This morning I woke to another bright Venetian sunrise, and what in is by now our Venetian routine – I made my way to our standard, the marvelous Pasticceria Tonolo! I brought the baked delicacies back home to Mandy for sharing, during our last early morning in our Venice apartment, the Ca’ Badoer deiBarbacani‘s “West Apartment.” I am certainly going to miss our little Venice home – it has been a comforting, romantic and relaxing basecamp for adventures in this magical city on the laguna!
After a relaxing breakfast, we made our meandering way back to Venice’s only train station on the islands, the Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia, tasting the sights, smells and sounds of this incredible place one last time (for this year, anyway!) – soaking in every minute of it!
From Venice’s Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia, we had reservations on the Italian train line, Trenitalia, for first-class seats on the express train to Florence. It is worth it to spend a little bit extra to ride first-class if you are able, as the seats are wider, the food service is better, and you’ve got wifi and charging ports for all your devices.
I soon fell into conversation with a wonderful young Indian family visiting Italy for the first time with their small children, which made the 2-hour, 13-minute trip seem much too fast! These days I am feeling very gregarious, outgoing and engaging and fall into conversation with strangers more easily; I am more like my true, easygoing self!
In all honesty, I suppose I was actually a little “hypomanic,” as would be played out over the next few, heady, days, culminating with the disastrous forgetting of my precious cargo-carrying backpack (contents included my accordian-style watercolor sketchbook – full of sketches from Venice and Florence, my newish Sony mirrorless digital camera full of irreplaceable photographs on the SD card, my iPad and some important medication) in the back of our first taxi from the Stazione Termini to our Airbnb apartment, in Rome!
We passed without stopping (an express train) through the Italian cities of Padua and Bologna. After Bologna, the terrain changed, becoming more mountainous, as we passed through the foothills of the Italian coastal mountain range, the Apuan Alps, dominated by 1,946-m. Montè Pisanino – a snow capped peak, just visible in the distance. We also passed many villages, rivers, bridges, green rolling fields, haylofts, churches, monasteries and countryside villas.
Once we arrived at Florence’s main train station, San Maria Novella, we made our way to the taxi stand in front to a waiting Florentine taxi and our courteous driver. Most taxis have access to the restricted central zone of old Florence – only cars with a coveted “restricted permit” get to drive these ancient streets.
I caught sight of the towering Belfry from the taxi, Giotto’s Campanile – begun in 1334 and finally completed in 1359 – a splendid testimony of Florentine Gothic architecture of the fourteenth century – of the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore.
From the back of the taxi, riding through these streets oozing with history, I got a great feeling for the beautiful city of Florence – so alive, so scenic, so historic!
After meandering through the city’s historic center, we arrived at our destination, an Airbnb apartment in a big, old palazzetto, within the historic building BENCI built in 1470 by Niccolò Benci, directly on the city’s beautiful, slow moving river, the Arno. We were seen in by the building’s doorman – a guy who spoke excellent English, who ended up giving me excellent tips for places to dine, shop and visit in this ancient city; the famous “cradle of the Renaissance”.
The upper-floor apartment’s owner, Matteo, came to meet us at the apartment, fresh from giving a guitar lesson to a young student. Matteo was a fascinating character – he was a professional musician and was in love with American music, so we invited him to visit our home city of Austin, Texas, USA, the self-professed “Music capital of the World,” to stay in our own Airbnb, there in the heart of the city of Austin. Matteo presented us with a welcome gift – wonderful bottle of delicious red Tuscan wine and delectable chocolates – what a wonderful gesture!
Even though Matteo’s apartment didn’t overlook the Arno (it overlooked an intriguing interior courtyard, instead), this apartment was the most spacious, luxurious and modern of all of the Airbnb’s we stayed in across Europe. The apartment even had a separate bedroom with a door – we had become accustomed to the “great room” concept apartment, with the bed often occupying a corner of the large central room, shared with a dining and living area, usually with a separate Kitchen.
We ended up having a wonderfully long conversation with Matteo about all things music, America, travel and food. Once we got settled in, we immediately headed out for the ancient heart of Florence, with our Firenze Cards in hand. The Firenze Card gave each of us 72-hours of unfettered access to Florence’s most important sights.
The promising Uffizi Gallery, La Gallerie degli Uffizi, one of the most important art museums in the world, was mere blocks from our apartment, also on the banks of the Arno. The Uffizi Gallery is home to masterpieces by Botticellli, Michealangelo and Caravaggio, among many, many others.
Once there we saw several longish lines crowding the huge courtyard outside the museum, even though it was still relatively early in the day. We picked the most promising-looking line, which seemed to be for tickets, and began to stand there for what promised to be quite possibly hours. We figured with the Firenze Card, we’d get our tickets and not have to stand in another long cue to enter the museum.
I was feeling kind of deflated when a kind-looking, accented english speaking, young Italian man in interesting clothes and scarves approached us carefully. He kindly introduced himself as Mario Gesu, and said he was an official card-carrying professional Florentine guide, art researcher and historian. You can find him on TripAdvisor under the moniker mariogesu. He had tickets, already, to enter the Uffizi Gallery, and I had a Firenze Card – the golden ticket!
I was ready to hire Mario Gesu on the spot to skip the long line and receive an informed tour of the scrumptious works of art inside, and we soon did! With the two of us in tow, Mario took us to the Uffizi Gallery ticket booth, where we got Mario’s 2 tickets stamped thanks to our Firenze Cards and proceeded to immediately enter the Uffizi Gallery where we met up with our small group of fellow waiting tour-members. We were a group of 6, including Mario, with an Australian couple and another American man. I was thrilled!
As I said, Mario’s english was impeccable and academic, but heavily accented, which I thought was just great – it made the tour seem that much more authentic – he even used words in English I don’t know! Mario led us on to see some of the most important works of art in the Uffizi Gallery, spanning from classical Roman, to medieval, to the Renaissance, post-Renaissance and Baroque. He was an exceptional guide, with a constant twinkle in his eyes and a smile on his lips, constantly challenging us all at every turn with a series of very direct, sometimes difficult, and always intriguing questions about the pieces of art he had just introduced us to.
Mario’s approach was to make the art “come alive” for us, through an interactive question and answer format, which helped us to see each work of art in a whole new light. Overall, it was an incredibly educational 1 1/2 hour tour of the Uffizi Gallery highlights. At the end, as we were tipping him generously, I asked him if he’d be able to take me to the Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo’s David and other works the next morning and he eagerly agreed. I knew he would be able to, overnight, pull together another small tour group from his base as mariogesu on TripAdvisor. Michelangelo was quoted in a biography as saying, as a young man, “If there is some good in me, it is because I was born in the subtle atmosphere of your country of Arezzo. Along with the milk of my nurse I received the knack of handling chisel and hammer, with which I make my figures.”
After our remarkable tour of the living Uffizi Gallery, Mandy and I repaired to the rooftop terrace of the Uffizi Gallery for refreshments. From the Uffizi Gallery‘s rooftop terrace, we could see the imposing mass of Fillippo Brunelleschi’s – the first “master architect” of the early Italian Renaissance – “Duomo,” or the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, consecrated by Pope Eugene IV in the year 1436.
The “Duomo” is remarkable in it ingenious design – Brunelleschi employed a system of a hidden inner dome holding up a visible outer dome to achieve this remarkable engineering and architectural feat with the aid of machines that he invented specifically for the project.
Tomorrow we will attend the Great Museum of the Dome, to see exactly how Brunelleschi achieved this engineering marvel, through his own models of the dome and other mechanical devices. “Brunelleschi‘s admirable innovation was to turn the dome without reinforcement, thanks to the use of a double shell with a cavity: the internal one, made with herringbone segments, which had a structural function and the external one only as a roof. The lantern stands out on the dome, designed by Brunelleschi, but built after his death and topped by the golden copper ball with the cross, by Andrea del Verrocchio.”
If climbing to the topping lantern of the Duomo, consider this (from the Duomo website): “If you suffer from a fear of heights or dark, narrow spaces, then a climb up to the dome might not be for you. It is less than a meter wide, there is plexiglas for protection and you can admire the immense size of the frescoes up close as well as LOOK DOWN about 40 meters into the central part of the cathedral. You are not exposed here and cannot fall — but if you fear heights, this part might be hard to manage. The climb up the dome is within the space between the two domes so it is extremely narrow, and the steps are steep. People have different tolerances for heights so consider these points to decide whether to climb or not. They are narrow, the steps can be steep and the entire climb is 463 steps. When you reach the base of the drum right below the cupola’s frescoes, you actually come out onto a walkway.”
The huge octagonal dome, visible over the Florentine skyline for many miles, has a diameter of 45.5 meters; “a masterpiece capable of withstanding lightning (and) earthquakes over the centuries, which today enchants anyone who observes it from afar.”
From the rooftop terrace of the Uffizi Gallery, we could also see the stunning medieval fortress tower of the Palazzo Vecchio, the Florence town hall, which was begun in the year 1299, over the top of the ancient theater of the Roman colony of Florentia (first established in 59 B.C. by Gaius Julius Caesar for precise political and strategic reasons), whose ruins can be admired in the underground level.
After wandering around the center of Florence for a little longer, we headed for a Florentine vegetarian hotspot, the ultra-hip and cool restaurant, Brać, which is housed in an active bookstore and art gallery. We had a marvelously adventurous vegetarian feast, all organic and locally-sourced, while seated at a corner table in the active front room/bar of the restaurant. And, the presentation was amazing! We’ll be back for more on another day – it was that good!
After finishing our marvelous vegetarian feast at Brać, we walked back down to the Arno and the medieval-era bridge crossing it, the Pontè Vecchio. The famous old bridge had buildings walling it in, which are and always have been, shops.
From the Pontè Vecchio website: “Built very close to the Roman crossing, the Pontè Vecchio, or Old Bridge, was the only bridge across the Arno in Florence until 1218. The current bridge was rebuilt after a flood in 1345. During World War II it was the only bridge across the Arno that the fleeing Germans did not destroy. Instead they blocked access by demolishing the medieval buildings on each side. On November 4, 1966, the Pontè Vecchio bridge miraculously withstood the tremendous weight of water and silt when the Arno once again burst its banks.”
“When the Medici moved from Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti, they decided they needed a connecting route from the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno that would enable them to keep out of contact with the people they ruled. The result was the Corridoio Vasariano, built in 1565 by Giorgio Vasari and which runs above the little goldsmiths’ shops on the Pontè Vecchio. There have been shops on Pontè Vecchio since the 13th century. Initially, there were all types of shops, including butchers and fishmongers and, later, tanners, whose “industrial waste” caused a pretty rank stench in the area. In 1593, Ferdinand I decreed that only goldsmiths and jewelers be allowed to have their shops on the bridge in order to improve the wellbeing of all, including their own as they walked over the bridge.
After crossing the bridge, we strolled along the opposite bank of the Arno, along the riverside walkways, a “lungarno” until we reached the hill at the base of the Piazzale Michelangelo, “the hill of San Miniato the Viale dei Colli., a tree-lined street over 8 kilometers long ending at the Piazzale Michelangelo which was built as a terrace with a panoramic view of the city. The square, dedicated to the Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo, has bronze copies of some of his marble works found elsewhere in Florence: the David and the four allegories of the Medici Chapel of San Lorenzo. The monument was brought up by nine pairs of oxen on 25 June 1873.” Text courtesy the Piazzale Michelangelo website.
At the top of the San Miniato the Viale dei Colli. hill, at the Piazzale Michelangelo, we found a cart selling very good Italian gelato and simply delicious frozen lemonade – both of which really hit the spot after our long walk from the restaurant to the top of the hill. The low wall ringing the Piazzale Michelangelo was crowded with sunset-watchers, but I wanted to sketch the view of Florence, its surrounding hills and the Arno before it was too dark. I politely asked a small group of very nice sunset-watchers to please scoot a little closer together, so that I could fully unfold my accordian-style watercolor sketchbook, brought from Paris. My intention was to sketch the scene in in pencil first, then later watercolor the sketch from memory.
This time, in contrast to the 1 1/2 hours my sketch in Piazza San Marco in Venice took me to construct, I sketched in the Florence skyline at sunset in less than an hour. The sun was rapidly setting while I was sketching, and I captured it and the clouds just above the horizon in my pencil sketch.
From the top of the San Miniato the Viale dei Colli. hill, at the Piazzale Michelangelo, we walked back down the hill on a cobblestone street and then exited the scene, through the 14th-century gate, Porta San Nicolo in the old, medieval city wall. Just outside the old gate, we ran across an interesting jewelry shop. I was intrigued by some necklaces that featured the chemical compounds of either stimulants or important neurotransmitters.
Tonight, I was too wired to even sleep, so I listened to music on my Apple AirPods, and even danced around the roomy apartment by myself until 4 a.m.