Europe Travel Log – Florence


Friday 2 September

Our hotel is about 800 metres from the centre of Florence. It’s late in the afternoon and we decide to explore Florence. We walk to the Duomo, but after walking less than 200 metres we catch a small electric bus. These buses can go through the centre of Florence where cars can’t.

The duomo is beautiful. The marble is a rich green, and is intricately carved with statues decorating the outside. I’m looking forward to seeing the inside. We continue walking on to the Piazza Vecchio, the old town hall. The museum is open, but we only enter as far as the courtyard. There are columns, beautiful friezes, and statues. Near the Piazza Vecchio is the Plaza della Signoria. It’s full of random statues, including a replica of David. The Plaza leads on to the Ufizza, an art gallery we plan on spending some time in. There is a busker playing the most beautiful acoustic guitar music, and a few painters are still selling their work. It’s an interesting place.

We walk on toward the Ponte Vecchio as the sun sets. The bridge is quaint and quirky. Everything looks lovely in the golden glow.

It’s noisy though. Everywhere are hundreds of little scooters speeding around cars and people. The riders barely pause as they look for even a tiny gap that will them through. They buzz and move like flies. Most are smoking and talking to each other or pillion passengers. Everyone wears a helmet, but the girls wear only loose off the shoulder tops with tiny short shorts and high heels. The boys wear t shirts and shorts.

We stop at a “self-help” diner. It sells everything from gelato to patisserie to pizza, pasta and salads. I like it. It’s cheap and the food is good. Tomatoes are fantastic in Italy! I could live on bread, cheese and tomatoes!

We grab a taxi and the driver takes us the scenic route back to the hotel, via bridges looking back at the Ponte Vecchio. It’s a wonderful end to the day.

Saturday 3 September

The croissants for breakfast at the hotel are great! Lemon flavored.

We’re going to use the rental car and explore the Tuscany countryside. Originally we’d thought we’d go to Pisa but the hotel receptionist points out that if the tower didn’t lean, nobody would go there. Instead we head off to San Gimignano, then Siena.

Peter has set the gps to avoid highways and toll roads. This means that we can meander through the countryside. Tuscany landscape is really pretty. There are numerous little walled towns high in the hills, fields with rows of grapes stretching to the horizon, and forests.

San Germignano turns out to be a wonderfully preserved walled town, surrounded by towers. There are fourteen, but originally there were seventy two. I am pleasantly surprised to realise that this is a real town where people actually live. It has a population of 7100. The town is beautifully preserved and the apartments and shops are made of a clean brown stone. We enter by walking around the outside of the back wall, through a small rectangular entry. There are a number of entrances and we come in through one of the smallest, possibly a side entrance, and miss the main gates which we use when leaving.

We wander through some lanes then walk up a hill toward the square. As we walk up we pass wine shops selling local wine, jewellers working on site in their shops, art galleries with work from local artists, and a few of the usual souvenir shops. These are interspersed between apartments, and looking down alley ways we can see washing stretched across balconies. Residents cars are parked and driven through the tiny “roads”, and we even see small buses and trucks making deliveries. As we arrive at the square at the top of the hill a wedding party comes out of the Town Hall! Magic.

Apparently San Germignano was once a free commune and had a thriving trading economy. It demonstrated its wealth through art in churches, monasteries and palaces. All that remains of this display are the towers, although these and the remaining architecture is impressive.

Peter tastes some of the local wine and, really liking the better ones, he buys a few bottles as souvenirs, and to enjoy.

I wait outside the main gate while Peter gets the car. I admire the brickwork and design of the gate then look down over the surrounding area. It’s an area that grows mostly grapes and sunflowers. It’s peaceful.

After seeing San Germignano I can appreciate the pretty walled towns that we saw up in the hills when driving we were driving here. The walls, once fortification, now hide little towns behind which everyday life continues. In Florence, I had glimpsed partial walls and gates standing in isolation. I realize now that these indicate the boundaries of the original city or state.

We continue on to Siena, a much larger town of 54000 people, but its centre is preserved as a walled medieval city. We would like to see the square, the Piazza del Campo, that apparently featured in a James Bond movie. However, the centre is a maze of lanes and alleys and getting to it seems impossible with the car’s gps. It keeps telling us to drive through apartment blocks and go the wrong way on one way streets. So we head off up to the top of the hill overlooking Sienna and pick out a few landmarks. We can see the Duomo and the Chiesa di San Dominico where St Catherine’s head lies in one of the chapels.(yuk)

I’m waiting at a cafe table while Peter orders coffee at the counter. An old man offers me a menu and starts talking to me in Italian, obviously asking me to order. I hold up my left hand and to my wedding ring, then point inside, saying in English that my husband is ordering inside. He looks at me blankly for a moment, then his face breaks into an enormous grin. He leans forward, shakes my hand, laughs and indicates he understands. I say New Zealand, which Italians seem to love (far more than saying “English”). He’s absolutely delighted that we’ve understood each other! So am I!

Peter drives down the hill determined to find the centre of Siena. Whether through guess work or instinct, driving through a labyrinth of lanes and alleys, we find the square. I am becoming increasingly uneasy about driving a car here. Peter stops at the back of the Duomo, then the front and takes photos. We drive past the cathedral. People are everywhere. We are driving amongst thousands of people, wall to wall. We see a police car. Peter expects to be stopped by the police. He’ll ask for directions. But the police car ignores us. We see it again, and the police continue to ignore us. So Peter keeps driving through. I hide my face. Everyone ignores us. If we’re not meant to be here, you wouldn’t know it. Peter’s enjoying the drive and the views of these landmarks that we would otherwise not see. The buildings are stunning and the area looks really interesting. I’d like to see it under more “usual” circumstances. I read later that visitors’ cars are not allowed in the centre. Hmmm…

We’re back in Florence by evening so we drive along the river, crossing the bridges back and forth, watching the lights especially on Ponte Vecchio. The river, pretty during the day, looks bejeweled at night. It’s been good having the car, but it’s due back tomorrow.

Sunday 4 September

While Peter returns the car I walk to a tabac to buy some bus tickets and wait for him near the bus stop. We’re off to the Uffizzi! As a building that once functioned as the offices for the state of Florence it doesn’t compare with the Palazzi Ducale in Venice. But as an art gallery it’s absolutely magnificent.

We spend five hours there and could easily return again and again. The highlights:

A comprehensive, extensive and beautifully presented exhibition of thirteenth and fourteenth century art that traces the movement from flat, two dimensional icon-like work, to painting that has perspective, depth and real people. It is a fine introduction to renaissance painting.

Boticelli’s “Birth of Venus”

An unfinished painting by Leonardo da Vinci. The sketching was amazing … To actually see work by da Vinci …

Michaelangelo’s Holy Family. Mary’s face was that of Mona Lisa …

There were so many paintings that I want to remember seeing, and in what context, that I bought a book on the Uffizzi. Those highlights are unforgettable though.

On our must do list in Florence is to see “David” at the Galleria del Accademia so we catch one of the small buses that run around the centre of Florence (they’re a brilliant way of getting around). “David” is a much different statue than any of his reproductions, one cast in bronze in Piazza del Michaelangelo, and one in the Piazza del Signoria where the original had stood until the nineteenth century. I am really surprised how different he looks from different angles. His eyes are extraordinary – especially when I am in line with where he is looking. His look of sweet innocence disappears. He looks focussed, determined, resolute …his body changes from looking relaxed to having tremendous tension. We can both look at him for a long time, going around him, looking from every angle.

There is also some unfinished work by Michaelangelo, work that he has discontinued because he was not satisfied with it. Among these is an unfinished “pieta” the legs of Christ are emerging, as is the figure of Mary. It is instantly recognizable.

We are about to leave but we ask a guard what exhibits are on the upper floor. She urges us to look and suggests some of the gallery’s finest work is shown there. We almost leave, but thankfully we take her advice … Always listen to staff at a gallery or museum. We find an absolutely awesome embroidered alter cloth. It was made during the thirteenth century and at first glance looks like a painting. I take a closer look at the vivid red of some clothing, and I am amazed to see that it is tiny, tiny stitching. The images, perspective and depth have all been achieved with embroidery. I’ve seen impressive tapestries, but this is something else. It is about three metres long, one metre wide and is in superb condition.

We later find the guard and we profusely thank her. She smiles and says it is the most valuable item in the gallery. Very few people bother looking. We are delighted at having seen it. This, and David, are two of the greatest artworks either of us has seen … So far …

The guard understands that we have spent the day at the Uffizzi and have been here for over two hours. “The life of a tourist is hard” she says!

We treat ourselves to dinner at a ristorante. The salmon I have is as good as Peter’s! That is a first. Seafood in Florence is brilliant. What a day!

Monday 5 September

This what I’ve been looking forward to … Seeing the Duomo! I’m so excited! This is the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, or the Basilica of Mary and the Flower, the flower being Christ. The building of the basilica began in the thirteenth century and is one of the largest churches in the world. It’s dome was not built until the fifteenth century because nobody had the technology to build such a wide dome. This is why I’m so excited to see the church. The technique finally used required the building of two domes, one inside the other.

Walking to the bus stop, I see a beautiful blue scarf on display outside one of the many small shops in this area. They’re hardly designer stores! Anyway, some power is guiding me, because I buy it on impulse, and when I arrive at the Duomo I am required to cover my shoulders and upper arms. I know that the Vatican requires covering of knees and elbows but this is the first church I’ve encountered that requires this. So I have a beautiful blue shawl to wrap around me … Perfect!

The tiny bus that we use to get around Florence has seating for about eight and a little standing room. Italians are crazy. People are squashing in like sardines in a tin. Peter sees a sign that says standing room for nineteen! There are about twelve, maybe fourteen people standing and you couldn’t possibly fit any more in … There aren’t enough poles for people to hold on to and the driver speeds along, everyone rocking and rolling and shaking and falling over each other …

There’s a long queue to get onto the Duomo, but we need to get tickets first. Peter heads off to the ticket office and I sit on the marble steps to the Duomo admiring its facade. It’s made of beautiful green and pink marble with intricately carved white marble columns. There are many statues, and above either side of the front entrance are statues of Mary and Peter. Italians worship Mary, and there are many chapels and churches dedicated to her. Famous paintings and statues have been commissioned in her honour.

The colours of the marble facade are far vivid than those of the San Marco Basilica, and I later read that the original facade was replaced in the eighteenth century.

Peter returns having bought tickets for a tour of the Duomo. That means we don’t have to queue. Peter’s decision is inspired … Something is guiding us today!

The duomo was designed in the grandest scale to match Florence’ status. The original church, built in the third century, continued to function as the duomo was built around it. Although the basilica is very large, originally it was very simple inside, with just a few friezes on the walls, to indicate that the Florentines were also simple people inside. The statues and elaborately geometric mosaic floors were added later by the Medici family who were anything but simple! The tour is not only a history of the church, but a history of Florence, particularly the battles between the Florentines and the Medicis.

Our tour guide explains that two friezes are of business men who paid for much of the building and their support is recognized by mounting the friezes. It is also a lesson in art history. The paintings were done twenty years apart. The first one uses the techniques of the time and the painting is flat with no perspective or depth. The second painting has depth and the attributes that lead on to renaissance painting.

A third frieze is of Dante and is of great significance to other symbolism in the church. Dante wrote the “Divine Comedy” in which he describes the end of time. The frieze has God in heaven above, and behind Dante is heaven, hell and Florence, indicating that, although Florence is magnificent, it is not heaven – yet. I am always amused by this either propoganda or arrogance, though I suspect it is the former. The theme of time continues with a liturgical clock (a 24 hour clock on which each new day begins at sunset) above the inside of the front door, reminding those entering that they are leaving secular time behind, and entering a spiritual place. I thought this a beautiful symbolism until the guide said that all official civic meetings were held in the church!

Dante’s theme of the end of time continues in the magnificent frieze that lines the inside of the dome. In it, God is above in heaven, Mary is in the centre, below her is pictured the soldier of the church taking off his armour and assuming a cloak of glory (all battles with evil and other churches having been won), and hell is below.

The tour is to ascend to the terrace where outside we will be able to see over Florence and inside we will be able to walk around the base of the dome and see the frieze close up. As we ascend the organ begins to play. It is a remarkable experience every time I hear an organ play in a vast empty church. The sound is amazing. As we walk around the inside of the dome the organ is LOUD, filling my head with nothing but its sound. It is a uniquely awe inspiring experience, particularly hearing the organ while I look closely at the frieze of heaven and hell. How appropriate!

Outside again, we pass the outside of the dome where groups of new looking tiles can be seen below large terra-cotta pots gathering rain water thatbthen apparently spills over the tiles, aging them. When dome tiles break they can be replaced with aged tiles that don’t look incongruous … Clever!

The best is yet to come though. As our guide leaves us she unlocks the the gates leading to the stairs that wind between the two domes!!! For most this will be a climb for the panoramic view over Florence. For me it will be an astonishing opportunity to see how the dome was constructed, to see the herringbone pattern of bricks that keeps the domes supporting each other. To find out more about the domes construction see

It will also be a massive challenge for me to climb so many steps. It’s ninety metres high and the dome spans forty four metres. That’s a lot of steps. It’s hot, narrow and brilliant! People must think I’m crazy but they’re very kind and very patient and very supportive.

The last six steps are really tall, the first one over forty cm. But there is a hand rail, and where others struggle, I can easily pull myself up. (With one push by Peter so I can reach the rail.)

I’m so happy. The view could be of coal tailings, and I’d love it. But the view is spectacular. We are higher than anything in Florence, even the Piazza del Michaelangelo and the camponile, and for the first time I can see hills in the distance and an horizon. The rooves of Tuscany are a wonderful rich orange terra-cotta and Florence looks beautiful. I feel fantastic! Looking over towards the Medici chapel, their villa, and their church, San Lorenzo, I wish I had much more time in Florence. There is so much great history, architecture and art, to see it and appreciate it would require weeks. The spaces in Florence, like the Piazza del Signoria, are places to relax and people watch, yet are also vibrant with buskers and artists. It’s also reasonably easy for me to get around on crutches without getting too tired because the little buses go everywhere I need to go.

The centre of Florence is small and it is not difficult for me to walk from one landmark to another. Having seen the duomo (really seen the duomo!) we walk to the Piazza del Signoria where all the statues are. It’s pleasant people watching here in the shade.

Moving on towards the Ponte Vecchio I watch the artists working. There are oils, watercolours, pastels … All sorts of views of Florence and Tuscany. They’re all very nice but nothing makes my heart sing. Then as we near the bridge I see an artist doing pencil drawings. The texture and light of one in particular catches my eye. It is of the duomo. I buy it. I’m very happy!

We wander along toward the Ponte Vecchio, another lovely spot, where jewellers have had their premises since the time of Medici. Their windows sparkle with diamonds. It’s fun looking not only at their expensive jewellry, but also looking through their front windows to the rear windows and beyond to see the river. We reward ourselves with a gelato. I don’t eat gelato in New Zealand because I don’t particularly like it and don’t know what the fuss about it is. But in Italy … Gelato is indescribably delicious!

Still buzzing from going up the dome, we continue walking. We walk past markets (with some very nice leather goods, not the usual tat), and discover the Piazza Della Republic where a string trio is busking.

Finally ready to head back to the hotel we grab some take-out from a self service diner. The food at these places is so good. It’s as good as at any restaurant, there’s just a smaller selection.

I’m a little sad to be leaving Florence. I’d like to spend more time exploring it and exploring Tuscany.

Notes on Accessibility

The little buses have a high step to climb aboard, impossible to access by wheelchair. The ground is cobbled and would be rough on a wheelchair but this is probably the only way for someone who can’t walk short distances to get around. There are steps up to the duomo. The Uffizzi is ramped and has toilets for the disabled. I couldn’t find any public toilets for the disabled. However, a trip to Florence would worth it for the Uffizzi, and for sharing the ambience of the piazzas.


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