When we went to Italy, I was determined to avoid the “obvious tourist” syndrome for the most part, ie the jeans and sneakers uniform of the American tourist. I knew that Italians dressed in black all the time, and as we were going in November, it seemed appropriate to do the same, trying to blend in. Besides, it made my wardrobe very easy to coordinate. Yes, I am of Irish descent, with pale skin and green eyes, but I still thought it might be possible. I studied Italian in preparation for my ability to blend in. So there we are, sitting calmly on the train from Florence, when the ticket collector walks down the train, calling “Firenze” to the left, then “Firenze” to the right. Then she took one look at me and said “Florence?” So much for blending in.
The home of the David, the Renaissance and the Uffizi, Florence is an art lover’s paradise. So woe betide the art lover who goes to Florence without doing any research. I knew of someone who had been there for just a day, determined to see the art. But they went on a Monday … when the Uffizi was closed. Research is key.
The Uffizi was however easy to miss, even on a Tuesday. We walked past it on several occasions thinking “what is that black grimy old building with the black grimy statues outside?” We felt kind of foolish when we realised it was the Uffizi, with its stores of amazing art. Let’s face it, in 1998, Florence was dirty. The public buildings were poorly maintained, and at night there was little illumination, when these magnificent buildings could have looked spectacular with decent lighting.
The statues outside were all replicas of famous pieces, such as the David. My mother, having visited on her only trip to Europe, described it as “that rude square.” Inside the Uffizi though was some amazing art, once we got through the long queue. My favourite was a Michelangelo piece with beautiful colours and facial expressions of startling clarity. I have no idea of its name – we were at the time just beginning our art education, and would probably appreciate it more now than we did then.
We loved the Galleria del Accademia, where Michelangelo’s David stands resplendent. We found the unfinished works there particularly enlightening, seeing how Michelangelo sculpted from the stone, freeing the shapes within.
The Uffizi is alongside the river, and there was a lovely view of the Ponte Vecchio from one of the hallways. The Ponte Vecchio is probably the best known landmark of Florence, and is fabulous to behold.
Walking through it is a little disappointing, filled with jewellery stores, but on the other side of the river is the Palazza Vecchio (under restoration at the time), Palazzo Pitti and the Palatine Gallery and its lavish apartments, and the Buboli Gardens, all well worth exploring.
Florence’s Duomo or Cathedral, with its Baptistry and Belltower in the same square, is the other major landmark of the city. A terminal fear of heights prevented me from climbing to the dome of the Duomo , so I admired it from afar. The paintings inside the dome are exquisite, as are the mosaics on the ceiling of the Baptistry, and the glorious golden doorway.
The Santa Croce is another beautiful church, with the tombs of Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli and Galileo to name a few, and worth a visit. Near our hotel and the railway station was the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella, built in 1470 and Tuscany’s most important Gothic church. The beauty of these buildings, and the sense of history in Florence, can be overwhelming at times.
It was cold in November in Firenze, but still crowded with annoying tourists. (I of course am never an annoying tourist, except perhaps to my husband). The food in busy tourist towns is rarely as good – the tourist centres are crowded with restaurants dumbed down for ignorant foreigners. Locals wisely stick to their favourites in their residential areas, and those of us searching for great food feel a bit frustrated. These days of course I would travel with a Michelin Red Guide, but this visit was pre-Amazon.com, and Red Guides are hard to track down here otherwise.
Perhaps it was the weather, or the tourists, but Florence – built up by so many people as their favourite city in the world – was a bit of a disappointment to us. Perhaps one day I should return and give it another chance. Hunt out some of the hidden gems off the main tourist track, revisit the Uffizi, and go when it is warmer so I can sit in the Rude Ssquare with a gelato and relax, watching the other first-time tourists jostle each other as they race around checking off their “must-do” list.