A long weekend in Florence

A Long Weekend in Florence
by Jan G.

Weddings are often key milestones in ones life…first one attends as a child, tagging along as your older nephews and nieces get married. Then years later you and your peers start to get married, then finally you find yourself in the role of wise elder, attending the weddings of neices and nephews. I was lucky enough to be invited to a family wedding in Tuscany recently At first I wasn’t overjoyed to be traveling to Italy in June, anticipating a post-Memorial Day flood of Americans heading to Europe. Besides, I had always envisioned my first Italy holiday as a September vacation in a villa rented with 2 or 3 other couples…a real Tuscan house party.

When my husband and I started thinking more earnestly about the wedding of our niece, we decided to add a few days onto the front side of the June wedding and spend a long weekend in Florence. Neither of us had ever been to Florence, so the prospect of 4 days in this Mecca of Renaissance art seemed perfect, and the wedding site was in a Tuscan hillside town halfway between Florence and Arezzo in Eastern Tuscany.

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We got around to making air reservations long after all the frequent flier seats on the major carriers were gone, taken, nada. Although Alitalia has a direct flight from Boston to Milan, I was really hoping to save some money on the high season air fares with at least one free ticket. It ended up working out to use American Express points to get a Swiss Air companion ticket rather than a frequent flier ticket…both are free with points, but the companion ticket requires buying one ticket at listed price and using only 25,000 points for the companion ticket. This was a much better deal than using 60,000 points for a frequent flier seat on Alitalia, which didn’t have any seats available anyway. That’s the story behind how we ended up flying to Zurich, then the ½ hour flight over the snow-capped Alps to Milan.

Nothing sets the tone of Italy as perfectly as Italian food. (See our additional article, You Can’t Get a Bad Meal in Italy). It turns out that the first class Eurostar has a gourmet restaurant car where we scored a usually pre-reserved table for two. Balancing adroitly in a narrow aisle of a speeding train, our Eurostar waitress served a multi-course lunch (pasta, wine, beef and arugula, wine, chocolate torte, espresso, finish off the wine) at a leisurely pace while hurtling 130 miles per hour. With palates sated and the grumpies banished, we napped in comfortable first class loungers the rest of the way through the Italian countryside till we reached Firenze at about 4:00 PM. We were off to a good start!

Our WIMCO trip advisor had strongly recommended we stay at the Hotel Sofitel right in the heart of Florence. Only a short walk from the train station, we rolled our suitcases the four blocks to the hotel rather than attempt a taxi…Florence is primarily a pedestrian city, with limited car mobility only on designated congested streets. It is a much better idea to be without a car in Florence than to try to drive into this walking town and deal with parking. The Sofitel is small, friendly, and intimate….an Engish speaking staff greeted us and showed us to an elegant, high-ceilinged, well appointed room with Sofitel-standard modern marble bathroom. Another note for travelers: European bedding rarely approaches American “king size” or even “queen size” beds, so we had ordered two twin beds, which is the key to achieving a king size sleeping arrangement in Italy. They were side by side under one upholstered headboard, so we were perfectly comfortable but suitably connected in sleeping configuration. After a recovery nap and bath, we ventured out in the early evening, map in hand, to discover Florence right outside the Sofitel doors.

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Like Lemmings we followed our noses and the crowds on the sidewalk past enticing shopfronts, round a bend in the road, and wow, there it was. High, massive, overwhelming its environs, the Duomo of the Santa Maria del Fiore with its green and white marble façade, dominating bell tower, ornate Baptistry and Brunelleschi’s vast gold dome is breathtaking. In the piazza that encompasses the Duomo and baptistry a whole world of street theatre, tour groups, retail hawkers, outdoor restaurants, and meandering cyclists chaotically wove among each other to create early evening chaos. As the Duomo and Campanile (belltower) were closed for the evening, we decided to meander through central Florence’s pedestrian alleyways in search of dinner. After a thoroughly delightful dinner, we window-shopped up the main Via dei Calzaiuoli past designer shops, independent fashion and leather boutiques, gelati shops, Florentine paper specialty stores, and the obligatory cell phone outlets toward the Palazzo Vecchio’s proud statuary, the nighttime Uffizi Gallery, and the Arno River. Without turning to our map, we “felt” the Ponte Vecchio’s pull to all who were out walking in the full moon evening. With its jewelry stalls closed like turtles into their shells, the “Old Bridge” nonetheless was alive with walkers, lovers, families, students, and musicians. We shared a magical moment at the crest of the bridge where the shops open up to an arched terrace looking up the Arno toward Fort Belvedere on the hillside and the Boboli Gardens beneath the fort. The full moon on the river and hillside had created a majestic light illuminating some statues in the distant gardens. At this very moment a street musician on the bridge was playing “Bridge Over Troubled Water”on acoustic guitar to an approving and attentive crowd of students and lovers. It was one of those “connected” moments in travel when who you are, who you are with, and where you both are visiting on the planet purr harmonically.

The next day was dedicated to discovering Florence by foot…always my way of deconstructing a new city. Shod in the most friendly of shoes, off we went into the city center toward the Arno River, uncovering en route the insides of the Duomo and Campanile, the statuary of the Palazzo Vecchio and the courtyard of the Uffizi Palazzo, and the tacky jewelry stalls of the Ponte Vecchio. Crossing over the bridge, we were unconsciously heading to the Boboli Gardens and Fort Belvedere where the previous night’s full moon had shown so brilliantly. A steep climb uphill suggested the high rent district of fabulous homes hidden behind the steep alley walls as we climbed to the Fort and the crest of the hill. Coming back down the hill through meandering pathways of the Boboli Gardens (which are definitely not kept as pristine and manicured as American parks or estate formal gardens…the lawns were in fact shabby and scrappy), we then toured the galleries of the Palazzo Pitti, the main family seat of the Medici’s. It was ornate, labyrinthine, and impressive.

After lunch it was time to hit the town as a shopper and retrace some of the evening’s browsing route for bona fide purchasing. Leather goods, Deruda ceramics, and Florentine paper were my favorites as well as two really stupid, tacky, touristy male genetalia aprons of Michaelangelo’s David for two young men chefs back home. The San Lorenzo market has far better offerings than the covered Mercato Nuovo in the Piazza della Republica, but the quality of products in the stores and boutiques was indeed far better than that in the popular markets.

After a nap followed by dinner outside at Café Gilli in the Piazza della Republica, we tried to score some last minute tickets at an opera, but it was hopeless.  Still hungry for live music, we were not to be denied. Florence comes to life at night with street musicians. The neighboring outdoor café to Café Gilli, the Paszkowski Concerto Cafe, started up with live nightclub music at about 10:00, and we thoroughly enjoyed the sexy chanteuse from piazza benches next to the Republica’s cheerful merry-go-round. Wandering further, there was an operatic soprano singing with electronic keyboard accompaniment under a medieval arched gallery which served as sound studio/echo chamber for her voice…the Ave Maria never before sounded so melodic! The evening’s finale was a four piece salsa/jazz band playing near the Bargello, the city’s oldest prison. We had spent an evening of varied live music strolling through the June night air, alleyway by alleyway, enjoying gelato and some of the most talented, most enjoyable street theatre one can find.

The next day was full of specials: we had a morning reservation for a 9:30 admission to the Uffizi Palace. All the guidebooks detail the Uffizi, and we all know you CAN’T even think of Florence without going there. My two comments sum it up: go to www.florenceart.com ahead of your trip and get a prepaid, reserved admission time. My other comment is this: it is the most mesmerizing collection of Renaissance art in one place that you can imagine. After about 20 rooms the Madonnas with Jesus all seem to blend into a Catholic white noise, but the whole environment just feels inspirational.

Lunch and afternoon held the piece de resistance: We had a 1:00 reservation at Villa San Michele, a luxury hotel which was formerly a 15th century former monastery high in the hills of Fiesole outside Florence. A convenient shuttle bus takes one to the hotel/villa hourly from the central Piazza della Republica in town. Although raining, the Villa San Michele serves lunch on a canopied outdoor loggia of the main monastery building overlooking the whole Arno Valley where Florence nestles. We watched as thunderstorms entered and then passed through the valley, lightening highlighting the Duomo far below. The meal (Jeff’s search for Italy’s perfect veal continued) was outstanding, and I discovered a heavenly risotto with pear and pecorino cheese. Fabulous Italian Montepulciano wine accompanied our lingering, lazy lunch. By the time we were finished the rain had abated, and we walked hidden staircases, the garden pool and terrace, and outdoor paths of this stunning hotel and grounds. I made a mental note to add Villa San Michele to my next trip accommodation list, although I would in the future plan it as a short stay in the countryside after a Florence downtown visit at the Sofitel for convenience.

Returning to town in the late afternoon, we topped off our “perfect day” with a pre-reserved (www.florenceart.com) visit to the Accademia della Arte to see Michelangelo’s David. What we experienced was artistic perfection. The impact of seeing this huge statue, perched all alone, high on its plinth, at the end of an airy corridor is startling. Davidis so youthful, so graceful, so man-strong in a just-grown man’s body that it takes your breath away. All the religious art, all the paintings and churches, all the statuary that had gone before paled to the impact of this one glorious white marble man/boy. In seeing this one work of art, the genius of Michelangelo and his place in history is clear.

Florence is one of those must-see places on earth. London, Paris, New York, Rome and Florence are experiences that allow our heritage make sense. Truly our 19th century ancestors who made the “grand tour” of Europe knew that in coming here they were paying homage to elemental sensibilities that help define who we are and how we got to be who we are. Our quick trip wasn’t very long, but it was enough to begin to fill in those synapses that connect us as current Americans with all that has come before.

Interested in more things to do in Florence? we have put together a great list of things to do here!



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