During a trip that they took together in August and September of 1911, Kafka and Max Brod hit on the idea of creating a new type of travel guide. “It would be called ‘Billig’ (‘On the Cheap’),” Brod remembered. “Franz was tireless and got a childlike pleasure out of elaborating all the principles down to the finest detail for this new type of guide, which was supposed to make us millionaires, and above all wrest us away from our awful office work.” —Reiner Stach, Is That Kafka?
Whoever leads a solitary life and yet now and then wishes to attach himself somewhere, anywhere—to be drawn at last, that is to say, into human relation, human harmony—might do well to come to Florence in the shoulder season, when the prices are lower and the narrow, crowded streets, with laborious effort and the proper shoes, can still be managed. There is so much to see. One chases after the city, stumbling and frantic, like a beginner learning to skate. And yet how can one be glad about the world unless one occasionally takes refuge in it?
There is no having, only a state of being that craves suffocation.
Arriving by train, one emerges into a vast, deserted terminal. The clocks may well be broken, the information kiosk shuttered and dark. The currency exchange, notwithstanding the numbers displayed in the window, inevitably leaves the visitor at some confusing and unaccountable deficit. It’s comforting to believe that the disproportion of the world is merely arithmetical.
Outside the station, you will study the bus schedule in fastidious detail but find no comprehensive geography, only a number of highly specific routes that do not intersect.
There is a goal, but no way. The tourist’s dilemma.
Where to Stay
It is important, especially in high season, to book early. All human error is the result of impatience. The pension we recommend (La Locanda Discutibile) is a bit off the beaten path, in a quiet residential district on an unmarked street. The way is infinitely long. You must proceed by some vague, formless intuition, listening to the occasional ringing noise of your own footsteps on the cobblestones, which echoes faintly but continuously as you advance. Or have you advanced? Perhaps you have only traveled a circle.
Beyond a certain point there is no return; that is the point you must reach.
Upon arrival, take care to approach the desk clerk, as all figures of authority, with calmness and equanimity. Remember that were it not for his various familial and professional obligations, this poor minor official, hemmed in behind a desk burdened with meaningless paperwork, might prefer to be an idle visitor in a foreign country, too. Politely, and in your best Italian, explain that you have come a long way through an indeterminate landscape for reasons you find difficult to remember, let alone articulate, and that you would prefer a room away from the street noise, perhaps one with a pleasant view of the courtyard. The clerk will listen to you attentively, frowning and pulling at his moustache. Then, in the meekest, most solicitous and apologetic manner, he will decline to honor your reservation.
This is the Italian way. It is not necessary to accept it as just; one must only accept it as necessary.
Food and Drink
Though the adventurous tourist will rejoice in Florence’s variety of excellent ristoranti, those who find it difficult to digest such rich, heavy food, or indeed any food at all, may struggle. Most local eating establishments close one or two days a week; some remain closed all seven. The menus del giorno are rarely legible from the street. The prices you will have to guess at, and you will invariably guess wrong.
Remember that you will be charged for the bread (pane a coperto) that appears automatically on your table when you sit down, despite the fact that you did not order it, do not want it, have no intention of eating it, and can scarcely bear to look at it. Why would you, when they use no salt? Nobody can desire what is ultimately damaging to him.
A note for the inexperienced traveler: the local pasta (pappardelle alla lepre) has been known to hit the stomach like a guillotine: as heavy, as light.
Exploring the Sights
Most visitors to the city choose to start at the Cathedral—or the Duomo as they call it—as there is no avoiding the weight of its looming and magnificent shadow, which they experience as a kind of incitement, or goad. Naturally, the doors will be closed when you arrive. Peer in as best you can at the six side windows on the basilica, notable for their delicate tracery and ornaments (only the four closest to the transept admit light), and the wrought-iron candles affixed to the pillars—lovely but quite inadequate for illuminating the altarpieces in the side chapels. It is as if the candles have been put there to magnify the darkness that surrounds them.
One of the first signs of the beginnings of understanding is the wish to die.
Take advantage of the delay—for there are often delays, gaining entry into the Cathedral—to sample a panforte, the dense, nearly impenetrable Tuscan fruitcake, in a nearby café. Remember that a cake uneaten, regarded from its own point of view, is only a boring object made out of flour.
After a long morning of sightseeing, the visitor may wish to indulge in the Italian “siesta” and let a head filled with hate and disgust droop on the breast.
Late afternoons are best for the Uffizi Gallery, which draws hordes of visitors, most of them quite noisy and boorish, in every season. Try to avoid the tour groups with their piping, mousy docents. Remember that those who love other people are no more nor less unjust than those who love themselves; there remains only the question of whether the former is possible.
Across the Arno, the Palazzo Pitti offers a unique opportunity to view the regal home of the Medicis and their glorious collection of Titians, Raphaels, and Rubens. You may observe that some of the later rooms are more notable for their gaudy Empire furnishings and decorations than for the pictures themselves. One can’t help but reflect upon the shallow philistinism of the rich, how much wealth they invest in an effort to insulate themselves from the sufferings of the world. And yet this insulation is the one form of suffering they might have avoided.
In the struggle between one’s self and the world, bet on the world.
Traveling with Children
It is true that some children, separated from the comfort of their routines—perhaps their mother has inadvertently spoiled them—grow balky and sullen to the point of morbidity. One should seek to win them over with affection. On a hot afternoon, a kindly word from Father, a quiet taking by the hand, a friendly or encouraging look, might lend them the necessary confidence and well-being to go on searching through the winding streets near Santa Croce, hour after hour, looking for a gelato place a friend once told you about.
The Florentine area code is 055. Most phones have six numbers, but don’t be surprised if some have seven, four, or even eight. If you require assistance, dial “O”, and wait for the operator. You will hear a rather vague and indistinct hum on the line, perhaps meaningful, perhaps not. As you go on waiting, remember that believing in progress and making progress are not the same thing. It is only your weakness, your vanity and passivity and lack of imagination, that makes you cling to this notion of an “operator” in the first place.
Service is generally included in all hotel and restaurant bills. However, many people find it customary to leave an additional gratuity. Those who leave a tip and those who don’t leave a tip feel equally guilty and sinful, the first because they are only pretending to have free will in the matter, the second because they are failing even to pretend. The fact that there is nothing but a spiritual world deprives us of hope but gives us consolation.
Martyrs do not underrate the body; they allow it be elevated on the cross. As do, in their own way, the famous Florentine bordellos. Just saying!
Sadly, Florence is not free from petty crime. The best way to protect your valuables is to leave them at home. You should ask yourself if one really needs expensive jewelry or favorite heirlooms on a trip. You should ask yourself if one even needs to go on a trip. Perhaps upon reflection, no trip is necessary. Perhaps in the end it’s better to stay home. To just sit at your writing table and listen. Or not even listen, just wait. Or not even wait, just sit there unmoving, quiet and alone, as the world writhes in raptures at your feet.
Might the most useful Budget Travel guide of all be the one that is never written, only conceived?
It is only in negation that things take on their true form.
Robert Cohen’s novels include Amateur Barbarians and Inspired Sleep. He teaches at Middlebury College.