We loved Venice and it was a wrench to leave. Would we feel the same about Florence?
Before we reach Florence we have the luxury of our first “official” first-class journey. (I say first “official” first-class journey as Mr Fletche and I were kicked out of first-class on our return from Gent…read more about that here). We were lucky to get first-class tickets for the same price as second-class by booking early and agreeing to a non-changeable/cancellable ticket. The seats are certainly more comfortable, and the complementary sparkling wine and snacks add to the VIP experience. We could get used to this! The trip is all too short, although pulling into Firenze Santa Maria Novella station seems to take an age.
Not prepared to take another stressful bus journey a la Verona, we join the lengthy taxi queue outside the station. It moves quickly though and we are soon in a cab on our way to the hotel. One of the first things that hits us about Florence – particularly after coming from car-free Venice – is the sheer amount of traffic. There are restrictions in the central zone but after three days traffic-free it feels as if we are in the middle of rush hour. We are dropped off outside a building which looks like it hosts a number of professional businesses rather than a haven for tourists. There is a small brass plaque announcing that we are indeed in the right place, and we press the buzzer for access. There is a lift to our second floor residenze – a fact we don’t realise until we are halfway up and a gentlemen greets us by wrestling our suitcases from Mr Fletche and into the small lift.
Antica Dimora Firenze is more like someone’s (very elegant) house than a hotel. There’s a comfy lounge with tea, coffee, cake and wine available at all times of the day, a shared breakfast table to encourage guest mingling and just six bedrooms. And we have a four-poster bed! We’re here for three nights so we once again unpack our increasingly messy suitcases – and I’m happy to find plenty of storage space in the bathroom to spread out toiletries. The lovely room helps ease our post Venice-blues and we take a little time relaxing and getting into “Florence mode”.
After the blue skies and sunshine of our first five days in Italy, today is decidedly overcast. This probably contributes to our initial impressions of the city as the buildings look a little grey and gloomy. We immediately notice the reduced air quality compared with the more traffic-free cities, and at times the fumes and humidity feel a little oppressive. Still, we accept that we are a bit tired, a bit grumpy and we’re most definitely not seeing Florence in its best light at the moment. We’ve also been used to our accommodation being smack bang in the middle of the sights; although it’s only a 10-15 minute walk to the Duomo, and 20 to the river, it feels like miles, especially after all the walking we’ve done so far this week.
Still, our first view of the Duomo lifts our spirits slightly. You have no clue it’s coming – you’re just ambling down a shop-lined street when BOOM – the slightly crazy and wholly over-the-top exterior quite literally takes your breath away. I’m still unsure whether it is completely grotesque or completely beautiful, but it’s certainly bonkers. Unlike the huge squares in Milan and Venice which allow you to stand back and see the buildings in all their glory, this feels slightly claustrophobic, as if Florence has sprung up around the cathedral, and is creeping around it like ivy. There is no way from ground-level to capture the whole cathedral with its magnificent dome all at once. If only there were some sort of big tower we could climb…
We enjoy a birra at Piazza Duomo, taking in the behemoth of a building in front of us, and people-watching. There are a lot more sellers – selfie-sticks, artwork, bags and sunglasses – here than we have encountered before, and they seem to be somewhat more aggressive and forceful. Luckily we have learned the most polite but assertive ways of dealing with them since our early travelling days – I never let Mr Fletche forget his encounter with the “bracelet-men” at Montmartre as a cautionary tale…
From the Duomo, we find our way to the famous Uffizi Gallery. Now, we’re not art aficionados by any means, and our travelling style is very much walking, architecture and generally being outside rather than visiting museums and galleries, but we are in Florence, and to miss out on art in Florence would be like not drinking beer in Brussels or not singing Sound of Music songs in Salzburg. It’s not against the law but it’s certainly frowned upon. We pick up our pre-purchased tickets at the allotted time, and we have a quick opportunity to go see the river Arno and get our first glimpse of the famous Ponte Vecchio.
The Uffizi? We’re probably not the best people to judge “art” and we found our favourite part was discussing our own personal interpretations of each piece – which often involved taking the pipi out of probably very important works of art. However, I was molte impressionato with Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” and this was probably my favourite piece at the Uffizi. I also found the frescoes and ceilings much more impressive than most of the art on display. I blame being tired and not yet entirely in “Florence mode”for my lack of enthusiasm. The gallery is so big, rooms are not particularly well signposted and its something of a labyrinth – I’m sure we missed out on some significant pieces because we found ourselves back in the main corridor too soon. I’m sure that if you are a fan of European art history and renaissance painters then you would get much more out of a visit than we did.
We’re all “arted” out for now, and we leave the gallery just as announcements are being made about closing up. I’m glad we chose to come at 4:30pm, meaning that the crowds had thinned out, and we were able to either linger or move on as we so desired. It must be Spritz o’clock so we find a small bar just outside the Uffizi exit. As we sit on the outside terrace, the heavens open – luckily we are undercover, but everyone starts to shuffle just a little closer together underneath the umbrellas. It’s just a short shower, but I start to admire the tenacity of the selfie-stick sellers who have quickly shifted around their stock and are now proffering overpriced umbrellas to tourists
I may well have to purchase a souvenir umbrella…
We decide to do what we did in Venice – just wander off the beaten track a little and see what hidden gems we can find. Unfortunately, instead of hidden gems, we find overflowing rubbish bins, graffiti and undesirable people eying up these two obviously lost tourists. It’s the first time in this trip that I’ve felt a little uncomfortable, and I’m happy once we reach a better populated area.
There is no doubt that our impression of Florence improves considerably when it comes to food. We stumble across I Ghibbellini on Piazza di San Pier Maggiore (we will try and return to this square at a later time, and like those squares in Venice, it will vanish, never to be found again); the food is excellent, and although Mr Fletche enjoys his “salad cake”, he is most envious of my roast pork loin. There is something of a delay between our two dishes being served, but we do experience this elsewhere too – maybe Florentine restaurants just serve food as it’s ready without waiting for all other meals? Notably, it’s always MY food which is served last… Even with half a litre of wine, the meal is considerably cheaper than any we’ve had previously, with much better fare. This is a definite tick in the Florence box.
Determined to give Florence a fair chance to prove its beauty to us, we decide to sleep on it and wake up tomorrow fully switched into Florence mode. It does seem like such a long walk back to our room, but the area has come to life a little bit now that night has fallen making the walk a little more pleasant. Fino a domain, buonanotte Florence.