I’m not sure if Florence has a different vibe from Rome or if we had a different vibe ourselves when we got there, but this leg of our trip was definitely a little “looser.”
If you read my post on Rome, you know we started there with some scheduled tours. In Florence, we started with two and a half days to explore the Uffizi, Duomo, Academia, and more. Because some of the sites in Florence require a reserved admission time (or a long wait in line), we had to arrange those, but that was pretty easy. On the fourth day there we had arranged to join a small tour from Siena to the Clay Hills, a monastery and a vineyard. We had a fifth day for anything we missed, wanted to go back to, etc.
Florence is a relatively short train ride from Rome and our hotel was a 10-minute walk from the Florence train station. Well, it actually took us at least 20 minutes. We didn’t pay really close attention to our map and we spent a lot of time marveling at the charming streets we were walking, the churches, the squares. Florence is just so pretty!
By the time we got to Florence I was feeling a pull between the obligatory museum and cathedral visits and simply wandering the sidestreets, poking around tiny boutiques, enjoying a daily gelato. The weather in Florence was still unseasonably chilly (I actually wore the same black sweater to dinner seven nights in a row!) and rainy from time to time, but I honestly don’t think it got in the way.
After checking into our hotel, we grabbed some lunch a few blocs away in the Piazza della Signoria and headed across the piazza for the Palazzo Vecchio. Oops! This is the day it closes at 2:15. So, we walked through the courtyard of the Galleria degli Uffizi and down to the Arno. There was a lot to take in: the architecture, the river, the people. Eventually, we headed back towards our hotel to meet friends from home (they were on the last day of their stay in Florence) for drinks and dinner.
After drinks in the hotel bar and debriefing each other on our recent travel adventures, five of us set out for what is loosely known as “the first nite restaurant,” named by mutual friends who had a tradition of spending Thanksgiving in Florence (which is apparently where all the pilgrims go when they want a change of scene). This was another wonderful saunter, window-shopping our way across the Ponte Vecchio and beyond to the tiny piazza where Trattoria 4 Leoni is located. Seated at an outside table, we enjoyed a fabulous dinner (pasta filled with pear and asparagus in walnut butter sauce. One word: yum!) As we were finishing up with espressos and coffee, travel guru Rick Steves showed up. Alas, no film crew, but fun to know he chose this restaurant too!
The next morning we went to the Uffizi, which was glorious, but not without its comic moments. We had opted not to take their tour as we had downloaded a Rick Steves audio tour of the museum to our phones. His tours are very professional, introducing art historians to talk about various pieces. However, in this case, many of the pieces had been moved to accommodate renovations in the building! It really was pretty funny, took a few adjustments and we did our best.
The collections in the Uffizi beautifully demonstrate the transition from Medieval to Renaissance art and the growing sophistication of painters in their representation of the human form and their use of perspective.
That afternoon we went to the Academia to see Michelangelo’s David. Of course, we had already seen “it” everywhere, including the copy in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. Despite all the photos, copies and general hype, seeing this in person is truly breathtaking.
That night we had dinner at a Ristorante Paoli near our hotel. As we were enjoying yet another delicious plate of proscuiutto and melon, who should walk in but Rick Steves, again! Wow! Is he following us? We must be picking the right restaurants. (Disclaimer: Though the restaurants were recommended by friends, both are listed in his book.) He even came back to ask the couple next to us how they had found the restaurant and compliment us on dining at a European hour (it was well after 9:00 pm). And no, I did not mention that his audio tour of the Uffizi is way out of sync!
If you were feeling cynical…
You might say Florence is pretty commercial. Every square or piazza is ringed by stands hawking leather goods, scarves, refrigerator magnets shaped like Michelangelo’s David, etc. The most obvious cafes in these locations serve ho hum pasta, pizza and wine to tired tourists who are glad to have a seat. And don’t get me started on the parades of tourists following a guide wielding an umbrella or paddle in the air. It can seem a little grim.
But then you turn a corner, look a little further for what may be a quieter cafe with a local vibe, and you fall in love with Florence’s charm.
One morning we were headed for the Duomo, but apparently our mental maps needed re-calibration, because we ended up at Santa Croce. It is the principal Franciscan church in Florence and the largest Franciscan Basilica in the world, consecrated in 1442 by Pope Eugene IV. Although its design is somewhat simpler inside, reflecting the Franciscan order, it is hardly plain. Many of the chapels are decorated by frescoes by Giotto and his pupils. Santa Croce is also the burial place for a number of important Italians, including Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. We also discovered the leather workshop adjacent to the church, where aspiring artisans learn the traditional techniques for creating the genuinely beautiful leather pieces Florence is known for. I’m sorry to say we missed the monument to Florence Nightingale, who was born in Florence and named for it.
If you stay flexible, willing to follow your nose, you may find a real treasure. Friends had recommended taking the #12 bus across the river to Piazzale Michelangelo, a great vantage point for photographing the city. We took advantage of a warm, sunny morning to do just that. The ride through Florence and across the river offered beautiful views of the city — narrow, cobble-stone streets, stucco and stone buildings and a veritable sea of tile roofs.
As the bus climbed to the sought-after vantage point, another passenger overheard us discussing which stop we needed. She nicely pointed out that it would be easy to identify — everyone would be getting off there. But she also told us about another, better vantage point which we could could walk to from the bus stop. So we followed her up a steep path to San Miniato al Monte.
San Miniato was a Roman soldier condemned to death in the third century for being a Christian. As the legend goes, the beasts in the amphitheater refused to devour him and when the Roman soldiers then beheaded him, San Miniato picked up his head, crossed the Arno and walked up the hill to this point where he died. (I guess that makes it a mythical legend.) Eventually a shrine was built on this spot. Construction of the current church, considered one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture and one of the oldest churches in Florence, was begun in 1037. The adjacent monastery was originally a Benedictine community, but it has been run by Olivetans since 1373.
A change of scene in Tuscany
If we were overloaded on art, basilicas and cathedrals when we left Rome, our days in Florence threatened to put us over the edge (and Steve and I like this stuff!). Happily, before we left home we had tracked down Tours by Roberto (another find on the Rick Steves forum) and arranged to join one of his groups on a day trip to the clay hills, a monastery and lunch and wine tasting at a Tuscan winery. These tours are limited to eight people, but on this day the tour had been oversold, so Roberto’s driver, Andre, picked us up at our hotel in Florence and we enjoyed a private tour until we caught up with the others at the winery. The day was a delight.
The scenic drive thru the hilly terrain and Andre’s knowledgeable conversation about rural life from Roman times to the present set the stage perfectly for a stop at the Abbazia de Monte Oliveto Maggiore. Although there were other tourists there, and the monks make and sell their own products as well as those of other monasteries, the atmosphere was steeped in quiet.
The monastery centers on a pavilion lined with frescoes begun by Signorelli (eight scenes dated 1497-98) and later finished by Sodoma. The frescoes tell the life of Saint Benedict. As was the case in the Borghese in Rome, one of the joys of this small tour was how close we were able to get to the frescoes and see the artistry in their detail. These artists were not without a sense of humor. Sodoma inserted a self-portrait on one of the panels he painted, including his pet badgers at his feet! (Michelangelo and Raphael did the same in the Vatican, without the badgers!) In the top right image below, you see two horses in the distance, but because the artist was being hurried to complete his work, there are a total of only six legs.
We stopped to stretch our legs and take pictures in Chiusure, a tiny, tiny town, typical of those that dot Tuscany.
From there we headed to the agricultural estate of Santa Giulia in Montalcino and met up with Roberto and the rest of the group. The winery is just one aspect of the 18-hectare farm that has been in the Terzuoli family since 1950. It is stunningly beautiful, but that’s just part of the story.
Roberto took us into a storehouse where the salami, prosciutto and other meats made by the family from animals raised on the farm are cured. The winery produces a brunello wine from San Giovese grapes grown on the farm. The wine must be approved by a consortium that carefully protects the quality. Each grower is allowed a limited size vineyard with specific soil and exposure to produce the best grapes. The wine must meet specific standards throughout its production or it cannot be labeled brunello. (All of which, I suppose, allows them to look down on California wines, produced with far fewer restrictions!) The total production is small, about 10,000 bottles.
Eventually, we sat down with the other eight tourists, Roberto, Andre and the winemaker for one of our most memorable meals in Italy. As Roberto promised, when we ate the meat, made from the animals on that farm, and drank the wine made from the grapes on that vineyard, the flavors of that soil and sun blended perfectly. (Did anyone say say farm to table?)
And, yes, our case of Brunello arrived this week.
Everyone has their own Italy
Steve and I have a number of friends who have traveled to Italy, some of them many times. As we were putting together this post, we talked about how everyone has their own Italy. Our friends who traveled annually to Florence for Thanksgiving had previously traveled throughout the country but decided Florence was their city and stuck with it. Another couple we know has family well south of Rome in Lecce. They’ve tied their Lecce visits to travels throughout Italy, but always manage a few days in Rome. Others lean towards Naples and Capri. And we know a few others who have hit as many high points as possible on a single, escorted tour.
Right now I think we would love to go back to Tuscany, stay in one hill town and take the time to explore others.It’s worth adding that we said the same thing last year after a river cruise in Provence. Let’s go back and explore on our own. Although I love the history in the cities and would certainly not want to skip it, I think I truly enjoy the pace and the lifestyle of the smaller towns. What about you?