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Published: March 4th 2016
Panoramic of Florence from atop the hill, with the Duomo as the backdrop
The birthplace of the Renaissance has itself experienced many rebirths. Not only did Florence survive the rule of the Romans, Byzantines, Austrians, and even a short guy named Napoleon, but it thrived by preserving the best aspects of each era. While their conquerors came and went like Kanye's money, the city planted its roots in fine art, architecture, and wine. Having celebrities like Michelangelo and da Vinci decorate their toilet seats was the wealthy Florentines' way of showcasing power, which sparked a tiny cultural revolution we now call the Renaissance.
If the rich today took notice of Florence, they'd be spending more to maintain the world's treasures instead of dropping a fortune to feed their pet ostrich, but thanks to their "keeping up with the Jones'" mentality, folks like the Medici helped revitalize society's thirst for exploration and knowledge, all of which started here in Tuscany. Many claim this city is like an outdoor museum, which certainly holds true considering the inordinate number of nude statues and phallic paintings around town, but people don't just visit for the art. In fact, Kristina's family and I came to stuff our faces with food and wine, the main reason we decided to
The famous red dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore is rivaled by its extravagant marble exterior
use Florence as the gateway to our week-long excursion across Italy.
We arrived from NYC in Milan and picked up the car to drive 3.5 hours south to Montecatini Terme, a small spa-town west of Florence. Our package deal ($799 for round-trip airfare + 6 nights hotel + 7 days car rental) through GateOne landed us at the Grand Hotel Plaza (7 Piazza del Popolo), a tired but cozy establishment catering to unbeknownst tourists like us. We then took our Fiat 500 on the roads of Italy, which should instead be called Death Row for its crazy drivers, perilous roundabouts, hidden one-ways, and concealed ZTLs. After 50 minutes and a dozen brake checks, we made it to Piazzale Michelangelo in one piece physically, but mentally disheveled. However, our angst quickly vanished once the cityscape appeared before us, erasing all questions about why visionaries like Botticelli and Machiavelli chose to sit here for inspirations that changed the world.
After snapping some photos for Instagram and Facebook to impress people we don't know, we made our way downhill to walk along the Arno River to Ponte Vecchio, a historic bridge that even the Nazis refused to destroy. The present-day jewelry
Piazza della Signoria
A replica of Michelangelo's "David" stands in the exact spot where the original stood until 1873
shops lining the sides cheapen the significance of this landmark, which was the city's oldest and at one point, only, bridge. We strolled across to the north bank where we passed the Galleria degli Uffizi, one of the world's preeminent museums rivaled only by the Louvre. Our next stop was the Mercato Nuovo, a street market with a boar statue that legend says will guarantee your return to the city if you rub its nose. After buying some souvenirs that we later discovered were overpriced, we proceeded north to Piazza della Repubblica, the historic center of the country when Italy unified in 1861 and selected Florence as its capital. Our group then continued northeast to the symbol of the Renaissance, the iconic red dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, A.K.A the Duomo. This remains the world's biggest brick and mortar dome--justifying the 150 years it took to build--and houses Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise".
The sun was setting by this point, but we pushed onward to the Piazza della Signoria, which holds a replica of Michelangelo's "David" that stands in the exact spot the original did until 1873 (the original is in the Galleria dell'Accademia). This grand
Former residence of the ruling Medici family and current Town Hall
square is surrounded on all four sides by historic buildings, one of which is the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall that was once home to the Medici. A short distance east of this palace is the Basilica di Santa Croce, an unassuming church where Galileo and Michelangelo are buried. It also happens to be the largest Franciscan church in the world and is famous for its Giotto frescoes, but most tourists walk right past it unknowingly.
Our family continued exploring the streets and back-alleys looking for a dinner spot, but not before landing at Vivoli (7 Via dell'Isola delle Stinche), which arguably makes the town's best gelato in the city where it was invented. The pistachio and hazelnut flavors were incredibly rich, making it the perfect precursor to our meal that night. Since Florence is famous for bistecca fiorentina (steak), we headed out in search of this and came across Tavernetta della Signoria (57 Via dei Neri), a homey restaurant near the Piazza. A confusion with the menu and the waitress left a sour taste on our experience here, but the ossobucco (bone marrow), fettuccine alfredo, and steak were impeccably prepared. Known for their thick cut, simple seasoning with
Florentine steak is a thick-cut, simply seasoned with salt and pepper, and cooked rare on a fire grill
only salt and pepper, and cooked rare on a fire grill, Florentine steak is famous the world over, which our meal certainly proved.
With our stomachs full and feet tired, we returned to the car and made the drive back to Montecatini. The doctor ordered a good night's rest for our next day's adventures in the eternal city of Rome.
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