Tour Day 4
We are on the road to Florence, and the Italian Renaissance.
We hope to catch a nap on the four-hour trip, but Tuscany surrounds us! Look, a hilltop town, a row of cypress trees, a quaint farmhouse waiting to be lovingly restored and featured in a best-selling memoir! We drink in the view from the bus windows. Patricia uses the opportunity to educate us on Renaissance history, and to orient us to the city of Florence. The bus is spacious and comfortable. We stop to stretch our legs, and to sample snacks at the highway rest area. We arrive in Florence at midday.
The Hotel Silla is located in the Oltrarno district. Wine and appetizers wait for us on the patio. At first, we are unsure of being located across the Arno River, away from the center of town. We discover that the area is full of sidewalk cafes, colorful narrow streets, and artisans’ studios: a very good vibe and the perfect home base for exploring Florence.
Some of our group go looking for a quick lunch. We join another group, and climb the steep steps to the Piazzale Michelangelo, near our hotel. (A few of us need to catch our breath on the way up.) The view of Firenze from the square is spectacular.
The medieval walled city of tile roofs is dominated by the Duomo, Brunelleschi’s Dome. We can hardly pull away from the view to check out the Green David, a bronze cast of Michelangelo’s masterpiece that sits it the center of the square. Soon we will be seeing the real thing.
Later in the afternoon, Patricia leads our group to the historic city center. The streets and sidewalks are narrow. Car traffic is jarring after pedestrian-friendly Venice. The Duomo is our beacon. The Piazza del Duomo in front of the gigantic Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is jammed with tourists and school groups. The Gothic structure is an icon of the city. The façade is composed of complex decorative marble elements in pink, green, and white, topped with the largest brick dome in the world. The site includes the Baptistery, with Ghiberti’s famous bronze doors, and Giotto’s Campanile.
“Little darlings, little darlings.”
Patricia familiarizes us with the area. We note the Uffizi Gallery, which we will visit another day, the Galileo Science Museum, the Bargello Scupture Gallery, and the Medici Chapel, designed by Michelangelo.
Just as the winged lion, symbol of Venice, could be seen everywhere in that city, we begin to notice two symbols of Florence. First is the Fleur-de-Lis. Unlike the French version of the stylized lily, the Florentine Fleur-de-Lis features stamens or thin flowers between the petals. The second symbol is the Medici Coat of Arms. The rise of wealth and power of the House of Medici is intricately woven with the history of Florence. The Medici symbol consists of a shield shape covered with six balls, a reference to coins, from their role as financiers, perhaps, or pills, as the Medici were once doctors and apothecaries. The Medici balls are easy to spot in Florence.
A crowd has gathered at the Palazzo Vecchio, an imposing Gothic building that serves as the town hall. Police, and photographers, stand guard at cordoned off areas. What is going on? A bystander informs us that Charles, Prince of Wales, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, are visiting Florence on official business. We watch for several minutes, but catch no glimpse of the royal couple.
We leave the crowd, and walk to the more manageable Piazza di Santa Croce. The square in front of the Basilica di Santa Croce features leather shops, religious artifacts, and sidewalk cafes. The Basilica is glorious, the largest Franciscan church in the world, with soaring ceilings and fresco masterpieces. A statue of Dante, author of The Inferno, stands next to the façade.
Michelangelo is the reason I have come to Florence; Florence is Michelangelo’s city. He is buried inside the Basilica di Santa Croce, and a grand tomb it is, adorned by painting, sculpture, and architecture, for the greatest artist in history. Yet, there he lies. Several putti top Michelangelo’s tomb. The artist rests in good company—Machiavelli, Galileo, Rossini, Ghiberti, and other notable Italians are also buried at Santa Croce.
Behind Santa Croce is the leather school, Scuola del Cuoio. The crafting of leather has a long history in Florence, with its location on the Arno River. Leather was already being produced in this area when Francis of Assisi arrived in 1226. After World War II, training in leather craft was encouraged as a way for war orphans to learn a trade. We walk through the shop, inhaling the rich scent of leather, and admiring the fine craftsmanship. We will seen tons more leather before we leave Florence.
See more Columns
Our group gathers for a buddy check before departing for dinner—a very effective way to make sure no one is left behind. We walk to Ristorante Boccadama to share a lovely Tuscan meal of Ribollita, a hardy bread and vegetable soup, vegetarian or meat course, chocolate cake, and local red wine. With full stomachs, we return to the hotel. Patricia has posted tomorrow’s schedule in the hotel lobby. From our hotel room, we can see the Duomo across the river. More Renaissance Florence tomorrow.
Tour Day 5
Our first full day in Florence starts with coffee, yogurt, and fruit at the hotel. We gather as a group, and cross the Arno River. We meet our local tour guide at the Palazzo Davanzati. This palace, built in the 14th century, serves as a museum of Renaissance life. The furnishings, while not original, create a picture of how Florentines lived, and are representative of the era. The ornate wall decorations and frescoes are especially beautiful.
After the Palazzo, we regroup on the Ponte Santa Trinita, a perfect vantage point to photograph the famous Ponte Vecchio, and contemplate the Arno River. Patricia revives our spirits with samples of local breads. Yum. We troop over to the Piazza Santo Spirito, for espresso at Caffe Ricchi. The walls of the charming cafe are lined with drawings of the Duomo. The piazza features a fresh fruit and vegetable market, one of many we see in Italy. The colors and textures feed our eyes.
We wait by the fountain in the middle of the square. When everyone has gathered, we proceed to the Basilica di Santo Spirito. I have recently finished reading Irving Stone’s The Agony and The Ecstasy, so the story of Michelangelo’s connection to Santo Spirito is known to me. I have taken Rick Steves’ advice to heart: if you want to have an A+ trip, you have to be an A+ planner. Before the trip, I read a dozen novels that take place in Italy, several non-fiction books, and of course, all the relevant Rick Steves’ travel guides. I like to read. My traveling companion has prepared for the trip by downloading movies to his iPad to watch on the plane. Priorities.
See My Reading List
The basilica is rather austere on the outside, but the inside is a masterpiece of Renaissance design. We are not permitted to take photographs here. Taking away the distraction of the camera allows us to contemplate the many side chapels filled with works of art. This is the same site, but a newer building than the one where Michelangelo was permitted by the Augustinian monks to study the anatomy of corpses in the hospital. In thanksgiving, the seventeen-year old sculptor carved a wooden Crucifix to hang over the high altar. Over the years, the Crucifix was lost, misplaced, or stored away until 1962. Now it hangs in its own chapel in the basilica. The Crucifix is notable in that Christ is depicted naked.
I am anxious to view the sculpture, but on the day we visit, we are told the chapel is closed. A group of well-dressed, professional people in suits and heels are gathered near the chapel, accompanied by photographers. Patricia works her magic, talking with the officials. We are permitted five minutes to view the piece. We enter the space in reverent silence. The crucifix is suspended in a pool of ethereal light. We are fortunate to have this truly moving experience.
We leave the sacred space, and return to the 21st Century. Outside, we are startled by the contrast bright modern scooters make against the Renaissance architecture in Florence. We marvel at what it must be like to work and live in such an old city, with history around every corner. A living museum.
Allora, on to a hands-on Italian cooking class at In Tavola. In the spotless demonstration kitchen, we are split into groups of five. We mix egg into flour to make fresh pasta dough, then set it aside to rest. We prepare mushrooms for the pasta sauce. Did you know mushrooms should be peeled, rather than rinsed with water? The chopped mushrooms are cooked in a big pan with olive oil, garlic, and wine. While the sauce gently simmers, we prepare tiramisu for dessert by layering coffee and brandy dipped biscuits with a mixture of eggs and Marscapone cheese. Each cup is finished with a dusting of cocoa powder. For Pollo alla Contadina, we lightly flour chunks of chicken, then cook in butter and olive oil until golden. We add onion strips, roasted red peppers, balsamic vinegar, rosemary, and spices, and let the whole thing simmer for about half an hour. This gives us time to cut the pasta. We roll out the dough, and run it several times through a pasta machine to make tagliarelle noodles. We are surprised at how easy it is to make pasta. Finally, we prepare a chopped tomato and basil mixture to serve atop toasted Tuscan bread that has been rubbed with garlic.
We gather together to eat our creation in the brick-walled cellar at In Tavola. The food is molto delizioso, and is perfectly paired with local wine.
Are stomachs are groaning after lunch, and we need to walk. The afternoon is free to spend how we choose. My traveling companion wants to climb the Duomo, or maybe the Campanile. We walk back across the Arno, and head to the Duomo. The line to purchase tickets is long. One of us is not good at waiting. We inch closer to the desk to pay. A sign lights up, announcing that all tickets for the Duomo are sold for the next two days. We wade through the crowd to head for the Campanile. The line stretches down the block. Now what?
I have a list of five or six places to visit. We try the Bargello Sculpture Museum, but it is closed. What museum closes at 2 o’clock in the afternoon? We learn the Medici Chapel also closed early. Hmm. We walk around, and look at leather goods. We consider buying something, but he looks like a dork in a leather hat, and I don’t need a purse, and it becomes overwhelming to look at so much leather. We give up on that idea. Now I am starting to think this could be my grump afternoon, although Rick Steves has a no grumps policy. Gelato revives our spirits a little bit. We head back toward the river. We find the Galileo Science Museum, another place from my list. Alas, it is also closed. So now we must face the largest crowd yet, and cross the Ponte Vecchio.
This medieval stone bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, was the only bridge in Florence to survive World War II. The bridge has always been lined with shops–butchers in the past, gold merchants and jewelers today. A passageway, commissioned by Cosimo I de’Medici, tops the stores. The corridor connects the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall, with the Pitti Palace, a Medici residence now museum across the river. The bridge is jammed with tourists. We gawk at the enormous selection of beautiful jewelry.
Eternally optimistic, we think maybe there is time to tour the Bardini Garden. Surely it doesn’t close so early. We trudge up the massive hill that is Via di Belvedere behind our hotel. One of us has to stop several times to rest. We see a sign at the top of the hill. We follow the massive wall to a doorway. We see grass behind a closed gate. The garden has just closed for the day.
We continue our walk down the narrow street, hoping we are heading in the right direction. My traveling companion is looking a little peckish, or worse. We walk through an area where Florentines live, and admire several small artisan shops. At the bottom of the hill, we see good omens that tell us we are not lost: first, a wine bar, and second, a woman walking a chubby pug, its tail curled jauntily up in the air. We are very near to our hotel.
We find a café on the street behind the hotel, and sit outside. We have been walking for four hours, maybe five. At Osteria San Niccolo, we eat a delicious meal of Tuscan soup, salad, and local unsalted bread. The house white wine is light and refreshing. We see a couple from our group, and greet them like old friends.
More and more fellow tour members pass by, until we have seen almost half of our group. We recommend the soup, and many sit down at the café. They share their experiences of the busy afternoon with us. My traveling companion and I marvel that we have already seen more people we know at this little sidewalk café in Florence than we would see at a cafe in our hometown of Cleveland. And so this is not a terrible day. But we have only one more day in Florence, and we realize we will not be able to see everything we want to see.
Patricia has posted the next day’s itinerary at the hotel. Tomorrow we start early!
Tour Day 6
The line to the Uffizi Gallery is long when our group arrives early in the morning. Since our tickets and reservations have been arranged for us through the tour, we do not have to wait, except to go through security. Our local guide gives us an excellent overview of the art museum. The collection is stunning. Immense. We cannot take it all in. So we concentrate on important works by Giotto, Lippi, da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Titian.
And of course, Botticelli’s two masterpieces, the Birth of Venus and the Allegory of Spring (La Primavera.) The paintings are hung in adjacent rooms; the crowds in front, thick and impenetrable. We revel in their sheer beauty and sensuality. (Yes, yes, we know we are suckers, but we buy the refrigerator magnets anyways.)
Not only is the Uffizi one of the most famous museums in the world, the structure itself is imposing. Designed by Vasari in the 1500’s, the building originally housed offices of the Medici government. The interiors, especially the ceilings, are richly appointed, a perfect backdrop for the outstanding collection of masterpieces.
The artwork that sticks out most to my traveling companion is the Doni Tondo, by Michelangelo. This round panel painting of the Holy Family is the only known painted work by the Renaissance master. The display of the work on a bright red wall is most impressive. Da Vinci’s Annunciation is exhibited in its own room, as is his Adoration of the Magi. Other highlights for us are Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch, and Caravaggio’s Bacchus. Hmm. Bacchus looks a bit like my traveling companion.
After all that art and culture, we break for the afternoon. My traveling companion and I are determined to see one site from our list before meeting back up with the group this evening. We cross the Ponte Vecchio on our way to the Pitti Palace. But first we need sustenance. Several cafes line the street across from the palace, and we pick a spot where we can watch the comings and goings. We try La Papa al Pomodoro, a Tuscan tomato bread soup served in a mason-type jar. As with all the other soups we have sampled in Florence, this one is delicious.
The Palazzo Pitti, or Pitti Palace is a massive, brooding structure, as imposing as a prison. The palace served as home to the Medici, a treasure house to display their wealth and power. Now, it is the largest museum in Florence. The collection is hung much as it would have been in such a grand residence, with paintings stacked one upon the other all the way up the massive walls. Each room is more opulent than the last. The ceilings are heavily decorated with carved and gilded moldings. We cannot possibly focus on each piece. We visit the Palatine Gallery, marveling over the great number of works by Raphael, Titian, and Reubens. We visit the royal apartments. We tread where the wealthy and powerful once tread centuries ago. We run out of time and energy to visit the vast Boboli Gardens behind the palace, but catch a glimpse of the fountains and green spaces from the courtyard.
See more Ornate Ceilings
On the walk back to our hotel, we discover a stationery store, and are drawn inside by the beautiful marbleized papers. Il Papiro has several stores in Italy, and originated in Florence. All of their books and gift items are produced locally, made with the unique papers. The craftsmanship is exquisite. The proprietor graciously shows us the back room where stacks of the hand-decorated papers line the tables. I am drooling, but only buy what will fit into my backpack.
It is time to meet the rest of our group “under the dome” for a tour of the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the one thing everyone comes to see in Florence: Michelangelo’s David.
We must have seen other artwork in the building, but neither my traveling companion nor I can remember anything else except the room that houses David. We enter through the Hall of Prisoners. The space is crowded. Four unfinished sculptures by Michelangelo line the hall. We try to study the figures imprisoned in the marble blocks, but our eyes are pulled to the end of the hall, where David stands on a pedestal. We move forward with the crowd, ever drawn to the figure. And then we are before David. At seventeen feet tall, the figure dominates the space, ready to strike, eyes focused on the challenge. The marble is alive. The sculpture is lit from above. We cannot tear our eyes from the commanding figure. We walk all the way around David. We share a moment. Later, some in our group admit they were moved to tears.
We finally take a closer look at the Prisoners sculptures as we leave the hall. They are powerful in a different way, figures struggling to escape imprisonment in the blocks of marble, and we begin to comprehend the whole difficult process of sculpture. A Pieta is also on display in the gallery. This version of Mary holding the crucified Jesus, said to have been sculpted by Michelangelo at a late age, is rougher, darker, brooding, sadder than the more famous version we will be seeing in a few days in Rome. We turn back for a last look at David. We exit the Accademia, and find ourselves back in the bustle of Florence.
Well, what can you do after such a moving experience of seeing perhaps the greatest art work in the world, but have a glass of wine. My traveling companion and I walk to the Central Market, the Mercato Centrale. This is the place to be in Florence if you love food. We wander through the outdoor market, full of leather goods and other souvenirs. Inside, we skip the ground floor of fresh food shops, and head right for the second floor, which can only be described as a gourmet food court. Wine, cheeses, meats, pastries, gelato—each counter looks more tantalizing than the last.
“Yum, yum, yum.”
We meet up with others from our group to share wine, pizza, and stories. We say arrivederci to Florence. Exhausted, we walk back to the hotel, and fall into bed before tomorrow’s trip to Rome.