Florence (Firenze in Italian) is the capital and largest city in Tuscany. Guidebooks devote enormous sections to Florence, often more than they devote to Rome. We spent just one day due to our decision to base ourselves in Siena while in Tuscany. We drove up, parked just outside the city walls and walked into town. Our first and last visits were to this enormous complex known as the Pitti Palace (Palazzo Pitti). Originally the palace of the Pitti family (imagine that) it is now a complex of museums including the Palatine Gallery, A modern art museum, a silver museum, a costume museum and formal gardens. We saw none of these in fact. Upon our early morning arrival we discovered a sign that said the museums were closed for a 'staff meeting', come back at 11:00. We didn't, we came back around 4:30 to discover that while the museums are open until 7, the ticket sellers left at 3:30 for a birthday party so you could enter, but only if you had previously purchased a ticket. Sigh.
The Arno river bisects the city of Florence although most of the well known attractions are clustered on the north side of the river. For all the romantic connections in English literature to the Arno, in reality it looks rather, well, bland. Later in the evening a bit further down the river we actually spotted a river otter. Of all the places we might've seen a river otter, Florence was not high in our expectations.
The Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) is the signature crossing of the Arno. It was traditionally a location for smiths of the black, gold and silver varieties. Nowadays the gold and silver still remain in the form of jewelry stores, some of them quite impressive.
Florence is best known for art. The Uffizi, Bargello and Accademia all compete for attention which is somewhat unfortunate because we only had time for one. They're spaced out across Florence and they are not cheap. We chose the Uffizi which occupies this old office building. The gallery is on par with the Louvre although not quite as big, featuring European art from the early Renaissance to Impressionist times. Every major name in art from those centuries is represented here, some of them extravagantly (Botticelli for instance). The Birth of Venus seems to hold the feature role judging from the vast crowds surrounding it.
If you're on a budget, fear not, for Florence has an outdoor sculpture garden of sorts that is more impressive than most museums. The loggia della Signoria (in the Piazza della Signoria) now features several well-known sculptures. This is Cellini's 'Perseus'.
Just across the square from the loggia is the Palazzo Vecchio (city hall) which is the resting place of Michelangelo's 'David'. Well, not really. The original is now in the Accademia away from the elements of weather. This is a full-scale replica.
Next up for us was Santa Croce, one of several major churches in Florence. The plaza in front of it was used for executions once, but now it holds a rather lively market. We had some truly fantastic sausages here (smothered in various grilled vegetables) and an interesting form of hazlenut candy.
The church itself is in line with the rest of Florence. Artwork from the 12th century on is displayed throughout the church and the cloisters around it. Michelangelo, Alfieri and Galileo Galilei are buried inside and there are monuments to Machiavelli and Dante (who was exiled from Florence).
Florence has more markets than, well, anyplace else we've been. Every major square seems to have become a market, in many cases a chaotic, tacky, low-end sort of market (compare this with the huge open piazzas in Siena). The baptistry of Florence is in one of the few squares that avoid this. It is most notable for its doors which feature 10 panels from the Old Testament in gold-coated bas-relief.
The Duomo is another highlight of Florence. It's made of local Tuscan marble in every color they could find, which seems mostly to be green, pink and white. Both the dome and the bell tower can also be climbed for a rather hefty fee (two hefty fees if you wish to climb both). In fact, Florence is about the most expensive city to visit that we've been to in Italy. Everything you might want to visit will cost money, even most of the cathedrals have an entrance fee.
Brunelleschi won a competition to earn the rights to design and build this dome. It's rather difficult to get the sense of openness and the size of this across in a photo. The paintings run from hell at the bottom (of course) to heaven at the zenith. Later, we had gelato. Of course we had gelato. Then we stopped into the Caruso Internet Café because they lured us in with a Grimbergen sign. (Grimbergen is what other beers aspire to be). In the end they didn't have quite so much Grimbergen as the sign led us to believe but they did have fantastic risottos, and affogati which is just another form of gelato drowned in espresso. Speaking of which, the earlier flavors were nutella
and fior di latte
which translates to milk flower.