Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Lessons of via Faentina, part 1

The street where I live becomes my miscreant muse:
the first installment in a series about quality-of-life issues
in the cradle of the Renaissance.

Dear Readers,

Indulge me while I imagine its idyllic past—when, perhaps, ox-carts bearing great sloshing demijohns traveled its lazy contours, meandering bucolically from Florence to Faenza, returning in the soft dusk laden with the glazed earthenware pottery for which that city is renown. Alas, the via Faentina today bears no resemblance to this figment of yours, truly. It is, instead--at least within Florence city limits--a grim corridor of relentless traffic which bolts cars, buses and trucks toward Florence's center in the morning, and projectile vomits them back out during the evening rush hour.

For us here in Fiesole's haughty shadow, the via Faentina is our jugular vein--the only thoroughfare leading south to Piazza delle Cure and downtown, and it is along this narrow, busy artery that we residents must mince along cautiously, watching our step lest we fall prey to the insatiable beast of traffic. I have lived on via Faentina for the past ten years, and almost without realizing it, have become a reluctant, recalcitrant student of the lessons it insists on teaching me.

Lesson number one: cars rule the road like despots

Typical morning rush hour

Traffic cops arriving too late to be much help--
occasionally they show up to assist school children in crossing the street

Rush hour in via Faentina is nightmarish: a great snake of bumper-to-bumper vehicles slithers its way to or from the city center, their occupants often oblivious to things such as crosswalks or red lights. A car or bus can take 15 to 20 minutes to reach Piazza delle Cure from the neighborhood--a trip that would take a mere 10-15 minutes on foot. The air is so thick with exhaust it feels like wading through some kind of toxic pappa col pomodoro. As a committed pedestrian and cyclist who fights this malevolent serpent on almost a daily basis, I can't help but view my relationship with the city as adversarial.

Whatever else our cherub-cheeked, milk-fed Mayor Renzi would have you believe, Florence is not very pedestrian-friendly, unless you confine your perambulations to the city's historic center, and even then you must dodge marauding taxis or risk becoming a human frittata. Public transportation is notoriously unreliable--if I had a euro for every time I waited for a bus that never came, I could solve Italy's debt crisis single-handedly. With the lack of viable options and the ferocious traffic, getting around town remains about as enjoyable as getting one's gallstones removed--though unfortunately not as quick.

Lesson number two: pedestrians count for little

My kids and I walk the via Faentina every day to get to and from their elementary school. In one stretch the sidewalk measures 33 inches (84 cm) wide--which leaves only a few inches between us and monstrous semi-trucks or city buses. (I've been swiped by side-view mirrors too many times to count). Every day I pray to my various gods that we make it safely, that we don't stumble on the uneven, broken pavement and fall under the wheels of a passing car.

33 inches of sidewalk + heavy, fast-moving traffic = death trap

While other parts of the city have seen speed tables installed (flatter and gentler than rounded speed bumps), for most of via Faentina--notwithstanding the narrow sidewalks and the densely residential character of the area--vehicles are allowed to race along with impunity, as if it were a Formula One speedway. Often cars are parked up on the sidewalks or block the crosswalks entirely. Perhaps most disturbing, however, is how the lines between sidewalk and street are consistently--and dangerously--blurred.

A truck graciously descends from the near-nonexistent sidewalk
so that we may continue on our way

For pedestrians the options are: backtrack, hug the wall, say a fervent Hail Mary,
or resolve to meet your Maker

Walking sucks

Lesson number three: there are two Florences

One of the things I've come to terms with over the past decade is that the Florence of art and beauty and charm--the one that makes all the tourists go gaga (and is largely confined to the historic center)--has an evil, ugly twin: the Florence that is choked by traffic, bureaucracy and a rampantly provincial mentality; the Florence that was this year named the most polluted city in Italy; the Florence that makes walking your children to school as pleasurable as having oral surgery without anesthetic, and as foolhardy as playing a game of "catch me if you can!" with the Grim Reaper.




  1. Is this a two-way street? If so it should be made one way. And yes those 'traffic tables' are definitely needed here. I hate the way pedestrians have no rights anymore. Walking has somehow become obsolete.

  2. Yes, Isabel, it is indeed a two-way street--I am planning to address this in a future post. You are so right when you say that pedestrians simply have no rights anymore--and yet so many politicians pretend to be "green" while they continue to privilege cars.

  3. wow...brutal....

    it's a trade off between keeping things looking "old and ancient" for the tourists and modernizing the road to suit the volume of traffic but then you are just encouraging cars...those streets were designed for horses....

    the thing I noticed the most there was sure in the middle of town where all the "stuff" is it's beautiful but get outside a few blocks and you might as well be in the seedier parts of Detroit...graffit everywhere...broken sidewalks..dirt...not so charming.

    if I lived there I'd just get an old junker of a bike and use that..seems alot of people do.

  4. I know this street...I live on via Campo d'Arrigo. I swear I can sense my mother clutching her chest in Minnesota, wailing "My baby!" every time I walk out the door. I don't think she will be allowed to visit me. I feel safer on my bike than I do walking.

    I like the idea of changing a two way street to a one way street, however I have yet to see a one way street that actually functioned as a one way street. Is it possible to change the thinking of an entire city? These are people who drive on the sidewalk to get to a parking place. You are my hero for even trying...

  5. Debbie, it's true, old cities require careful planning and innovative solutions. The bottom line in Florence is that there are simply too many vehicles on the road. The city was never meant to handle this much--and this kind--of traffic.

    Michele, thanks for dropping by. I agree that maybe your mom shouldn't visit you if she's the skittish type! ;-)

  6. Brava, as usual! This totally encapsulates why we left town. Permanently. And we even lived in the center.

  7. Anonymous9:50 AM

    "Human frittata" is killing me!

    What happens when it rains and it's the war of Italian umbrellas on a 33" sidewalk?


  8. Thank you Patti and Papaya :)

    I often think that life in Italy would be much better if I didn't live in Florence proper. But this is where--like an errant American asteroid--I fell to earth. Sigh.


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