April 7, 2014
Well, here it is. Part The Last. My last full day in Florence. If I were to write about my last half day, it would just be mentioning buses and planes, and a vague sense of awkwardness wondering if my host actually liked me as she seemed a little irritated, and if I should get her a thank you gift. In the end, neither of us got the other a gift. I don’t know what to do in situations like that, especially when the other person has been away for a week and you are only seeing each other as you’re packing to leave. The day before though, the last full day! I always tell myself I won’t have built up a list of things I need to do that I haven’t had time to do yet but, er, I had a list of things to do that I hadn’t had time to do yet. There was a patisserie that had been staring at me every day when I got my bus home, so I called in there and had quite a sensible Italian conversation with the shop assistant when I asked if a certain amazing-looking pastry had rice in. She said no, it was ricotta and pointed to a frankly pathetic looking article that contained rice. I chose the ricotta. As it was a lovely 20-something celsius day I decided to eat it outside, and what better location than the courtyard of the Bargello? The main sculpture museum in Florence, the only reason I hadn’t made it there yet was because it closed at 2pm daily. What’s with that? A lot of people go here to see Donatello’s Davids. Yes, he sculpted two Davids and still neither of them is famous. The marble David has a slight campness but is nothing compared to the bronze hat-wearing, hand-on-hip, sword carrying [don’t remember a sword in the Bible story] Ru Paul’s Drag Race David. Not quite sure why everyone was sculpting Davids. Italians, eh? The ‘you can take photos in the courtyard but not indoors’ rule was confusing, especially when one wannabe indoor photographer was told to desist and just snapped away anyway, smirking. I hated that man right then. A large part of my job is trying to stop people from taking photos of shows, and it’s one of the most powerless positions ever. The Bargello is also famous for displaying the runners-up in the competition to design the Baptistery doors, but as the second floor was closed when I was there they will just have to remain unseen by me. For now. Florence is at any time full of closures for refurbishments but on the whole I had it pretty lucky. One floor of the Bargello, the Museo dell’Opera, certain other things covered with sheets and room 40-something of the Uffizi. Not bad.
Speaking of the Uffizi, I did return there to watch the parade of proud penises. I did the Third Corridor and it wasn’t as horribly packed as I had been led to believe on a Saturday. Maybe the crowd just hadn’t got to the Third Corridor yet. I became quite taken with Bazzi’s Saint Sebastian.
The Niobe room was also quite impressive. Daughter of poor sod Tantalus, she bragged about having more children than Leto so Apollo and Artemis killed them all. Basically a roomful of statues poised in flight, running from vengeful Gods. It’s always nice for me to hear new Greek myths too. An old hobby of mine. I went home to cat-tidy and have a quick nap before what would be my main adventure that day: the hike to San Miniato al Monte.
There’s no real reason why I saved this walk for the last day. I was supposed to do it on Sunday, but there was a thunderstorm which… dampened my enthusiasm somewhat. Then the weather was a little grey for a few days, and you don’t really want to see an amazing view in grey weather. The forecast for Saturday was good so… Saturday it became! I decided to do what my guidebook suggested and start the walk at Ponte Vecchio. But because I can never do anything in a straightforward fashion, I realised this was my last chance to look at the Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, one of the world’s oldest pharmacies, founded in 1221. Free entry and although I didn’t have a lot of time I enjoyed the peacefulness of the place, wanting to try the testers but not wanting to be nabbed by an overeager salesperson. Imagine an Apothecarist’s, with different ingredients in neatly labelled drawers stretching up the ceiling with an abundance of mirrors, glass jars and the obligatory statues, ceiling frescoes and Jesuses.
Now I hadn’t really planned this walk at all, as I knew there was a step-by-step description in the guidebook. Unfortunately the description was slightly more confusing than I had expected, telling me to turn onto Costa di San Giorgio after Santa Felicita, neither of which I could find. Probably because I was assuming an alleyway was the first turn, instead of looking for a real street. I found Costa dei Magnoli though, a steep hill through a dark, narrow entryway and figured that this hill would probably meet the other at some point. I was right. I ended up on Costa San Giorgio before long, joining the panting pilgrims, all slightly embarrassed but all in exactly the same state because of the steep incline. So steep I nearly missed Galileo’s house, as I was fixating on putting one foot in front of the other. It’s just that I saw a man step back from the path and take a photo of the house which made me step back and notice the paintings, the plaque dedicated to Galileo. A fork in the road led to me following two confused-looking bald men, knowing full well I was probably going the wrong way, but when I turned around and realised everyone was then following me because of my guidebook and confident solo stride, I kinda had to carry on. Sure enough, we reached the locked gates of Forte di Belvedere and realising the mistake, I immediately went to the previous turn, while everyone else stood around and assumed Piazzale Michelangelo was closed that day. I still wasn’t completely sure I was on the right path, but I was told to look out for a large gate with St. George fighting the dragon on it. I found a large arched gate with a faded painting that could have been that… It could have been the English flag, although the Florentine flag is the same, so who knows?
Once again my book seemed to differ from everyone else’s, telling me to make the radical change of going downhill now along the Forte walls, one of the nicest parts of the journey. Also one of the quietest, I imagine because everyone else thought going downhill was going the wrong way. Huge walls, Spring trees in blossom and just a little time to myself. At the bottom of the hill civilisation rears its ugly head again, traffic and cafes appearing along with all the other people who took a different route. Then the steps begin. I didn’t have the presence of mind to count at the time and have searched online to see how many steps there are up Via di San Salvatore al Monte, but have found nothing. More than you would expect, although I did walk steeply downhill five minutes previously so… The steps are lined with stations of the cross, but I confess I was more concentrating on my apple juice right then, and surprised to find a chicken coop. When we arrived at the top we were delighted, assuming we were at the back of San Miniato because it didn’t look familiar. Careful studying of signs revealed that this was the other church up there and there was still a way to go. As San Miniato was out of view, I just started heading uphill and found it within about 5 minutes, another steep staircase not daunting me as my destination was in sight. Such a giddy good mood came upon me that some charity workers at the gate got me to sign what I assumed was a mailing list – “Would you like to sign for solidarity?” – only at the end realising that they expected a donation. I escaped quicksmart, the charity guys laughing at their friend who hadn’t been able to persuade me to part with my money. I had been told that the monks sang Eucharist at 5:30 daily so had tried my best to time it reasonably well. Imagine my delight when as soon as I entered the church they began singing! They were my soundtrack for exploring the cool interior of the church, watched by peace-sign Jesus on the ceiling as I climbed the steps to the high altar, eventually settling in the crypt where the service was going on. Perhaps the monks singing weren’t really monks, as the singing seemed to be done by a group of middle-aged males and females in plain casual dress. Some of the men had monk-like hair, but they may have just been balding. I did see some actual cassocked monks later with rope belts, but managed to restrain myself from taking a photo. The service was as puzzling to me as I guess a service in a foreign language would be to someone who hadn’t been brought up in that religion. Everyone stood up on the sound of a bell but I didn’t, in case I was expected to accept a wafer in Italian, or something. I was just a silent observer at the back, enjoying the calm and the music. Other observers were not so silent, snapping photos of the priest and forgetting to put their phones on silent.
After a while I went outside, unable to enter the graveyard as it closes at 5 but I could view it from certain angles, seeing Franco Zeffirelli’s grave. I found a seat and ate my chocolate, watching everyone mill about. The top steps were pretty full with seated tourists even in late March. As I hadn’t been to the famed Piazzale Michelangelo yet I made my way down a hill via the only-open-summers rose garden and approached the Piazzale, which I was expecting to be a rather small lookout point. It actually stretches quite far, although the farther North you go the less likely your photos will include the Duomo. Instead of one or two burger vans, there was a full on market, most offering free samples of biscotti, bread with olive oil, chilli pepper paste and… flavoured honey. Mint honey. Raspberry honey. I could have tried them all, but realised there’s a point where it looks bad if you don’t buy anything. I filled up from a few different stalls with enough to get me through until dinner at 7:30. Perhaps it was that the sun was setting and that the lights below were coming on, maybe it was knowing it was my last night, maybe it was tiredness from the walk or the acoustic covers singer on the steps, but I did become a little emotional, my face on the downhill route twisted in a big grin. Just… grinning at nothing and nobody. The risk of a solo holiday had been worth it. Should you take a risk? Well, research it well. Take a map. Get a good hotel or a host with references. Plan in advance. Don’t just up and book something for next week and if you’re cautious, choose a city, like I did and not an isolated rural area. But if a weirdo like me can do it…
I got down to the river bank at about 7:15, pondering a locked tower with stairs and wondering if it was open in the daytime. By 7:30 I was at St. Mark’s near Santo Spirito to meet Annie and we got a quick meal in the nearby Il Cantinone, which you enter through a staircase that leads underground. At the time we were taken aback by a rude waiter, who couldn’t understand why we were leaving so quickly [we had theatre tickets] but a quick look on TripAdvisor shows that the waiters are rude to everyone, which helps a little… Still though, my Crespelle Fiorentine were delicious, pancakes with ricotta and spinach in a tomato and bechamel sauce. It was certainly the most reasonably priced place in the area.
So we finished the evening and indeed both our holidays with La Bohème in St. Mark’s Anglican Church. Yes, it’s 30 euro although if you’re lucky like we were, someone will not show up and you can move to the 36 euro seats. It’s edited slightly, down to a five-hander but the cast are incredibly likeable, with a narrator who explains things humorously in English between the acts. Certain things are edited because of the church setting, for example Marcello’s naked lady painting is of a boat, as the narrator comically points out. Singing and acoustics are wonderful though, as they would be in a church and the single pianist deserves a standing ovation just for himself. As there are just 11 rows, no balcony and with definitely fewer than 200 seats – again, I wish I’d counted – it’s a special experience. We walked the 10 minutes to my bus stop beside Santa Maria Novella station and got a quick coffee and a [horrible, my first bad food in Italy] pastry in the station, and said our goodbyes.
And there you have it. Go to Italy. Go with me! Go with me somewhere else. Take me somewhere. PLEASE. Or else I’ll go and annoy some more cats. Nobody wants that, least of all the cats.
April 3, 2014
Thursday started off as a pretty relaxed day. Antonio had told me that if he had time during the week he would talk me through the mysteries of Italian menus and we arranged Thursday after 6 as a good time. He suggested Fiesole, a town I’d been planning to visit but couldn’t quite work out when. This decided it! I knew the Archaelogical Museum and Roman Ruins site closed at 5 though, so I figured I would get there by 3pm, have a good look around and go for dinner when Antonio finished work.
Fiesole [not Fee-soul but Fee-ay-so-lay, this revelation leading to my understanding of quite a lot of Italian pronunciation] is a little hill town above Florence. It’s recommended for tourists as it’s on the ATAF bus route which means your Carte Agiles will work. It’s quieter than Florence, so you can get away from it all for a day. It contains bizarre walks and wonderful views. It contains a Roman amphitheatre. It’s also nearly impossible to get lost as everything runs off and returns to a central square. I figured I could do worse than follow a sign pointing to the ‘Passeggiata Panoramica’ and pottered up and around this hill for about half an hour, not being quite sure if each view was THE view or if I should go a little farther. Eventually I stopped. Later, looking at my route it appears if I’d kept going I would have ended up back at the square. Nothing lost then! I’d put the amphitheatre off for long enough though. As it was a slightly foggy day with occasional drizzle, the Roman ruins were pretty much just being explored by me, and a school trip. I was so taken with the amphitheatre I wanted a photograph of myself there. I almost asked a teacher, then realised teachers are supposed to actually be doing work and also, have a reputation for being disobliging. I asked a 14 year old boy instead. The right thing to do. I pottered around for quite a while near the Roman baths and Etruscan walls, eventually going into the archaeological museum purely to get warm. I was most fascinated by the Longobardi skeleton they found and had carbon dated, to the point of being able to count tooth cavities and seeing that this person had worked regularly with an axe, as the repetitive movement showed on his skeleton. Having a look at my guidebook I realised that the panoramic walk I had taken – while still perfectly acceptable – was not the recommended one. I spotted another brown sign and a steep hill and assumed that this time I was right, although the sign seemed to be pointing to some sort of police memorial park. When I reached the park I took a break from hills and sat on a bench, looking around. I saw a building above me that may have been the church I’d heard of. It may not, but I might as well check. On closer inspection it seemed I’d taken a leafy shortcut to the Monastery of San Francesco so, unsure if I was actually allowed to or not, climbed some stairs and ended up visiting the cell of St Bernardine of Siena. No Fra Angelico frescos here, just a lovely calming atmosphere. And writing desks. A missionary museum is apparently there, but I think it must have been closed that day. I didn’t see any other doors anyway. On a downhill slope now I came to a small group of people with cameras perched above a police memorial statue and taking in the benches and the lack of camera-obscuring wire fences, realised THIS was the real view. I took a closer look at the statue but my Italian wasn’t good enough to discover exactly why these policemen needed a memorial. After taking some quiet time I got a camomile tea and a custard pastry in a tobacconist/Cafe Deja Vu. Still having roughly half an hour to kill before Antonio arrived, I walked up the other hill where the shops were, and found a Coop. I’m almost sure it’s not a Co-Op, I think it’s simply a Coop, as in chicken. I bought some bread and a pint of milk and puzzled over why lamp and handbag shops in Fiesole have signs outside saying “No entry charge”.
When the sun set, Antonio arrived and it was dinnertime. He recommended Vinandro, and totally against my better judgement I had three courses. As an appetiser I had wild boar salami with some sort of friend potato mash and what was described on the menu as tomato oil but turned out to be amazing sundried tomatoes. I ate them all. For a main I had the gnocchi and wasn’t planning on dessert but Antonio seemed so delighted at the prospect of creme caramel I gave in and had a darkly moist slice of chocolate orange cake. Yeah, I tried to be clever and got off at the wrong bus stop on the way home, or the right stop, but went the wrong way after that. What should have been a fifteen minute walk turned into an hour because I turned the wrong way, and I felt self-conscious about consulting my map alone. I found my way eventually though, and totally nonchalantly pretended to the cats that nothing had gone wrong. I actually kind of enjoyed seeing where I’d made my wrong turns when I was safely back home consulting the map.
Once again on Friday I felt I needed an indoor day to make up for all the hiking the day before. To explain this though, I need to explain Florence’s bus ticket system. Basically, you buy a ticket from a shop and activate it when you get on the bus. Once activated, the ticket lasts for 90 minutes before you need to activate another one. So I figured on this day because of laziness I would get a series of buses within the 90 minutes to get me as close to Palazzo Pitti as possible. There are a series of C buses [C1, C2, C3 and the curiously named D – why not C4?] that do constant loops of the city centre so you can literally switch between them as often as you want during the 90 minutes if you want. If you’ve nothing better to do. I was standing outside Santa Maria Novella station where my 17 drops me, waiting for a C3 or D when a lady asked me which bus she should get to the Uffizi or Pitti. Basically, she had reservations at both but wasn’t sure of the times so needed to get to both to confirm. I told her I was going to Pitti so we ended up getting the bus together, me telling her about the cats and explaining various bus routes. We exchanged names and as Annie and I walked towards the Pitti ticket office, a lady was handing out flyers for an opera show that night, a selection of arias. I commented that I’d heard St. Mark’s Anglican Church did full operas and she exclaimed that she’d heard this too, and fished out a St. Mark’s flyer from her bag, which told us La Boheme was on Saturday evening. We exchanged choir stories and then exchanged numbers, thrilled by the prospect of an opera buddy. I invited her on a Couchsurfing dinner I had planned that night with a guy called Francesco and we went our separate ways, me inside the palace, her on to check her Uffizi reservation.
As it was coming down to the wire with only two full days left in Florence I had been a little worried that I wouldn’t make Palazzo Pitti at all. Or, more specifically The Palatine Gallery and Royal Apartments as I’d already been to various other parts of the complex. I can’t detail all the paintings here. All I will say is there are over 500, collected by Ferdinando (III) de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany, known for being a patron of the arts. Don’t be so distracted by the beauty on the walls that you forget to look up though, the ceilings often displaying the most intricate images, all the more startling as you can’t help but wonder how the artists actually painted 360 degree panoramic images on a ceiling. Things get stranger when you reach the Royal Apartments, with even a Duke’s bathroom surrounded by art, the only thing signalling the other use of the room being the tiled floor. There are about four different waiting rooms before you get to the throne room, designed to intimidate each group of nobles told to wait there, because of course these groups cannot mix. What looks like wallpaper is actually silk and what looks like a velvet boudoir is actually a chapel, the one concession to religion is that there are no paintings hanging in this room. Go, and be tempted to redecorate your house. I skipped the misleadingly-titled ‘Museum Of Modern Art’ which is turns out is art from 18th century onwards, but art fatigue had set in. Perhaps if I go back before 2015, as my Amici card will still be valid. I may also find the Museo degli Argenti, which is also here, but somehow I couldn’t find it.
I’d got a text from Ryanair that morning ominously telling me I had an email waiting for me at home with the details of my changed flight. I’d been trying not to think about this all day, but finally I got home and read the email. My flight was delayed by about half an hour, which wasn’t a huge problem but this meant my original boarding pass was invalid, so I would have to print another one. Which would involve finding an internet cafe with a printer in Italy on what I had planned to be my busy last day. I asked Francesco from Couchsurfing if he knew anywhere and he offered to print it for me, which he duly did when we met up with Annie for dinner that evening. The kindness of strangers, eh? We had booked for Ristorante del Fagioli on Antonio’s recommendation but by this point I’d kind of exhausted my list of exciting Florentine dishes I wanted to try, so settled for rosemary-roasted pork which was deliciously juicy and just broke apart on the fork, with white beans in olive oil as a side. As with all Italian dishes, it looks very small when it arrives, but finishing it is a task. Making our way to San Marco later for the bus home -Ryanair boarding pass safely in my handbag – we took a few photos in front of Palazzo Vecchio and fake David and simply enjoyed the noises of night buskers, the wonderfully clear night giving me memories of a place I was already beginning to say goodbye to. One more full day!
April 2, 2014
Christ, I’m at Part 6. Well, you can’t say I’m not thorough. As I’m pretty sure on Tuesday I climbed 1000 steps, and of course went back down again, I needed my Wednesday to be reasonably relaxed. Museuming, fooding, catting. When I met Antonio and Valentine on Saturday they had given me a list of places I should go to. One of them was the Convent of San Marco. What could be more relaxing than a convent? Also, it was included on my Amici card. Decision made, I set off. In the 1400s this convent was rebuilt inside and out, each individual cell playing host to a fresco painted by the resident artist monk Fra Angelico. There is some repetition of the frescos though, most of them following a crucifixion or annunciation theme. It’s interesting to see the variations though, some of the monks lucky enough to share a room with the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary, or a nice Palm Sunday scene. I wondered if they got to choose their cell decoration, or if it perhaps signified rank, the grimmer paintings adorning the walls of the lowly novices, to remind them of their oaths. This Angelico dude was quite prolific, being summoned by Pope Eugenius IV to to paint the frescoes of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at St Peter’s, later demolished.
Afterwards, realising I was less than five minutes away from the Accademia I decided to walk past and try out my skip-the-queue card. I’d heard a lot of things about Michelangelo’s David in the previous few weeks, from people telling me it was “Meh”, to being told it was unmissable. As I was allowed to skip the queue, I figured I didn’t even mind if it was meh. It wasn’t meh in the slightest, but I had been expecting it to be in a room alone. It’s not, placed as the focal point where three corridors meet. As I entered the room from a mid-point though I turned left instead of right and browsed the paintings along the back wall, had a sit down and even sent a text before looking up and seeing the huge height-of-three-humans David naked and not at all easy to miss. What I had never realised before is that this isn’t just any David, it’s Goliath-slaying David. Some say prior to the slaying, some say after it. His right hand holds a stone, and the sling hangs over his left shoulder. He stands a way out from the wall, so you can get a 360 degree look if you want. And you might as well. There’s an intriguing sculpture room, full of busts, horses, nymphs and goodness knows what else as we could only view the long hall from behind a velvet rope at the door. I’ve no idea if it’s open normally or if this is how it is always viewed, but considering I have my Amici card, I’d be willing to go back and see.
I’d worked up a large hunger by this point, calling into Cafe Toto again for a pizza slice. I’d progressed from “A taglio… margherita” to “A taglio funghi, salsiccia e mozarrella… e uno cecina per favore”. Yeah, I really wanted a sausage, mushroom and mozzarella pizza slice, but I got a cecina on a whim, after Valentina told me it was a really tasty kind of chickpea pancake, which it was. Both of those cost 5 euro altogether. As I was so close to the ice cream parlour Perche No! I had a quick dessert, a scoop of coconut and one of cassata Siciliana, which seemed to be vanilla icecream with little bits of sponge cake and candied fruit. As it was my relaxy day, I decided to walk to Piazza del Ciompi to find the flea market, after a quick stop at the post office to send my Mum a postcard, and trying to figure out their ticket system as you need a different ticket for travel money, information, postal enquiries… The flea market was a bit of a disappointment in the end, just a few rows of antique shops not unlike Smithfield in its heyday. Quite expensive, and good for dealers of such things, but not really for a girl wanting an afternoon out. I headed back to feed the cats.
There was supposed to be a Couchsurfing meal that evening but as I was staying near the stadium on match night buses in my area were delayed, so I arrived at Santa Croce church half an hour after the meet-up time. Birte had been there at the right time and hadn’t seen a massive group, but she found a Couchsurfer called Kirsten who was traveling alone after a recent breakup and hadn’t wanted to waste the tickets they had bought together. We went to a restaurant called I Ghibellini and I had the main of Papardelle al Cinghiale with a desert of Vin Santo e Cantucci di Prato, which is basically almond biscotti dipped in a sweet dessert wine to soften them. Strong wine, but a really nice dessert experience. Then home!
March 31, 2014
You know when someone posts on a travel forum saying that they just have one day in a huge city and asking what they should do there? When all of the regular forum posters stop being disgusted because this is not how they recommend anyone travel, they suggest about three big hitters, must-sees that you could conceivably do in one day. This was my Tuesday. It wasn’t what was planned, not at all, but ended up being so much the better for the lack of planning. I had read online that on 25th March every year there was a parade starting from outside Palazzo Vecchio [the City Hall] at 9am and winding its way to Piazza SS Annunziata where there would be food stalls and a church service, as this was traditionally the Florentine New Year. I figured I couldn’t miss this. 9am seemed a little early though, so I arranged to meet Birte from Germany at 9:30 beside the Perseus-holding-Medusa’s-head statue in the Loggia dei Lanzi, as I thought it would be a cool place to meet. I’m a bit morbid. Anyway, we didn’t see a parade, or hear a parade far away, or see any parade debris. We decided to go around to Piazza Santissima Annunziata to see if there were any stall or if I’d just imagined the entire thing. There were stalls! The obligatory souvenir lot, sweets that it was too early in the morning to even consider and, bizarrely, kitchenware. We gravitated closer to the Basilica, ready to leave again if they charged entry but they didn’t so we entered a place so cluttered with gold and silver it could have been an antique shop. Most striking upon entering is probably Michelozzo’s Tabernacle, at the time surrounded by elderly ladies who seemed to be waiting for the service to begin. Candles reflecting on gold, many ornate incense lamps of different sizes and the general feeling of expectation led to this being the focal point for the exploration. Still, we walked around the rest of the busy church, especially touched by the paintings by primary school children showing their interpretations of several Bible stories. Oh, and in case you were thinking there wasn’t enough gold, the ceiling is gold.
Stopping by the Duomo ticket office quickly as there was no queue, I got myself a Duomo/Campanile/Baptistery ticket for 10 euro. The tickets are valid for 6 days after purchase, but must be used within 24 hours of entering the first building. That was fine by me. You could climb one building late in the day and do another the next morning if you were tired by the first climb. We headed over to the Uffizi as Birte was curious and as my card had skip-the-queue privileges it didn’t really matter when I went! The queue for people who already had reservations was so long it spiralled in the street, as wall space was taken up by the non-reservation queue. It was pretty fast moving but we soon realised it was the wrong one for us, as the Northern Irish couple in front of us in the queue explained. Birte would have either had to spend 25 euro for a reservation right then and there from the wandering clipboard people who circle the queue or join the two hour queue to get a ticket for the normal price. Basically, reserve the day before you want to go. Or earlier. Just go late in the day and there’ll be no queue at the reservation desk. As the Uffizi seemed a bit of a non-starter Birte suggested we go back to the Duomo and maybe begin some climbing as there was less of a queue. We began in the Baptistery, as I was still mentally debating whether I wanted to climb anything at all. Hidden behind scaffolding, we were relieved that it was open, and there was no queue. The main attraction is the domed gold interior ceiling, a smiling Jesus in the centre with tiers around him showing at the bottom evildoers, gradually working through stories of humans [including John the Baptist, for whom the Baptistery is named], the seraphim, Archangels… you get the idea. There are also bronze doors sculpted by Ghiberti, initially winning a competition to do so, one set of doors taking him 21 years to complete, the other set so painstakingly crafted they took 27 years. These were thankfully uncovered by scaffolding, so we had a good stare at them.
I decided I was still in two minds about the Duomo, so thought we should start with the less terrifying Campanile, which was about 50 steps shorter. Looking at it from outside, it also appeared to have regular viewing platforms and rest stops, so seemed the wiser choice. There were indeed rest stops inside, but long staircases before you reached them, so a fitness testing walk! I’m not sure why I was surprised to see a me-sized bell inside the bell tower, but I was. We were all jarringly surprised when the bells rang midday when we were inside, and all gritted our teeth and waited it out. It was great to see the gradual ascent through the windows. For the nervous, at the very top you’re enclosed in a cage with fantastic views of the dome and a huge feeling of accomplishment. We decided we deserved some ice cream after that before we attempted another climb, so ended up at Festival del Gelato on Via del Corso very near the dome. It had the largest selection of any gelateria I visited this holiday. I had pistachio with crema fiorentina, which seemed to be cream with mascarpone and honey. Amazing.
We next went inside the Cathedral which you don’t need a ticket for. It’s considered to be reasonably plain in comparison to some others, but from your angle you can’t see Vasari’s paintings on the dome interior, which you need to complete the climb to properly appreciate, although craning your neck to look at a ceiling while standing on a narrow platform hundreds of feet above the Cathedral floor isn’t for the faint-hearted. It certainly nearly finished me off. We also explored the Crypt of Santa Reparata, at which I was actually surprised [I need to stop being so surprised] to see the skull on display in a glass case. After all this I decided that I was enjoying company, and might as well do the climbing when I was with someone as that would give me the extra kick I needed. To explain my hesitation, I recently had a climbing fail at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I made it up to the first exterior gallery and was all set to go up to the top, until I saw that the stairs for the next part of the journey were metal treads, with see-through gaps between, the entire spiral staircase relatively open which means you can see right to the top… and right to the bottom. Not for me. After this I searched Youtube for film of the Duomo climb and found that it was all enclosed stone staircases. So I did it! There was a queue, which lasted about 30-40 minutes. In Florence, land of queues, this ain’t half bad. Like I said, there were more steps than the Campanile, and fewer viewing platforms, but more stops between staircases for you to catch your breath. Enclosed in stone, the only real wobble I had was at the first interior viewing gallery. After that, I was focused on getting to the point where I could go down if I wanted, as an escape route is a reassuring thing. At the second interior gallery there is an exit point but we didn’t have to walk around that gallery as we had the previous one, edging our way round painfully slowly one foot at a time, with too much time to think about falling. After the second gallery, the staircase became hilariously two-way, with much squashing against the wall, thanking and apologising in multiple languages and being told by people on the descent that we didn’t have far to go. We all ended up chatting to each other, reassuring each other and laughing at our mutual breathlessness. A lovely, companionable experience. Finally, the summit! There was a railing, only just above waist height but somehow I didn’t feel too worried. I helped take a photo of a couple on their ipad on panoramic setting, which means if you press the button and then scan the view horizontally for five seconds, the photo will take in the entire area. This amazed me! Argos-camera doesn’t do that…
After the descent which was made easier by the American high school girls singing Miley Cyrus to their nervously claustrophobic friend, we needed food badly so had a bit of a wander, ending up at Tavernetta Della Signoria. I had Crostini Misti as an appetiser, which is basically mixed toasts. One with mushrooms, one with mozzarella, one with chicken livers and one with tomatoes, which I quietly ignored. As primi [first course] I had ribollita, which I’d been dying to try since I’d read about. Described as a vegetable soup with potatoes, cabbage and carrots it’s really more like a stew, as it has bread in too, to thicken it. It was hugely comforting but had a mostly plain, cabbagey flavour. This was fine, but when they brought me a bowl of parmesan to sprinkle on top, it really zinged! Highly recommended. Just after this, at about 4 we heard music and what could only be a parade. We made our way to Palazzo Vecchio to see the New Year’s parade on their return journey: medieval dress, a Firenze flag, lots of yellow outfits for what may have been the military, feathers in hats and what looked to be noblemen in maroon-coloured onepieces, some nobles forgetting their nobility and yawning or looking amused. I preferred those who kept deadpan expressions.
Birte went back to the hostel so I decided it was time to try my Uffizi skip-the-queue card, not intending to stay long. As it was 4pm there wasn’t much of a queue anyway but everything went smoothly. At the Uffizi, you climb the stairs to the second floor, starting with the famous first corridor, moving around to the second and third. After this, you descend to the first floor, which includes the Foreign Painters Rooms, amongst other things. I only managed the first and second corridors before I became so tired I had to go home, but the beauty of the Amici Card is that I could return to do the rest of them. The busiest section was of course the Botticelli room, with a crowd around the awe-inspiring painting of Venus. I read that on Saturday [my second visit to the Uffizi] a man stripped off his clothes in front of Venus. There’s a picture online of him doing this and my first thought was “Why isn’t there a crowd in front of Venus?” then I realised the crowd probably moved to get away from the crazy naked man. I didn’t see him anyway, that was my first floor day.
Also worth a long look is the Tribune, an octagonal room in the first corridor which you can’t enter, but must view from behind ropes at the door. Covered in red velvet and designed for the Medicis it was one of the first collections of masterpieces anywhere, a place the favourite works of a family that already owned huge amounts of world-famous art. After all this though, it was time for home and cats. I had discovered that Betty responded positively to me singing Whitney Houston. Maybe because I sounded like a cat, who knows?
March 30, 2014
Before you start reading this, you should know that nothing much of note happened on Sunday and Monday. Those days were also slightly demoralising as anything that could go wrong, did go wrong. But will I leave them out? No. Samuel Pepys wouldn’t leave them out, would he?
I’d made up my mind that I was going to have a lie in on Sunday. I felt I deserved it after all the walking. I was meant to meet a Couchsurfing girl at 2:30 and that was early enough for me. Unfortunately just before I left the house a thunderstorm began. Elham canceled and I don’t blame her, as I’d been just about to cancel myself! I spent a little bit more time chilling with Betty on my knee [a breakthrough!] and by about 3:30 realised thatI should just leave the house anyway or it would have been a wasted day. I donned my raincoat and decided to go to the Bargello, having worked out a circuitous two-bus route there. Unfortunately when I arrived it was closed as though I’d worked out that it was open every other Sunday and this was an open Sunday, I’d neglected to check the opening times. It closes at 1:50 every day. As I was already in town and didn’t have much in the way of thunderstorm-worthy socks with me, I decided to go into H&M and get some. Most of what they had on sale were 5 packs, which I didn’t need but I found a Hello Kitty 3 pack for what I thought was a great price. Turns out I was looking at the wrong sign and they were nearly 10 euro. Oh well. I got them anyway.
I managed to stumble accidentally into the Mercato Nuevo, characterised by the bronze statue of the wild boar near the entrance. Rubbing his snout is meant to bring luck, or ensure that you will return to Florence or something so I did this. Other people were feeding pennies into the snout. I didn’t. I hope this doesn’t cancel out the snout-rubbing good luck… Still, I managed to get a picture taken with him, which was one of the things I wanted to do over here. Yeah, my ambitions are small.
That day as I’d left the apartment I’d noticed market stalls in my street [because it was football match day in the nearby stadium? Who knows?] but it had been raining so heavily I hadn’t stopped to browse. Luckily for me they were still there when I got back at about 5:30 and the weather was dry so I had a look round, taking a few free samples of bread and buying what I thought were small sugared dough balls, but turned out to be rice-filled as well. Win! I then nipped into the local rosticceria and got myself some toasted bread with garlic, cheese and mushrooms and took my bounty home to eat. The rest of the night was cat-time, with a little blog-time.
On Monday I had agreed to meet Lucyna from Poland to go to the Leaning Tower Of Pisa. A girl called Marina had posted up on CS saying she wanted to go, and then just never replied. Another guy called Jonathan messaged me, then vanished. So it was myself and Lucyna for better or for worse. Figuring out the take-a-number train ticket buying system, we were a little surprised that returns to Pisa were 15 Euro, as I’d mistaken the single price on the website for the return price. We went anyway though. Just as we’d worked out where our platform was – through some sort of hidden door – a guy came over and asked us if we were going to Pisa. We were already heading towards the platform but he came with us and I realised he might be one of the beggars I’d read about, even though he seemed well-dressed, in an expensive-looking leather jacket. I knew to validate my ticket but he showed us the machine [which, to be fair, would have been helpful if I hadn’t known] and when we got on the train it turned out I was correct and he wanted payment. As we had already worked the system out for ourselves and resented the fact that he hadn’t expressed his desire for money before ‘helping’, we didn’t give him anything. I wonder does that actually work though? I wonder do people give him money? When we got to Pisa we spent a jolly half hour taking the obligatory ‘holding the tower up’ shots, me angling the camera so it looked like it was leaning a little more than it actually was, as the lean in real life wasn’t looking too impressive on camera. We enquired about prices as there didn’t seem to be a big queue, but it was 18 euro to climb it, and the unexpected train fare meant I didn’t have this amount with me. I decided it was a lovely building, but probably not high enough for an amazing view worth locating a bank machine for. We got the train back and ate outside at the Osteria Santa Spirito, which had blankets on the chairs if the outdoors got a little too cold. I was too embarrassed to use mine though, not to mention that eating spaghetti while trying to keep a blanket on my shoulders would have been hilariously awkward. Yep, I got spaghetti all’aglio, olio e peperoncino which is spaghetti [just the pasta, not to be confused with spaghetti with bolognese sauce] with olive oil, garlic and chili peppers. Hotter than I expected [why didn’t I expect it to be hot?] and a huge portion for 7 euro, I was delighted to see full cloves of garlic in there. Must have been an entire bulb in the meal. I consider this a good thing.
We went to Boboli next where I was able to explore the parts I hadn’t seen, moving into Bardini as Lucyna faded and went home. The Bardini Gardens are a puzzle, connected to Boboli by first the walls of the Forte de Belvedere and then a residential street that makes you think you’re lost, except there was no other way you could have gone. All of the artwork and grand staircases of Boboli are here on a much smaller scale. Almost homely, really. After looking at the view for quite a while, I decided to go back to Boboli and work the perimeter so I wouldn’t miss anything, making it all the way to the Green Of The Columns, a green surrounded by imposing statues, seeming even more intimidating on this chilly day. Imagine the Hall Of Kings And Queens in The Magician’s Nephew. Proud faces towering over you. I also found Cyprus Alley, this time with trees towering over me. I stayed until closing, but never found the Limonaia [unless it was one of the closed, unmarked buildings]. Perhaps you will have more luck.
That evening I decided to try to be useful and get some water for the cats from the water-cooler-type-thing at the park. I tried to take the bike, which was a mistake as realistically I knew it was too big for me. I fell off the bike, although I don’t know why people say “fell off” when usually they are still on the bike, but fall over, with the the bike trapping one leg and the other leg trapping the bike. I flapped around like a gasping fish for a while, eventually managing to lift the bike off me and by then being too embarrassed to put it back so just wheeling it round the park with me. Where I found the wrong gate that the bike could not fit through, so tried to lock it to the fence. Then could not operate the lock. I eventually figured it out, hoping the teenage boys watching me didn’t decide to try and steal the bike. When I got to the machine I noticed one tap had no queue and after trying it – incorrectly – decided it was broken and that was why no-one was queueing there. I stood for a horribly long time as a strange elderly man filled his bottles one by one then realised this was the sparkling water line [who would queue for sparkling water?!], so had to go back to the other, in shame. I filled my water bottles quietly while people speaking Italian giggled at me. I hid in the apartment for the rest of the night.
March 25, 2014
First off, I need to stop being so long-winded. I originally intended each of these entries to detail two days, but so far I’ve written about two days, and had two entries. I don’t want to end up with ten blog entries! Even the most hardcore won’t read them. Friday morning brought a Spartan breakfast. It was no-one’s fault though. The day before I’d had Daniela’s home-made bread with jam, and as she’s a vegan I decided to try soya milk. All was fine until my lips started tingling. And swelling. I looked in the mirror and it looked like I’d been punched. I started to panic a little, as having an anaphylactic shock in a country where the hospital doesn’t speak your language wouldn’t be top of my list of things to do. I went out and tried to forget it though and the swelling started to go down. It took a few hours though. Note to self: I’m allergic to soya milk. So, on Friday I had the bread and jam with water. Later Daniela took me to the local Lidl [they have Lidl!] and I stocked up on supplies of cornflakes, non-soya milk and other groceries to take me through the week. I made a friend too! Grimmy began to sit on my knee. Shame he was the one cat I wouldn’t be sitting. Sod’s law.
Friday was going to be a little different from Thursday as I was meeting my first couchsurfing sightseeing buddy. I met Jay from London at the outdoor leather market Mercato San Lorenzo which is outside the indoor Mercato Centrale, the main produce market in Florence. We were fascinated by the fish stalls, splayed-out octopi on display beside chopping boards dripping with fish blood. Not enough to put us off our food though! I got battered calamari and chips. We worked up our appetite in the Capelle Medici though [yep, them again], their Chapel Of The Princes a cold, awe-inspiring room of blue marble, belying its humble exterior. The New Sacristy shows work of Florence’s darling Michelangelo. In fact, he built the darn thing. Worth 6 euro. Or nothing, with an Amici card. Icecream from a non-famous gelateria followed, as I was unable to remember exactly where Grom was. I don’t think we suffered though. My one scoop of raspberry and one scoop cinnamon was perfectly pleasant.
Cat-things followed, with me learning how to put the harness on the cats and take them into the garden for walks. Ever tried to put a harness on a cat? Give it a try. It’s an… interesting experience. That evening I walked around the exterior of the football stadium, Stade Artemio Franchi as it was between myself and a couchsurfing party which I wasn’t sure if I could be bothered going to or not. I’m glad I did. People who can cook [not me, then] had brought dishes representing their nations and about 40 people showed up, sharing food, stories and some bizarre party games, one in particular involved 30 of us in a circle, facing the back of the person to your left, and slowly sitting down until the entire circle was sitting on each other’s knees, supported by the circle. It actually worked! I got a taxi home at around midnight, as I had house-stuff to sort out at 8 in the morning before Daniela embarked on her week in Germany!
On Saturday I was relying on the kindness of strangers when I met up with Antonio and Valentina; friends of friends. Or friends of friends of friends. When I told my friend Sarah I was going to Florence she put me in touch with her friend Jason, who knew Antonio. Hey presto! Another tenuous internet connection is born. It was a great day, with Italian advice and historical context for a lot of places and buildings, Antonio being the type – like me – who retains odd little pieces of information about things and can wittily recount them, not unlike Thursday’s tour guide! My research in advancealso helped, although I must find out more about Savonarola… Anyway, they suggested we start our day in the Palazzo Medici-Ricardi, one I hadn’t really heard of mainly because it wasn’t on my Amici card list. People say you only really go to this place to see one room, but honestly, the place was so stunning I’m not 100% sure which room the main room was. We began in the tiny Chapel Of The Magi covered – and I mean COVERED – in frescos painted by Bennozo Gozzoli. Brightly coloured images of the aforementioned Magi but with hidden details that deserve taking some time to study. A man with a pet leopard, for instance. A hawk savaging a rabbit, revealing its intestines. Brightly coloured odd stockings on folks. And a disgruntled Pope, painted looking gloomy as apparently he disapproved of the Medicis, so they decided to immortalise him looking a fool. If you would like to know more about the paintings, there’s actually an interactive feature downstairs in which you stand in a booth and point at characters in the paintings, and a voice explains who they are, or what their typical counterpart would have done. Impressive tapestries follow, and a gold room which may be a ballroom is exactly what it says on the tin – painted gold, with chandeliers and mirrors for added effect. The chadeliers and gold reflected in the mirrors have an effect close to sunlight, and the only thing spoiling the room is the fact that it was set up for a conference, with a projector and microphone. The chairs for the conference guests, however, were transparent, which camouflaged them nicely. A puzzling exhibit of modern art in another room was probably amazing but somehow seemed laughable after all the frescos we’d seen. Sorry, modern artists.
A stop for food in Pallottino helped keep us going. I had the Crostini i Toscana and the waiter was concerned I should understand it was toast topped with chicken livers, in case I was another damn fool tourist who ordered the wrong thing. We split a plate of artichoke fritters between the three of us and I dipped them in the liver, not caring if this was the done thing. Valentina had Pappa con Pomodoro which was described in guidebooks and a cold soup of tomato stewed with bread but she let me try a little and it was warm, thank goodness, and hearty although as tomatoes are my mortal enemies, I probably won’t ever order a whole one. Antonio had Pappardelle al Cinghiale which translates as thick ribbons of pasta with wild boar sauce. I tasted a little and all I can compare it to is the tinned spaghetti I ate as a child, except nicer, and not tinned.
Duly fortified, we moved on to Santa Croce Basilica and museum, a surprise for me who begrudgingly paid expecting to find only one room. There were many rooms, although even the ‘one room’ was worth it. Michelangelo’s tomb, a monument to Marconi, and an empty grave for Dante who was exiled and fined – which he did not pay – by the Florence Government. Later pardoned, after his death the Government requested his remains but because of their shoddy treatment of him during his life, his remains remain in Ravenna and Santa Croce keeps an empty monument. Plaques on the walls show the water line of the 1966 flood which was high above head level and the Opera Museum shows pieces of art under process of restoration because of flood damage, most famously Cimabue’s Crucifixion. More graves are in an underground crypt, and a bizarre series of modern sculptures inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy, showing winged beasts torturing humans, a parade of hooded skeletons, people being supended by their feet and a father eating his son. Kinda makes you want to read the book… Or just watch the Baz Luhrmann film.
We parted ways and a cat-trip home followed. Later I crossed the bridge to meet Robin [Florida] from Couchsurfing who really wanted to try Cuculia, a restaurant she had read about. A friend one told me that if the waiters bring you an aperitif you didn’t ask for, it’s going to be expensive. They charged us just for what we ordered though, the puzzling green and yellow soup with what may have been walnuts just a pleasant extra. The whole thing was a little more sophisticated than we were expecting though, the menu defying logic even when translated into English. In the end I ordered a kind of pasta with zucchini and buffalo mozzarella and Robin ordered truffle ravioli which was fine, but she was a little confused as to why they felt the need to top it with blood oranges. No matter, food was had, and bed was calling!
March 24, 2014
I woke up on my first morning in Italy with a real excitement, knowing I had a whole city to explore. My reseach had taught me that a company do free walking tours twice a day, starting at Santa Maria Novella Church, where my bus oh-so-handily leaves me. Not being sure whether we were meeting at the front or the back of the church, I briefly joined a group of American college students on a tour, realising my mistake when their teacher started talking to them about which coach they were getting. Melting away from them and hoping nobody had noticed me there in the first place, I walked to the front of the church where I saw twos and threes of confused-looking oddly-dressed folk with large cameras. I had found my people. So this company run a tour at 11am and one at 2pm, loosely titled the Medici tour and the Renaissance tour. I went on the Renaissance one at 11, mainly because that was the time I woke up at. I wasn’t sure if I would really learn a lot, but I figured it would help orient me in the city, locating places of interest, maybe meeting people and, well, it would be better than a kick in the head, right? It turns out I did learn quite a lot, not least where Vivoli, Perche No! and Grom were located [the top three gelaterias in Florence, according to my cross-section of guidebooks and websites]. When we finished up in Santa Croce Square at around 12:30 I fully intended to do the second tour after a light lunch, but life got in the way. Already tshirt weather by 11:15am, the tour group shedding layers of clothing rapidly, I figured I could do worse than attack Vivoli, paying at the desk before ordering my flavours at the counter and enjoying the shade of indoors as I reached the end of my stracciatella and mango tub far too soon. Consulting my map, I realised I was right by the river so a sunny day’s walk along the water was required, and when I got that far I decided I might as well go the whole hog and cross the Ponte Vecchio. Tourists – of which I am one, I totally own that – thronged around the bridge, posing for photos and giggling. Being on holiday alone means you don’t have anyone to take photos of you but you get resourceful, picking your victims with care. Elderly couples taking photos of each other are usually willing to take one of you if you ask politely. You have to play down the wacky shots, but it’s a small price to pay. I got photos taken by all nationalities. German, Italian, Spanish, English… Only one lady refused, barking “No!” at me aggressively. In French, in case you were wondering.
So here I was, Oltrarno side and probably a bit late for my tour. My map told me how close I was to Pitti Palace and I got out my Amici Degli Uffizi card and prepared for the free entry it provides. Not really free, of course, as you had to buy the card, but it saves you carrying cash and unlike the Firenze card, it lasts for one calendar year [as opposed to 72 hours] and you can enter each place as often as you want, whereas the Firenze card allows you one entry in each place. So, should you want to take in the Uffizi a little at a time, day by day, you can! Which, according to the rumours of how large the Uffizi is, isn’t a bad idea. I haven’t been there yet, as I have another 5 full days to go here! Er, I digress. So at the Pitti Palace you can choose one of two tickets. Slightly more to it than this, but I’ll call them ‘indoors’ and ‘outdoors’ for ease. As it was 25 degrees, I chose outdoors. So, like, the Medici family were rich and stuff. They had palaces all over Florence. This one is different, as this one includes their garden. Sculpted hedges, countless water features, heavily ignored ‘keep off the grass’ signs and the occasional tiny lizard running too fast for a camera to catch make this the perfect place to spend a sunny day. It’s far too large to take in in one go, so after finding secret grottos, the Porcelain Museum with its views of San Miniato and the half-submerged statues, I decided to find Cypress Alley and explore the ‘little sister’ park Bardini Gardens at a later date. Needing some shade I went to the Galleria Del Costume which has some nods to the Medici family but really is simply a fashion museum, dresses donated by fashionistas in Italian history. I wonder did they ask if the Museum wanted the dresses or if they just assumed? It’s an aesthetic dream, the current exhibition of hats through the ages getting a little samey after a while but still imagination-firing. It’s only when you forget yourself and look up at the ceiling, seeing the frescos that you remember this is still a Medici Palace. It was nearly cat time again, so I refound a little cafe I’d spotted on the tour that sold pizza by the slice, and a few doors up got a rice pastry from a pasticceria. I would be back. To all of the places.