We rolled into Firenze (Florence) on the very comfortable Eurostar train, wow; this is a great way to travel. We didn’t have a hotel booked but when Anil spotted a travel desk at the train station, he suggested we talk to them about possible hotels in the area. I was a little reluctant because I know these agencies get a commission for booking hotels and I didn’t want to pay more than we would if we just went to the hotel directly. Then I saw a sign that said the agency charged a fee of 3 Euros, and that seemed reasonable enough.
The young woman at the desk suggested a nearby hotel that had a special promotion available. We would have to pay a deposit of half the room rate, plus the agency fee and if we were not happy with the hotel, we could come back and she would help us find another hotel. I am only mentioning all this detail because this is something we have never done before, in all our travels, ever. Sometimes, it’s a little difficult to step outside your comfort zone and do things differently. I know for most people, to arrive in a city without a hotel reservation at all is too far outside their comfort zone, but this is how we have always operated. We are confident that we can always pay a little more and find something reasonable, but we like to try first before we resort to the higher end hotels.
We walked the three blocks to the hotel and were greeted by a wonderful young woman at the reception desk who spoke remarkably good English. She was surprised that we wanted to see the room first, but accommodated our request. We were pleasantly surprised with the room and loved the fact that the windows opened onto a quiet pedestrian street and had an open terrace right next door. I fancied the idea that the terrace would be a great place to sit in the evenings with a bottle of wine and some tapas of our own choosing.
We told the receptionist, her name was Anika, that we would like to stay for three nights and she told us the promotion rate was only for two nights, but she could offer additional nights at a slightly higher rate. We decided to stay and set off to explore the city. Before leaving, we asked Anika to make a reservation for us to see the Uffizi Gallery. Line-ups in the summer can be very long. We didn’t want to have the same experience that we had in Granada, and find ourselves unable to get in to see a major attraction during our few days in the city. She told us that the lineups at the Galleria dell’Accademia weren’t too long so we didn’t need to reserve a time just to see the famous statue of David by Michelangelo.
It was early evening, so after spending a few minutes at what we call ‘nesting’, we set off to explore the city center and get the lay of the land, so to speak. The street was bustling with an open-air market, outdoor restaurants and loads of tourists out to enjoy the night air. We walked along some of the main streets towards the Duomo, one of the world’s largest cathedrals. The light was very low when we entered the plaza where it is situated, and the effect was breath-taking. We had never seen pictures of the cathedral, and I am so glad we hadn’t. The massive building is faced with stunning multi-coloured marble, but in the low light, it appeared to be striped black and white. Unforgettable. I couldn’t wait to see it in the sunshine the next morning.
We carried on towards the Arno River, and entered the Piazza Della Signoria, the traditional hub of Florentine political life. Facing this open area is a massive sculpture gallery built in the 14th century. It was here that the iconic statue of David stood until 1873, when it was moved indoors to the Galleria dell’Accademia. A copy now stands in its place, and that’s a good thing for tourists because, as we found out later, photos cannot be taken of the original sculpture. After enjoying the sculptures, we strolled between the dark grey walls, of what we later learned to be the Uffizi Gallery, until they ended at the river and we found ourselves in the glow of the setting sun for the first time.
As we had walked through the streets of Florence, I was struck by how dark the streets were, even though the sun had not yet set. I have to say, this first impression startled me, as I had not expected Florence to be such a dark, imposing city. The buildings are constructed of very dark stone, the streets and narrow and the lighting is low-key. I didn’t think too much about it initially, it was early evening after all and in the late fall, night comes earlier and earlier as we approach the middle of October.
We stood at the low wall along the promenade and when we turned to look to our right, we saw the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s most famous bridge lit up by the setting sun. The bridge was built in the 14th century, and was originally lined with butcher shops. When the powerful Medici family chose to build a corridor over the bridge to link their palaces, the Palazzo Pitti and the Palazzo Vecchio, they ordered that the smelly stalls be replaced with jewellery shops, and so they remain today. I took a number of photos, from all angles, while Anil relaxed and watched members of a local rowing club, honing their skills on the river below.
It was time for dinner, and we found a quiet little pedestrian street between the Duomo and the Basilica di San Lorenzo, that was lined with small restaurants. The outdoor seating was all taken so we sat inside and enjoyed the first of many great meals in Tuscany. We decided to eat like the Italians and ordered a primo piatto as well as a secondo piatto and washed it all down with some vino della casa rosso.
The hotel provided us with a terrific breakfast the next morning, I was delighted to see fresh fruit, not something you see often while travelling in Europe, at least not at the hotels we stay at. Well fortified, we set off to join the line to see the statue of Michelangelo’s ‘David’. We had opted out of getting reservations as there was an agency fee and the hotel charged a fee as well. The weather was nice and we thought standing in line wouldn’t be too much of an ordeal. When we arrived the line snaked around the building and seemed to be moving very slowly, if at all.
Anil wasn’t too happy about the line up, but when I pushed him a little, he admitted that after seeing the copy of the statue standing outdoors, he really didn’t see the point about waiting for a couple of hours to see the original. He had a point, about not seeing the original, but I pointed out that it was important to me, so he could go back to the hotel and read his book if he preferred, or I could treat him to a gelato. Ice cream is a major arm-twister with Anil. I went off to find some of the sweet stuff, and he was sweet and stayed to keep me company.
The wait was well worth the time spent and the gelato eaten. We have seen a lot of sculptures lately, but there is nothing like Michelangelo’s masterpiece, You don’t have to study any of the details of height, weight, proportions or type of marble, ‘David’ dominates the room and the museum, all else is forgotten as soon as you exit the door. We went for a long walk around Florence, not interested in seeing anything in particular, just basking in the glow of an artist’s genius.
We walked for what seemed like hours, but I did manage to convince Anil to climb to Pizzale Michelangelo, a steep hill on the opposite bank of the Arno for a sunset view of the city. I continued to find Florence’s streets dark and a little foreboding, but I reasoned that this was probably due to the lower angle of the sun this late in the fall. The streets are very narrow, the buildings are very high and close together and little natural light reaches down to the sidewalks. This was probably intentional, to keep the streets and buildings relatively dark and cool during the scorching summer months, but I love light and wanted to see the Florence that I had seen in photographs and posters all my life.
It was a pleasant walk along the Arno in the late afternoon, and once again, the rowers were out on the river. We climbed the 600 meters up the hill and when I turned to see the city spread out below us, I found the Florence I’d been waiting to see. The red tile roofs were glowing in the late afternoon light and the bridges were mirrored on the river’s surface. It was here that one can finally begin to appreciate the size of the massive Duomo tucked into the streets in the heart of the city. Off to the right, I spotted a light blue dome, and made a plan to walk back to our hotel by passing near this interesting structure. I noted on my map that it was a synagogue.
The route to the Jewish quarter of Florence took us through some small residential streets and we began to see the neighbourhood life of the city for the first time. There were no brand name shops this far from Via d’Tornabuoni, where all the well-heeled descendants of the Medici family shop. Here were the bakeries, vegetable markets, barber shops and shoe repairs shops that all citizens require but don’t often exist in the areas frequented by tourists. We’ve been on the road in Europe for several weeks now, and we were getting a little tired of museums, churches, ruins and the like, we wanted to feel like we were living in Italy, not just passing through. It’s in areas like this where we enjoy ourselves the most.
On our second full day in Florence, we set off early to see the Uffizi Gallery; our reservation was for 9:30 am. The line up was very long for those who had not made a reservation, and we were very glad to have a scheduled time to enter. We rented audio guides, hoping that they would prove informative. We’ve had mixed experiences with them in the past; the ones at the Prado in Madrid were incredible, but the ones at the nearby Museo Reina Sophia were a total waste of money.
We weren’t allowed to take photos in the Uffizi so I can’t share with you a little of what we saw, but the Botticelli masterpiece, ‘The Birth of Venus’ was incredible. This was our first major art gallery to focus on a specific period, Renaissance Art, and we did find it a little overwhelming. Not being art buffs, I have to say we grew a little tired of religious Italian art by the end of the day. The audio guide was annoying, very different from ones we had used in the past. As you enter each room, the guide gives an overview of the art in the room and then jumps around talking about different paintings without giving the listener time to identify which painting is being described. I saw many visitors with small guide books that included a photo of the painting and a description below; in hindsight, I think that would work much better. In short, if you come to the Uffizi, don’t bother with the audio guide.
We initially thought that we would spend four nights in Florence, giving us three full days to see the city. However, the hotel turned out to be quite comfortable and we worked out a good rate after the special promotion price expired after the first two nights, so we decided to stay three more days and make day trips to Siena, San Gimignano, and Pisa. These cities are close to Florence and can be reached easily by train and bus in less than an hour and a half. Siena and San Gimignano are south of Florence; Pisa is almost straight west. It was great to leave our luggage behind and explore these beautiful places with just a light lunch in our daypack.
I have written separate entries for the side trips so I’ll say no more about them here. I still have to pinch myself that we have seen this much of Italy. All along, I thought we would breeze through northern Italy with just one stop in Venice and concentrate our time in Croatia and along the Adriatic coast on our way to Turkey. I have always liked the idea of seeing Europe at a leisurely pace, focusing on one country at a time, perhaps later in life when we change from travelling for nine months at one go, to travelling for shorter periods. We have this idea that eventually we will travel for three months with a one-month break back in Canada before we set off again. In my mind, this would be the time when we would visit Spain, France and Italy each for a three-month period.
When Anil proposed that we see Florence on our way to Venice, I was reluctant at first, but he seemed excited by the idea of seeing Florence. He doesn’t often voice strong opinions one way or the other. He usually likes me to come up with the plans for our travels, but it was different this time. How could I not agree? Besides, the weather in northern and eastern Europe had taken a turn for the worse; it was unseasonably cold and there had even been heavy snow at high altitudes including some parts of Slovenia. I didn’t like the idea of cold weather any more than Anil did, and a sojourn in Italy was very appealing. As you can see from my stories, we saw some beautiful sights and ate some wonderful food. There is a reason Tuscan food has the reputation it has around the world. Yum! Yum!