A short trip: 7 – 10 August 2009.
Dawn hadn’t even thought about cracking when our alarms went off at 3am. However, in 2 short hours we were at the departure gates ready to head to Italy for some beautiful sunny days of cultured art, architecture and food.
We landed in Pisa airport to 29 degrees and bright sunshine, got ourselves sorted and headed for the train that would eventually take us to Florence Santa Maria Novella station.
We bowled up at our hotel (gorgeous Hotel River right by the river Arno, 5 mins walk from the main city centre) a couple of hours early expecting to only be able to leave our bags and have to come back later to check in only to be warmly welcomed and given our keys within 10 minutes. Instant good impression made even better by the fact this was achieved despite their computer system being frozen and the concierge not even being able to see if the rooms were ready. (Fortunately he was a smart chap who just called the housekeeper to find out if our room was sorted!) The heavenly bliss of an air-conditioned room with balcony and scrumptious apricot jellies on our pillows. Honestly it just got better and better. After getting settled we headed into town to get our bearings.
A short, 5 min walk lead us to Chiesa Santa Croce with its stunning marble façade. We had pizza for lunch at a little restaurant just down the road, tried to accustom ourselves to the heat (now about 32 degrees) and studied the map to decide where to go next.
After lunch we chose a side street and wandered until we reached the Palazzo Vecchio which is the town hall. The square by this building houses the replica of Michelangelo’s David as this is where it first lived. There is also a loggia that has many other lovely sculptures from the same period.
From here we headed down past the Uffizzi Gallery to see the Ponte Vecchio from the road beside the river. You may be unsurprised to hear that at this point we found a rowing club. Situated underneath the Uffizzi. A highlight moment.
By now the heat was taking its toll – the air conditioned room at the hotel was calling. So we headed back to chill out and plan our next foray.
The concierge at the hotel had recommended we visit the top floor balcony that overlooked the river while at the hotel. Before heading out to look for likely places for dinner and enjoy the city in the cooler (?) evening we decided a quick stop upstairs would be worthwhile. The view was stunning (next pic).
The area to the left of the top of the tower is Piazzale Michelangelo – another (bronze) replica of the David sits here and this is where all the bus tours stop to give you a view of the city (Contiki takes a group photo from here too).
We also spotted a cat-sized creature crawling along the weir in the river. Closer inspection showed it was an otter – right in the middle of the city! Fantastic.
We decided to head into town the long way – crossing the river and walking down to the Ponte Vecchio from the far side. The jewellers shops that operate on the bridge had all closed but there was a chap busking who had attracted a massive crowd so the bridge was still really busy. To either end of it were the most fantastic gelaterias to tempt you:
After dinner we headed back to the Ponte Vecchio for more photos then bed – big day tomorrow.
We took our time about heading out deciding to aim for the Duomo first. We joined a fast moving, short queue to look around inside and as we came out and saw the same queue stretching back around the building and completely stopped we realised we’d been extremely lucky. Every time we went past the cathedral we saw a longer and longer queue – we didn’t see it short and fast moving any other time we were there!
From the Duomo we headed for the Bargello museum to see more Davids. This time there was Donatello’s David – a bronze statue that made me think of Peter Pan. We also saw hordes of byzantine panels, some armoury and so on. The building was built as a palace first, then housed the magistrate, then the police and became a prison, then became a convent before becoming a gallery. Quite a varied old life! It was very peaceful. Quite unlike the Uffizzi which we decided to pass on as the queues were SO long.
After some more wandering, eating and an afternoon relax we decided again to stroll up to the Ponte Vecchio in the hope of getting there before all the shops shut. We joined the throng and spent quite some time admiring the sparkly glittery things in all the windows. I suspect the lights that were illuminating the displays are responsible for the heat in Florence – they must have been kicking out some massive wattage because I definitely got not only tanned but slightly baked from being near them.
There seems to be a taste for knuckle dusters in Italy – there were rings in all the displays that could have weighed down Rocky’s fist. They were garish and superb at the same time.
Fortunately for us, when the heavens opened and a month’s worth of rain fell in 50 mins we had just stopped for a drink and were sheltered under the umbrellas watching other people get caught out (mwah ha ha ha). There was a massive thunderstorm. Unsurprisingly the little chaps that go around selling the prints of paintings and tacky plastic junk immediately appeared selling umbrellas (Dad – do you remember the ones in Rome?)
When the rain had reduced to little more than a drizzle we headed for a restaurant we had found the day before to try out their fare (photos as right). This place is just down the road from our hotel and served the best value, most delicious food and because of the rain was almost empty so we got a brilliant table outside under the covered area (the bright area to the left) and watched Florence go by over pasta and antipasti. We even got an accordion serenade. We came back to the same place on Sunday night when it had not rained all day and it was PACKED. It looks quite small from this picture but it’s massive inside – luckily for us.
And so Saturday wound down over a carafe of Chianti.
The rain on Saturday evening cooled down all the streets and buildings so Sunday started relatively cool. We had decided to get a 48 hour ticket to sightseeing bus which conveniently stopped right outside the hotel. We were aiming for the Duomo to climb up to the top but when we got there the long, long line to the cathedral was still in operation but the entrance to the dome was shut! Ah well. Next time.
Plan B: take the bus up to the Accademia di Belle Arti (?) to see THE David (Michelangelo’s one). The line for this also stretched off around the building but, helpfully, there is a big sign on the building saying you can cut the queue and pre-book tickets at a museum just up the road. So that’s what we did. For a small extra price we pre-booked for 30 mins time and after a nice little rest in the park nearby we wandered down to the pre-booked entrance and walked straight in – well worth the extra!
To be honest the most important and impressive thing in this place is The David. It’s astonishing. It stands in its own domed alcove exactly as it looks in all the photos. It is massive! However it doesn’t impose on its space – it’s been very well situated. There was a special exhibition of photos by a photographer who was inspired by Michelangelo’s use of form so there were a couple of his photos hung near the sculpture but normally there is nothing hung around it. Despite that you are still not allowed to take photos. You can walk right around it and there is a platform for seating at the back so we sat and contemplated. It’s quite novel to see his bum! ;-)
The rest of the building is dominated by byzantine works of art – loads and loads of alter panels depicting biblical stories. It’s a massive collection but largely can go unmentioned here.
After contemplations and whatnot it was definitely lunch time. This time we went for the walk and eat option grabbing a scrummy sandwich at the first tasty looking shop we passed and continuing on our way heading back towards the Palazzo Vecchio etc.
It got extremely hot in the early afternoon so we decided to make use of the pool that was “800m” from the hotel. We set off following the directions we had, saw a rowing club… and a canoe club… and some parks… and no pool… We wandered further and further until we decided we must have missed it. We turned around and about 5 mins back the other way we stopped someone to ask where it was – only to be told it was back in the other direction. So back we went with me muttering it better be worth it. And it so was! We eventually got to it – a big park with a kiddies paddling pool on one side and a big, deep, multi-laned pool on the other with a bar and snack shop etc in between. A very good set up. The area was quite busy with people picnicking and sunbathing but the pool wasn’t very busy. We had to walk through a foot bath to even get up to the pool which was quite a clever way to ensure everyone had at least bathed their feet. But finally we were there – at the pool. In we jumped and there we stayed for a glorious 2 hours!
However thirst and hunger drove us back down the road to the hotel. The evenings plan was to catch the bus around the next bit of the sightseeing circuit (we wanted to visit the Piazzale Michelangelo at sunset then do the rest of the ride) before stopping at our now favourite restaurant for dinner. So here is the view of the Ponte Vecchio (bridge left), with Piazza Vecchio tower to the right of that, then the Duomo to the right of that again:
From the piazzale the bus follows the winding hill road through what is obviously the right side of the tracks. Galileo’s observatory is up in these hills as are villas that used to belong to some rich, famous and (ig)noble people, then the road winds down back into the city and loops back over the river eventually taking us to the stop by the restaurant. It’s a brilliant ride passing through wide squares and down the narrowest alleyways, passing old churches filled with beautiful works of art, passed monasteries and convents and castles and villas, cake shops, restaurants and gelaterias – all the wonderful things you want to see in Florence! It hits most of the main spots related to the Medici family who rules Florence for centuries and were responsibly ultimately for all the works of art and cultural relevance being retained in the city for the public. You can even see the private walkway they had from their grand palace over the Ponte Vecchio along the frontage of the Uffizzi and into the Palazzo Vecchio – so that they would not have to tread where commoners do!
Naturally we enjoyed another glorious evening with a carafe of Chianti and some wonderful Tuscan food before retiring in preparation of ‘the last big day’.
Final day. Things to do: Pack. Get into town. Buy Souvenirs. Re visit everything! Get home!
We started out by aiming for all the carts selling souvenirs – bags, belts, wallets (anything leather), fridge magnets, fans, hats, scarves (in that heat?), t-shirts, mini Davids, tat, tack etc etc.
Monday is obviously the day all the tour groups come into town. It was packed with groups of people being given guided tours – from within Italy, from Spain, America, England, China, everywhere! We were aiming for the central market on the far side of town and walked down every increasingly swanky streets before we finally came to a massive area of carts the filled the little streets – all selling more and more of the same leather and souvenir goods. And then we reached it – Mecca! A giant market selling meats and cheeses and wine and pasta and herbs and all sorts of things – the place where real Florentines shop. Brilliant. We did end up buying some salami (wow!) and humming and hah-ing over absolutely everything else! I could easily live in Florence and that would be where I spend all my money!
Eventually we had to suck it up, leave the market, make our way back towards the hotel for one final run around all the sites – the one big hit – and make for the train station. We had a moment or two at the station and on the train thinking ‘oh my word please let this be the right one’ and all the trains were running up to an hour late. A lovely Italian girl who spoke flawless English became the translator of all the station and train announcements for our carriage – helping all us bemused tourists out! She further confirmed to me that Italians are superb!
Then we were at the airport, then on the plane, then home again (back in that darn queue at Stansted!).