Firenze, or Florence, is the capital of Tuscany and to my mind, the cultural capital of Italy. Considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, it was a centre of medieval European trade and finance and at one time the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. Noted for its culture, Renaissance art and architecture, museums, art galleries and monuments, it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982. Its importance in the world of fashion is another reason why Florence attracts millions of tourists each year.
At the heart of the city is its Duomo, a cathedral that’s fabulous any way you look at it, from its decorative green, pink and white marble, to its imposing dome designed by Brunelleschi, its campanile (belltower) and Baptistery, and its wonderful bronze front doors. Begun in 1296, the cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria del Fiore took almost 150 years to complete. The highly decorative neo-Gothic façade was added in the 19th century. It is possible to climb the spiral staircase to view the interior of the dome and a panorama of the city. But despite being in Florence on two occasions, I have not been able to manage a glimpse inside!
The other fabulous places here are the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia, where the statue of David resides, the Palazzo Vecchio and the wonderful old Ponte Vecchio across the Arno River. And from up the hill on Piazzale Michaelangelo, ignoring the multitude of souvenir stands with ‘David’ aprons and boxer shorts, great views of all can be seen, particularly at sunset.
The first time we stayed in Florence, we arrived by car and unable to find our accommodation, accidentally ended up driving into the Piazza della Repubblica! This is the main and most central square in Florence, dominated by the huge Arch of Triumph with arched porticos on either side, ringed by hotels and restaurants and the venue for many street artists and exhibitions. Luckily the Carabinieri were very understanding and showed us how to reach our hotel.
This was a former palazzo with its old fresco work still visible on the exterior as well as in patches in our room. It was only a short walk from there to all the main attractions.
At the Uffizi we paid extra to jump the queue and it was worth it, as it is a very popular place. We hired an audio guide which helped explain the various paintings from medieval times up to the eighteenth century, by luminaries such as Michaelangelo, da Vinci and Caravaggio. Some paintings mentioned were away being restored and the Raphael room was not available for viewing, but on the whole it was wonderful.
On our second visit a few years later we managed to visit the Accademia and at last see Michaelangelo’s David, which dominates the central gallery. It was much bigger than I had imagined and unfortunately, as with most galleries, photos were not permitted.
The Ponte Vecchio is a fascinating structure, with small shops selling jewellery, art and souvenirs hanging out precariously over the sides.
On the top level is a secret passage which enabled the Medici rulers to access the Palazzo Vecchio (Town Hall) from their palace (Palazzo Pitti) on the other side of the Arno, without having to mingle with the riff raff.
The Palazzo Vecchio, with its Torre di Arnolfo, is at once austere and imposing. Now a museum, it contains various murals and art work by the celebrated Michaelangelo, da Vinci and Donatello, among others.
Outside, in Piazza della Signoria and the Loggia dei Lanzi, sculptures of mythological heroes Hercules, Neptune and Perseus are thought to represent the power and influence of the ruling Medicis.
The second time we came to Florence, we arrived on a tour bus which dropped us a short walk from Santa Maria Novella. It is the first great basilica in Florence, and is the city’s principal Dominican church. Begun in the mid 13th century, this church houses some of the finest Gothic and Renaissance artwork in Florence. Its distinctive green and white marble façade was finally capped by a black and white upper panel in 1470. Interestingly, the ‘blind’ arches that ring the building, seen clearly on Via degli Avelli, actually span tombs of the wealthy Florentine noblemen who financed the decoration and additions to the church.
Our tour took us to many of the places we had seen before, but this time we learned a bit more about the city’s history and buildings. It also allowed us time to browse the shops and the San Lorenzo market. The market is actually comprised of two separate markets, an indoor market, known at the Mercato Centrale, home to all things food and the outdoor section that lines the surroundings streets, selling leather, clothing and many souvenirs.
Crossing the Ponte Vecchio to the other side of the Arno – called Oltrano – the main street takes you to the Piazza Pitti and its severe looking Palazzo, the former home of the Medici family.
Successive owners amassed paintings, porcelain, jewellery and luxurious possessions which are now on display in the palazzo which is now the largest museum complex in Florence. At the rear of the palazzo is a large formal park and gardens, known as the Boboli Gardens. If you intend to explore the museum and gardens allow plenty of time and don’t turn up an hour before closing expecting to get in – they won’t admit you!
- Shore Excursions From Livorno: Ponte Vecchio In Florence (avidcruiser.com)
- Why Florence is the Perfect Destination for Every Type of Traveler (cityoftheweek.net)
- A look at Florence (starrca.wordpress.com)
- Exploring Italy (aroundtheworldwithliz.com)