The Psychology of Quality and More
Florence in February
Florence (W,M) is one of those pretty European cities that is on the must-visit list for any traveller. Steeped in history, particularly from the Renaissance period when Leonardo, Michelangelo, Donatello and other turtles lived here and produced much of the art that fills its galleries and museums. The problem with such fame is the hordes of tourists that now cram its narrow hot summer streets. Dodging these, we recently grabbed a bargain February half-term break there, travelling with friends Phil and Caroline.
Tuesday 19th February 2008
After a cheap flight into Pisa (£30 each way) and a rattly train ride into Santa Maria Novella station (under €20 for 4 people), we strolled down to the quite serviceable Pitti Palace Hotel hotel (M) just off the Ponte Vecchio (W, M). The ancient bridge over the wide Arno (W) (home to what looked like otters) is still stacked with old houses and shops that hang precariously over the river.
First evening we explored the back streets of Oltrarno (south of the Arno): it was mostly residentially bland but with surprises like the prison-like Pitti Palace (W, M)and the enormous Santo Spiriti (W, M) church. After an evening stroll along the Arno we ate in the nearby Bibo restaurant (M) (I had cinghale -- wild boar). Not cheap, but nice!
Wednesday 20th February
Wednesday was wandering day, which is easy and entertaining in Florence due to its modest size and sheer density of attractions. We strolled first into the Bargello (W, M) museum, with its fine courtyard that was once a place of execution. I took pictures of Giambologna's Mercury (W) and Michelangelo's Baccus (W) before finding out that no photos are allowed in Florence's galleries, etc.
Then via the Piazza della Signoria (W, M), with its many statues, including Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine women, Ammannati's (W) massive Neptune fountain (W) and a copy of Michelangelo's David (the original was moved to the Accademia in 1873).
It is impossible to miss the massive Duomo (W, M) in Florence, with its flashy marble cladding, high campanile and golden-doored baptistry (annoyingly-placed right in front of the cathedral, preventing a clear vista of the main façade). At least it is free entry to the Duomo and photos are allowed there. Creaking joints and aching muscles from pounding the streets prevented a trip up the 463 steps to the gallery, so I resorted to placing the camera on its back and firing it remotely, for fair results.
We then discovered the rambling San Lorenzo open-air market (M) (good for ties, scarves and leather) and the covered food market (M) (closes early afternoon). Sitting outside a friendly bar (M), which seemed mostly populated by the ever-present Anerican students, we earwigged a queen bee holding court with two acolytes, going on about her expensive hair extensions and how she needed therapy when her hair stopped growing. A young lad with a baseball cap on backwards stopped by and commented that she was smoking. 'Oh, but it's, like, so European!' she drawled, in her posh Chelsea-Boston twang (she said 'like' a lot).
We then headed out along the river to Santa Croce (W, M), but didn't go in (we should have, as many famous tombs are there, including Michelangelo and Machiavelli). We checked out the recommended 'Il Pizzaiuolo' in Via de' Macci (M), to which we returned later with Phil and Caroline to consume what was probably the best pizza I've ever had, including some great places across Europe and America).
Thursday 21st February
We started early to get ahead of the queues into the Uffizi (W, M) (even in February!). It is a bit like a Florentine Louvre, with lots of paintings collected by the Medicis (W). We liked the Botticelli (W) room (great composition and detail, with remarkably modern faces) and a Medusa shield painted by Caravaggio (W).
After much walking around the block we eventually found the tiny entrance to the Accademia del Artes (W, M), where Michelangelo's (W) original David (W) has rightful pride of place. I'm often impressed by sculptures, but David tops the lot by a good margin. So much better than the copies even, it was worth the trip to Florence just to stand in awe in front of it. The unfinished statues in the approach are a splendid accompaniment, dynamically revealing more of Michelangelo's genius.
Then to San Lorenzo (W, M), market (had fun bargaining), church (€3.50 to go in - nice art) and bar again. Suitably refreshed and with blue skies returning after Wednesday's scattered cloud, we headed South and up the hill to the Piazzale Michelangelo (M), with its wonderful panoramic views across Florence, the river, Duomo and the surrounding countryside. There's also another David here (always good for a photo or two). There were Japanese tourists everywhere, including here, some oddly wearing face-masks against the deadly European air.
Then back down and around, watching police overkill in arresting someone then finding a wonderful Gelaterie at the south end of Ponte Sante Trinite (M) then getting lost looking for Santo Spiriti (W, M).
In the evening we went to the Trattoria del Camine on Borgo San Jacopo (M), a straightforward place, full of locals and with delicious food.
Friday 22nd February
Ah, Friday. Home day. But not before another quick blast around the centre, including the Mercato Nuovo (W, M) market and Piazza della Repubblica (W, M) with its lovely arcade, stopping for one last perfect cappuccino at the Robiglio (M), then up via Santa Maria Novella (W, M) to the station.
We took the midday snail train, stopping at every dusty no-name station along the way, to the delightful walled town of Lucca (W, M), which is virtually unchanged in hundreds of years. The massive walls around the old town are right in front of the station and are about 30 feet high and 50 feet thick.
The town is a grid of high buildings and narrow streets with no pavements, which makes walking interesting when there's a Jeep or a Jag coming the other way (we met both). We soon got lost then found ourselves in Piazza San Michele (M), with its glorious marble church with sunburst Madonna, eclectic high columns and welcoming angel.
The bijou main shopping street has art nouveau elements amongst the old Italian shutters, though shops were mostly closed for the afternoon siesta. A fascinating sight was the Guinigi tower (M), complete with oak trees on the roof.
The Anfiteatro Romano (M) is strange and delightfully homely, with surrounding houses hanging washing out of the windows and adding literally to the local colour. Bizarrely, there is no sign of the Roman amphitheatre, other than an oval emptiness, as the stones were plundered for more 'modern' buildings many centuries ago.
The tops of the city wall are public space all the way round and we walked all two and a half miles of it. It's a great way to see the town from new angles and a popular afternoon promenade. In centuries past the walls helped ensure Lucca was the only city in the area that the Medicis did not conquer.
The churches are very dark inside, perhaps for Summer coolness, but are brightly decorated on the outside. San Frediano (W, M) has a large and colourful mosaic of the ascension above the entrance whilst San Michele and San Martino go overboard with marble and mad columns. San Martino (W, M) also has a maze puzzle carved into the wall, which perhaps is an early form of queue entertainment. The two-tone San Martino campanile shows the age of the place: its lower stories were built in 1070, with two further levels in white marble being added in the thirteenth century.
After pounding Tuscan streets for many hours and an estimated seven miles, we eventually headed for the train and airport (nice sunset on the way), arriving hours before the flight but unable to take another step. It didn't help that a schoolful of noisy Italian 15-year-olds were on the flight too. But then despite checking in later, we still managed to get good seats.
Overall in our half-term Florentine break, we probably 'did' less than half of what we could have done, given more time. What a great reason to go back some day.
See also the full set of Florence photos for more detail.
And the big