Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Smile, You're in Florence!

November 16, 2008

Hello there! So the weekend before last Gabi and I took an overnight trip to Firenze, aka Florence, and had an amazing time wandering the surprisingly small city and reveling in it's abundance of great art. We left Saturday morning by train, taking about 3 hours to get there. We were able to walk from the train station to our hostel (and actually to everyplace we went) so we didn't have to waste money on a taxi or bus. As far as our hostel, we were pleasantly surprised. The rooms were standard shared-dorms with bunks but the rest of the hostel was almost like a hotel! It was well worth 16 euro a night. We couldn't check-in right away so we left our backpacks and headed out.
We walked through these great outdoor mercatini with stalls selling all sorts of wares and souvenirs. I guess leather is a big industry in Florence because it was everywhere! Leather purses, coats, wallets, belts, you name it, it was all over the city, and definitely not my favorite part of Florence considering my views on the product. It was still fun to browse each of the stands. Gabi and I bought some ever-so-popular "friendship" bracelts, played with a cute little boxer puppy named Punto at one stand, and I bought a little souvenir for my mom that is unique to the Toscana region.
Our walking eventually led us to the grand Duomo. Of all the Duomos I've seen thus far, this one may have been the most impressive. Not only is it immensely detailed with multicolored marble and a carved facade, but it was also enormous! It's famous dome can be seen for miles away. Connected to it is Giotto's pretty bell tower and directly in front of it is the octagonal baptistery with it's famous carved bronze doors by Ghiberti (however the originals are actually in a nearby museum which we went to later). We had reservations for the famous Uffizzi Gallery at 3pm, so we kept moving, grabbing caprese sandwiches along the way for lunch.
Our next stop was the bustling Piazza della Signoria, dominated by the brick Palazzo Vecchio and it's tower (which look remarkably like those in Siena!). The piazza also has a pretty Fountain of Neptune and a covered "stage" with several statues whose originals can be found in nearby museums.
It was nearing 3pm so we headed to the nearby Uffizzi, along the way spotting an odd man putting paint all over his face (this will come up again later...). The outside of the museum is really nothing too special, but inside is filled with wonderful treasures of Italian artwork. Gabi and I had actually studied a handful of the paintings in our Storia dell'Arte Italiana class so getting to see them was quite a treat. I'm finding that viewing art that you actually know something about is so much more rewarding and interesting than simply browsing unaware. In fact, when we walked into our first room, we both let out gasps because we were surrounded by the 3 golden Maestà (one each by Giotto, Cimabue, and Ducio) that we had just learned about in class! Paintings which, to me, had seemed somewhat unimpressive in my textbook now were suddenly unbelievable in real life. I even managed to sneak a pic of Giotto's from the doorway : )The big highlight of the galleria, however, was Botticelli's paintings: Primavera and Nascita di Venere (Birth of Venus). I'd always loved these paintings, and after learning more about them in class I loved them even more... In person they completely surpassed my expectations and were lovelier than I could've hoped. One thing I especially admire about Botticelli is his faces; they are so much prettier and more realistic than those by other Italian artists. Not to mention how refreshing his choice to portray figures from Greek mythology rather than Christian-themed images and figures (there must be about a million "Madonna with Child" paintings!) is. We wandered the other rooms, seeing some amazing paintings, some that we were familiar with, others which we weren't. From a window there was also a great view of the Ponte Vecchio below, and from the terrace we had a close-up view of the tower of Palazzo Vecchio. The ceilings inside were covered with paintings and very pretty, too. While it's no Louvre, I can definitely tell why the Uffizzi has gained the notoriety it has... in terms of Italian art, it stands alone and was well worth the visit!
When we finished at the Uffizzi we walked back to the Duomo to check out the inside before it closed. The highlights include a pretty astrological clock, a dizzying spiral marble floor, the gorgeous dome adorned with paintings, and cute little candle "trees" for prayers and devotions. To be honest though, I think I've become a little dulled towards churches.
Sadly the sun was starting it's descent, so we made a beeline to the Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge. On the way, we passed a stand selling freshly roasted chestnuts, and having never tried them I bought a bag and was pleasantly surprised! They remind me of little brains when you shell them, and they're a little softer than expected, but very yummy. I'd always been curious about them since they're part of such a famous Christmas song, too.
So here is when that guy with the painted face comes back into the picture: Apparently he paints his face and acts like a weirdo, walking weird and imitating others, and as Gabi and I walked past him he started following me. Whatever, I just ignored him, but then he got a little too close and was using me to entertain those around us... but my final straw was when he actually reached out and touched my head, so I turned around and just wacked him! He even tried to grab my arm as I swung at him, but I got my point across and the crowd thought it was pretty funny... I did not.
Back to the bridge... There has been a bridge spanning the Arno River close to this spot since Roman times, but the current stone bridge was built in 1345, bearing a multitude of shops on its three arches, now occupied by fancy jewelry stores displaying their shiny wares. Fun fact: "The bridge has endured numerous fires and floods over the centuries, but perhaps came closest to destruction in 1944, during WWII. As the Germans retreated, they blew up all Florence's bridges except the Ponte Vecchio."
Since it was just about dark by then, we went back to our hostel, took our stuff to our room, relaxed for a bit and then headed back out for dinner. After dinner we wandered more and then tired to find a famous gelateria that Gabi's guidebook recommended called Vivoli. We didn't know an exact location, just a general vicinity and the street name, so we went exploring. In the process we stumbled upon a beautiful white church all lit up, but we had a bit more trouble finding the gelato shop. After looking for a good half hour, we decided to give up, but lucky us, as we were heading back we look up and see the street sign we'd been searching for! It was the perfect way to end our first day in Florence.
Sunday morning we got an early start since we had a 10:30am reservation at the Accademia. The small museum would really be quite unimpressive if not for their one big tourist draw: Michelangelo's magnificent David. Gabi and I must have spent at least 20 minutes taking it in. I confess that before I had always wondered what all the hype was about and thought that I had seen plenty of other sculptures that were just as good, but when it's right in front of you, it takes your breath away. The size alone is incredible, almost 3 times a normal man, and the precision of the body is amazing. I couldn't help but imagine the enormous block of marble Michelangelo transformed into his vision of perfection, piece by piece, bit by bit.
Afterword we headed back through the mercatini toward Piazza del Duomo. Sitting on the steps we planned the rest of our day, fitting in as much as time would allow. Next on our schedule was the Museo del Duomo, directly behind the church. Although small and probably often overlooked, the museum houses a few wonderful treasures. Among these is Michelangelo's unfinished marble Pietà, intended to be his own funeral monument; a haunting wooden statue of Mary Magdalene by Donatello; and the 10 original bronze panels of the Baptistery doors, by Lorenzo Ghiberti, and collectively known as the "Gates of Paradise".
We continued our morning museum trend with the Bargello National Museum next. We went with the intention of seeing 2 sculptures: Michelangelo's Bacchus and Donatello's David. Unfortunately the latter was being restored and thus unavailable for viewing. The round-bellied Bacchus, however, was still there, one of Michelangelo's earlier works which showed a distinctly different style from later works like his famous David.
At this point we were somewhat spent of museums, so we took a lunch break and got some pasta at a little restaurant called Il Gatto e Il Volpe (The Cat and the Fox). Refreshed and rested, we made our way back to the Ponte Vecchio to see it in the bright light of daytime. We lucked out with the weather, too. Not only was it not raining, but the sky was a bright blue spattered with big fluffy white clouds!
On the other side of the bridge we wandered to the grand Palazzo Pitti, former residence of the powerful Medici family that once ruled Firenze. Due to a lack of time and money, however, we were unable to explore the multitude of museums and gardens within its walls.
Our last stop of the day was climbing a hill up to Piazza Michelangelo, which Gabi assured me would be more than worthwhile for the views alone. It took us about a half hour just to get to the stairs leading up the hill, however... We kept stopping along the Arno River to take pictures of the gorgeous blue backdrop!
The piazza is literally at the top of this huge hill, but with spectacular views of the city, the domes of the Duomo, and the surrounding Tuscan hillsides. In the middle of the piazza is a smaller imitation of the artist's David, hence the name. It was truly magnificent, and by far my favorite part of the weekend.
Before heading back down we climbed a little higher up to this pretty white church that you can see from way down on the Ponte Vecchio. Not surprsingly, the views from there were even better!
We relaxed up there for a while and then made our way back down and back to our hostel. On our way back we passed the same pretty white church we'd seen the night before while searcing for our ice cream, and it was even prettier in the light of day. We got our backpacks from the hostel and headed to the train station, figuring we'd catch a train at 4ish and make it home relatively early, but when we went to use the automatic ticket machines, every train to Padova somehow had "no seats available"! Now in my 5 months of using the Italian train system, this has never happened. Apparently, there was going to be a strike later, so everyone was trying to rush to their destination early, and thus most of the trains were actually full. So we had to wait in line 45 minutes (hence missing the 4ish train) to talk to a Trenitalia employee who was willing to sell us tickets sans seats. Translation: we sat on the floor for most of the way, but at least we made it home at a decent hour!
I have to say I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Firenze. Before going I'd heard mixed reviews: that it was stiffling with tourists, only good for it's museums, and small. While I found these to be a little true, they by no means made it any less charming or enjoyable. I think Gabi and I found a great balance between seeing all the great art Florence has to offer and seeing the beautiful city itself, the latter which I feel like some people may overlook. It was just one of those weekends you think back on and just smile about : )


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