Florence. Firenze! Ahhh, Tuscany.
About a thousand years ago I watched the movie Hannibal. By “watched” I mean, I went on a date and saw it in the theater. Really! At least he paid for the tickets. Suffice to say, for the most part I wasn’t impressed (D’oh! The date was OK; I mean about the movie), not even with the “Ray Liotta eats his own brain” scene, re-enacted here though the clever manipulation of Legos.
However. The ONE thing I thought through that entire movie, its ONE saving grace and the only positive I took from this movie? Is that it is largely set in Florence, and holy cow (I thought)! Florence is a gorgeous place, and I knew that I needed to see it some day.
I’ve had that day. Or rather I’ve had three of them, to be exact, and it is, indeed, gorgeous. Snugly nestled in the Arno River valley, Florence became a major center of trade and finance starting in something like the year 1100. Florin, have you heard of the florin? Said florin is not just the town Buttercup is from in The Princess Bride, it was the Florentine unit of money that was the money of choice for almost all European large trade transactions (like the Hundred-Years War). Florence is so important and lovely and culturally jam-packed that in 1982 the entire city center was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s easy to see why. Oddly, I didn’t take nearly as many pictures as I did from when I was in Rome. Not that it didn’t warrant picture-taking, but A) we went to places (like the Uffizi) that forbade picture-taking, and (B), it can get wearying. You have to negotiate the space between engaging in your own vacation and experiencing it from behind a camera. Sometimes, you just have to put the camera down and walk off without it.
And besides, I spent a good chunk of my time shopping. Who needs pictures of me shopping? (Ladies…shooooooooooes…and purrrrrrrrrses…and shoooooooooooes…and purrrrrrrrrrrses…. Every. Single. Place. You look. A little pre-planning will ensure good times; once you know you’re going to Italy, start a stash and grow yourself a shoes-n-swag fund. You’ll thank me for it.)
Anyway, back to Florence. I am still committed to not driving in any of the major Italian cities, though Florence is far less insane than Rome. Easily managed–we took a train. A word about Italian train stations: they are a hotbed of thievery. I don’t normally complain about the underground economy in large cities; it’s going to go on around me whether I like it or not, and the best I can do is try to make myself not-a-target. I’m pretty good at giving the “don’t mess with me” vibe, and I do things like carry purses that sling across my body so they can’t be easily lifted, and I don’t wave around money. But when we got to the train station in Rome, we must have had “American” written all over us because we were targeted by like three different people who kept trying to separate us from each other and then from who knows what. We were at a disadvantage because we didn’t know when or how our train would post, so we were sort of lost for a little while–were we in the right place? Was there some OTHER station we should be at? Was the train reassigned, and how would we know that? You know, it was the usual sort of paranoia one feels when in a strange surrounding and not everything is spelled out immediately to your most elementary liking. So. I tell you now, relax. The track a train leaves on only posts maybe fifteen minutes before departure time (though it could be more like ten), so if you walk in twenty minutes before your train is supposed to leave and you look at the departure board and don’t see train # 1472 to Florence, it’s OK. Get a coffee and keep your hands on your stuff and watch the departure board. Just be there on time, because the train will leave without you. The nice part is, the trains are clean and fast, and our ride from Rome to Florence was entirely uneventful. And then, hooray! We were in Florence!
For starters, our room here was much more airy and pretty.
Surprise picture time! Heed my warning: vacation with me can be fraught with photo-op peril.
Check out the swanky headboard! And the giant window! And the mod flooring! The staff was most accommodating, though perhaps not quite as helpful as one would hope if you were to hypothetically leave clothing behind and ask to have it shipped home *cough, cough*…but it all worked out in the end, so I can’t (hypothetically) complain.
Florence is much smaller and easier to navigate than Rome, and I’m not just talking about the driving. It just makes sense; Rome has a population of about 2.7 million, while Florence’s population lingers somewhere around 350,000. That’s a lot less streets you need for houses for people to live in. From our hotel it was an easy walk to the center of town, no cab or metro required, and the center of town in Florence is absolutely dominated by the Duomo.
Jaw, meet ground. Ground, this is jaw.
This confection of a cathedral, formally known as the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, kind of reminds me of one of those super-mega wedding cakes, the kind that are multi-tiered and swirly and heavily constructed and covered in fondant, only the basilica is made out of stone. Hence it can be left out in the rain. They started building this little beauty in 1296 and completed it in 1436 (which is also, coincidentally, the same year the printing press was invented, and we all know what kind of impact that had on Church coffers); its dome is still the largest one in the world made from brick and mortar.
I confess, I didn’t go in the church. At this point in the trip I was sort of overloaded on the interior of frilly churches, and also couldn’t deal with the thought of going up and down another set of a bazillion stairs. My ecclesiastical malaise faded quickly and in no time I was back in churches looking at astonishing constructions and other various works of art, you’ll see, but I just…couldn’t. I know, I’m sure there are those of you out there in the blogosphere who can’t believe my decision to not go up the dome and think I’m barking mad, and that’s fine, I get it. But I couldn’t do it. And now, I have something to look forward to the next time I go back. Because I will. Go back.
Much of what we did the first night was walk around.
Snug little street with happy, welcoming lights.
The bell tower, with the moon on its shoulder.
The Arno at sunset, with the Pitti Palace on the left.
The next day we took off first thing in the morning for the Uffizi. The Uffizi is a ridiculously famous gallery, sort of small-ish, but so crammed full of paintings and sculpture that it can take hours and hours to get through. You can take a virtual tour here, but I absolutely recommend both going there and, for God’s sake, buying your tickets ahead of time. There are about a million different online vendors, so shop around until you find the best deal (we didn’t, and we paid probably way more than we should have) for the tickets. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait behind this:
And to add insult to injury, depending on how many people are on line vs. the amount of pre-paid ticket holders, you can wait in that line and then not get in anyway. Oh, the indignity. We were in and looking at crazy-awesome works of art in a matter of minutes. But no pictures! You’ll just have to go online elsewhere to feast your eyes on Venus on the Halfshell.
Oh, all right.
Here she is, served fresh.
In all seriousness, I have never felt quite so exposed to art and culture in my life. And it was awesome.
Eventually, we trekked across the river to see what we could see, starting at the Piazzale Michelangelo. Michelangelo was born in Florence and is revered as a favorite son. The Piazzale was laid out in 1860, with a bronze reproduction of Michelangelo’s David placed at center stage, so all could revere its beauty.
Even David is better with a pigeon on his head.
Yes, it is magnificent. Yes, it is an astonishing study in sculpture. But…is it me…or does he have giant hands? Like, seriously, the guy’s got bear paws or something. My mom (true story) said, “Now, honey, nobody is looking at his hands,” (family, just let that sink in for a minute) and maybe she’s right. Apparently there’s some discussion that David was supposed to be placed on a roofline, so Michelangelo made certain features larger than others (the menacing meathook could have been a warning to Rome, the experts say). But he’s not on a rooftop now, and I find this funny.
A short and easy walk up the hill from the Piazzale sit two churches. The first you come to, the church of San Salvatore al Monte, is completely cool and quiet–it was the first time I’d heard total silence since we’d gotten to Italy. In retrospect this doesn’t surprise me even a little, since I had to exercise every ounce of interwebs ingenuity I could muster to figure out what the church is called. Nobody seems to go there much, and I could have stayed in there for hours.
A candle for a friend.
A nice, calm interior.
The second one, the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, is way more of an attraction. It’s all rose-and-green like the Duomo, but slightly older. Its construction began in 1013, on the very spot were St. Minas fell after he was beheaded by the Emperor Decius. Of course, he was beheaded on the other side of the river, so he had to pick up his head, cross the Arno, climb the hill and then fall, but who am I to argue with legend?
Hello, Basilica di San Miniato al Monte. I am over my non-churchy ennui.
The ceiling. It reminds me of when I was a kid and would make things with gum wrappers.
Lurking just outside this door, unbeknownst to us, was a class trip of something like thirty students, just waiting to get inside. Ack!
But the best things about going up the hill weren’t the churches or seeing how people lived the good life, Florentine-style
Dear person who lives here: I hate you. Nothing personal.
…but rather, that you get to feast your eyes on amazing views of Florence.
Ponte Vecchio. The only bridge in Florence that remained intact after World War II, supposedly on direct orders from Hitler.
The bell tower at the Duomo, as seen from San Miniato.
Looking out over the Arno.
Florence is both grand (see above) and really, really rustic.
What's the Italian equivalent of "Huffy"?
It’s both the hub of cutting edge fashion and charming, somewhat anachronistic sensibilities. Example: I saw a bunch of kids break-dancing (which seems to be having a bit of a renaissance, no pun intended) in one of the town squares. But they were breaking to Archie Bell and the Drell’s “Tighten Up“. A friend teasingly said to me, “Awww, girl, you had to go a couple of thousand miles to get ole skooled?” And yeah, I did. Because I can’t think of a better place to do it.
For more pictures of Florence, please feel free to take a look here.