During our time at the vila in Tuscany we went on several excursions, the biggest of which was a two-day trip to Florence (details of the others to come later).
As with pretty much every town in Italy, the centre of Florence has a ZTL in place to reduce traffic congestion, so we parked just outside and caught a tram into the middle of the city. This only the second time we’d left the car somewhere other than the place we were staying (the other being the sleepy fishing village of Cudillero in Spain), which meant that we could stay in a place as close to the action as we could get. So we did – right in the centre of the old town of Florence.
Above is a picture of the daily leather markets right outside our apartment. Bridge surprised me by being very disinterested in this, and in fact I was the only one who did any shopping at the market at all – I bought myself what is hopefully a sweet Italian leather belt (‘hopefully’ because the vendors are all fairly sketchy, and I would not be at all surprised to find it was not). The main trick to shopping at these sort of places is to not be an American and just buy things at the marked price. My belt was €45 to start with, which is outrageous, but after starting with a bit of interest and then switching to playing hard-to-get, the price started to drop.
“For you, my friend, a special price. €40.”
“Quality is of the best! I do €35 but no lower.”
“That’s a shame, it’s a nice belt but still a bit high for me…”
“Too high? My friend, at €35 this is bargain! I tell you though, I like you so I will go €30. And this is no money for me!”
….and so on, until it got down to a much more palatable €20. I’m pretty confident I could have kept going further, but B (who absolutely hates this type of bargaining) was keen to get out of there and see some more of the city.
Our first stop was the Ponte Vecchio (literally ‘old bridge’), which is known for still being lined on either side with shops, as was apparently once a common practice. A little note of historical merit about this bridge – it is rumoured to be a possible point of origin for the modern term ‘bankruptcy’. When a merchant on the bridge couldn’t pay their debts, soldiers would come and break (‘rotto’, in Italian) the merchant’s trading table (‘banco’) so that they would not be able to trade anymore. ‘Banco rotto’ – bankrupt. Who knows whether that is true or not, but as I’m both an accountant and a nerd who loves little facts like that, I thought I’d share it anyway. The bridge itself was completely packed with tourists, lined with shops selling ostentatious gold jewellery, and spanned a river which was surprising dirty. Not one of our favourite places in Florence, and we moved on fairly quickly.
The title of this post translates to English as ‘Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance’, and accordingly we could hardly visit Florence without taking in a little culture. Our next stop for the day was the Palazzo Pitti, which is a museum situated in a massive old palace on the south side of the river. When we visited a large part of the museum, including the Baboli Gardens, were closed after a freak hailstorm a few days earlier (a mild inconvenience for us, but we found out later from a winemaker than a lot of vineyards in the area were totally devastated by this storm, losing an entire season of production overnight). We went in anyway, and were glad we did. A large part of the museum is given over to showing what the palace might have been like in its former glory, and the result is pretty spectacular.
Aside from the glorious art, we did observe a couple of things about the past along the way. The first is that the old ruling families of Florence obviously held fairly high opinions of themselves – most of the ceiling paintings and frescos depicted various members posed alongside the gods, or in the middle of valiant acts of some form or other. The second was that a large portion of the old religious art (which is almost all old art, actually) is worryingly violent at times. Here is one of the more family-friendly examples:
‘Thy shall not torture thy neighbour’ isn’t technically one of the commandments, I guess, but it still just doesn’t seem to be in the right spirit of things. Questionable art aside though, we really enjoyed this place. Definitely worth a look if you’re ever in Florence.
A couple of hours a day in museums is about our limit, so we spent the rest of the afternoon just doing a bit of a walking tour of the rest of the city. I’ve decided since arriving in Europe that this is definitely my favourite way to see a new place – just wandering around with no particular direction or schedule, and the freedom to go check out all the cool things you’ll glimpse down side roads away from the main tourist spots.
After an hour or two of pleasant meandering we stopped off at a bar, to rest our feet and do some writing in our journals. When a girl came to take our orders I exchanged the standard pleasantries with her in Italian, but before I could order a couple of beers she began to talk away very rapidly, still in Italian. Neither of us had any idea what she was talking about, which obviously showed, because she switched to English and asked whether we had understood her. After I told her where we were from and that we spoke hardly any Italian at all, she laughed and said my pronunciation for the little bit I did know made me sound like a local, which is why she’d started chatting. My proud face was on for the rest of the evening.
That night, we managed to find ourselves a very cool experience for dinner. We started off wandering looking for somewhere to eat fairly aimlessly, with not much luck. Walking down a small street we heard an American heading the other way and saying to his mates, in that usual quiet way of theirs, “YOU HAVE TO TRY THIS PLACE, IT IS THE MOST REVIEWED PLACE ON TRIPADVISOR…” (called All’Antico Vinaio, it does actually have a huge amount of reviews – here’s the link if you want to check it out). We doubled back and found they were talking about a little hole-in-the-wall place which we’d already passed by. We decided to wait around to try it (there was a bit of a queue), and we were so glad we did – the place was fantastic. Here’s is how it works: you get a huge piece of bread sliced in half, pick one of the 20 or so different meats on offer plus whatever salads and other accompaniments you feel like, pick a wine which is then given to you in a proper wineglass, then you just go pick a spot somewhere on the street to sit down and enjoy your meal. We just both asked the guy to make us whatever he thought was the best combination, which turned out to be totally delicious, and at under €7 each for the (enormous) sandwich and (generous, and quality) glass of wine, the meal was really good value too. A great Italian food experience, and Tripadvisor was definitely right; if you’re ever in the middle of Florence for dinner, hunt this place down.
I think we’ve said it a couple times already, but when you want to go sightseeing in a big city in Europe – get up early or get in line. We did the next morning for our visit to Il Duomo, and as usual it worked a treat. No lines at all, so we bought a ticket and set off on our climb to the top of the cathedral. Word of warning – the climb can be a bit tight in places, and for anyone a bit claustrophobic I hear it can be a bit of a challenge, especially when the line of people heading up stops for some reason. Here’s a picture from one of those times (in a relatively open place – we went through bits where neither of us could stand up straight, which we were very glad we didn’t have to stop in):
The climb also takes you on a path winding around the base of the dome, which allowed a close up view of the huge fresco covering the ceiling inside. I didn’t notice at the time, and unfortunately I didn’t take any photos which showed it, but B tells me that the bottom edges of the work all depict yet more worrying themes of graphic violence – the religious world sure did love a bit of that sort of thing, back then.
The views from the top were excellent, with 360 degree views of the rest of the city. We did a couple of laps to check it out from every direction, took some photos, and headed down before things got too busy (noted as we went out that a huge line had formed at the entrance to get in, even in the relatively short time we’d been in there – early starts are key for the big attractions over here).
Not too long after we left Il Duomo, we found an interesting-looking building which we’d seen from the top. I’d thought it was probably a train station, but it turned out to be a big indoor food market – San Lorenzo Meracato Centrale, Google now tells me. It was awesome. You could buy pretty much anything inside, and it all looked very nice. I settled for a pulled pork bun, covered in what I assumed to be some sort of red pepper dressing (I asked for extra) but which turned out to be very hot chilli sauce (instant regret).
After that, we went back to simply exploring the city for the afternoon. We walked as much as we could, saw as many different areas as possible, and generally had a good time. Lunch that day was also fantastic – we’d found our way to one of the more youthful areas recommended by the girl on the front desk at our hotel, and found a really cool place to eat. It looked amazing, but the best part was that every single thing on the menu was made from scratch with fresh ingredients, and that you could watch the chefs at work. I had cabonara, and it was the best I had all trip (I love cabonara, and tried it at more than a few places).
We concluded that we liked Florence a lot, during the drive back to Volterra that evening. It kind of has everything – history, culture, looks, food, fun – and while the main spots are fairly overrun with tourists it is easy to step off the main streets and find something just as cool but without the crowds. Very glad we decided to make our trip there an overnight one.