Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Destination: Florence

I don't usually get nostalgic when shelving books. Occasionally, when a customer brings Laura Ingalls Wilder, Anne of Green Gables, and even, sometimes, Ferdinand the Bull by my register, I'll feel a slight pang. But last week, as I slid our new laminated Streetwise maps into the travel section, and happened across the gray, bumble gum pink, and seafoam streets of Florence, I was suddenly flung back into a time and place far away from Booksmith's aisles.

My father had purchased a Streetwise laminated map of Florence for me when I was a senior in high school. As a graduation present, he brought me along on a business trip to Italy. It was my first experience of solo travel; while my father was in meetings, I was set lose on the cobblestone streets, free to explore at my leisure.

As I looked at the map in Booksmith's aisle, I remembered how I had studied those streets, buildings, and parks with the intensity I used to apply to my textbooks. The result was magic. When I stepped onto the streets of Florence, the two-dimensional shapes I knew so well transformed themselves into the tangible, sensuous reality of a place.

Now, that magic worked in reverse. Instead of the images leading my imagination into a place I had never seen, each place name on the Streetwise map transported me back to Florence. As I opened the accordion folds of the map, I could almost hear the music of some Italian street grinder floating through the streets. Streetwise maps are not pop-ups, but that is the impression I got as the city's cathedrals, gardens, and museums bloomed into memory.

Illustrations from Andrea Ponsi's gorgeous Florence: A Map of Perceptions. Check it out in Destination Literature!
I traced my finger along the Arno River, stopping at Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge to survive the bombing in the war, my father had told me. The bridge led toward Palazzo Vecchio, past the Uffizi Gallery, which I recognized on sight because of how its unique concave shape was depicted by Streetwise. Above the town loomed the Duomo and next to it Giotto's bell tower, all of which appeared before my wandering feet with an accuracy that left me breathless.

I traveled back across the bridge in order to discover a large patch of green on my map, Boboli Gardens, where I ended up wandering for hours, awed by the pristine beauty of the park. I also stumbled on Piazzale Michangelo on that side of the river, affording a stunning view back at the buildings I had just discovered, simply because the name on the map intrigued me.

In one plaza, I paused too long at a fountain, and my blond hair caught the attention of a young Italian man, who asked me to dinner. I told him I had a date with my father. But before we met up that night, I followed my map to the white facade of Saint Croce, where Stendhal records a fainting fit the cause of which was thought to be simply the beauty of the city. The Stendhal syndrome, as it has since been called, seems to occur most often in the city of Florence, as visitors overwhelmed with the beauty of the streets and galleries, succumb to their emotions with spells of weakness and fainting. As I finally closed the map, and placed it back on Booksmith's shelf, I felt a little dizzy myself.

P.S. If anyone sees a bookseller struggling to refold a map in the travel aisle, please stop and help her. One of the reasons I'm a fan of Streetwise maps is their easy, fluid accordian folds. But we're selling more than just Streetwise maps. Check out a whole new array of Italian touring maps in Travel, covering every bit of Italy imaginable. If you've already been to Florence, the rest of the country awaits!

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