Florence hits the top spot in most travel listicles with amazing regularity. Not only is it’s reputation as the Italian cultural center-piece and as the birthplace of the Renaissance reason enough for the faithful hordes, it’s proximity to the unique topography of Tuscany’s rolling hills and the Tyrrhenian sea makes it the perfect spot for a lot of countryside and seaside getaways.
“This is the fairest picture on our planet, the most enchanting to look upon, the most satisfying to the eye and the spirit. To see the sun sink down, drowned on his pink and purple and golden floods, and overwhelm Florence with tides of color that make all the sharp lines dim and faint and turn the solid city to a city of dreams, is a sight to stir the coldest nature, and make a sympathetic one drunk with ecstasy.”
Mark Twain Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1892
Reaching Florence from Venice
After our brief stay in Venice, we catch a train to Florence and arrive by late afternoon. It takes us some time to get our bearings. After dragging our luggage around the city for a good 20 – 30 minutes, or as the mayor of another Italian city would put it, making a major nuisance of ourselves, we arrive at our stay on the grandiose sounding Via Lorenzo il Magnifico. Our stay is an immaculate one, the Opera B&B, run by an affectionate and caring Italian named Francesco.
The B&B has a dark stairwell and we are at first perplexed to find no one at attendance. Thankfully, there is a note taped to the door for us by Francesco, and we follow the instructions to finally find for ourselves the tallest and most spacious room we’ve every stayed in. This is a place that does not have a 24 hour front desk, but assuredly, Francesco is only a call or email away.
Sights to see in Florence
After settling in, we set out for an evening where the singular aim is to view the sun set over Florence from an extraordinary vantage point, in the southern Oltrarno district. We ask a local for directions, and are bemused to be met with a barrage of well-intentioned directions, all of it in incomprehensible Italian. Sign language and lame attempts to italianize English words later, I give up, only able to convey Piazzale Michelangelo and Bus, and he responds with a finger pointing me to a bus stop. Sure enough, that is the intended bus stop and we hop on Bus No 13 for our destination.
Piazzale Michelangelo and Basilica di San Miniato al Monte
The bus trip takes about 40 minutes through a mostly beige and yellow colored city, glowing a slight golden in the hours leading up to sun set. From the windows, we can make out cobbled streets and concrete pavements. The roads are canopied by tall trees on both sides – Via Michaelangelo is the road we learn later, and can sense the Italian way of life already – respect for pedestrians but a little disregard for traffic rules otherwise. Most of the vehicles proudly bear the Fiat logo.
Soon, we arrive at Piazzale Michaelangelo. Entrance is free here and there is a noticeable buzz about the place, almost similar to a fair. Tourists are licking gelatos, getting selfies taken, haggling for souvenirs or otherwise, milling about excitedly. The steps at the piazza are mostly occupied, but the crowds are quiet, perhaps in admiration of the beautiful panorama on offer. There are restaurants near the courtyard from which emanate lilting music, providing food and drinks to accompany the grand view. It is 6 in the evening, the light is a brilliant golden and it only promises to get better.
Up the road from Piazzale Michaelangelo, stands the relatively less crowded and undoubtedly one of the finest architectural structures in Florence, the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte.
Entrance to the basilica is free and open until 7 pm. Around 7, the friendly guard starts closing the gate to visitors and we take a quick peek inside the basilica, dark due to the faded sun light, but our eyes gradually adjust to the dim white, golden and grey interiors of the basilica. The exterior facade reminds us of the Santa Maria del Fiore or the famous Duomo. In the days to come, we are going to run into this characteristic exterior in a lot of the basilicas throughout Florence, Santa Croce included.
It gets quite crowded at sunset though, we see a long queue of cars waiting at the traffic signals. I can also sense the exasperation on the face of a few locals as they wait for so many tourists to cross the road near the Piazza. We later catch Bus No. 12, feeling quite at home inside the packed bus, to get back to our B&B.
Uffizzi and it’s Renaissance era paintings
Next morning, Florence wakes up a little damp and cloudy. On this day, we intend to visit the Uffizzi which is perhaps, the only place that we intend to splurge on in Florence. We have already booked a guided tour of the gallery with Walks of Italy, and Francesco provides us directions to the Uffizzi, along with a quick Italian breakfast and a deliciously sweet muffin, encrusted with sugar crystals. “Baked by my mom“, he proclaims proudly !
We arrive at the Piazza della Signoria on what is turning out to be a slightly humid morning to find that we’re the only ones booked on the tour, turning it into a private tour of sorts. Angelo, our guide, wastes no time in getting us started with the history of the Renaissance, a history lesson spanning 2 centuries condensed into 2 hours filled with famous paintings.
About the Renaissance
Angelo explains that the Uffizzi, or “the offices”, began it’s early days, as the administrative offices of the Medici era. The Medici family, the most influential and powerful one of it’s times, founded it’s fortunes in banking during the pre-Renaissance era. Their habit of hobnobbing with the city’s elites and their general wealth on display, were usually despised by some of the elitists of the era. But that did not stop the Medici from ascending the power centers of the Florentine state, not being rulers themselves but making sure that their wishes were adhered to.
In the 14th and 15th century, patrons of the fine arts that they were (partly, in order to appease the gods for the unholy business of banking or making money they were in), the Medici began to sponsor artistes and commission works of arts. This sponsorship was an arena where the Papacy enjoyed absolute freedom till then.
The Papacy had therefore, hitherto, exercised a stranglehold on the themes and the scenes their commissioned art could ehibit. Their paintings depicted a few, mostly repetitive scenes from Biblical times, with depictions that displayed no respect for structure, depth or anatomy.
Throttled by the free hand that they enjoyed with the Medici patronage, the Renaissance artists began to deviate from the hitherto 2 dimensional, disciplined and often gilded, art style. Artists like Boticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Donatello and host of others set about eschewing the traditional rules and dogma related to art, and embracing a more natural and lifelike expression of the human anatomy, giving rise to what is known as the Humanist style. Blasphemous for the traditionalists but liberating for the modern, progressive thinkers of the era.
Their ideas soon developed roots in painting, sculpture, literature, music, architecture and philosophy. This spread to all parts of the Italian country-states and from there, to all parts of Europe, thus marking a true revolution in the ideas and culture of the era, and ringing in the transition from medieval to modern times for Europe. They also succeeded in eventually casting a profound influence on the Papal states.
Famous architect Giorgio Vasari named this period, the ‘Rebirth’ and that in turn, led to the term ‘Renaissance’. The private art collection of the Medicis, was collated in the modern era in the offices of the Florentine state, or the Uffizi. Along with a host of other art pieces collected from various eras, the Uffizzi now houses one of the largest, richest collections of art on the entire planet.
Piazza Della Signoria
After the guided tour, Angelo bids us goodbye. Left to strike out on our own, we take a leisurely stroll through the Piazza della Signoria and are amazed at how crowded it has turned out to be. The opportunity is apt for some people watching and gelato licking. The Palazzo Vecchio, the Galleria dell’Accademia and the Vasari corridor beckon, but we have probably spent our bucks wisely in choosing the Uffizzi tour and for now, it is mostly the free sights that we pick.
From the Uffizzi and the Palazzo Vecchio, we move on to the Ponte Vecchio. Angelo informs us during the tour that the Medici had a corridor built so that they could move from their residence on the south of the Arno (the Palazzo Pitti beside the Boboli gardens – also a museum now) to the Uffizi and to the Palazzo Vecchio, without stepping foot outside. This corridor, named the Vasari corridor after it’s designer Giorgio Vasari, winds it’s way over the Ponte Vecchio.
With great difficulty, we find a free spot on the Ponte Vecchio. Evenings see musicians, magicians and other artistes displaying their skills and regaling locals and tourists alike here, but afternoons are usually filled with selfie-seekers.
At some point, the Medici also had the fish stall and meat stall hawkers and street owners, distasteful to them, evicted from the Ponte Vecchio. Their place were taken by gold and jewelry shops, befitting the economic status of the Medici.
The shopping center for most tourists, done to death in most blogs, is our next destination. Everywhere we turn, there are leather and faux leather handbags in tan, bronze, blue, black and green. Chinese souvenirs and curios, miniature duomos and collisseums, magnets and keychains abound. Leather shoes, messenger bags, belts, hats and football jerseys of every European club are on display. We manage to evade the Bangladeshis parading their stocks and stumble into the heart of the crowded eatery inside Mercato Centrale.
Inside, there is probably something to cater to every taste. We manage to track a stall that is offering grilled chicken, roasted potatoes and pomodoro – juicy tomatoes that just burst in your mouth. The Italian manning the establishment asks us where we are from and upon hearing India, breaks into a wide welcoming smile.
“I’ve been there. Delhi, Bangalore, Kera.. Keraala” he manages between gushes. So we ask him to make the chicken a little spicy and he flashes an understanding thumbs-up.
The Duomo also doubles up as a gigantic anchor point, a beacon for all first-timers to the city, apart from being the face of Florence. From narrow alleyways and city streets, it’s cupola peeks at us and immediately guides us on our path.
At first however, nothing prepares us for the sheer size of the Duomo (Italian for cathedral, not for dome). It is massive and we can already see tourists bending into grotesque shapes to accommodate the structure in their photo frames. Walking around it’s alley ways presents sneak peeks with a narrow slice of the cathedral. Whenever we get lost, we look at the Duomo as our point of reference in Florence.
It is the octagonal Baptistery that is the older place of worship though. Entrance here, is not free however and we balk at the crowds, so we just look at the fantastic gilded doors to this basilica before we move to the centerpiece of Florence, the Duomo.
The Duomo’s facade with it’s green, white ad pink marble, inlaid with tiled frescoes matches that of the baptistery and we spend some moments trying to make out the frescoes without stepping on the toes of camera-wielding tourists thronging the courtyards.
Entrance is free to a limited section of the Duomo and the queues move surprisingly quickly. So we step through one of the doors. Inside, the cavernous hallways dwarf everything else in comparison. That is until we walk along, gazing upwards at the tall frescoes and stained-glass windows, stopping finally beneath Bruneleschi’s massive cupola.
Entrance to the long-winded 400-odd stairs to the cupola as well as the Campanile outside the Duomo require tickets and seeing the long queues, we make a decision to reserve it for another time, if there is one. Given a choice between the two though, the view from the Campanile overlooking the Duomo would definitely be my pick.
But, even after exiting the Duomo, we cannot help gazing at it every now and then, upwards to it’s lovely brick-red cupola. Emblematic of Firenze, we hope to make it back one day and catch the city’s red tiled roofs, this time from above.
Note: We arrived at Florence by train from Venice. The trains in Italy do not have much space to carry luggage for everybody, so traveling light is a golden rule.
See: We spent 3 nights and days in Florence, 2 days taking in the sights and 1 making a day trip to the Tuscan countryside. Within Florence, if you are a little short on budget, be sure to check out the ticket prices for the Uffizzi and the Accademia and budget for either one – my recommendation is the Uffizzi. However, if budget is not a constraint, I’d recommend both, in addition to the Palazzo Vecchio.
An evening at the Piazza Michelangelo is definitely recommended. Watch the sun go down and the city start lighting up, it is a magical sight.
If time permits, visit the Basilica di Santa Croce, where most of the luminaries of the Renaissance including Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Galileo have been laid to rest.
Stay: Our stay at Opera B&B was fantastic and you’d be hard pressed to find such a great stay at the same rates. Although the vicinity of Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station may have some budget stays, nothing beats staying closer to the Duomo and exploring the neighborhood on foot. Some additional resources and pointers here:
Day trips from Florence: On introspection, we feel it is better to spend at least 4 nights in Florence so that you can accommodate a few more sights in the city and additionally, day trips to the seaside – either Pisa or Cinque Terre or both.
Tuscany’s countryside is not to be missed at any cost. If you have the time, I’d recommend spending at least a night in Tuscany and waking up to the gorgeous sight of fog rolling in the rounded hills of the countryside. In April – May, spring will have just departed and Tuscany’s hills will be lush green everywhere, like in it’s beautiful photographs. August – September sees the hills turning brown and yellow with patchwork green, but still makes for a stunning view. What is more, September – Oct is harvest season, so Tuscany’s vineyards will be bursting with grapes, readying to produce it’s famed wine. Pointers on other day trips here: