Maastricht Musings is a series of posts written while I study abroad for 11 weeks this summer in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Some will dabble deep into theological truths; others will offer comic relief, but hopefully all will offer entertaining and informative glimpses into Europe.
The city of Florence is a tourist’s dream. Cafés spill out into the cobblestone streets, and the Arno River cuts through the heart of the city. Tuscan hills dotted with vineyards line the horizon. Florence means colors, culture, and those cream-colored Italian stucco buildings with the orange-tiled roofs. It’s picturesque, famous, and idyllic, and because of that, you get to enjoy the relatively small Italian city with 50,000 other tourists.
I’m quickly figuring out that the real gems of this continent are not where the crowds are. The best cities, restaurants, and activities are hidden. They’re off the beaten path. They’re through the back door. So when I had a free Saturday morning in Florence, I set off to find one of these gems.
The crowds were already thick, and my resolve to escape them increased as I dodged street vendors and tour groups in the big city square. I walked north away from the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio and everything else that the city was famous for. My destination was the Alinari Bike Rental shop. I ducked into a tiny Italian groceria and snagged a baguette and some salami, threw the groceries in my backpack, and headed on towards the bike shop.
The place was hard to find, nestled in the less popular Northern part of the city on Guelfa Avenue. I negotiated prices for a few minutes at the counter and then walked over to my machine. A shiny new white Vespa like they drive in the Italian movies, White Lightning was mine for the next three hours.
“Do you have experience on one of these?” The shop owner asked me. “Of course,” I replied, failing to mention that I had only driven a friend’s scooter down the block one time. I struggled to get White Lightning to start, and he gave me a skeptical look. I smiled back and twisted the throttle, zooming away in the type of dramatic exit that only an underpowered 50cc Vespa named White Lightning can make.
Driving through the city was a lot like Mario Kart with higher stakes. I dodged traffic and tried to do what the other Vespas were doing. White Lightning had more giddy-up than I was expecting, and I hit 40 km/h effortlessly. I glided past the city’s fountains and squares. Before long, I had left the hordes of tourists and crowded city streets behind and was cruising up the Tuscan hills, passing small villages every few kilometers.
White Lightning struggled a little bit on the hills, and during the steep inclines, we slowed to a steady crawl. After half an hour of climbing, I rode past a viewpoint overlooking the city. The massive Duomo Church was a tiny orange smudge on the landscape from up here. This was Italy. This was vacation. This was Europe through the back door.
I stopped in a town of Fiesole and ate my picnic lunch in their bustling town square. I checked my watch: one more hour to explore. I started my descent back down the hillside, and topped out at 60 km/h on the way down (that was the moment when White Lightning got his name). I hugged the Eastern outskirts of the city and headed in the general direction of Piazzale Michelangelo, a famous overlook on the South side of the city. Following the Italian signs, I made it up to the Piazzale. The tourists head up to the spot en masse for the sunset, but during early afternoon, it was quiet and serene.
I glanced down at my watch, twenty minutes to get back. I crossed the Arno, and set out back for the North side. At some point, I made a wrong turn and found myself on a highway with way too many lanes for White Lightning to handle. Ducking off at the nearest exit, I asked an amiable Italian for directions. He pointed to our destination on the map, and five minutes later, the storefront was on our right. I’m not sure if the shop worker or myself was more surprised that I showed up on time. I handed over the keys, and starting walking back to the hostel. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the long line slowly snaking towards the entrance to the Duomo. Don’t they know about the back door?
I don’t want to over-spiritualize these posts on my travels. Sometimes a vespa ride is just a vespa ride, and there’s no deeper, underlying spiritual truth. But when I think about Europe through the back door, about how the real treasures lie off the wide and crowded road, the words of Jesus are just too applicable to leave out.
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. —Matthew 7:13