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Published: October 17th 2013
From the Grand Canal to Venice St Lucia station, and we alight another high tech silver bullet to Florence Santa Maria Novella. Just a short taxi ride and we are checking in at Hotel Pitti Palace. The Pitti Palace or more correctly ‘Palazzo Pitti’ is where the Medicis and the Habsburgs lived. Or in more detail (thanks Wikipedia); the palace was bought by the Medici family in 1549 and became the chief residence of the ruling families of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. It grew as a great treasure house as later generations amassed paintings, plates, jewelry and luxurious possessions. Impressive! Our hotel of the same name was just up the street; not quite as impressive, but the biggest room so far; and recently renovated with plenty of marble surfaces and brilliant vistas from the roof top wine bar which we also used for breakfast.
The street looks a little busy outside when we leave the room for our now customary orientation ramble. It is peak tourist hour on Ponte Vecchio; probably the busiest part of old Florence and the front door of our hotel is only seven metres from Ponte Vecchio, the
oldest bridge in town. Having been rebuilt a few times after flooding, the current version is from the 14th
century. There are shops on the bridge running along both sides. Over ninety percent of these are gold merchants. The ones that are not gold merchants are silver merchants. We did not shop there.
Fifteen minutes later we pass the Uffizi gallery and find ourselves in a small street with an arched entry called Via Vinegia. This is no accident as Ron was keen to suss out the location of our first organized tour in Florence, which was to take place the next morning. Heading back we ended up in a square which we later found out to be Piazza della Signoria. There were a few statues. One called Michelangelo’s David (an expensive replica), others by Celiini, Donatello, Giambologna and Bandinelli. All this in the one piazza.
Shops, cafes, souvenir heaven and gelati shops wall to wall in cobble stoned lanes. Around every corner there is a photo opportunity and someone to sell you a scarf, a necklace, a hat or an umbrella. In the historic centre, traffic is strictly limited by special permit and
there are few major roadways. This makes Florence quite relaxing to wander about, despite heavy tourist pedestrian traffic in a few areas; notably at Ponte Vecchio and around the Duomo.
“Florence and the Machine”
Today we had a self drive tour of the Tuscan hills in a 1960s vintage Fiat 500; the “machine”. Equipped with two way radios, our guide, Andrea (Ron was disappointed our guide was not named Guido) led the way in a green 500; followed by a convoy of five Vespas, ourselves and another two 500s. These cars are very small. The new Smart cars are bigger. In some narrow lanes the 500 still felt a little oversized. In a few places, if there was an oncoming car, someone had to stop and back up. Following the others made driving on the “wrong” side much less of a challenge. Being of a certain age, Ron could recall non synchro manual gearboxes and was not daunted until the first lane change when the absence of an external rear view mirror created some temporary angst. Our car was the only one so afflicted and Ron soon developed the quick over
the shoulder glance. What fabulous fun! We meandered up the hills north of the city with regular stops for photo opportunities. We found we were also a scenic attraction for other tourists, with many pointing and aiming cameras at our quaint convoy. Andrea considered one intersection so risky that he parked, put us in the lead, left his car and stopped the traffic while we pulled out. So there we were, being followed nervously by five Vespas and two Fiats with no idea where to go next, then Andrea rockets past us on the left side of the road punching the air. The two-way crackled; “I deed eet, yaay” and we were back under control. Returning to the city, our little convoy attracted more spectators as we putt putted into a cobbled street to park nose to tail for our lunch break. A great anti-pasto lunch with; incredibly; as much vino as we dared, then back into the cars for a short drive back to base. Buzzing with excitement we return to the garage to hear Andrea shout to his boss; “We made eet, no incidents today!” We must have been a good group. Brilliant, highly recommended and would do
That evening we decided that we were in love with Florence, found a nice little Ristorante, chatted to a lovely couple from New York on the next table and solved the world’s problems.
Ron now thinks he has figured out the Italian method of place names. They are named after Pizza toppings. Such as Piazza della Signoria, Piazza Michelangelo, Piazza Margherita, Piazza Capricosia and Piazza Napoli. He has been poring over maps looking for Piazza With the Lot and Piazza Hawaiian. He also loves telling other tourists that we are staying at the Pitti Palace.
We dawdle through more photo opportunities, past the Duomo to the Accademia where we have booked a guided tour. This allows us to skip the line to some extent, but our highly entertaining guide is a bit peeved because all is not going to plan and we must wait a while. We are all wired for sound and hear him apparently discussing our lack of progress in an animated manner with the attendant. He then apologises and explains that as he has never been to this museum before he
was simply quizzing the attendant on what is inside. While waiting we have all had to negotiate the street vendors array of Grand Master prints that were lining the footpath. These were laid out in two long lines with each print just overlapping the next. Suddenly the two fellows involved each scooped up the prints in a single run along the pavement. All gone in less than five seconds. The police were on their way!. Fifteen minutes later they were back as if nothing had happened.
The Accademia’s claim to fame is that it houses the original Michelangelo statue of David. It is still a working art and music academy and smaller than the big noted Uffizi gallery which we are to see later the same day. Initially we are treated to some historic musical instruments and were moved and surprised to see string instruments from Stradivarius’ teacher and mentor whose name escapes us plus some of Strad’s own work and the first ever piano – invented in Florence. Our guide proudly explains that as the cradle of the Renaissance, just about the first of everything came from Florence. The early houses were fortified towers and some
of them had indoor toilets, consisting of a simple chute which exited on high to the street below. Hence the expression; “shit happens; yes it originated in Florence.” The statue of David does not disappoint and we are enthralled with the background story of Michelangelo’s labour of creation and the history of this masterpiece. We have seen the copies in Piazza della Signoria and later in Piazzale Michelangelo and the original is clearly superior in texture and detail. There are many other sculptural and art treasures in the Accademia too numerous to mention. Excellent and should not be missed.
From our earlier visits to the Louvre and similar places, we have developed an extreme dislike of these organised tour groups. They typically march into a room, block the entrance or exit, block the view and create havoc for everyone else. So here we were in a guided tour ourselves. We were pleased to find that this particular guide took special care to make sure that we did not block nor obstruct others as did our guide later in the day at the Uffizi.
Later we wander back to the Uffizi for a similar tour. The Uffizi
is one of the most important art galleries in the world and showcases the Renaissance. The Medici family decreed that no art should be allowed to leave Florence and this decree has been honoured over the centuries and hence over sixty percent of Italy’s greatest art is reputedly in Florence. Perhaps we are tired, but whilst in awe of the Botticellis, the DaVincis etc we are perhaps getting a little jaded and the massive crowds did not add to our enjoyment of the Uffizi. Our guide in this instance was very informative but there was so much detail to absorb.
What we did absorb was that the Renaissance brought more to the table than the earlier almost purely religious based work. At least there was some relief from (yes they were incredibly beautiful) painting after painting of, Mary finding out she is pregnant, Jesus being born, Jesus being adored, and Jesus dying.
On the subject of repetition, Ron has decided that the two most popular songs for street musicians in Florence are: a) “Sol Mio” and b) Elvis’s “It’s Now or Never”.
Next Florence Part 2 . . . .
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