Florence: culture, sculpture and gardens
Triumphant music filled the air as a group of uniformed men sporting black feathered helmets charged past my hotel window, golden trumpets glinting in the early morning sun. Abandoning all thoughts of breakfast, I donned my running shoes, grabbed my camera and dashed outside to follow the band’s somewhat unruly progress to the centre of the Ponte Vechhio where they stopped, regrouped and, to the delight of tourists and locals alike, burst into a rousing chorus of “Funiculì Funiculà” before hurtling off again, deep into the city. What a rousing start to my first morning in Florence!
Back at the 4 star Pitti Palace Hotel enjoying breakfast on the open terrace with its stunning views of the Duomo and Campanile, I studied my Dorling Kindersley: “Eye witness Travel: Florence and Tuscany”. The whole day stretched ahead of me before meeting up with my Tour guide and the rest of the group on the “Back Roads Touring” 9 day tour of Tuscany and the Cinque Terre. Wishing to avoid duplicating the itinerary for our scheduled walking tour of Florence, I decided to explore the banks of the river Arno before visiting the Uffizi gallery and the Boboli Gardens.
The hotel is metres from the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence. Lined with goldsmiths’ shops, it is topped by the Vasari corridor built in the sixteenth century by the Duke of Florence Cosimo I de’ Medici to connect the Uffizi with the Pitti Palace enabling him to walk between his residences without mingling with the crowds. I certainly empathised with him as I ducked under the outstretched arms of selfie-obsessed tourists and danced around the wares of street hawkers spread out on the ancient cobblestones.
The riverside walk to the Ponte Santa Trinita was quieter and I paused in the Vicolo dell’Oro to photograph Simone D’Auria’s bizarre troupe of white life-size figurines climbing the buildings and hanging from trapezes high above the square, and to drool through the windows of the recently-opened Leica store.
Spying a statue of a stag formed from twigs and driftwood balanced precariously on a log in the middle of the river, I walked further along to the Ponte Alla Carraia, capturing photos of the dome of Santo Spirito, before crossing over and following a muddy riverside path to gain a closer view of this intriguing, ephemeral work of art that would disintegrate with the rising water levels.
At the Uffizi, I joined the end of a fairly long queue of people who, like me, had not reserved tickets. After 20 minutes without the queue moving, I gave up, resolving to return the following afternoon during our free time, not realising that the majority of museums in Florence close on Mondays. Fortunately I was able to squeeze in a quick tour at the end of our holiday just before catching our return flight. Arriving at 08.15 it took me 90 minutes to get inside where I found it surprisingly uncrowded as I rushed around visiting my “must sees” including Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and the ancient Roman Statue of “Boy removing thorn.” Reserving tickets in advance is highly recommended.
Adjacent the Uffizi is the Piazza della Signoria: a magnificent, free, outdoor sculpture gallery flanked by the impressive buildings of the council chamber with its towering campanile. How wonderful to be able to gaze at 16th century works of art such as the somewhat gruesome bronze of Perseus clutching Medusa’s severed head and the Rape of the Sabine Women.
South of the Arno, I walked around the vast but somewhat uninspiring facade of the Pitti palace seeking the ticket booth for entry to the renaissance-styled Boboli gardens. As you ascend the stone steps of the amphitheatre, you gain pretty views of Florence across the more attractive rear of the Palace. The steps led to the Neptune Fountain where visitors were entranced by the antics of a grey heron, perching on a giant sea shell, imitating the Birth of Venus.
I wandered off to seek out the avenue of cypress trees and statues that led to the moated garden with its L’Isoletta (Little Island) but was disappointed to discover that this area of the gardens and surrounding paths had been closed off following recent serious storm damage. After visiting the Porcelain Museum with inspiring views from its rose garden, I sought out the splendid La Grotta Grande, close to the chubby statue of Bacchus sitting on a Turtle, before heading off to the lesser known Bardini Gardens, a few hundred metres from the Bobili: their entry fee was included in my ticket. In these peaceful gardens with their far reaching views across the city I was surprised to discover a flag iris – the symbol of Florence – in full bloom in October.
Our group walk through Florence the following morning was a “Whispers Tour” whereby our guide, Julia, spoke to us through a microphone via our earpieces, enabling us hear her clearly above the general hubbub of the crowds. We duplicated my visit to the Piazza della Signoria and continued to the bustling Mercato Nuovo with its bronze boar statue surrounded by tourists rubbing its nose to ensure their return to the city. A tour of the Orsanmichele church and museum followed with its impressive statues of the patron saints of Florence’s various trades guilds. After coffee in the Piazza della Republica we followed Julia to the Duomo – the cathedral of Florence. Words cannot do justice to this remarkable 14th century building with its green, pink and white marble exterior walls, towering Campanile and iconic red tiled dome. The interior is refreshingly simple with decoration largely reserved for the marble flooring and Vasari’s frescoes of the last judgement that adorn the dome.
The tour concluded at a leather shop where we learnt how to detect real leather. Surprisingly, it is not by the smell, which fakers can easily reproduce and spray onto synthetic fabrics, but by the touch: if you can press the inside surfaces together and move them between your fingers, it’s fake, as was demonstrated on one of our group’s “100% real leather” bag, newly purchased at the market.
With the afternoon free, I followed our tour guide’s advice and climbed up winding pathways south of the city to the busy Piazzale Michelangelo, with its spectacular views across Florence, before descending via a stone stairway to find the Giardino delle Rose – a well-kept secret rose and sculpture garden that appears in few guide books.
There were a few straggly blossoms but the peaceful pathways kept me entertained as I sought out unusual sculptures dotted amongst the trees. It would provide a fragrant haven in spring and summer.
With time on my hands before our evening meal, I returned to the Duomo, took a deep breath, and purchased tickets to climb the dome (463 steps) and the campanile (414 steps). This is not recommended for people like me who suffer from claustrophobia, or acrophobia, and should not be undertaken by anyone with a heart condition! The staircases and corridors are narrow, frequently windowless and climbers are forced to stop and squeeze against the wall to allow descending visitors to pass: a tricky maneuver on uneven spiral staircase. I conquered my fears and was rewarded by the amazing 360 degrees views from the top.
On our final morning in Florence the group had reserved tickets for the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the original Michelangelo statue of David (there are copies in the Piazza della Signoria and in the Piazzale Michelangelo), and countless fine works of art depicting the Madonna and Child, and scenes of the Crucifixion. By mid-morning we were climbing aboard our mini coach and heading for Lucca. My visit to Florence ended, as it had begun, with the sound of music: Sergio, our mini coach driver, burst into joyful song as we waved the city goodbye.
Carole and John enjoyed these experiences during an 8 night/9 day tour “Tuscan Treats and the Cinque Terre” through Back Roads Touring.
There are many useful travel guides to Florence and Tuscany; Carole selected Dorling Kinderley’s Eye Witness Travel guide to Florence and Tuscany as it is beautifully illustrated, highlights places to visit suggesting “Star Features” and includes a pull out map of the city as well as maps of the interiors of key buildings such as museums and cathedrals.