A June 2004 trip
to Tuscany by actonsteve
Quote: Tuscany isn't just a province of Italy; it is a credo, a way of life. It is possibly the most culturally rich place on the planet, a province of sunflower fields, Giotto frescoes, and cozy trattorias. Tuscany definitely embodies the good life.
Everybody has an image of Tuscany in their mind’s eye before they arrive.
For some, it is a crumbling farmhouse bathed in warm sunlight, for others, it is Brunescelli's dome looming above the Florentine cityscape, or fields of sunflowers against an azure sky, or Giottos frescoes, or . . . or . . . or . . .
On your trip, I can guarantee you will not have enough time to see it all. We've all read enough books about northern European ex-pats moving to Tuscany and creating their own little paradise. They speak lyrically of warm nights eating pasta and drinking Chianti under the stars, and of villages untouched by time and full of eccentric inhabitants. This all exists, but it is shared by millions of other visitors who want to find their own Tuscany. In summer the hordes of holidaymakers crush the narrow streets of Florence and Siena, so finding room to breathe can be difficult.
But it takes just a little detour to find the other Tuscany, the Tuscany that attracted Shelley, Byron, and EM Forster. There is no doubt that the place has some of the best sight-seeing in the world. Pisa's Field of Miracles contains some of the most exquisite architecture ever constructed, and the city of Florence itself probably contains more culture and history then the entirety of some continents. Memories will be strong of Tuscany: shutters thrown open above you in a street in Pisa, the sun-worshippers on the Torre del Largo beach, the vineyards sweeping up the sun-kissed hills, the well-dressed Florentines shopping in Gucci or Armani, and the art . . . oh lord, has Tuscany been blessed by god with art . . .
Tuscany is simply a golden corner of the world.
This trip was different from my usual excursion abroad. It only consisted of only 4 days, and we were the guests of a friend of mine, Dr. Nicola Pavese. He lives in London but keeps an apartment in Pisa, and, thanks to budget airlines, we got a cheap deal for £70 for a return flight. There we got our food at the corner shop and lived far away from the tourist hordes that visit Pisa every day.
The list of cities to visit in Tuscany is mind-blowing: world-famous Florence, cerebral Pisa, fiesty Siena, historic Lucca, and not to mention the hundreds and hundreds of exquisite lost-in-time medieval towns dotting the sunburnt hillsides. I only got to see Pisa, Florence, and the beach at Torre del Largo, but more importantly, I got to mix with Italians. This was not a keep-the-locals-at-bay tour. I met Nic's friends and joined them at the beach and saw how things are done Tuscan-style. They are very proud of Tuscany: lazy summer weekends are spent at the beach and life takes an outdoor quality. I would return here every year if I could.
The life blood of Tuscany is the Viarregio-Firenze railway line. This stretches 100 miles inland from the Ligurian coast to the City of the Lily before it branches north to Bologna or south to Umbria. Pisa stazione (railway station) is the hub of the town. There you can catch buses and trains to Tuscany's main airport, Galileo. This airport has its own train station, FS Pisa Aeropuerto, and it takes four minutes to get to Pisa's stazione. From there it is another 2 hours to Florence.
Pisa is also ideally situated for the beach. The A12, which stretches up from Genoa to Viarreggio, passes by Pisa. This road stretches parallel to the coast, and buses from Pisa stop at the beaches at Torre del Largo. If you are partaking of the nightlife in Torre del Largo, as we did, then arrange your own road transport. No buses return to Pisa after 10pm and there are no taxis.
But the best way to see Tuscany is from the back of a Fiat Punto Calabrio, the hood down. A big grazie, Nic!
Restaurant | "Osteria Vasari - Secret Restaurant along the Arno"
At about 1pm, every tourist in Florence starts to feel hungry.
The hordes pile out of the Uffizi or rip themselves away from whatever renaissance fresco they are currently engrossed in and start to look for somewhere to eat.
Florence has a superb collection of restaurants for what must be one of the oldest tourist destinations in the world. It has finds for those on a budget just wanting a slice of pizza but also five-star luxury restaurants with tables overlooking the green Arno and the Ponte Vecchio. But the vast majority of people go for small tourist restaurants for a taste of Italian cuisine. Prices are displayed outside for the 100 or so restaurants in Florence that vie for the lucrative tourist trade. This one had to shout to get our attention.
We found out about the Osteria Vasari from a flyer we received near the Piazza di Signoria. We were heading towards the Ponte Vecchio anyway and were impressed by the lunchtime offers starting at 12.90€. The restaurant itself is not far from the famous bridge. At the end, instead of going ahead down the Via de Guicciardini and the Pitti Palace, turn left to the south bank of the Arno and the promenade of Lungarno Torrigani. Where it splits in two, take the right fork to get to the parallel and the narrow street of Via de Bardi. The symbol of Florence, the lily, is depicted in the form of a swaying iron sign above the door.
The waiters are brisk and no-nonsense and lead you into a central room with about 10 tables. The starters consisted of sugo di carne (tasty meat sauce with sausage, minced meat, and tomato), minestrone soup, and bruschetta, which is what we went for, with toasted bread that could be dipped in garlic and olive oil. A mid-day bottle of chianti was shared between the three of us, and we all went for individual main courses. I chose turkey escalope in red wine sauce with a side dish of grilled peppers, Martin had sausage and bean ragout, and Nicola went for that Tuscan specialty, bistecca fiorentina, which was a massive grilled T-bone steak. After a while, the restaurant filled up with other exhausted tourists, but the waiters were still closely attendant and couldn't do anything else to make our meal more enjoyable. It worked out to about 50€ (£30/$42) between the three of us, including coffee and tips.
Of course, being in Florence, there were other idiosyncrasies, such as marble statues in the bathrooms and cats wandering around your legs. But the restaurant was impressive. Unfortunately, due to the sheer volume of competing restaurants in Florence, it had to shout to get our attention, but we are glad it did.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 26, 2004
Via de Bardi
Imagine it. The air is still warm on yet another hot Tuscan night. You catch the scent of pines from the pineta and the tang of salt from the Ligurian sea. The sound of excited Italian voices is in the air, and the BOOM, BOOM from the speakers throws music onto hundreds of revelers. There they dance until dawn, and you can see across a sea of happy party-loving faces squeezed onto the road between the nightclub and the beach.
This is Torre del Largo in summer. And the best fun in the area must be in the gay nightclub Ma Ma Mia, which faces onto the passeggiata a mare (the sea road). Gay and straight mix in together in an orgy of drinking and dancing. There is a tiny outside dance floor, so the crowds spill out onto the pavement and across to the beach. They completely block the sea road, forcing people to push their way through them or be swallowed up in the throng. The music gets everyone dancing, and the atmosphere is infectiously happy. This is what summer in Pisa is all about.
Getting to the passeigiata a mare is tricky; public transport from Pisa and the Torre del Largo is sparse and there are no taxis. Get there early, as parking can be difficult, as half of western Tuscany descends on the beach for a night out. And at about 11pm, the real action begins.
The DJ, Piero, begins to crank up the sound. But there is a floor show, and families just walking past stand in amazement as the act begins. It starts with the inevitable drag-queens, in multi-coloured wigs, called Queen, Markesa and Marzio, and they were supported by some very chiseled go-go dancers. This all happens way above the crowds on a platform lit by spotlights (see photo), accompanied by the DJ and loud cheering from below. For the rest of the night, until 2am, the DJ plays international top-20 tunes and favorite Italian pop songs. This really gets the crowd going, and us foreigners stand in bemusement as a thousand voices sing along to
"OOOhhh, baby . . . ooohhh . . . aaahhh . . . I wanna knowwww . . . will you be my girl . . . "
Rather ironic considering the nature of the audience.
The drinks system is very interesting. You ask for your drink at the till and pay there. Then take the receipt to the barman, who will give you your drink. You must try a Negroni, made of aniseed, vodka, and some kind of black treacle. But most are on a natural high and don't need alcohol. The party goes on all night, and you will need your best clothes, as well as plenty of stamina, to keep up with everyone.
Ma Ma Mia and the Ligurian coast in summer is one of the hidden treasures of Italy.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 26, 2004
Ma Ma Mia - Tuscany's premier gay nightclub
Viale Europa 5 (passeggiata a mare)
Attraction | "Suck in your stomach at Torre Del Largo"
The Torre del Largo lies15 miles west of Pisa on the Ligurian coast. To Italians, it is one of the closest resorts to Florence, Pisa, and Viarregio. And it is a low-key resort, with campsites, small hotels, and intimate resorts. It is a place to kick back, and it has a family atmosphere dotted with adventure playgrounds, supermarkets, and bicycles-for-hire. Not to mention about 5 miles of deserted sandy beaches ready for the taking.
The A12 motorway between Pisa and Viareggio paralells the sea, and between this and the beaches is the pineta, a vast pinewood about 1 mile wide and 10 miles long. There is very sparse public transport to the beaches, which lie beyond the pineta, so most people arrive by car. If you do take public transport, take a bus going from Pisa (Piazza San Antonio) to Viareggio and get off at Torre del Lago, where there is a city bus to the beaches. And trails lead into the woods, taking 10 minutes to walk between the road and the beach. I can honestly recommend sensible footwear. As the trail progresses, it turns to sand, and, as I can testify, those of us wearing flip-flops found ourselves floundering like we were walking on jelly.
There is only 100 yards of heath and scrub, and then there is the beach. This stretches for 5 miles along the coast, but the stretch after the pineta,is one of the famous gay beaches in Italy. Men (and women?) come here after a hard night at Ma Ma Mia's (see other journal). Here they meet the friends, lay out in the sun, and gossip about what happened the night before.
This is exactly what we did. Our friends Stephano, Alessio, Luis, and Maurizio were already there, and for hundreds of yards, there was just athletic-looking men stretching in every direction. In Italy fashion is foremost, and most were equipped in uniformly toned bodies, Speedos, and designer sunglasses. If you didn't match these criteria, you really stood out. But the main attraction was the sun and surf, and the Ligurian Sea is beautifully warm. African hawkers patrolled the beaches selling cold agua, watches, and cornetto's. But there is a real sense of bonhomie on this beach, asense of being together. They will talk to you, and it is easy to strike up a conversation with strangers.
Tuscans adore living near the beach. As Maurizio told me, "We Italians cannot survive without the beach in the summer."
I'd go along with that.
Torre Del Largo
Off the A12 to Viarreggio
Florentine proverb: "Meglio un morto a casa che un Pisano al'uschio!" ("Better a death in the family than a Pisan at the door!")
Pisan reply: "E che Dio to contenda!" ("And may god grant your wish!")
At midnight on a weekday, when most of Europe is tucked up in bed, Pisa comes alive down by the river.
The students from the famous university sit on the river walls - hundreds of them - chatting, drinking, and flirting till the early hours. It is of course the famous Italian passoggiata, and in this town of ancient academia, its participants are young people who study at one of the most important universities in the world. But then students can stay up to all hours - they can miss lectures in the morning. It's the rest of Pisa that needs its sleep.
And if you come to Tuscany, you must visit Pisa. Apart from its world-famous tower, it is a beautiful city with barely a modern building amongst its twisting medieval streets. Butter-coloured stone crowns the facades of churches, cobbles cover elegant piazzas, arcades hide good shopping, and the town buzzes with the sound of tourists and students. It feels strange to look around at day-trip Pisa and to realise it was once a major power. Pisa was also the final destination for the western end of the Silk Road from China. It was a little battler of a city. It held the strategic islands of Corsica, Sardinia, and Mallorca, and, in turn, came to dominate the Mediterranean. But there were two other predatory cities that were growing into aggressive powers, Venice and Genoa, and they became, all three, bitter rivals. In 1284 Pisa was defeated in battle by the Genoese. The town remained wealthy, but it plummeted in power and had to submit to a succession of overlords like Genoa, Milan, and Florence. Pisa still had its moments. In the 16th century, for 15 years, this little city held off the combined might of Florence and France. And this is not counting all of its artistic achievements.
And in its layout, it does resemble Florence but without the crowds. It contains the major airport for Tuscany, Galileo, which has frequent buses into town that stop outside the stazione. In fact, the stazione is the true hub of Pisa. There are direct trains to the airport from the station every half an hour, but the big draw is Florence only 1 hour away. The return fare for Florence from Pisa is €8. Yes, I’ll say that again, 8€! It’s just £6.00 or $8.00, and trains leave every half an hour. Keep an eye on the timetables that are pasted onto the walls of the stazione, as there is quite a difference between the fast trains and those that stop at each station. And another tip is to make sure you activate your ticket in one of the machines dotted around the station. Failure to do this results in a nasty fine.
Outside the stazione is the taxi rank and bus port. From here buses can be taken to Viarreggio, Lucca, and the Torre del Largo. But most tourists, clutching their little guidebooks, cross the road and head north to find The Field of Miracles. The street that stretches from the stazione to the south bank of the Arno is the Corso Italiano, a pedestrianised narrow thoroughfare that houses the best boutiques and cafés in Pisa. In fact, all human life traverses this street: students on their way to lectures, preoccupied academics on bicycles, expensively dressed women, and trendy teenagers wearing the latest label. Italians spend more of their salaries on clothes then any other European country, and it can be seen as they move around town. As we traversed, our Italian friends would periodically stop, ostensibly to look at clothes in the window, but we caught them looking at themselves.
Finally, the Corso Italiano opens out into a piazza bordering the river Arno. Here Pisa becomes epic with the wide green river stretching in either direction. The stone banks look the same as they did in medieval times, with three bridges crossing the wide river. On either bank of the Arno are some truly beautiful buildings, most of them coloured tangerine or the light brown so specific to Tuscany, their terracotta roofs sloping down, shielding shuttered windows and balconies. Romanesque churches loomed above the rooftops, and lambrettas buzzed across the Ponte di Mezzo spanning the Arno. It is when you cross this bridge that Pisa seems to work its magic. Directly across is the Piazza Garibaldi. An arcaded building in streaked green marble overlooks the cobbled piazza that contains a statue of Garibaldi himself. I thoroughly recommend the gelataria in the northwest corner - their pistachio ice cream is delicious.
From there things get confusing. The Field of Miracles is not in a straight line from the stazione; it is situated away to the northwest, as the streets of Pisa do not lead there directly. From the Piazza Garibaldi the Borgo Stretto heads northwards; after travelling along this for 10 minutes you must take a left along Via Ulisse Dini into the beautiful Piazza Cavaolari. From there take the narrow street Via dei Mille further northwest and hopefully connect up with Via Santa Maria and the Leaning Tower. You will be in the same predicament as hundreds of equally confused tourists, so my advice is to follow the herd - they may know where they are going.
The shops are a major attraction - many of them situated in lovely arcades resembling that other stunning Italian University town, Bologna. And there are some truly beautiful set-pieces, i.e. Piazza de Cavaolari, which is one of the administrative centers of the university and is stunning (see photo). The university building is called Scuola Normale Superiore and has a set of stone steps leading up to a marble facade with shuttered windows. And between these windows is incredible ornate tracery, pictures of angels, and emblems with little marble busts perched in niches. The building was Napoleon Bonaparte’s idea. You need to pass special exams to get in and keep a high rating during the course. Another statue stands in the centre of this Piazza, this time with a drinking fountain. There are so many little exquisite piazzas in Pisa (although I must admit there is a lot of graffiti, some of it very political). One of my favorites was Piazza Dante Aligheri down by the river. The noble university building overlooked a tiny green square surrounded by palm trees.
I have a friend, Dr. Nicola Pavese, who works in London but keeps his apartment going in Pisa. And for 4 days in June, we stayed in his apartment outside the city walls on the Via Mossa (or Via Tosser as another friend called it - sorry, English joke), and from there we spread out to explore Tuscany. We were lucky enough to be shown about by his friends, and on the first night, slightly tired from the budget flight, we were taken out in a convertible sports car and spun along the cobbled streets. There we got our first snapshots of Pisa: the light reflected in the dark river, the studentpasseigetta in Piazza Garibaldi, and the famous leaning tower glowing in the darkness.
Once in a while there is a poll in the European Union: "If you were not your own nationality, which other nationality would you be?" Italian always wins; isn’t that funny?
We had just arrived in Pisa and were eating late. A friend of ours, Alessio, suggested seeing the Field of Miracles before we went to bed. And as Italians keep late hours, we tagged along to find that, apart from a couple of European backpackers lounging near the steps of the Ospetale, we were the only ones there. Imagine it? One of the most famous sights in the world, but with just you there. The Duomo, Baptistery, and Leaning Tower standing unmolested in their sea of green grass. The pure white stone gleams under the arc lights, and there is not a sound to be heard, except far, far away, the lone buzz of a lambretta
If you hit Tuscany, then you will hit Pisa just to see the Leaning Tower. You will not be able to resist having your photo taken at an angle where you are holding the tower up with your bare hands. The tourist circus around The Field of Miracles is very entertaining. Most have come on a day trip from Florence and have trudged up the Via Santa Maria from the stazione, or there are the tour groups who just stay for 1 hour before hurrying off to the bus for the next sight. But the Field of Miracles deserves a morning’s wander. A combined ticket to Baptisery, the Duomo, and the Tower can be had, and the green lawns surrounding it are a lovely place for a picnic. Lucky for us, the apartment we were staying in was a 20-minute walk away, and I saw it in the morning and combined it with a lazy afternoon on the beach of Torre del Largo (see other journal). Steve's idea of heaven - culture in the morning and sunbathing in the afternoon.
How get to the Field of Miracles is discussed in the Pisa journal. As you make your way down the Via Santa Maria, the great bulk of the Duomo will slide into sight. But to get there, you must run the gauntlet of African souvenir sellers and their plastic towers and Mussolini tea towels (I kid you not!). But once you are through, you will be standing in the northeastern corner of the field. To the south are the green lawns and the buildings of the Ospetale. Under the Ospetale walls are a legion of souvenir sellers and small restaurants, but it is the great tower in front of you that is the most interesting. To the south of this is the florid bulk of the Duomo, and at the end of the field is the wedding cake of the Baptisery. Each one is breathtaking and a beautiful example of Italian artistry. And to visit them all, you can buy a pass for 8.50€, which lets you into four sights (6€ for two or just 5€ for one monument).
Of course, you cannot not come to the Field of Miracles and not think of Galileo. His experiments with falling objects dropped from the Leaning Tower paved the way for Newton and gravity. But those experiments served a useful purpose - it was in this town that Galileo formed his theory that the earth revolved around the sun. This went against the official Roman-Catholic view that everything spun around the earth, and in 1633, he was dragged before the inquisition in Rome. The pope ordered him to renounce his conclusions publicly on pain of torture or even execution. He did so, but under his breath he whispered secretly, "E pur sì muove" ("But the earth does move"). Whenever I looked up at the tilt of the Leaning Tower, I could not help but think of Galileo peering up at the stars with his telescope.
It is the famousTowerthat you will make for first. It is bigger then I expected, and its tilt is not really noticeable from close up (see photo). It is made from gleaming white marble. There is a sort of helter-skelter effect as the swirling stories roll slowly upwards. Each storey is covered in pillars, and as you watch, you can see people slowly creep their way up to the very top. The tilt is 5 degrees to the south, and it slides another millimeter each year. They are trying to stop the tilt; the British came up with a way of reversing the tilt or at least stopping the continuous lean - they carefully extracted soil from around the foundation. It seems to have worked, and for the first time in 40 years, you can climb the tower for 15€. It looked too precarious for me, but Nic assured me that he had climbed it in his youth. It terrified him, and he inched his way upward while clinging to the sides.
Next is the colossal Cathedral (Duomo). This monster made of white marble is built in the shape of a cross. It soars into the air, and the gleaming white exterior contrasts nicely with the usually blue Tuscan sky. The facade is on the west side, and most people traverse the Duomo and pay attention to its beautiful exterior, which is unique and called Pisan Romanesque. The interior is exceptionally cool on a hot day and over 300 feet long. It has one of the highest ceilings I have ever seen in a cathedral. The ceiling is supported by a dozen or so columns and a frescoed dome. It is the fresco above the nave that I found interesting - Christ is flying above the altar with a golden gilt background. The lamps around it were meant to have inspired Galileo's theories about the movement of the earth. Speaking of which, when I was walking out, I noticed something about the cathedral - the massive building itself leans. As you walk away, the building looks as if it is falling ever so slightly forward.
And lastly is the Baptistery. It's a very strange shape, almost as if someone took a jelly bowl, turned it upside down, and started carving away (see photo). The decorations on the roof are all swirls and ornate filigree, and it tapers to a point. You can enter on a combined ticket with the cathedral, and the inside is rather memorable. It is hemispherical in shape, and very austere, brown, and grey marble dominate. Pillars hold up the gallery, running around the top of the hemisphere and looking down on a bronze statue of a man with a rod. You can climb the stone stairs to the gallery for a view down, and as a London schoolboy, I learned that domes carry noise and that you can have great fun with the acoustics.
Once you have finished, you must head for the southeast corner of the Campo dei Miracoli, where you can line your camera up for the classic view of Baptistery, Duomo, and Leaning Tower (see photo). The lean is at its most obvious from this distance, and I couldn't help thinking whether Pisa would have been so popular down the ages if it had been a "straight" tower? It must be one of the most famous failures in history. Whoever messed up in 1173 probably kept his embarrassed head down.
But little did he know that he provided this cosy town on the Arno with one of the world’s greatest icons and a very profitable tourist industry.
The soundtrack starts with Puccini's 'Sogno di Doretta',, the shutters are thrown open, and the audience sees the magnificent cityscape of Florence for the first time. The tangerine octagonal dome of the Duomo floats above the terracotta roofs, Italian voices can be heard below, and the whole vista is bathed in warm sunshine.
Everyone in that darkened cinema then swears that they will visit Florence one day....
Well, everybody does. Florence copes with enormous hordes in the summer, and each person comes away with a feeling of satisfaction in visiting one of the great repositories of culture in the world. The words "Florence" and "Renaissance" are synonymous. No other place on earth has had such an exceptional flowering of the arts. Some of the most important artists that ever lived graced the narrow dark streets of Firenze—Da Vinci, Raphael, Botticelli. It has been beguiling cultured Anglo-Saxons since the 17th century. Those on the grand tour visited the 'City of the Lily'. After all, it was de rigeur for the completion of one's education in the 19/18th centuries. If you have 'A Room with a View' fantasies, then this is the city to come to…
And those cinematic views are still there. The best has to be from Piazza Michelangelo, where you get the entire breath of the Arno valley and sweep of the rooftops. But every street turning will bring an exciting vista—a statue in a piazza, a bell tower looming over the river, the chatter in a café, and the wide, green Arno, complimented by the caramel and sandy coloured medieval buildings along its length. Of course, you will have to share all this beauty with thousands of others, and in the height of summer, queuing to get into the Duomo and Uffizi will be mandatory. But no way should Florence be a chore. The minute the patience begins to wear thin when the next tour party treads on your toes or the heat and crowds get too much—then pull up a chair in a cafe and order a Negroni. After all, you are in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Why get stressed?
Most people arrive at the Stazione Santa Maria Novella, which is a great barn of a station northwest of the city centre. From here, it is a short walk across the road to the rear of the Santa Maria Novella church. Most of central Florence is pedestrianised, allowing visitors to move from piazza to piazza unmolested by speeding lambrettas. From the stazione, it is a walk down the Via dei Banchi to the Piazza del Duomo. If you were in any doubt that you are in a city, rather than a tourist attraction, then the Via dei Banchi will prove it. All human life moves through this—harassed tourists, beggars, shoppers, salesmen, and carabinieri, and proof that Florence is no different from anywhere else is evident in the road works, noise, and car fumes. Finally, as you pass all the souvenir shops, pizzerias, and postcard vendors, you open up into the magnificent Piazza del Duomo.
It’s the colour that strikes you first. This is not the heavy stone of the northern European cathedrals—this is a mosaic of green, white, red, and brown. Its bulk is colossal—it engulfs the entire piazza. In fact, in many ways, it is too imposing—it reminded me, when I caught a sideways view of it from the south, of a B-movie giant blob slowly moving through the streets of Florence. But this is the monster all the tourists want to see. There was an American couple on the train back who were on a cruise of the Mediterranean and were taking the train from the port of Viarreggio—they only had one hour in Florence before they had to head back, and guess what they made sure they saw?
If you can take a breath before entering the Duomo, take a look upwards at the facade. As your eyes move upwards, they will take in the mass of florid detail and bas reliefs. As if that wasn't enough, the Campanile stands next door, and that really is exceptional. The detail of the carving is gorgeous, with horizontal bands of green, white, and pink inlay. A few metres to the west is the inverted bowl of the Baptistery of San Giovanni. This is second on most people’s wish lists, and yes, you are right—the exterior is encased entirely by green marble. They must have had money to burn. It's famous for its engraved golden doors, with Ghiberti's eastern doors being the most lauded. The queue to enter the building blocked the view of the doors when we were there, but we were able to glimpse the golden carvings. I especially liked the Fall of Jericho, with its toppling tower in the bottom right-hand corner.
One queue worth joining is the queue for the Duomo interior. Like at Santa Croce, all ladies with bare shoulders are given paper ponchos that rustle in the echoing confines of the cathedral. And it’s this interior, once you get through the doors, which tends to get the majority of prose written about it for all the wrong reasons. Guidebooks call it bare and talk of "disappointment" for first-time visitors. But, contrary Mary that I am, I rather liked it. It is a massive barn-like space which stretches for a hundred feet into the air. The walls are rather bare, with just ancient candelabra to please the eye, but as you move into the centre, you notice that everyone is looking up. And high above you are the frescoes adorning the inside of Brunescelli's famous dome. The eye can only just make out swirling cherubs and scenes from the Bible. This is the Duomo's true highlight. If you can, go downstairs and see his tomb. He is tucked away in a cave-like room, with a simple stone plinth. When I looked at his tomb, I was reminded of the epitaph of another famous English architect that says, "If you wish my monument, look around you."
The Ponte Vecchio
Without even knowing it, most visitors’ feet lead them lemming-like towards the Arno. Armed with a gelato, they are drawn to the wide green river by hypnotic forces beyond their control. The 'Old Bridge' is pretty impressive. As you approach, the river is obscured except for a brown ramp leading up the caramel stone of the bridge. The bridge is pedestrianised, and as you move across, I was amazed how wide it was and how it could accommodate all the tourists. The memory of being nearly crushed to death on the Rialto in Venice was still vivid. This was wide enough to accommodate much traffic, and just like the Rialto, it was lined with artisan shops, selling not the tacky glassware from the lagoon city but glittery silverware. Each medieval house housed a jewelry shop, and millions of euros’ worth of silver and gold wares glittered back at me. But that seemed to fit the image of Florence; gone are the old tanneries and slaughterhouses that used to be on this bridge, and conspicuous consumption is more in vogue.
In the middle is a small loggia and statue. This is where the tourist hordes stop to gaze at the views up and downstream. And those medieval houses are still there, their overhanging eaves being kept up by brackets, their brown stonework showing up against the blue sky. There were many bridges like the Ponte Vecchio in medieval times, where home and workshop shared the same space. The most famous of these has to be London Bridge, which was much bigger and longer, but as the nursery rhyme says, "it fell down," and the Ponte Vecchio is one of the few remaining bridges with houses left in the world. And for that, we are grateful.
And as we walked east along Oltrano to the Ponte Trinity, I kept thinking how lucky we were that the Ponte Vecchio was still standing. The buildings on the southern end looked medieval, but I knew them to be reconstructed fakes. The originals were blown up by retreating Nazis in 1944. I've seen pictures of either end blocked by rubble, which didn't slow the Allies as they crossed the Arno when the river level fell. But to stand on one of the bridges in Florence and gaze west at the Ponte Vecchio is one of thoseviews of Italy.
You know the one. The one you saw in the darkened cinema that inspired you to come to Florence in the first place...
The price that my friend Nicola Pavese consented to for showing us around Florence was that he was allowed to cane the plastic at Emporio Armani. And who can blame him? The Italians cannot live without fine shops and judge every other country in Europe on how stylish their shopping streets are. And the set of streets between the stazione and the river are rolling in designer shops. Florence has some of the best shopping in Europe.
But the heart of this area is the gorgeous Piazza della Signoria. The great Palazzo di Signoria, where the Medici family kept an eye on their famous city, dominates the piazza--and the 'Signoria' (the top tier of government) kept a wary eye on them. For the piazza is drama - everything about it is exaggerated and dramatic. Its palazzo is overbearing and domineering, its fountains are extrovert and eye-catching, its buildings are colourful and striking, and its art? Well, its art is some of the best known in the world.
There are plenty of ways to reach it. Most stroll down from the Duomo on Via della Cazoullli past all the gelatarias and leatherware shops. There they will enter the piazza from the northwest corner and see it in its entirety. The medieval buildings on four sides are apricot coloured and they compliment the flagstones underfoot which are dotted with pigeons. In the southern corner are a number of open-air carriages for hire, the whiff of their dung on a hot day will take your breathe away for a different reason. And despite the hordes of tourists dashing to the Uffizi before the queues get too long or posing in front of the statues, there is a sense of palpable history to the Piazza. This was where the 'Bonfire of the Vanities' took place, where the fanatical friar Savaronola whipped the crowd into a frenzy. It was on this piazza back in 1504 that Michelangelo unveiled his David to the city fathers. He was meant to represent plucky little Florence with its battles with the 'goliath', which was then France.
And it is the art which takes your attention in the Piazza della Signoria. The southern side is almost entirely taken up with the loggia, which was built in the 14th century to allow the city fathers to shelter from the sun during civic ceremonies. Now it is covered in fine statuary, and the public is allowed access. I wondered before I arrived how the famous statuary was protected from vandals and drunks rolling home after a night out. The reason became clear as I climbed the steps, there are security guards--if someone gets to close to The Rape of the Sabine Women the carabinieri growl ominously. The statues are impressive; most popular is Cellini's Perseus and Medusa, where a skinny youth in blue marble holds a head covered in snakes. Other impressive statues include Donatello's Mazocco--a lion statue and symbol of the city. And most memorably, Giambologna's Hercules and the Centaur, where Hercules wrestles with a mythological creature with the hindquarters of a horse. I had to giggle when one tourist spotted this and called out loudly, "Hey George! Come and look at this! Some guy is beating up a cow!"
But the big statue has to be Michelangelo's David, or at least the copy, put here when the elements became too much for the original. Unfortunately, it stands right underneath the Palazzo Vecchio, which is currently being renovated and is covered head to toe in scaffolding. I couldn't even get within ten feet of David, and I couldn't manage to view the original in the Accademia. Next to it is the monstrous Neptune fountain. If you like your statues big and brash, it's great! Luckily, I do, so I lapped up the big, butch Neptune, with his club and abdominal muscles standing on a plinth of rearing horses and gushing water. But crush central has to be the southeastern corner, where the 'loggia', 'Uffizi', and entrance to the Palazzo all meet. The Piazzale del Uffizi is the arcade that wraps around the famous art museum and leads to the river. This is where the queues wind for the Uffizi, and it really is a wonderfully dark little courtyard overlooked by pompous statues of Giotto and Da Vinci.
As we were foolishly there on a Monday, and the Uffizi was shut, so I opted for the Palazzo Vecchioinstead. At six euros, this was a good choice, and I was very impressed by what was on display. This was the big one, this was where the Medici's ran their kingdom from--they even had a corridor running from the Palazzo, across the Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace on the other side of the Arno. What struck me about the Palazzo Vecchio is how much it doesn't look like a palace from the outside--there is none of the swirling artwork of the Doges Palace in Venice or the statuary of our own Hampton Court. Probably because it was a fortress, people vanished inside to the dungeons and didn't come out, armies attacked it from time to time--political life in renaissance Florence was very tough. So, incidently, is security; in the Cortile, you will have to go through an overworked security guard and ancient metal detector. Beyond that are the courtyards, ticket office, restaurant, and book shop.
Up the stairs is the first of the big set-pieces. The 'Salone de Cinquecento' is over 20 feet high and 50 feet wide. This was the audience chamber of the Medicis, and a dais stands at one end. The ceiling is covered in golden panels, and the walls covered in frescoes showing 'the siege of Florence'. The audio-visual screens dotted around the palazzo were very good--for a few euros, you could learn about the history of the building and the artists who worked here. Then it was up more stairs and dark corridors to the Sala de Carte Geographice, which was covered in maps, etc. Almost every room had a golden ceiling, a priceless statue, or an ornate chapel. Before such treasures became too much, I found myself on the second floor with an open-air loggia overlooking the rooftops of Florence (see photo). As far as the eye could see, the terracotta-tiled roofs of the city stretched, broken only by church domes and campaniles. This is one beautiful city.
But on this visit I was on a timetable and had to return to my friend, who was enjoying the delights of Emporio Armani. He showed us the main shopping street in Florence--the Via Tournoboni. In the Middle Ages, the source of Florence's great wealth was its cloth industry, and modern day Florentines still make the city a mecca for the well-dressed. The street stretched from the river to Santa Maria Maggiore. Housed in the great brown medieval palazzo's were Gucci, Enrico Coveri, Louis Vuitton, and the glittering jewellry of Bulgari. Armani itself was situated next to the Palazzo Strozzi, a massive fortress/palace that once belonged to a powerful Florentine family. While we were there the palazzo had an exhibtion on the artist Botticelli.
Not finished shopping yet? One more thing to buy?
Okay, I'll go and wait on the Piazza del Republica, another massive square in the heart of Florence. This one is more human, and for Florentines rather then tourists. Great arches and offices decorate its east and west sides, and cafes spill out onto the street. But there is a carousel for children, benches for adults, and tabacchis that sell cold drinks.
It's a good place to unwind, put my feet up, soak up the sun, and watch Florentine life mill around me. Take your time, Nic...I'm quite happy here...
Attraction | "Florence - Santa Croce Church - the resting place of Michelangelo and Michiavelli"
Machiavelli. Niccolo Machiavelli The name, for over five-hundred years, has come to represent skulduggery and political maneuvering .
The termMachiavellian is still used in newspaper articles and fiction to denote one who engages in machinations against others. It has come to mean ruthlessness and backstabbing, taken to Shakespearean excesses. This Tuscan noble worked for the government of Florence, and his intricate plots against the papacy and Borgia family have became famous down the ages. He lost his job when the Medici returned to Florence and is probably most famous for his novel The Prince, which is the blueprint tome on political cunning.
He is buried in the ancient church of Santa Croce, which is still the largest Franciscan abbey in Florence. The area to the east of Piazza di Signoria and the Duomo is named after the famous church. It has its own quartieri - a little self-contained area of gelatarias, pizzicherias, tabacchis, and the medieval homes of people who had lived here for generations. The walls of the buildings make a cohesive whole, built out of brown Tuscan stone. And as you wander around, you can spot decorations such as crenellated roofs, 'Lily emblems', and wooden brackets.
It was these wooden struts/brackets which seemed to catch my interest. The focus of the quartieri is Piazza San Croce. And the south side of the Piazza was made up of medieval mansions with overhanging upper stories, supported by these struts. They looked over the piazza, which is a real joy to wander around and one of the architectural triumphs of this part of Florence—gushing fountains, equestrian and lion statues, and the facade of the famous church. While we were there, seating stands were erected over the bare space in the centre. The day before held the recreation of the calcio, a football match played in the piazza since the 15th century. Damn, I would like to have seen that.
But the main attraction and the main reason most tourists head to the Piazza is the Franciscan church of Santa Croce. It stands out in the guidebooks not so much for the architecture, although this is impressive, but as the resting place of so many famous Florentines. Esteemed company such as Michelangelo, Dante, and Galileo are buried here—a sort of Renaissance Westminster Abbey. It goes back 700 hundred years and remains one of the first churches, dating from the 13th century. But we see here the 1375 version, which wasn't consecrated until 1445. And the facade is far, far newer; the original church had a rather dull, mud-brick façade, so the 19th-century Florentines built their own. It consists of streaked green and white marble, spires, and ornate tracery.
The steps in front of the church are set with artists, ready to paint your portrait for a large number of euros, but on the left-hand side of the church is an arcade, and this is where you buy your ticket to visit the church. Like many Florentine churches, bare shoulders for women are strictly forbidden, so you can hire silly paper ponchos which rustle audibly to cover yourself. And it is undeniably an impressive church. Like the Duomo, the interior is massive but rather sparse. It stretches hundreds of feet into the air and has a wooden ceiling. A lot of San Croce was under restoration scaffolding, so you didn't get the full impact, but what people come for are the tombs and monuments around the sides and a chance to follow the footsteps of the very famous.
And they don't get any more famous than Michelangelo Buonorroti. The Florentines are lucky that his remains are here at all; the Romans hung onto them, so they had to steal them in the night and spirit them back to Tuscany. This tomb gets the most attention and is really an aged red sarcophagus halfway up a wall. It is offset by a Naldini portrait of suffering Christ to give it that little bit more spiritual credence. Next door is Dante, author of the Divine Comedy', and the great Renaissance author is given a plaque halfway up the wall. His relationship with Florence was strained at the end of his life, and he was eventually driven out for backing the wrong side in the Guelf-Ghibelline fratricide. He died in Ravenna, but his remains lie here. And last along the block is the memorable Niccolo Machiavelli. He gets a tomb, rather than a plaque, and this was probably the man who caught my interest the most. I tried reading 'The Prince' many years ago and gave up—all its cynical twists and views on strong, ruthless government became wearing after a while.
Across the echoing bare nave is probably the most important man to be buried here, Galileo Galilei. Galileo did so much for science and its arguments against the teachings of the Bible that it is somewhat ironic that he is buried here. Perhaps it is the final laugh against the Inquisition that the man they tried for hearsay—when he said the world revolved around the sun—has ended up in one of the most prestigious churches in Florence. He gets a plaque and a tomb and quite a crowd around him. But where Santa Croce really shines is in its artwork, which includes work by Donatello, Ghiberti, and Bruneschelli. However, it is the frescoes of one—Giotto—which bring in the crowds. They lie in the chapels beyond the altar, underneath the dome. The tiny chapels are covered in aged, peeling frescoes dating from the 15th century. They were discovered by the 19th-century Florentines and underwent terrible restoration, which resulted in the fading images you see today. The horrific flood of 1966 didn't exactly help things either, but the ancient images of God and his angels that survived are undeniably impressive.
As you wander to the east, you enter the cloisters and courtyards of the Franciscan Abbey. The monks followed the teachings of St. Francis, who espoused denial of much worldly good, so it comes as a surprise to see such ornamentation in these rooms. The Cappella di Pazzi is very impressive, with a vast ceiling frescoes and statues by Canova. Then it is out into the green courtyard and bright sunshine. There the swifts made their appearance, and we enjoyed the cool cloisters and beautiful statuary.
As our footsteps echoed on the stone steps, I began to see the attraction of religious life. The peace of the cloisters and the beautiful surroundings—mind you, I can't see me being a monk. Total abstinence and an itchy woollen habit? I think I'll pass...
Basilica of Santa Croce
Piazza Santa Croce
Florence, Italy 50122
London, United Kingdom