sun. He said during warmer times of the day he may meander onto the bank to soak in some solar energy but that often caused humans to run toward him or away from him. In any case, the ruckus unnerved him, causing him to whip his big tail around and head back into the water. So why not just stay here most of the time?

He also told me he wasn’t hungry and if he were there were certainly much smaller and less combative morsels than humans to be had. He was telling me, for the most part, I was safe. I think he rolled his eyes a little here, it was hard to tell.

He told me it was okay to take his picture, I could even get closer as long as I didn’t make fun of him or show any disrespect. His skin may be leather but he still has feelings.

And he shared quite a fantastical tale about the millenia his people have roamed the earth and what they’ve learned and THAT’S why I’m still lucky enough to see him. He could have come off quite condescending, but I found him almost charming in a-conversations-with-a-dragon sort of way.

Then he started telling me about me. I listened at first with resistance but what he had to say made some sense and ‘his people’ have survived a lot, so I listened.

First he told me I did not have to fear him. And by that he meant I simply did not have to have fear. I should quiet my mind enough to trust my gut, to use my senses rather than my ego and all its programming.

He also told me I should go slow, take my time. Be the turtle, gliding gently under nature’s radar instead of the hare that captures the attention of all her predators. In going slow I get to have conversations like this one. I can sit and observe and wait for critters to come in and out of my view, watch the changing colors of the sky and become acutely aware of every tiny movement. “It’s like that when you’re still,” he said. “When you’re not moving you notice everything else that is.”

He reminded me that I too am nature, that I have the ability to adapt to whatever surroundings I find myself in and to know the differences. He wanted me to know that I am not the alligator whisperer, nor is he the human whisperer. He said he often talks to others like me, but they don’t always hear. Instead they spend a lifetime avoiding that which is not coming toward them anyway. They spend so much time walking a wide berth around a perceived threat that they miss the magic it may show them. That seemed to make him a little sad. Me too.

But then with a sigh as if to let go of that thought, he invited me back. “Come often,” he said, “bring friends.”