Day 574 – 25 September, 2016
People love Florence. If I could count how many people told me it was their favorite city in the world, it would number well above any other one city. As such, my expectations were unreasonably high and as so often happens with lofty expectations, Florence fell a little short for me. That’s not to say that I didn’t like it. To the contrary, I liked it as much as any other city on my itinerary. But after the unique experience that was Venice, Florence was back to blending in with the rest of Europe – cathedral, bridges, museums, a high spot with a view….. In fact, I heard as many people say that they disliked Venice as said that they loved Florence. For me, those people had not ventured away from the tourist zones of Venice (of which there are many quiet spots) to experience the genuine flavor of the locals that still exist there. And now that I was in Florence, I could more readily appreciate the unique quality of a city built on canals. For someone that admittedly struggles to appreciate art with much enthusiasm, Florence was just another city. Sorry!
The Piazza del Duomo is kind of a central place to begin and if nothing else, I was keen to see Firenze’s famous duomo, the domed cathedral designed by Brunelleschi. It took some convincing for his design to be accepted in the 15th century as noone could understand how a dome could stand up in such a way. Rumor is that Brunelleschi cracked an egg and used one half of the broken shell to demonstrate his point. Also in the piazza, the Baptistery is home to the famous gilded doors, which Michaelangelo called the Gates of Paradise. And yes, I will acquiesce that the views from the Campanile and the Cupola itself are stunning. This trifecta of popular sights was well worth the time, but the crowds…..! The queues took more than an hour to enter each building and once inside, it was near impossible to not feel claustrophobic and overwhelmed. One must attempt the Duomo with infinite patience for queue jumpers and loads and loads of selfie sticks.
Several famous names all associated with the arts and sciences in Florence are entombed at Santa Croce Cathedral – Galileo, Michaelangelo, Dante, and Donatello (who was not only a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle! I won’t mention names but you know who you are!). During a flood in 1966, the entire cathedral was submerged in water and extensive damage befell the sanctuary, art, and tombs. Restoration work has been going on ever since. In a small work space near the cloisters, a single artist was surrounded by paint samples and brushes of all shapes and sizes while she was touching up priceless pieces of religious art one detail at a time.
The Piazzale Michaelangelo sits elevated above the city and provides those postcard views that we all love to capture. My time in Florence had been dominated by silly errands and routine preparations before leaving the western world for less civilized travel in Eastern Africa so I was content to gaze over the skyline and soak in the ambiance. The oohs and ahs were contagious and before I knew it, my afternoon had evaporated with the humidity. I still had nearly two weeks left in Italy, but I would be limited on quiet moments like these.
A quick side trip to the Tuscan city of Siena sent me into the scenic countryside and away from my travel to-do list in Florence. The cobbled streets connected store fronts selling local wine and cheese, many of which boasted tastings of Classico and Sangiovese. It was Friday and the large shell-shaped amphitheater, Piazza del Campo, was preparing for a concert. The resident youth crowd had secured their spots by sunbathing on the bricks using backpacks as pillows. My favorite view was while negotiating the ceiling rafters of the cathedral and catching a glance from above down to the imposing columns below. If you’ve seen too many cathedrals, one way to renew your interest is seeking out a unique perspective!
Siena had been so relaxing and special that perhaps another day trip would actually be good for me – tear me away from the wifi for a few hours….I made the mistake of choosing Pisa. Famous for its Leaning Tower, it’s a short train ride from Florence. My train was absolutely packed with tourists and I was already regretting it before I even arrived. I tried to go the opposite of the crowds, venturing in and out of the market streets and following an online guide to street art, but ultimately, I ended up in the same place as everyone else – in front of the Leaning Tower. A light drizzle had started to leak from the sky. I was more amused with the creative poses that tourists were emboldened to assume in front of the campanile than I was with the sight itself. It is more beautiful than I remembered seeing in photos and it is, in fact, leaning, but I couldn’t be bothered to climb it or to attempt any perspective photos myself. The adjacent cemetary, on the other hand, was almost vacant and held an eerie appeal that gave me a mild satisfaction in having made the journey in the first place.
Back in Florence for one more day, I had yet to visit any of the famous galleries although the street art had been enough to pique my interest. As much as I may have tried in the past, I find most art doesn’t speak to me. I can’t appreciate it with the same zeal as true aficionados. I had so much as written off a visit to Uffizi until I learned that the first Sunday every month is free to all the city’s famous museums. An alarm set early, I decided I would go to the Galleria dell’ Accademia to view the David sculpture as soon as the doors opened. At least I had heard of the David and it would be FREE! The museum was only a 10 minute walk from my hostel, but I left 30 minutes to make sure I would be there plenty early. Still several blocks away, the heavy crowds were visible clogging the streets. No one else was out and about at that time on a Sunday morning. What I hadn’t considered is that the museum was….free. Who doesn’t love free stuff? Obviously! The line stretched for more than three blocks and took more than an hour to pass security and enter the main gallery. All told, it was well worth it. Even me, a hard-to-please art critic, was thoroughly impressed with Michaelangelo’s marble statue of David.