The beautiful city of gelato
Once we had made our way through the crowds, we were off into the old, winding streets. Just opposite the station is the Santa Maria Novella church, it had a pretty white and green facade and a grassy square in front. There are grassy patches just outside, but no sitting down, they are all fenced in!
Our hotel wasn’t far away – right next to the Plazza del duomo!
So we went to leave our bags. After a short rest, we headed out. One block away was the Piazza della Repubblica, the site of a Roman forum with a large stone arch on one side. But today is covered in cafés (and people) and a small (perhaps temporary) funfair!
We nipped down a side street to avoid some of the crowds and found ourselves in Piazza della Signoria, and right in the middle of the crowds again! This square was littered with cafés, full of shops and people. On the eastern side is the Palazzo Vecchio – a fortress palace, now museum – and a large copy David statue guarding the entrance. This David was a bit dirty and didn’t seem particularly detailed. We will see the real one tomorrow.
On the southern side of the square is an open-air museum full of statues. One being a large bronze statue, holding the head of medusa. These were pretty cool, but unbelievable numbers of people around. We could hardly move.
From here, we weaved our way through the crowds and ended up on the back of the Uffizi gallery, this is the largest gallery in Florence and is housed in an ornate, old building. The building has an outside corridor running though he middle. So we passed through that, dodging the gauntlet of men trying to sell paintings, plastic things and just generally hassling you – and the women trying to sell scarves!
We are only here for the weekend and don’t have time for everything, so despite being relatively famous, we’re not going inside this one.
The front of the Uffizi building faces the river – back at the Arno river again – this time just a bit further upstream! The river was pretty, rowers paddling up and down, to the left were hills and small villages and to the right, the visible chaos of the Ponte Vechio bridge.
We crossed over the river and started heading uphill. The winding roads took us through some small streets of little shops and into our first gelato shop of the trip (how did I last this long without one! It was already nearly 1pm!).
We found ourselves in a small, unassuming shop with only a few flavours. But wow they were delicious – dark chocolate (like eating a pure dark ganache!) and lemon sorbet (just the right side of bitter) and they went perfectly together.
And then continued upwards. The next stop off was a small rose garden – cute! Then we made it to the top and out to the Piazzale Michelangelo. Here there are amazing views out across the city.
The orange, red roofs broken up by the frequent church and the dome of the Duomo dwarfing them all. The surrounding hills were green and luscious, covered with Tuscan buildings and the thin, upright cypress trees. It was so beautiful!!
And not that busy – it seems not that many people make the effort to come up here (and even fewer people after the open top tour bus departed). But apparently the best views are even further up the hill, from the Basilica of San Miniato al Monte.
However, unfortunately after getting within around 30 steps from the top, there was a barricade, several camera men, sky TV and a lot of security. It was closed off. Apparently there was a wedding happening and something to do with the prime minister. Rubbish.
On our way back downhill we popped into a small panini shop – more of a hole in the wall! A panini is a sandwich. The couple running the shop were friendly and gave me bits of cheese to taste before deciding which one to have! In the end we got a pesto, grilled aubergine and pecorino cheese ‘panini’ in a chiabata type bread. It was tasty! We wandered along the southern bank of the river, enjoying the view along the banks.
This street was relatively quite, but getting busier as we were heading towards the Ponte Vecchio. Enroute, we popped into a small supermarket. I love foreign supermarkets! I love browsing all the different and unusual foods. This one was quite upmarket and I enjoyed wandering through the fruit, nougat, cheese and pasta sections!
Then we were in the middle of chaos.
The Ponte Vechio bridge.
This bridge is situated at the narrowest crossing point of the Arno river along its entire length. A bridge was first constructed here in 972! Several floods have washed away previous bridges and the current bridge has been in place since 1345.
It is quite unusual looking. Almost completely covered in by a random collection of coloured box-shaped buildings all piled in on top of each other. Surprising how it stays intact really! Today it is covered in jewellery shops (and people). Half way along are some look-out points, you can view up and down stream the river. However I think there were nicer views on the other (much quieter) bridges, looking towards this one.
Over our heads the Corridoio Vasariano was running. It is visible every now and then, running across the street or around the edge of a building. This 1km long corridor was built in 1565 to link the Palazzo Pitti to the Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio so that the Medicis and high dignitaries at the time could pass between their two palaces without the need to go outside and mingle with the commoners. Inside is covered in artwork – it is possible to organise tours to walk a small section of the corridor, this would have been quite cool, however we didn’t really have time.
Through a couple more small streets, this time lined with a random eclectic mix of small cafés and independent clothes stores, until we bumped into the next bridge – the Santa Trinida. And the next gelato of the day. Pistachio (I don’t normally like this flavour – but this one was so good!). Raspberry sorbet (wow so much flavour and not a fake raspberry taste). And fig caramel (so disappointing! Didn’t taste of fig. Or caramel). Refuelled and back off again.
The Pitti Palace was disappointing. A large grey building infront of a large grey plaza. Great. By now it was around 4pm. We battled with the crowds on the Ponte Vecchio and crossed over, back to the northern side of the river and went off back to the hotel for a (much needed!) rest. I like climbing buildings. And Florence isn’t short of those! Unfortunately the dome closed at 5pm. So up Giotto’s bell tower instead. Given our hotel was basically on the Plaza, it took barely 5 minutes to reach the tower. And there was no queue! Awesome!
A ticket costs EUR10. That gives you 24-hour combined access to the tower, the duomo tower (closed on Sundays), the baptistery and the crypt (see tomorrow, but ended up being closed for the day – usually open on Sundays!!). So maybe good value if you can visit them all – but needs a better weekend pricing when nothing is open!
The stairs take you up 4 levels. So it doesn’t have to be continual walking in enclosed stone staircases (although it is a lot of that!). 414 stairs up. Although surprisingly easy!! The stairs up to the first level were the longest. Although they became (seemingly!) shorter with each level, they also became narrower and more winding. Towards the top I had one hairy moment – 4 people were trying to pass me. The stairs were winding. I couldn’t see anything at all. I was being crushed to the wall, whilst perched on the edge of a small stone step. Thankfully it didn’t last long. (I am very claustrophobic) And I continued the rest of my upwards journey in almost complete solitude!
The views got better and better with each layer climbed. The sun was setting, casting an orange glow onto the already orange buildings. I reached the top at 6pm. I could hear bells in the distance. Then nearby. More and more bells began to ring. Then the Duomo. It was awesome. So atmospheric.
After descending, it was time for dinner. And we were certainly not short of choice. Apparently a traditional Tuscan food is steak! Well I don’t eat steak. So we had pizza for dinner! And it was tasty….but huge! I was so full afterwards. Unfortunately no room for more gelato!
Sunday 5 October 2014
We had a bit of a lie in this morning, after a long day of walking yesterday! When we headed outside, around 10am, the piazza del duomo was flooded by families in grey t shirts.
There was a fun 13km family walk on today – so the city was full of local families! Even the dogs had t-shirts on! We stopped in a small cafe for breakfast, it was so busy! The baptistery – Baptisttero di San Giovanni – sits just infront of the Duomo cathedral. Unfortunately was covered over by scaffolding, so we couldn’t see the ornate decorations outside. Entrance was included in our combined ticket, so we scanned ourselves in to the octagonal shaped building.
It was quite large and empty, a large font at the back and huge golden murals on the ceiling. Famous people – including Dante are said to have been baptised here. The most famous feature of the baptistery are the bronze entrance doors – these were carved with small drawings – although the originals are no longer here, these are copies.
I had booked tickets for the Gallerie D’Accademie this morning for 11am, so we wandered up towards the north of the town, slowly, through the narrow streets filled with small art shops. When we got closer, it was evident that there was a massive queue. Thank goodness I had booked ahead – although paid EUR4 per ticket for that privilege!
It wasn’t particularly clear where to pick tickets up from, but ended up being just up the street. And even armed with tickets, we still had to queue 20 minutes before we were let inside.
The reason this gallery is so popular – the original Michaelangelo David statue is housed here. Once inside, it wasn’t too bad. It was busy. But not packed. The first room contained old (c 1300s) colourful mural style biblical paintings. They were so detailed. So lifelike. So colourful. Quite amazing how something so old can stay in such great condition. The next few rooms were largely similar, with much smaller paintings. Then we came out onto a corridor, lined with half-finished statues.
He was at the end of this corridor. David.
Housed under a glass dome, at the end of the corridor, was a rather grand place! 516cm tall and made of a slab of marble and incredibly intricate. His hands are incredibly large – this is because he was supposed to have been placed up on a high pedestal and from that angle, all should be in proportion.
Apparently 2 sculptors tried to carve the statue. But gave up, before Michaelangelo succeeded. The statue was completed in 1504 and placed outside the Plazzo Vecchio (where the now fake David stands). There were a couple of other rooms here. One full of plaster cast heads and the other a few paintings. These rooms were a lot less busy! You really only come here to see one thing – and that was quite obvious from where the crowds were!
Back outside into the daylight and some more wandering around. And the first gelato of the day! We went to an artisan shop, it was nice and quiet. We has pineapple (tasty!), coconut (quite a subtle flavour but very creamy and tasty) and black cherry (bit tangy, but also creamy and tasty!). The woman even stuck a broken cone on the top!
These gelatos were really creamy – a lot more than yesterday. Soooo good!!
Further down the street, we bumped into another plaza and a large church – the basilica di Santa Croce, with a very colourful facade. There was a small market here, but selling mostly touristy tat. The Duomo is Florence’s most iconic building and according to Lonely Planet is part of Italy’s “Big Three” – along with the Leaning tower of Pisa and the Roman Colosseum. Been to all three!
Construction of the Duomo began in 1296 and took almost 150 years. The facade is incredibly ornate – patterns of green, red and white. The entire outer walling is coloured in a mosaic pattern. The cathedral only opens at 1.30pm on Sunday and the queue stretched around half of the building. So we ate some lunch while we waited. Then no queue at all! Inside is expansive. And also quite bare. Not much to look at, until you reach the dome. The dome was built based on a design by Filippo Brunelleschi, with 2 domes sat on top of each other, 91m tall and 45.5m wide. The inside of the dome was painted by Michaelangelo. He is reported to have left the Roman St Peter’s cathedral saying “I go to build a greater dome, but not a fairer one”.
Unfortunately the dome is closed on a Sunday to climb. So we had to make do with looking upwards from the ground. There is a crypt just below. But just for today, it was shut! So our EUR10 combined ticket wasn’t quite such good value in the end…! Running out of things to do, we found ourselves wandering over the Santa Trinida bridge and back into the gelato shop that we were in yesterday! This time we tried passionfruit sorbet (amazing!), black sesame (tasted like peanut and was surprisingly nice) and cheesecake (rather boring and plain, but still nice). Then we had ran out of things to do!
I was shocked. After reading about Florence I was worried we wouldn’t be able to fit it all into 2 days. But actually, the city is so small and walkable, it’s very easy! We didn’t want to visit any more galleries (and there are a LOT!).
So we went back for a relax at the hotel, before we needed to leave for the airport. There are a couple of options for getting back to Pisa airport – we could have gone back on the train, then caught the bus to the airport. But there are also coaches plying the same route. And at EUR5 each, a rather cheap option.
So at 7.15pm, we waved goodbye to a darkening Florence and made our way back through the Tuscan Hills (although now unable to see them in the dark!)! It took 70 minutes to drive back to the airport and the coach dropped us off right at departures. The airport was rather rubbish. Only a handful of shops and not really anything to do. So we just sat and waited.
We left on time around 10.30pm. And had an amazing view over Paris – such a clear night and able to see the Eiffel Tower! Awesome! This was a great weekend. Florence is so beautiful and easy to walk around. It was fairly busy, but there were plenty of places to go to avoid the crowds too. And amazing gelato!