Firenze (Florence) Italy

This is a long one – you’ve been warned… 

This past weekend, I did my first weekend trip to Europe. Initially, I wasn’t sure where to go; I wanted to be reasonably far south in order to increase the chances that the weather would be good, but at the same time, I didn’t want to go too far as it was only a weekend. It ended being a toss up between Spain and Italy – two places I had never been. The price ended up dictating the destination; Florence it was. 

Detail of a lamp post in the piazza outside my hotel.

Detail of a lamp post in the piazza outside my hotel.

Florence has always been a city that’s been very high on my list of places I’ve wanted to go. My interest in art and art history makes it a natural; the birthplace of the Renaissance. This trip was a last minute decision, and when I booked the trip I didn’t really pay attention to some of the details – I figured I’d sort them out when I got there.

Pisa, Italy 

Case in point – the flight was actually to Pisa, not Florence. Pisa is an hour’s train ride away – not far, but enough of a distance that you have to plan your travel in a little more detail. In this case, I thought I should turn this slight logistical challenge into an opportunity, and so rather than rushing straight to Florence on arrival in Pisa, I chose to spend the early part of the afternoon checking out Pisa – or more specifically, its famous tower. On arrival at the central station, I chucked my bags into a locker and hopped in a cab. The cab ride was all of three or four minutes, and when the taxi pulled up out side the piazza, near the tower, my jaw dropped. It was a reaction that I was going to repeat time and time again this weekend.

La Piazza del Duomo di Pisa – The Miracle Square

La Piazza del Duomo di Pisa – The Miracle Square

I think everyone has probably seen pictures of the leaning tower of Pisa at one point in time or another, but I have to say the photographs just don’t do it justice. Not to mention that the bell tower is only one of three spectacular buildings that makes up the site. While the Tower is definitely the most interesting, the Cathedral and Baptistery buildings are equally spectacular. I spent the better part of an hour just walking around the grounds, taking pictures and checking out the amazing buildings. The level of detail and ornamentation on the building is unreal – the different types of marble, the detailed mosaic work and the sheer scale of the buildings given when they were constructed is just mind-blowing.

The Baptistery;  The "Leaning Tower", with a sculpture in the square; Detail from the Baptistery door; Various views of the square, and its amazing buildings

I didn’t end up going in the Baptistery (1152) or the Cathedral (1064, but qthere’s been a church on this site since at least 313), which in hindsight I wish I had; I felt my time was too limited to try and do everything. So instead I bought a ticket to climb the tower. What a cool experience! The Bell Tower (1173) definitely leans, and you can feel the lean as you climb, pulling on you. Interestingly enough, the pull seemed to decrease as you got higher. Not sure if that was just because I was getting used to the sensation, or if the pull decreases with the height. Regardless, it was a very cool sensation. The inside of the tower, while plain was equally interesting. For 800-odd years, people have been climbing these steps. The sense of history is palpable; and the marble of the stairs have indentations, where the friction of all those feet, over all those centuries, has worn down the very stone of the steps. At the bottom, the stairs are narrow – barely wider than my shoulders. At the top, as you climb from the bell tower platform, up to the very top, the stairways was so narrow, I had to go up sideways. 

The view from the top was excellent. It wasn’t the clearest day, but I could still see a fair ways, off into the Tuscan countryside. It looked amazing. There were low mountains off in one direction, and the city was laid out below my feet. I enjoyed the view for about half an hour, taking pictures (but like a complete moron, forgot to take any video, even though the camera was in my damn pocket…), and generally enjoying the day. But I was getting hungry, and it was time to head to Florence.

But first, I need something to eat. I avoided the tourist traps nearby, and wandered into the heart of the city, away from the touristy area. As I was walking down a narrow, winding street I noticed what looked like a small café/restaurant tucked in behind a church. It was busy with locals, so I thought it would be a good spot to stop. I was rewarded with what had to have been the best sandwich I have ever had. It was made up from thinly sliced, rare roast beef, roasted peppers and fried mushrooms, served  on this very thin bread. There were some sort of spices, and I think sea salt that just made it all amazing. Or maybe I was just really hungry by that time? 
After lunch, I hopped back into a taxi and was back to the train station, and on my way to Florence. The train ride was only an hour, but I did notice that Italian trains are a lot older, and not maintained as well as those in the UK. Regardless, I dozed off and was pulling into the central station in Florence before long. A five minute cab ride and I was at my hotel, checked in and ready to explore.

Florence, Italy

View of Florence from the  Piazzale de Michelangelo

One of the things I got right on this trip was my hotel. While it wasn’t much to look at, the location was amazing. Florence, or at least the part of it that interested me, is not that big. The scale is just right for walking around. My hotel was positioned about half way between the Uffizi Gallery and the Duomo (Cathedral), so I thought I was doing good. The reality of how good the location was became apparent when I wandered out the first time, and after no more than two minutes was standing in front of the Duomo. 

The Baptistery of San Giovanni,

The Baptistery of San Giovanni,

While I used the words “jaw dropping” earlier, this building left me speechless. I just don’t have words to describe the feat of art and engineering that this building represents. The guide book I have used the term “candy cane” to describe the red, green and white façade of the building, but I find that description demeans the achievement. 

Much like Pisa, the site is actually three buildings – the Baptistery of San Giovanni, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) and Giotto’s Bell Tower. All three are individually magnificent, each has their places in history, and together they defy description. As I set about to try and take some pictures to do justice to this monument, I quickly discovered that I just don’t have a proper lens for trying to take pictures of something that big. Strangely enough, the focal length on my point-and-shoot ended up being better for capturing the wide angle images. I must have wandered around the area for an hour. I was totally in awe, completely blown away by the majesty.

I tore myself away, knowing that I’d be back again over the weekend. 

A couple of blocks up a winding main street opens onto the Piazza della Signoria. This is the main plaza in Florence, and contains the Palazzo Veccio, the town hall. This huge building rises above the plaza, and is adorned by some of the most famous statues of the Renaissance – Michelangelo’s David originally stood here (now a replica stands in its place); Hercules; Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines; and Bevenuto Cellini’s Perseus with Medusa’s head. In addition, there are close to a dozen other statues, going back to Roman times. It’s an unbelievable collection of sculpture. 

Michelangelo’s David (replica, on the site of the original) 

There’s a sign, amongst the sculptures that says something to the effect of “the sculptures in this open air museum are the equal in significance and value to any room in the Uffizi Gallery. They are here for your enjoyment, but must be treated with respect.” The words aren’t quite right, but you get the idea. I find it amazing, but uplifting at the same time, that these amazing works of art are able to be left alone in a public place, with no harm having come to them. Maybe there’s hope for the human race yet.

Palazzo Veccio; Detail of the Palazzo Veccio; Palazzo Veccio and part of the Rape of the Sabines; Perseus; Rape of the Sabines; Hercules

After spending a bit of time here (the crowds were large and annoying), I headed further down to the Ponte Vecchio, over the River Arno. The bridge is very cool – the only original bridge over the river, left from ancient times. The bridge actually has shops and homes built into it, and the town’s gold and silver smiths have their shops along the bridge. It’s very cool and unique so far in my experiences. And I didn’t buy anything.

Ponte Vecchio at twilight

Ponte Vecchio at twilight

Detail of a shop/residence on the Ponte Vecchio 

Detail of a shop/residence on the Ponte Vecchio 

At that point, it was dark and starting to get a bit late. I stopped for a glass of wine at a local bar, before trying to sort out what I wanted to do for dinner. I randomly picked something from the guidebook, which ended up being my second best decision of the weekend. After wandering the streets for about half an hour (and this with both a map, and the actual address of the restaurant…) I finally managed to find the place. It was packed! There were at least 30 people standing around on the street, outside the restaurant. I managed to track down the guy that was managing the door, and he indicated that he’d be able to get me near 9:30 - a 40 minute wait. I decided to stick it out, and was rewarded with one of the most interesting dining experiences (not to mention some of the best food) of my life. 

While I was waiting (along with this huge crowd of people), clogging the tiny side street, the restaurant was kind enough to bring out glasses of wine for everyone. It helped. Finally, I was shown to my seat – stuck into the middle of a six-seat table, between two other groups of two people. But nobody seemed to notice or mind, so I went with it.

The poor waiter was running himself ragged, and I was given the terse “I am” to my question about getting a menu. He was actually a very engaging person, after he figured it was my first time there. Basically, he tossed a glass and bottle of the house Chianti in front of me, and asked me what I wanted. When I wasn’t sure, he made a suggestion of the house antipasto, and “something from the grill” – steak, rabbit, veal, venison – there was no shortage of choices. I had seen a couple of people tackling excellent-looking steak, so asked for that. Seems the steaks were a full kilo, so he wanted to be sure that was what I really wanted. Fair enough. The meal was excellent, and I ended up chatting with the couple next to me (from Australia) for most of the evening. Dinner lasted a long time, and I was both stuffed and exhausted by midnight, when I got back to the hotel. My plan was to start early on Saturday, so I didn’t mind getting to bed somewhat early. 

On of the main reasons I had chosen Florence was for the Uffizi Gallery, one of the best art galleries on the planet and the best collection of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance art. If I did nothing else in Florence this weekend other than to see that collection, I would have been happy. So I was up early, and at the front doors when they opened at 8:15. It was a good thing; even in the off season there were lines to get in later in the day. There were about 50 people in line, total when we were let in. And other than a really annoying group of Japanese tourists that literally ran from one “attraction” piece to the next, the place was pretty quiet, and you could enjoy yourself. The Uffizi Gallery itself is a work of art; the ceiling of the whole place is covered in frescoes, and there are sculptures that were moved there and interred as part of the building. Amazingly, it’s been a museum/art gallery for hundred’s of years – there were mentions of pieces added to the “collection” in the 1600s! And many of the sculptures were Roman pieces, pulled from palace gardens for preservation, back in the 1600 and 1700s. The Medici’s were amazing patrons of the arts, and we have them to thanks for most of the Renaissance. 

Uffizi Gallery, from across the river Arno 

Uffizi Gallery, from across the river Arno 

As mentioned, the gallery is almost exclusively pre-Renaissance and Renaissance art. The treasures of the collection are pieces from Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Rubens and Lippi. Some of the crown jewels are Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera, Uccello’s Battle of San Romano, as well as Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation. All are spectacular, breathtaking artistic achievements. I spent about three hours wandering the gallery; not as much as it deserves, but I can only handle so much stimulation from art galleries, before my mind starts to glaze over. 

In the late morning, after the Uffizi, I decided to try and get into the three main buildings. I started with the Baptistery, as there was no line up for that one yet. The doors of this building are stunning – three sets of huge bronze doors, sculpted with various scenes from the Bible. The east doors, by Ghiberti, were praised by Michelangelo (he called them the “Gates of Paradise”), and are credited with launching the Renaissance. The doors currently on the building are bronze replicas, with the originals moved into a nearby museum to preserve them. But even the replicas are true masterpieces. As I entered, again, it was all you could do to try and encompass it. The entire surface of the dome is covered in mosaics, depicting various religious scenes. It is amazing. I love mosaics, and always try to see classic examples, of which this must surely be one. But you can only spend so much time with your neck craned back, looking at ceilings before your neck gets too sore. Still, it was utterly spectacular. 

After the Baptistery, I headed a little ways up the street to the Galleria dell’Accademia, to see the original of Michelangelo’s David. While there were other amazing things to see in this gallery, including some additional unfinished works by Michelangelo, David stands alone as the crown jewel in that collection. David is another one of those classic pieces that you’ve seen at some point, but until you experience it in person you just can’t comprehend what a crowning achievement it was, by one of the great minds of the Renaissance. It is literally perfect – a master at his artistic peak. I must have stayed there for close to half an hour, before heading back out.

I was close to San Lorenzo, another massive cathedral, so I headed over that way. Pretty interesting from the outside, on Saturday’s it has a market in the streets surrounding it. Mostly tourist crap – t-shirts, leather hand bags, knock-off watches and the like – but there was also an indoor market that had different produce, meats, cheeses and flowers. I found that infinitely more interesting. I need to better understand what I am allowed and not allowed to bring back with me. I would have loved to by some fresh parmesan cheese, or Italian olives, but was unsure what I could bring back and didn’t want to risk it. So I settle for a bottle of wine. 

After my trip to the market, I headed back to the Duomo. There was no line to get into the main cathedral, so I headed in there. Surprisingly, the main cathedral is relatively Spartan – the level of decoration was modest. Only the small dome in this section had any ornate decorations, but this part of the cathedral is still used for masses, and so was roped off. Underneath the main part of the church, they had discovered the ruins of a previous building on the site. These had been excavated and turned into a fascinating display that showed a lot of the old foundations, walls, mosaics and other decorations from the original building. Very cool. 

Another view of the Duomo; Underground excavations of the original cathedral, including a floor detail

After the cathedral main building, I wanted to go see the main dome, but the line up was huge! And given that there was so much else I still wanted to see and do, standing in line for a couple of hours did not seem like a good use of time. While I really wanted to see it, I decided I’d try again later in the day. As it turned out, I did not get a chance to see the inside. Along with the Palazzo Pitti, they were two things I regret not getting to see. That being said, I really didn’t expect to get to see all of Florence in two days, and I know I will be back eventually. Instead of the main dome, I climbed the Bell Tower. Actually, I did a lot of climbing of stairs this trip! Made up for not running I hope! Unfortunately (and this was a risk I took coming to Florence in March), the weather was not behaving, and the view from the top was not so great. It was windy and cold and I did not stay up long. The stairs on this tower were a little more accommodating – I actually fit the whole way up. 

View from the Bell Tower 

For the later part of the afternoon, I found myself in a pub, watching soccer with the local Italian supporters. I was very tired at this point, and the weather was not cooperating. So it seemed a pretty good way to spend a couple of hours. Recharged, I spent another hour or two wandering the streets, taking pictures, checking out shops and generally enjoying myself. Again, it was starting to get late, so I thought I should find dinner. After being told they were full at a couple of places I wanted to try (note for next time – book dinner on Saturday nights!), I ended up at a small restaurant. The food wasn’t as good as I had had, but it was fine. The Italians have a nice way of enjoying meals, and dinner again took quite a while. It was nice, and it took me to close to 11:00. After a long walk back to the hotel, I was asleep within five minutes.

In hindsight, I learned a few things about these weekend trips that I will do differently next time. The couple of things that were less than ideal didn’t really hurt this trip too much, but it could have been different if I’d done a bit more homework in advance. My flight back, being at 13:00 from Pisa was the primary one. It meant that I needed to leave Florence at 9:30, to be safe. This didn’t leave me much time to do anything on Sunday morning. Still, I planned to make the most of it.

Of course, Sunday morning was gorgeous! Clear and calm, with bright blue skies. I had decided that I wanted to see the Piazzale de Michelangelo – his own personally dedicated plaza, perched on top of a hill just outside of the town center. It was a bit of a walk – and another hike up a sizeable hill, but man was it worth it! The view was spectacular. The piazza has an almost 360 degree view of the surrounding country side, and you could see down into the heart of Florence. The Duomo just dominates the surrounding city from up high; it was very cool to see.

Florence skyline

I had to hustle back to catch my train – and I ended up missing it by about three minutes. Who sets a train schedule for departure at 9:27? Thinking trains to Pisa were every half hour (not on Sunday’s it seems). The 10:27 train put me very close to missing my flight. I ended up making it – they were doing final boarding when I dashed to the gate, but it was a little closer than I like!

All in all, it was a fantastic first weekend trip. I need to be a bit more careful in verifying the travel logistics next time. I want to go back to that area, and spend more time in the Tuscan countryside. That will give me a chance to check out some of the things I missed this trip.