or, Talking Turkey in Tuscany
Rationale (or irrational?)
Two things to be said about the trip which will unfold in the course of this post.
1. My childhood travels with my parents were fairly limited. I do recall a trip or two into Northern Ontario (same province, different region) and a visit to Expo 67 in Montreal. There were also a couple of drives to Detroit to see relatives… but otherwise we did not venture far afield. I suspect that this stemmed from differing perspectives on holidays by my parents. My mother was a somewhat adventurous sort who would probably have enjoyed seeing other countries immensely. She did, in fact, after my departure from “the nest”, travel to the west coast of our country and pay a visit to Florida. But that was done with relatives or friends… not my father. He was more inclined to “stay put”, whether for reasons of anxiety or apprehension or simple obstinacy (one of his gifts). I am, I suppose, some blend of those two gene pools. I exhibit both excitement and anxiety at the prospect of travel. Fortunately, virtually all my vacation experiences- as a child, as a parent and as part of a couple have been pleasurable and the source of countless happy memories. That fact has probably tipped the scales in favour of the occasional foray into the unknown (or less known, at least).
2. Last year, when we made our anniversary journey to England and France, it was after discarding several alternative scenarios. One of those would have taken us to Strasbourg and Colmar (in northern France)… but as the sequel to a week’s tour of Italy. As you may recall, we did visit Strasbourg and Colmar in the final edition of the anniversary tour… but Italy didn’t make the final cut. As I reflected on “the road not taken” after our trip, I realized that, of the Italian destinations usually featured in package tours, Florence was by far the most intriguing. It also had the added benefit of being a site that (once situated) could be best explored on foot. Add to that the fact that (at the time) the airfare cost to Florence was not so much greater than a domestic flight to (for instance) Charlottetown. We also have two rather elderly dogs (and one in midlife crisis) so a week in a kennel seemed about the maximum period advisable. Put all this together and what do you get? A one-week trip to Florence over the Thanksgiving weekend (with a day or two on each side)…
October 10th and 11th (Thursday and Friday)
In anticipation of departure later in the day on the 10th, we deliver the grrrrrrrls to their to holiday haven in the early morning for a week of canine carousing. We travel to Pearson Airport and take an Alitalia flight bound for Rome which leaves Toronto on time at 4:30 p.m.
We arrive in Rome about 7:30 a.m. and, after the usual machinations in changing flights, board a second Alitalia flight bound this time for Florence. We arrive in Florence around 10:30 and take a taxi to our bed and breakfast (Fiorenza Bed and Breakfast). Elena (the owner) is not there upon our arrival but her staff makes us welcome with a cup of Italian coffee and we take advantage of the time to walk about the grounds.
Shortly after she arrives and we exchange greetings (and ask a few pertinent questions). And then we retire to our room for an hour or two of convalescent sleep. But we are in Florence after all, so we head out for a stroll… our bed and breakfast is about a 30-minute walk to the old city centre. Our destination is the Uffizi Gallery where we hope to obtain “Friends of the Uffizi” cards… these will enable us to visit many of the Florence sites with a minimum of fuss.
Eventually we reach the Uffizi but, while the gallery is still open, the office we seek closes at 5:00 and so we can simply delight in our surroundings, grab a sandwich to take to our room and wander back.
Saturday, October 12th
Our internal clocks are still a little messed up but thanks to a sturdy breakfast and some strong Italian coffee, we feel ready to take on Firenze in earnest. We set out again on foot…
…but we finally arrive at the Uffizi shortly after the “Friends” office opens. We wait as several other groups obtain their memberships. Then it’s our turn…
But I digress #1... The Uffizi Card
What, you ask, is the deal with the Uffizi Card? The card is actually a membership card with “Friends of the Uffizi”, group dedicated to preserving the artistic heritage of the historic city. The card (good for one year [Jan to Dec]) entitles the holder to unlimited free admission to a considerable number of galleries and museums in the city. It costs 60 euros for an individual/100 euros for a family and, if you are seeing many of these sites, well worth the investment. Perhaps as importantly, in the case of the Uffizi and the Accademia (two of the principal destinations covered by the card). you will likely be waiting for a few minutes instead of hours (and I mean that literally) in order to enter. Alternatives to this… the Firenze Card or making an advance reservation for these galleries. For us, the Uffizi card was the most economical and useful option. But I digress… And, once we get the card, what do we do? Of course, we go elsewhere. Actually we were already getting wearied by the throngs arriving to visit the Uffizi. We opt to visit the nearby (less congested) Bargello (national museum). It contains Italy’s largest collection of statues dating from the Gothic and Renaissance periods as well as other significant treasures.
The busy morning has left us with an appetite and so we decide to have lunch. TripAdvisor recommends several restaurants on nearby Via De Neri. Of course, these venues are busy/full already. Another restaurant on this street,Tavernetta della Signoria. has a young hostess who beckons us to consider her establishment. We’re hungry, there’s an empty table right beside the entrance which affords us cover (in case of rain) and a view of the street. We acquiesce. We’re glad we did. A satisfying and relaxing meal. And, just maybe, we’re ready to take on the Uffizi.
What can you say about the Uffizi? That it’s grand (a former palace)? That it is one of the oldest and most famous art museums in the Western world? That it is continually packed with visitors coming to admire some of the most well-known works in artistic endeavour? In a word, yes. We return to the Uffizi after our lunch break only to find it (if anything) more crowded than when we first arrived in the morning. Thanks to our card, however, we are able to gain admission after only a few minutes and begin our expedition. The gallery/museum is home to such works as…
Yes, all these and more are to be found in the museum. The only problem? The interminable tour groups surrounding the most famous works. Which brings me to…
But I digress #2… I hate tour groups!
It’s nothing personal. It’s just the sight (not only at the Uffizi) of herds of tourists with attachments in their ears, each herd being shepherded about by a guide armed with a plastic flower, a peculiar hat or some other such identifier. These groups tend to accumulate around popular works and venues where they compress about the item currently being featured and the individual (non-tourer) is hard pressed to get anywhere near the work in question. This was certainly true with the Michelangelo and Botticelli examples. Fortunately guides and groups tend to bypass the less famous and these can often be as fascinating as the masterpieces. But I digress… On this occasion I am taken with the work of a member of Giotto’s school… a man dubbed Giottino. I appreciate the sophistication of his figures/facial expressions in a period which still tended to stylize its subjects.
After we have absorbed about as much art as we can handle for one day, we make our way to the exit. It is in doing so that we discover at least as many rooms of works bypassed as seen during our visit. We vow to return another day…
Sunday, October 13th
A new day… new adventures! We do our usual preparatory stuff, including breakfast… but, because we have decided to visit the Accademia on the far side of the city centre, we also decide to take the bus. Now, in hindsight, Sunday is probably not the best day to be initiated into public transit in Florence. This is because, in addition to the usual ridership, there are many people (ie. thousands) headed to the breast cancer run to be held in the centre of Florence. And I do mean many…
Our bus is absolutely packed so that, while we are able to board, we are unable to move once aboard. Now one is supposed to have one’s bus ticket stamped at a machine upon entering the bus or risk a fine of about 250 euros. However, when one can’t see the machine, let alone try to reach it… well, we know that this is a day to be living on the edge! We do manage to disembark at the train station and make our way to the Accademia, yet another museum/gallery which houses a considerable number of important works… the most famous of which is…
More about him in a moment. It’s worth pointing out (again) that the Uffizi card is a handy addition to your wallet or purse. We initially get in a line which stretches back several blocks from the entrance until we realize that we can migrate to an entrance which gives us almost immediate admission (note that the card is produced at the entry booth and a free ticket is provided in return).
There are other pieces (the unfinished Prisoners) by Michelangelo as well as works by Giotto, Bartolini, Botticelli and Gaddi (et al). But the question which now may be posed… is David worth the cost and effort involved? The simple answer is decidedly yes. It’s impossible not to compare Donatello’s David to Michelangelo’s interpretation. Donatello’s David is intimate, intricate and rather effeminate. Michelangelo’s is a comparative colossus whose muscular stance and determination assures the viewer of victory over any Goliath. The figure is at once human and heroic. It is notable that this work of enormous confidence was completed while the sculptor was still in his twenties. The nearby Museum of San Marco provides a relatively serene counterpoint to the frenzy of the Accademia. This former convent, also once home to the preacher Savonarola (1452-1498), has its cells adorned with frescoes and features the work of Fra Angelico, Fra Bartolomeo and others.
Now we’ve seen Florence’s Il Duomo (Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore) in the distance… but our decision to head to the Pitti Palace next takes us directly by the church and we get our first closeup look at Brunelleschi’s dome. The run is (fortunately) finished and the related crowds are beginning to disperse.
We’ve gawked too long and we’re starting to get hungry. The crowds are still churning about so we decide to cross the Arno (river) and look for an eatery near the Pitti Palace. Good news… we finally find a restaurant (with seating) directly across from our destination. Bad news… it’s the least favourite meal of our visit. Nutritionally sound, rather bland and somewhat overpriced. But we are at least fortified for our venture at the Pitti Palace.
In some ways the palace exemplifies the essential dilemma faced by the visitor to Florence. Examine any one of the dozens of huge rooms and halls which house the treasures of the palace.
Like Florence itself, it’s just a bit much to take in. Add to all that a special exhibit of Impressionist works in one of the submuseums. We’re ready to take a break. Fortunately the Boboli Gardens (part of the palace complex) allows us to get some fresh air, away from the intensive artistic onslaught. Or does it?
A full day. A mediocre lunch. Sounds like time for a pizza to me. We drop into a small pizzeria on our walk back to our bed and breakfast and are provided a tasty postscript to our Sunday expedition. Speaking of expeditions…
Monday, October 14th “Best of Tuscany” Tour Day
An early morning… up at 6:00 a.m./breakfast/a (less packed) bus to the train station Our objective this time is joining a full-day “Best of Tuscany” tour offered by Walkabout Florence. Which brings me to…
But I digress #3… Tours: A Necessary Evil?
I know I disparaged guided tours in my previous digression. And now, here we are… participating in one! In our planning for this trip, we really wanted to get some sense of the city itself but also wished to understand Florence in its geographic context. The only way we were going to get any sense of the Tuscany region in the time available was in the form of a whirlwind tour. That is what this company promised (Tuscany in a day)… and it delivered! And, if I’m being completely fair, probably most tours are designed to fill a perceived need/desire… to provide visitors an opportunity to experience a place or event within the constraints of time afforded. But I digress…
We board the tour bus in ample time for our 8:30 a.m. departure. About an hour later we arrive in the Tuscan town of Siena and our Walkabout guide, Elisa, steers us into the town centre on foot. Here we meet another (local) guide who provides a brief overview to the evolution of the town and its competitive history with neighbouring Florence. Yes, we are briefly fitted with earpieces for her spiel and are then hastily led to Siena’s own duomo (cathedral). If we were impressed by Florence’s religious heart, we are no less amazed by Siena’s counterpart. After a brief viewing of the church’s incredible library we are left to our own devices (earpieces returned) for about forty minutes before reconvening in the Piazza del Campo. This provides us the opportunity to explore the duomo further on our own (and use a washroom [Italian washrooms will receive their own digression shortly]).
We step out of the library and are greeted by St. Paul. Paul is a another creation of Michelangelo, who used his own likeness to fashion the apostle.
Or perhaps you would prefer Donatello’s work…
And then we step outside and take in some of the detail of the facade…
We return to the piazza for one final viewing before being escorted back to our tour bus.
Another journey by bus takes us onto lanes through which a tour bus was not designed to go. But eventually we do land safely at an organic Tuscan farm which features olive groves, vineyards and a popular regional (but rare) breed of beef cattle. After a tour of the farm’s operation we sit down to enjoy the “fruits of their labours”. Lunch includes several wines produced at the farm, bread, cured meats and cheese. All quite pleasant and our tour group is feeling noticeably more docile after the experience.
And so to San Gimignano
Fortunately only about a fifteen-minute bus ride brings us to this iconic medieval “tower town”. In its heyday San Gimignano was apparently home to some 72 towers which thrust up into the Tuscan skies. Now only 14 remain but they are, nonetheless, an impressive sight as we approach the town. The arrival of the Black Death in 14th century decimated the town’s population (fifty percent), an event from which it never fully recovered. Its subsequent status as a Tuscan backwater, however, enabled it to maintain much of its existing architecture and the town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. All that said, it is also a definite “tourist trap”. Our informal stay was not long (about forty-five minutes) and those who chose to purchase some of the “world famous” gelato served at one venue probably spent much of that time in line. We decided to wander about the walls and admire the surrounding countryside in the time allotted.
But I digress #4… Italian Washrooms
A few things to report on this vital subject…
1. Many of the public toilets in (and around) Florence don’t include toilet seats. Now this may be a sanitary consideration… but a bit of a shock if you’re not used to it.
2. Many of the restaurants we visited had a single washroom for men/women.
3. Expect to pay to use public washrooms… normally 50 (euro) cents per contribution.
4. Of interest… our lunch at the farm on tour day had one added feature… a single washroom for over 50 of us. This meant “staggered entry” was required over the course of the meal.
5. Churches and museums do provide facilities for visitors… but, given the ubiquitous tour groups, be prepared for lineups!
Best Washroom Prize– Hands down winner… our bed and breakfast bathroom. Clean, roomy. new fixtures. No lineup. A welcome sight at the end of the day!
Worst Washroom Prize– Again, no contest. A unit located on a hillside in San Gimignano. Almost impossible to describe (but I’ll try anyway).
I use the word “unit” deliberately. The structure was a metallic cube (think Borg, Star Trek fans) with coin-operated entry. Once your money has been taken and the knob turned (assuming a vacancy has finally occurred) a metal sliding door automatically opens to reveal a damp, dimly lit, all-metal interior (no natural light) with a seatless metal toilet. Once inside the door closes and you are left to conduct your business with the uneasy feeling that you may be trapped inside the beast. If brave enough hands can be placed inside a recession in the wall in order to be cleaned. Finally you punch another button and fervently hope the door will reopen. Following your departure the door closes and the interior undergoes some kind of (supposed) spray disinfection before receiving a new client. We were not disinterested spectators, given our personal needs… but it was interesting to see that our unease was replicated in other visitors who stared in disbelief, deliberated or stood uncomfortably waiting for the unit to again become available.
But I really do digress…
And finally… on to Pisa
After two further hours of bus travel (albeit through some beautiful Tuscan countryside) we reach the final destination for our tour… Pisa. We stop in a parking lot some distance from the site and take a peculiar “faux train” to the edge of the Piazza del Duomo (often called the Piazza dei Miracoli [“Square of Miracles”]). There we catch our first glimpse of the iconic bell tower. Started in 1173 the tower began its tilt long before construction was completed in 1372. Even without that famous (infamous) tilt, the tower would be still be remarkable for its circular construction and intricate ornamentation. Recent restoration efforts have reduced the lean to 4%… but that’s still enough to intrigue visitors to the site. Some of our group have booked to climb the tower (an extra cost option) but there’s only one hour available to explore the piazza and there’s so much more to see.
We walk to the adjacent baptistry…
and use our remaining time to visit the duomo, Santa Maria Assunta (St. Mary of the Assumption).
Too soon we were obliged to reconvene and return to our bus. Had we been able to remain a bit longer, we might have experienced the special mystique that is the Field of Miracles at night.
It’s been a very full (another overwhelming) day… we have an hour to reflect on our tour experiences as we return to Florence’s train station. From there a bus ride back to our bed and breakfast, a sandwich eaten while watching some Italian televison… and we’re ready for sleep.
Tuesday, October 15th
Today we allow ourselves a slightly more leisured start… and so after breakfast take a bus back to the train station. Nearby are the Medici Chapels, designed by Michelangelo and containing several of his statues.
But I digress #5… Use of Cameras
You may be wondering about all the pictures used in this post. Most are ours. But… there are limitations. Most galleries and museums do not allow the use of cameras. Most churches do… but without flashes. So, if you notice a picture (like the one below) of the interior of the Medici Chapels, it should be observed that it is here courtesy of an Internet search.
But I digress…again
Having seen the interior of the Duomo of Siena and Pisa, we reckon it’s time to finally explore inside Florence’s Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. From the Medici Chapels we wander through to the Piazza del Duomo. There the crowds, although reduced from the frenetic Sunday of our first visit, are still impressive. Fortunately it is not a long wait to gain entry (and bonus, no cost!) Once inside we explore the cathedral.
Running out of steam. It’s lunchtime. Not feeling especially inclined to explore far afield for an eatery. Remember our previous visit to…
After lunch we decide to pay a visit to one of the most venerable churches in the city- Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross). It is the largest Franciscan church in the world (there is even a legend that the church was founded by St. Francis). The construction of the current basilica was begun in 1294 as a replacement for an earlier edifice. Within its walls Florence laid to rest some of Italy’s most famous- Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Rossini and erected monuments to others (buried elsewhere) such as Dante and Marconi. The church also houses sixteen chapels, many of them adorned with frescoes by Giotto and his pupils. In the church you will also see works by many others including Cimabue, della Robbia, Gaddi, Rossellino, Donatello… and even Henry Moore!
Monuments dedicated to…
Other tributes less famous can be found on the floors and in the passageways running alongside the buildings…
There is even a monument to Florence Nightingale, who was born in the city in 1820 (for your next trivia game… that’s how she got her name!)
After several hours we have absorbed as much as we are capable of absorbing… and so we say goodbye to Giotto, ciao to Cimabue and au revoir to Rossini and head back to our b and b to regroup for our final full day in Florence.
Wednesday, October 16th
Today is as close as we get to a “laid back” day. We spend it doing some casual sightseeing, some shopping and a little Déjà vuing. We revisit the Uffizi (another card advantage… you can revisit at no additional cost) and have the opportunity to examine many works which we missed during our first encounter. This time round I particularly enjoy the portraits of an artist named Bronzino. We drop by the Duomo and its piazza for one last viewing. Lunch at Il Desco (Jane has the wild boar). In the afternoon we drop by the Pitti Palace to appreciate the Boboli Gardens once more. The views of city centre afforded by the palace grounds and ambience of the gardens seem the ideal way to say our farewell to Florence (caio, Firenze).
After lunch some further exploration…
Out travels conclude with a visit to the Pitti Palace…
Thursday, October 17th
Up early to begin the long trek home…
Things to be forgotten about this day…
1. the interminable waiting and the inspections at airports
2. a terrible “lunch” at a Starbucks in the Paris airport
3. the long (three hour) drive home (shouldn’t have done it) in a fierce rainstorm after hours of sitting in a plane (actually, planes)
Things to be remembered…
1. the kindness of farewell gifts (some olive oil and a lavender sachet) from Elena, our b and b host
2. our unexpectedly clear view of the Alps during the first leg of our flight from Florence to Paris
3. an (also unexpectedly) good meal aboard our transcontinental Air France flight
4. how wonderful it felt to fall into bed when we finally reached home (after a hot bath)
But I digress… for a final time
I haven’t really got into tweeting… but, if I did, I would probably summarize