Florence as a Quick Get-Away
by Jan Gordon
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. David is 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.