Italy Study Abroad Resources

E.M. Forster, a question-did we visit the same Florence?

Florence, Italy
April 2006

I fell in love with the 1985 screen adaptation of E.M. Forster’s novel A Room with a View the first time I saw it. It was one of the few movies I’d borrow from my local public library time and time again. Although I would also read the novel, I found Forster’s writing style  to be boring and the plotline lacking without the superb acting of Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of the film’s protagonist, Lucy Honeychurch. I am usually not a fan of screen adaptations of popular books, but I found the film version of A Room with a View superior to the book. No words on a page can ever recreate the vivid imagery of the Florentine skyline.

When I made plans to spend the spring break of my semester abroad in Spain in Italy, my friend and I naturally selected Rome as our destination spot, for what city better embodies the spirit of la dolce vita than Roma? But seeing as how I had never been to Italy before and neither had my friend, we made plans to travel to another city for the day, since train service in Italy was fast and efficient compared with American train travel. I chose Florence as 1) it was relatively close to Rome and 2) it was the setting for the first half of A Room with a View. My friend concurred and we made our plans for our Italian getaway.

Our day trip to Florence was one of the worst trips of my life, mainly due to poor planning and something I have long since learned my lesson from. We had originally intended to go to Florence on a Tuesday, but this was not to be since all tickets on the high speed train between Rome and Florence were sold out. Instead we decided to visit on a Monday, which was incredibly stupid on our parts. Stupid because in almost every city around the world, Monday is usually a “day of rest” for museums as in they’re closed, as in if you’ve made plans to visit a city on this one day, you’re SOL (shit out of luck). So, the prestigious and world renowned museums that Florence is known for-the Uffizi Gallery, the Galleria dell’Accademia (home to the original David statue by Michelangelo), Palazzo Pitti-all closed. But of course I didn’t think this at the time when I was handing my credit card over to the ticket clerk at the train station in Rome.

The train ride to Florence was definitely one of the few highlights of the day. The scenery was quite beautiful with the kind of views that make Tuscany such a dreamlike place. When we arrived in Florence I was immediately taken aback with how warm it was there, considerably more so than in Rome. Armed with our maps, we proceeded onward to Il Duomo, what many would say is the city’s most iconic and well known sight.  The octagonal dome is the work of Filippo Brunelleschi, one of the foremost architects and engineers of the Italian Renaissance, but is actually part of the church of Santa Maria del Fiori, which was consecrated in 1436. It is also one of the most “misleading” sights in all of Florence.

Unlike for Rome, where I’d  had  my dad get me a copy of the Eyewitness guide ( well I actually had requested the series’ Top 10 Guide to Rome as it is a condensed guide and half the weight of the full Rome guidebook something about  which I still tease him to this day).  Neither Tricia nor I had a guidebook of any sort for Florence. Maybe if we’d  had, we would have known better than wait  in the hour plus line we thought was to climb the dome but was actually just for going inside the church, one whose interior was ugly and stark and truly offered visitors nothing in the way of sights or photo opportunities. As we had wasted so much time waiting in the line just to access the church, we never had a chance to climb to the top of the done since that of course was another extremely long line.

            Our lunch continued the day’s overall theme of lackluster and disappointing. Not knowing of any recommended restaurants, we chose one at random and had what can be described as an average meal at best. Things were made worse when I accidentally ordered my bottled water “with gas” which is carbonated water, as in plain water into which carbon dioxide has been dissolved, as in disgusting. Being ever the frugal tourist, I wasn’t about to order another bottled water “without gas” at five euros each (I found Florence to be extremely expensive), but I still wanted to die as I had nothing to wash down my extremely cheesy lasagna.

            Off ahead I spotted the Ponte Vecchio and at that point I really just wanted to fling myself into the Arno;  that’s how much of a crappy day it had been. The bridge was so crowded with people there wasn’t a trace of ground visible. The Ponte Vecchio is considered by some to be one of the city’s prettiest sights. My grandfather, who served in Italy at the end of Second World War, would always talk about the Ponte Vecchio and what a sight it was. A German commander during the war had found it so pretty that he refused to blow it up, even though the retreating German Army had destroyed all of the city’s other bridges. As we attempted to cross it, my feet were stepped on and I was bumped and jostled by other walkers multiple times. Some charm indeed.

            The day started to pick up a little when we made it to the Church of Santa Croce. Although I had spent the last three months living in Europe, church and cathedral capital of the world, and at that point found them all to look the same-stately and grandiose- I didn’t care. Santa Croce was featured prominently in the film A Room with a View. It is where the cranky the Reverend Mr. Eager is first introduced to viewers and also where Lucy Honeychurch contemplates George Emerson from afar after learning about him from his father, Mr. Emerson. As I walked around the cool and quiet confines of the church, finally feeling an inner Sanctum of peace emerging, I tried to imagine Lucy standing there with me, two first time visitors to Florence, both unsure of what to make of this Italian “masterpiece” of a city.

In the opening scene of A Room with a View, Lucy is distressed to find that her room at the Italian pensione where she and her cousin Charlotte are staying has no view. Charlotte is quite upset as they were promised a view for Lucy’s first trip to Florence and she does not want to fail Lucy or her mother. The importance of the view is further stressed at dinner that night when the character of Mr. Emerson emphatically states, “Girls like views. Men don’t.” He ends up offering his and his son’s rooms which have views in exchange for the women’s rooms, which have no views. Although all of Florence is in a sense “a view” (minus the droves of people), the one offered at Pizzale Michelangiolo is out of this world. It is the kind of view that would have made Lucy and Charlotte swoon.

I had found out about the famous Piazzale Michelangiolo by chance. It was mentioned in an outdated guidebook that was in the center’s collection of donated books from former students. Even though it involved taking a bus as it was quite some distance from the city center, I thought, why not. Unfortunately we just missed one and had to wait quite a bit under the blazing Florentine sun. When the bus finally did come, it was a horrendously long ride made worse by both the intense traffic and the intense body odor being emitted by some Italian tourists also on board. However, almost forty minutes later when the bus arrived at the overlook, I experienced an utter “wow” moment.

The entire Florentine skyline was in front of me, complimented by the stunning beauty of Il Duomo. Terra cotta colored buildings, renaissance style architecture; it made me think of that child’s toy that allows you to put different slides in to see different images. At that moment I reckoned that this view was better than the view the Dumo would have offered because this view included the Dumo. I feel the same way about the Eiffel Tower. Although it’s a neat experience to go up, the Paris you see in front of you is missing its most iconic structure. For that reason, I prefer the views offered by Notre Dame or the Arc de Triomphe,  since then the Eiffel Tower is present. There is also a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David at the Piazzale. I didn’t get to see the original one in the Accademia, but I did see a gorgeous reproduction for free.

            The ride back was a bit more endurable thanks to the gorgeous views that were forever recorded in my mind. While waiting for our return trip to Rome, we got some gelati and, while not as good as the melon and chocolate I had had earlier in the trip, it was still pretty decent.

            I’m sure if I were to return to Florence, I’d have a better time than I did on my first trip. But I also think that perhaps Florence was a city just not for me.

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