We took the 1:25 p.m. train from S.Lucia Venezio to Venice. Having spent the previous day there, we were more aware of the lanes (callís) . The truth is- you really can’t get lost here but get to know that after you’ve spent a day. It’s so small – making it easy to master the place in a day. We walked around a bit, and then sat down at a local café on the waterfront; for coffee and cakes.In the morning sun, the Ferro (right most tip of the gondola) glinted as it glided past on the shallow waters. It was business as usual for the boatsmen. Reminded me of “The Merchant of Venice”. Though it was just merchandise being carried across , the place looked picturesque. Venice could bring out the artist in just about anyone.
As the train moved towards Florence, the landscape transformed dramatically to neat little communities set in green fields, surrounded by mountains and bare trees (end of autumn). Florence is a much bigger city than Venice. It used to be the capital of the Tuscany Region of Italy (never knew about this earlier) until Rome became the capital. The city is famous for its Gothic churches, Renaissance paintings and buzzing cafés. Our hotel, the Orto De Medici was at the heart of Florence- Piazza Della Signoria. The room was cozy with 4 individual beds ( Perfect when you have kids above the age of 12 (other hotels may require you to book 2 rooms or you might have to stay in a furnished apartment).
Piazza della Signoria is the center of Florence’s art and cultural scene and is a kilometer’s walk from Orte De Medici (our hotel). It’s the most harmonious squares in Italy and perhaps the world. Cobble-stone streets, restaurants, coffee-shops, gellato parlours line the square. In the center is a massive fountain ( Neptune Fountain) and a statue of Cosimo I on a horse. A copy of Michaelangelo’s David is found at the entrance of Palazzo Vecchio (the original is in the Galleria Accademia), a stone’s throw away (but the queue to enter takes about 3 hours). Tha Palazzo is still the seat of the local government. It was once the seat of the Italian Parliament when Florence was the capital between 1865-1871.
Adjacent to the Pallazo is Loggia dei Lazi which is an open-air gallery with sculptures from the Renaissance period. The austere looking Pallazo is a stark contrast to the Loggia dei Lazi.
The Galleria Uffizzi is on the right of the Palazzo (Palace). It houses paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci, Ballinini, Banini, Raffaelo, Michaelangelo and many others. A visit to the Galleria is a must – even for those who may not have an inclination to art.
You can see the River Arno from the cafe in the Uffizzi (the bridge on the river is the oldest bridge in Florence, that survived the Second World War). After a morning spent appreciating art, we were really hungry. Art Galleries can get a little exhausting unless you are a student, collector or connoisseur of art, history or the like. A small walk from the gallery will bring you to a host of restaurants along the river. A relaxed lunch at an authentic Italian Pizzeria on the banks of the river was the perfect retreat for tired feet.
One thing we did learn in Italy which we had not experienced in any other country that we had visited is that the charges in restaurants,cafés, gallerias, depends on whether you wish to sit in, with your order or you want to stand (thankfully there’s no extra charge for standing inside the shop). The prices increase if you decide to sit and have your meal in the restaurant.
We spent the rest of the evening shopping around the square. Thanks to the Easter Sales, we ended up buying a suitcase to fit in the things we picked up and then we had to buy more things to fill up the suitcase we bought (A shopaholic’s predicament)!
The streets in Florence are abuzz with activity even on weekdays, as if it were the weekend. The number of students and tourists in Florence at any point in time creates a holiday atmosphere throughout the year.
The next day was chalked out for the Santa Maria Del Fiore (cathedral)- The Duomo of Florence.
The sheer enormity of the Duomo will leave you spellbound. With its neo-gothic architecture – a facade of white, green and pink marble, you are left wonder-struck at the intricate detail, magnitude and richness of the structure. It stands tall like a wall shielding the city; the cultural capital of Italy. To want to stare at it is perfectly natural. A work of art, it’s construction took 150 years beginning from 1296! It was meant to stand out and represent Florence’s prestige; and, it certainly was overwhelming.
To get to the top of the Dome, one has to climb 463 stairs and the stairway itself is winding and narrow (like a passage inside a tunnel going upwards) with little windows overlooking the city. It’s certainly not for those suffering from claustrophobia or any other health issues or with little kids. I am not sure how you can get out of it if you are half-way up and suddenly feel the need to go to the washroom or worse if you have an emergency! It’s when a thought like that crosses your mind, you realise, there are people behind you, people in front of you and you’re stuck!
The view of the interior from the top of the cathedral, is a severe contrast from the exquisite facade…The dome however is as beautiful as the exterior of the cathedral and has series of frescoes of the Last Judgement.
The view from the top of the Duomo…is unforgettable. One can see the Bell Tower (campanilé) by Giotto which is 85m high; below. The entire city ,trees, rivers, mountains et al look astoundingly pleasing.
Coming down was easier and quicker than going to the top (as is always the case) and for someone who does not like closed spaces like me, I was thrilled to be back in open air , on ground level.
Back on the ground, got a caricature of the girls. There are a number of caricature artists around the square…
It was noon when we reached down and all that physical activity had our stomachs growling. When it comes to food, there’s no dearth of variety in Italy. Elizabeth Gilbert was definitely right when she chose Italy for “Eat” (In the book Eat, Pray, Love). There’s something to fit every palate and every budget. There are loads of Chinese restaurants around- (Asians who need rice once in a while need not fret).
A stroll around the square, a peep into Leonardo Da Vinci’s gallery (kids loved it) led us to spend the next 2 hours discovering the Genius. Visiting this gallery is a humbling experience and you come out completely in awe and respect for the “Man”. Men like this are born once in a century to complete God’s unfinished work on earth. How else can one explain the working of great minds like these?
Famously called ” The Renaissance Man” -Leonardo Da Vinci- artist, mathematician, inventor, architect; with no formal education had written papers on Physics, Human Anatomy, Astronomy and Maths. Known best for his painting of the “Mona Lisa” and “The Last Supper”, he was the first person to draw the concept of movable things- bicycle, helicopter and aeroplanes based on the concept of bats.
Sigmund Freud rightly said “Leonardo Da Vinci was a man who woke too early in the darkness while others were all still asleep”.
Florence is a gift to the 5 senses. There’s just so much to do, to see, to experience, to learn and so little time…that one is left with the need to return. One cannot repel the magnetism of Firenze (Florence).
We continued staying at Orto De Medici for another 2 days but could not go back to Signoria Square, as much as we would have loved to. We had booked the Tuscany tour for the next day and Cinque Terra, the following day. With that ended our visit to Florence – the cradle of the Renaissance .
Michaelangelo’s original David housed at San Marco in the Accademia would have to wait and so would the walk along the river Arno… for another visit!
P.S. After a trip around Italy, Florence is definitely my favourite- just enough peace, just enough activity- not too quiet, not too noisy. Just Perfect!
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The Italian Holiday…Milan to Venice (I)
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