Sometimes, there is a travel destination that somehow thwarts you. For me, Florence was one of these places. It somehow took me until my fifth (fifth!) visit to Italy to see the city that was on my wish list the first trip. It was well worth the wait. What a spectacular city full of sights, sounds, architecture, history, and food, all in a small, easily-traversed space.
My boyfriend at the time, Martin, and I found that flying to Pisa was much cheaper than flying to Florence itself, even with the added expense of a train ride. We took the “PisaMover” tram from the airport to the main train station in town. This little trek ended up being one of the highlights of our trip, mainly because we are both real immature and enjoyed that the tram's logo looked like “PissMover”. At least we got over our childish nonsense in order to take in the beautiful Tuscan sunset that awaited us at the train station!
The train took about an hour. However, upon arrival in Florence that beautiful sunset had been replaced with rain. Luckily, it was a mere drizzle, which was made all the more lucky because we promptly became lost in it. My phone did not work at all, while his GPS kept getting lost due to building cover in the skinny alleys. But as we only had hand luggage and were still on that “first few hours in a new place” high, we were not too bothered with our circumstances. I took in the reflective lights on the cobblestones while he turned us around again and again. Finally, we were back at the train station, whereupon we realized we had gone entirely the wrong way the first time and our hotel was literally two blocks (in the opposite direction) from where we had begun. Classic.
Once we were confident we knew where to go, we stopped at a nearby pizzeria for dinner. While we shared a bottle of wine and devoured a couple of pizzas, the rain turned into a small thunderstorm. We dallied somewhat with the last sips of the wine in order to take in the Italian square awash with lightning. I love thunderstorms, and have had very few experiences with them in Europe, so I was happy to soak in every second of this. Martin, on the other hand, got bored after what was admittedly longer than I am sure most people would like to watch lightning for. So, we paid and headed off to the hotel.
The first of our three nights in the city were spent at a generic hotel, the NHB Florence, which had small rooms and thin walls. Martin was displeased with the room, as it had been marketed as a 3-star hotel and it absolutely was not. I did not mind as much because it was still nicer than most places I tend to stay, but I too was annoyed with the false advertising.
The next morning, we checked out and made our way to the guesthouse we were to spend the remainder of the trip. We backtracked past the train station, and now in the light of day were able to actually see the building. It was absolutely stunning (see photo), built in the mid-19th century during the country's unification period, and made to mimic the famous Florence Cathedral. We then continued onwards past the train station towards the river, crossed, admired the Ponte Vecchio from afar, and were still at the guesthouse - Soggiorno Allesandra - within 20 minutes of our initial departure. Like I said, Florence is quite small.
It did take us a hot minute to actually find the guesthouse, as the numbers on the buildings were not especially well-marked. We finally found a large black door and tentatively pushed. We entered an absolute cavern of a front hall that felt incredibly historic, or perhaps just incredibly different. We climbed the staircase and found the place, with a middle-aged woman rushing to turn the television off in order to show us to our room. The room was nice, quite large, with a shared bathroom in the hallway.
We relaxed for a few minutes in the room, studying a map and marking the different locations we wanted to see. On paper they looked far apart but once we hit the pavement we remembered that, again, Florence is small. The sheer compactness of a city that holds so many historic sites surprised me. I have never been somewhere else that has so much to do in such a small space. It certainly made touristing a breeze!
The Florence Cathedral is at the heart of the city and of course I wanted to head there first. We did this at a leisurely pace, partly because it was a mere 15 minute walk and partly because the streets of Florence are so darling that I could not help but explore off-shoots and take approximately 500 pictures in the process. Then we got to the Cathedral itself, where I took approximately 10,000 pictures. I was not expecting the size of that building! I suppose I should have, as the dome is famous for its size and surely the church attached to it would also be large, but I do not always apply cognitive thinking as well as I perhaps should.
Following lunch (bruschetta served to us by quite the flirtatious waitress), we continued to walk through the historic streets of this fabulous city. Next up on our tour was the 15th century Ospedale degli Innocenti, originally built as an orphanage. It was the very first example of Renaissance architecture (or perhaps the oldest remaining example, I couldn't quite tell which but I think it's the actual oldest).
Next up came the Galleria dell'Accademia, which houses Michelangelo's David. After waiting in line for nearly an hour (and mind you, this was off-season for tourists so I cannot imagine what that line must be like in, say, July. Also, the line is outside so if it is raining or hot, be prepared), we finally got into the museum. A quick full-body scan later and we were in!
David was the opposite of the "Mona Lisa Disappointment" that so many people seem to have. Far from being disappointed, I was blown away with just how realistic that slab of marble was. Even the arteries in his hands looked as though blood was pulsating through them. I had seen St. Peter's in Rome and I had seen other Michelangelo sculptures, but this was his brightest star in an already insane galaxy of work.
The museum's most famous piece may be David, but there was plenty else to see. Medieval and Renaissance paintings and sculptures flanked him, and in a side room was a peculiar combination of large Renaissance paintings and hundreds of Victorian era marble busts. Also included in admission was the neighboring music museum, which had old violins, flutes, clarinets, you name it, along with descriptions of their usage in historic Florence, as well as of the person who had purchased this particular collection.
It was then back to the Cathedral for us, and a climb up Giotto's Campanile, the deceivingly tall bell tower, (at 280 feet, or 85 meters). The tower was built in the 14th century, and had several levels from which to admire the city below. You can see where each level was based on the windows in the photo, and let me tell you, thank god these lower observation spots were there. A 280 foot climb involves a lot of burning muscles!
Finally we reached the top and, after panting for a solid minute, began to truly take in the sight before us. If there is one thing Italy does remarkably well, it is architectural uniformity - the roofs, the colorations, everything are meant to compliment one another. To see it from above, with Brunelleschi's dome in the foreground and the mountains in the back, was breath-taking. Which perhaps wasn't what we needed in a moment when we were already lacking oxygen, but eh.
Once we had made our way back to Earth (amazing how much easier it is to go down!), we found a bar right out front, and sat down for a pint in order to enjoy the view of the Cathedral just a little bit longer. But then we had to find an actual dinner, so we made our way back closer to the guesthouse, had some pasta and limoncello, and then went home to digest the day and get a good night's sleep.
The next morning, we had another leisurely lie in before wandering out. As I am not a breakfast person, we had an early lunch instead. We decided to splurge a bit and get an appetizer of caprese salad, which came with a basket of...black bread. I stared at it while Martin eagerly tucked in. I was not reluctant with my immediate pause, but rather confused; I had never seen food like this before! But, never one to deny myself carbs, I got over my startled first impression and grabbed a piece.
My reaction? Let's just say, dear reader, when in Florence, eat the blackened bread.
Our lunch location was next to the Medici Chapel, built after the height of the family's power but with money that had been accrued due to it. Another absurdly impressive marble structure, the main room houses the giant sarcophagi of many later Medici family members. In a less ornate room lies the older Lorenzo the Great, the Medici one thinks of when one thinks of this clan (well, the man one thinks of, anyways. Catherine's in France.).
Following the chapel, we walked around and simply enjoyed the Florentine architecture. We both liked the calmness of the city; despite its fame and population, it gives off a demeanor of grandeur and quiet contemplation. It struck us both as quite different from the loud, rambunctious cities that are found elsewhere in this country.
Now, at this point it was maybe 2:30 in the afternoon. Obviously we had been very busy and deserved a coffee break! Or at least Martin did. I have never fancied Italian coffee (the first time I tried an espresso was in Rome when I was 16, and that remains seared in my memory as a moment of deep horror. It is one of the few times in my life that I have been unable to finish a food or drink item that was placed in front of me), so rather than go through that experience again I ordered myself one of my favorite European treats: hot chocolate. First introduced to the concept in Latvia, this is not the hot cocoa I know in America but rather seems to be a chocolate bar in liquid form. Thick, creamy, and delicious, you can't go wrong with this order.
Following this cocoa-filled siesta, it was back to the Basilica di San Lorenzo, which is where the Medici Chapel is located. This time, we entered from another street in order to explore the cloisters. The entire basilica is an absolute orgy of Renaissance artists - designed by Brunelleschi, with interior decorations by Donatello and Michelangelo, not to mention the chapel! It was delightful to rest in the cloisters, while imagining the history of the building and listening to the birds and tourists enjoy the garden together.
Upon exiting the basilica, we decided that once again we were entirely too thirsty. We made our way to La Rinascente, a department store that is...well, a department store. But on the rooftop, these clever people established a cafe and it was there that we headed. Two pints of beer and one hourly chime from the Cathedral's bells later (along with one very unfortunate bathroom adventure that I will not go into detail about but, remember friends, always, always check to make sure there is toilet paper before you lock the door), we made our way back down to ground level and out the door. Our next destination was one I was most excited to see.
Ah, Ponte Vecchio. The idea that centuries ago bridges were adorned with buildings has always struck the romantic chord in me. Here, finally, I could see an example of this in real life rather than in an art museum. Built a few times over between 996 and 1345, it was the only Florentine bridge to survive World War 2. Legend has it that Hitler himself told the retreating Nazis to not harm the bridge, but I do not like to give the man credit for anything so let's pretend it was merely luck. Today, most of the shops on the bridge are jewelry stores (yawn) but otherwise it was well worth the long wait to see history come alive like this.
We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the cuisine of the Tuscan region. This culminated in my first (and honestly, probably only) truffles experience. Dinner was at Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco, which had a great wine cellar vibe. Martin ordered Florentine steak, which looks raw but tastes amazing. I had a simple pasta with truffles on top, which was twice as expensive as any other pasta on the menu. The truffles themselves did not have a strong flavor, but the pasta seemed to have been boiled in butter rather than water and who can say no to butter? Our digestif du jour (or della giornata, to keep on theme) was a red drink that I unfortunately do not remember the name or, nor have I successfully googled. The closest I found online was the Fernet-Branca brand, but as this particular restaurant had their own recipe, it wasn't that either. But, suffice it to say anyways, I liked it even better than limoncello (which I love).
Our final morning, we arose and bade farewell to the villa and its cavernous entrance hall, with the intention of touring the Medici palace. However, our timing was not tremendous, as we had planned our trip at the same time as an EU conference that was being held in the building that day. So rather than touring the inside of that magnificent Medieval fortress, I gazed longingly at the ever-so-Italian exterior before heading off to find lunch.
The train then took us back to Pisa, where we had a couple of hours to kill before taking the PissMover (ha, ha, ha...) back to the airport. The leaning tower was indeed leaning, but Martin was touristed-out at this point and I was not feeling great due to the heat, so rather than actually take the time to admire more Medieval excellence, we obligatorily looked at it for a minute before finding a cafe to sit at until it was PisaMover time. I'd been here once before, so it was not as though I wasted my only opportunity.