Florence: In the Footsteps of Michelangelo

IMG_4923Firenze, or Florence – with the emphasize on the second syllable and pronounced with a French ‘ah’. Ah, Florence… ancient Italian city with iconic cathedrals and towers, first city in our month of exploring Italy.

I flew in from Vancouver, via Seattle and Amsterdam – a long sit but pretty much on time and not too uncomfortable. Especially seat and meals on Delta Airlines were good.

Florence’s airport is small. Right outside is the platform for the new T2 tramway into the city. For 1.50 euros you end up downtown in 20 minutes, on a ticket that is valid for 90 minutes so you can even explore more: http://en.comune.fi.it/administration/tramway/line2.html You buy the ticket on the platform and don’t forget to validate it in the stamp machine inside the tram. A great way to reach the city centre!

IMG_4912It was less than a 10 minute walk to the hostel we booked: Leonardo House turns out to be located in the very heart of the city but on a tiny old street with almost no traffic noise: https://leonardohouse.weebly.com It is very quiet and comfortable, the room is spartan but we don’t need more than a large room, a kingsize bed and our own bathroom. The staff is extremely nice and helpful. No breakfast included so we walk around the corner for coffee and croissants. There are also ATM’s and lots of eateries nearby. A supermarket, near the train station, is harder to find. Kees arrived a few hours later and we found each other easily at the T2 platform final stop: Unitá.


…others keep it all under wraps


David is naked…










We explored the city on foot. Of course we visited all the famous landmarks. The Santa Maria Novella church is right around the corner on a nice square with pricey eateries. The Duomo, the most important monument, is packed with hordes of tourists around but also open for actual services. The Bell Tower next to it is an impressive piece of gothic architecture.

We really do want to see the interior of this cathedral, which is among the largest of the world. But we do not want to traipse through it amongst thousands of tourists. So we make the choice to attend a service. Mass it too long and probably just as crowded. So we chose 5 PM vespers on a Sunday. With only a handful of people we relax in a quiet part of the impressive church. The Gregorian chanting is a massage for the mind, almost putting us to sleep. A fabulous way to see the church and to give thanks for this amazing trip. IMG_4927Several times we cross de Ponte Vecchio, an ancient bridge clustered with merchants’ stalls. The medieval looking stalls themselves, built from dark wood and cast iron hinges, are more impressive than the souvenirs they hold. I love the serene views of the mirroring water of the river Arno as it meanders through Florence. Go early in the morning to avoid crowds, or enjoy the lights of an evening stroll across the bridge.

IMG_4903The Church of Santa Croce is also an impressive building. Its square especially pleasant when a man with a violin plays wonderful classical pieces. We sit on a bench and soak in the atmosphere. At night we eat a toasted ham and mozarella sandwich before heading into San Stefano for a Vivaldi, Mozart and Pachabel’s concert. It’s beautiful in this ancient setting. Although going to a soothing concert right after arriving from a very different time zone is not a good idea: we kept drifting off to sleep…

Early on Sunday morning we climb the hill to  Piazzale Michelangelo. It’s 500 years since his death but his legacy lives on in his hometown. The hill is a steep climb with stone stairs part of the way. We pass under the ancient city walls. A replica of David looks out over the city and we follow his gaze over the Duomo and palazzos. Nearby is the Palazzo de Medici. We also walked by the house where Michelangelo lived. The ancient walls and cobblestone streets make it easy to believe that he roamed these very same streets. So many famous people lived in this city, names I had to learn in history class: de Medici family, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Dante, Donatello, Botticelli, Amerigo Vespucci, the famous explorer, Florence Nightingale was born here… and even Pinnochio. IMG_4953

Witnessing A Potlatch on Haida Gwaii

IMG_4743potlatch[ pot-lach ]noun

Pacific Northwest: a party or celebration; among American Indians of the northern Pacific coast, a ceremonial festival at which gifts are bestowed on the guests in a show of wealth that the guests later attempt to surpass.

Having lived in the Yukon I had seen a fair bit of First Nations customs, including button blankets, dances, drumming and celebrations. But once in my life I wanted to experience or, as it is called, to witness a true potlatch.

Thanks to friends in Haida Gwaii, a remote island in northern BC just south of Alaska, I was invited to a potlatch that would celebrate a new chief. The event was held in the village of Skidegate, Haida Gwaii in a hall about the size of a gymnasium.

IMG_4672Along the way I was on a steep learning curve about traditions and about local politics and customs. It was a rare occasion where the sitting chief was ‘dethroned’ by this matriarchal society because the community did not believe that the chief had represented them in the correct ways and may have shown corrupt behaviour in relation to working with Enbridge while the majority of people here do not want a pipe line.

Selecting a new chief had taken several years and painful proceedings. Even now, as the community was ready to celebrate, the family of the ousted chief had the right to be heard first. They spoke at length about the difficult situation and the pain it caused.

As family members finished voicing their concerns, they were respectfully listened to by the entire community, after which they turned their blankets and vests inside out to leave the hall in a way that resembled a funeral. IMG_4674

But then the festivities were ready to start. Some 400 people witnessed this potlatch. We were all seated at long tables laden with pies, plates and cutlery. First the room was cleansed through a smudging ceremony at which smoke was danced through the hall to clear the bad words and feelings.

The new chief, surrounded by close family, made his entrance wearing jeans and mukluks. Then the women closest to him, perhaps his mother or aunties, took newly designed Haida vest and blanket and held them up for all to see. They dressed him, finishing with the carved wooden headgear framed by ermine skins. The top of the headgear was filled with eagle down. When I searched for the significance of this I found the following explanation:

IMG_4774The Haida Peace and Welcome Dance is a traditional dance performed by hereditary chiefs at a Haida potlatch. The welcoming chief wears a robe or colorful button blanket displaying his family crest. Eagle down held in the crown of the eagle frontlet headdress, which is adorned with trailing ermine fur and inlaid abalone shell, is shaken out to float gracefully in a cloud around the dancer during his performance. The eagle down signifies peace and is considered a gesture of welcome from the Haida to their guests. The guest chief would often perform a similar dance in response. If the dances were held inside the Longhouse, the light from the central fire would reflect and flicker on the inlaid abalone shell in the eagle frontlet headdress.

IMG_4755And indeed, when the chief was fully dressed, he was given his new name and then had to ‘dance in’ his name. In doing so, he bowed his head to all of the visiting hereditary chiefs, scattering eagle down as he danced. These chiefs represented other clans, villages and islands.

Many of the chiefs, all dressed in blankets and headgear specific to their clan, spoke. Many of them addressed the sadness of the fact that a chief had to be ousted but their pleasure with the new chief.  IMG_4733

And then they danced. The Eagle Dance was my favourite, with dancers soaring on wide spread ‘wings’ and thrill eagle cries filling the hall to the rafters.

All of this took many hours. In the meanwhile we ate. I am told it took two years to prepare for a potlatch of this magnitude: fishing, growing vegetables, picking berries, baking breads and pies. There was halibut and smoked salmon, herring roe on seaweed, venison stew, clam cakes, octopus fritters and blueberry pie….

IMG_4712We listened to speeches and watched dancing and drumming for hours, yet the time flew by.

I loved seeing all generations come together to celebrate. There were new born babies in arms as their mothers danced, and elders being helped by teenagers. 

Seeing the multitude of regalia – blankets, ermine, abalone lined masks, woven cedar bark hats, carved ceremonial sticks – was like watching a display in the museum of anthropology come to life. I found it thrilling to witness since I had read many books about potlatches being forbidden by colonial governments as late as the 1950’s. I am so glad that traditions, language and customs of these regal coast Salish people have survived. And so grateful to my friends on Haida Gwaii for allowing me to witness this spectacular event. Haw’aa, haw’aa, thank you.


PLEASE NOTE: all images are copyrighted.