It was our first time in Italy, and thanks to my sweet in-laws and sister-in law who brought the kids and joined us in Rome a few days later, the husband and I could spend a few days in Florence first. Can’t wait to share. Here goes. 🙂
It took us almost 24 hours to reach Florence from Bangalore – and boy was it worth it! The hotel was 2 minutes away from the Duomo, Baptistery and all the sights that we were going to learn about on an Artviva guided tour we had booked. The weather was perfect (nights were cool but the pocket-size room was warm) and the sun was shining till about 8.30pm every night.
And to think we almost didn’t get there. In fact the entire journey had been a bit of a roller coaster ride. We got bumped up to business class (yes!) on the Bangalore-Doha sector; our wonderfully inefficient agent had blocked 2 middle seats for us on the Doha-Rome 6 hour sector – so this was a real stroke of luck.
At Rome, we took a train to the main station, Rome Termini, from where we had reserved seats on a super fast train to Florence. After a hurried lunch outside and a huge double scoop of gelato inside (praline and chocolate chip), we hurried off to find our platform. The train timetable pasted everywhere said Platform 6, but all along the platform, crowds of people were watching the digital time tables and then rushing off to board their trains. We waited and waited but train no. 9558 just refused to show up. But we had hope. It had to come. This was Europe right?
It didn’t. Like true blue Indians we had been checking with anyone in a uniform about what the chances of 9558 popping up on the display board (if not the platform) were. Most kept the faith and said ‘wait for it to show up.’ Ten minutes before the departure time printed on our tickets, we were finally told by someone in the know, that, ‘no, the train is not coming’ and so we jumped on the train to Milan, that thankfully also stopped at Florence.
We made it with 2 minutes to spare and spent the next hour and a half sitting on our luggage in the aisle near the toilets. But did we care? No 🙂 We had reached Florence – and that was all that mattered.
A day devoted to David, beautiful medieval churches, the greedy Medici’s and some seriously good food. Artviva organises some really good tours – the guides are all history and art graduates and the elderly gentleman who was our guide at the Accademia (home to Michelangelo’s famous David), was a sculptor himself!
Turns out Michelangelo was this young bloke, all of 26, who decided that it was high time he showed the city what he was capable of. He asked to be given a block of marble that had been transported 40 years ago to Florence, but was still lying untouched, as two great sculptors had rejected it saying it had flaws in it. With nothing to lose, he built wooden walls around what was to become a 17 foot statue, and set to work. Three years later he tore down the walls that had kept his precious David a secret – and promptly turned into a living legend. What it must have done to the young Michelangelo – being compared to the Greek and Roman greats; almost a God – is to me more interesting than the many, many sculptural details of this masterpiece.
After the literary smorgasbord, Rohaan and I needed some serious retail therapy. He bought a funky orange Swatch and I bought a delicious tan brown leather jacket, from the San Lorenzo market that is known for it’s leather, along with a pretty little scarf that I was trying hard to tie as stylishly as all the beautiful women around me.
Fatigue reared its ugly head today and after an early dinner (salad with smoked salmon: their vegetables are so fresh, they don’t even use any dressing – and it’s still yum!) we called it a day to the sounds of classical music blaring in a street nearby, even as a Charlie Chaplin impersonator did his nightly routine to cheering crowds and gales of laughter.
Day 3 Florence
Our last day in Florence had to be special. And it was. I bought a lovely pair of gold earrings at Ponte Vecchio, the oldest standing bridge in Florence today, that is lined with quaint little gold shops – little shiny gems in themselves – that go back to the 15th century, when the bridge was first inhabited by smelly butchers who were forced to make way (the aristocrats had sensitive noses you see) for the more elegant goldsmiths.
We got ambitious and decided to climb the Duomo – the dome of the great cathedral – all 400 of its steep steps. But it was worth it. Not only do you work up a lovely appetite climbing up and down, but you also get a bird’s eye view of Florence, which made me want to break out into ‘The hills are alive with the sound of music.’ And an additional bonus (well, that’s a questionable word to use here actually) is that you get to look at the frescos that adorn the dome up close – and that is some sight. Not because they are so beautiful (they are, but not in the ‘pretty’ sense), but because you get to see hell in all of it’s glory – and its a pretty gory sight. Assorted devils, half-human creatures (so here’s where J.K. Tolkien’s Gollum came from!) naked human beings running around trying to avoid getting dismembered or bashed on the head – it’s a death metal band’s wet-dream come true.
We did the Uffizi gallery tour with Artviva again and were taught what to look for in a Botticelli, Raphael and Michelangelo painting. The guides have many juicy titbits to share – and the best story was the one about how the women would dye their hair with their own urine (the ammonia you see), to go a nice, strawberry blond.
The women on the whole seemed to have had a rough time in the good old days. They smeared thick layers of lead on their faces to look fair, which in the process, rotted their teeth and killed them of consumption. No wonder you don’t see too many smiling women in the paintings. They also married early (12 was a good age to start), bore as many children as they could and then obligingly died so that their husbands could marry again. And again. And this was the renaissance.
We were booked for an opera that night – The Barber of Seville – in a beautiful little church (St. Mark’s) and managed to get the gist of it (all 2 and a half hours of it!) and even laugh a few laughs. A tragedy is next on my to-do list. Should be fun.
Goodbye beautiful, beautiful Florence.
We couldn’t fight the crowds to rub the bronze pig’s snout that is supposed to bring travellers back again. But we will be back one day.
Whether the piggy likes it or not.
Some tips (can’t resist)
1. The must-sees are Michelangelo’s statue of David at the Accademia. Get a good guide and go. Also you need to reserve your tickets (with or without the guided tour bit) for both the Accademia and the Uffizi, or you will stand in line for a very long time.
2. The second is the Uffizi gallery, the fancy office of the Medici family that was turned into a storage house for their collection of art. Again, opt for a tour to make sense of the overwhelming amount of stuff they have.
3. You can’t miss the Cathedral with it’s magnificent Duomo, which the architect Brunelleschi built over a period of 10 years. The inside is frescoed and the climb to the dome is recommended.
4. Opposite the Duomo is the Baptistery (a building where they used to baptise the children). It’s famous for its celebrated doors – one of which Michelangelo called the ‘Gates of Paradise.’ This golden gate is a copy of the original door and depicts stories of all the key Prophets: Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, Abraham’s sacrifice, Noah’s ark, to name a few.
5. We also went on a ‘Florence walk’ which I highly recommend as it walks you through the streets of the city even as you learn about its celebrated past.
6. Young children may slow you down and we definitely didn’t see any prams at the Uffizi or the Accademia. Try and save the visit for the kids for when they are older and can appreciate all of this a little more. That said, Florence was full of teenagers and tweens, yelling and shouting, flirting with each other and generally caring a fig about art. Quite nice actually.
7. Food is expensive (every meal was about 30 euros for 2 people, without booze), and is uniformly good on the whole. However we learnt (a little too late) that the cheaper, tastier restaurants are across the river Arno (which the Ponte Vecchio bridge spans) and is a short walk from the Duomo.
8. The shopping is good and Florence is famous for its leather (San Lorenzo market) and gold (Ponte Vecchio bridge).
9. Nightlife is rocking and many squares have performers (mostly musicians) belting out some amazing music for free.
10. There are many options for a good opera – but go only if you really want to go.