OK, I’ll admit it! Florence disappointed me at first. We arrived in the city at what must have been rush hour. With no place to park, our bus had to stop around the corner and down the street from our hotel. I remember wrestling with our hand luggage through thick pedestrian traffic on narrow sidewalks merely inches from the curb. Once inside the Ambasciatori Hotel, the atmosphere was pleasant, and our room was modern and spotless – but I didn’t expect modern in Florence.
After time to freshen up before the optional Florentine Dinner, we were soon back on the sidewalk headed for the bus where Giorgio waited to whisk us away from the hustle and bustle of the city. We drove up into the hills through the ritzy parts of town to Piazzale Michelangelo, a mostly pedestrian square with breathtaking views. From this vantage point, the skyline across the Arno River to the center of Florence was simply spectacular. There, in that peaceful setting high above the city, I got my first glimpse of the Florence I had imagined.
After breakfast the next morning, Anna lead us across the street and through the busy train station to meet our local tour guide for the day, Lia. She was waiting for us in the Historic Center of Florence where the entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That’s when I saw it… the Florence I had hoped for, the one I’d read about, heard about and had seen in the movies… the cradle of the Renaissance! Examples of impressive art and architecture were everywhere I turned. No wonder Florence is ranked by Forbes as one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
We started our city tour at the Academy of Fine Arts where the Statue of David by Michelangelo proudly stood. It was exquisite! I was most impressed with his hands (what did you think I was going to say?) The veins are visible in his hands and arms, especially the right one which clutches stones and is disproportionately large for his body. Works by other 15th and 16th century artists were on display here, as were other sculptures by Michelangelo, but it’s the sight of “David” that I will always remember!
From the museum we walked to the magnificent Florence Cathedral with its Renaissance dome designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, the Bell Tower clad in white, red and green marble just like the cathedral, and the Baptistry across the street. The first stone in this 4-part complex was laid on September 8th, 1296. The differences in style between the four parts is due to of the long periods of time from start to finish. It took two centuries for the cathedral alone to be completed!
We proceeded to Signoria Square, an impressive 14th-century L-shaped plaza where several old palaces, dozens of sculptures and the crenellated tower of Palazzo Vecchio still remain. Uffizi Gallery, home of the greatest collection of Italian art is also located here, but we did not purchase tickets to go inside. Instead, we walked to Ponte Vecchio for a view of the “Old Bridge”, one of the most photographed sites in Florence.
We ended our tour with Lia in Santa Croce Square (the same place we had walked to the night before with Anna for dinner). The highlight of the square is the Basilica of Santa Croce, the final resting place for native sons like Michelangelo, Rossini, Galileo and Dante. I was beginning to believe Anna’s claim that anyone with an ounce of talent or intelligence came from Florence! Understandably, it is a city to be proud of… and she lives here!
In our free time we found our way to Santa Maria Novella, a mid-13th century church started around 1246 and finished about 1360. Beginning in the 1500s, the square in front the church was used for chariot races. A welcoming row of charming restaurants lined one side of the street near Santa Maria Novella, so we sat down for – you guessed it – pizza for lunch! From there it was a short walk back to the train station and our hotel. In a few hours we would leave for the optional San Gimignano tour.
As our bus approached the medieval town of San Gimignano, we could spot its stone towers rising like the skyline of Manhattan. The town once served as a relay point for pilgrims traveling to and from Rome. At the height of its glory the families who lived here built tower-houses as symbols of their wealth and power. Although only 14 towers remain, San Gimignano is still surrounded by 13th century walls and is famous for its medieval streets, architecture and enchanting rural setting. It is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We thoroughly enjoyed our time here and managed to hike back down the hill to the bus just as it started to rain. Luckily, the rain didn’t last too long.
San Gimignano is in the Tuscany region of Italy. Vineyards in this area are heavy with an ancient variety of Vernaccia grapes which grow in the sandstone hills.
The region’s famous white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, is produced at the winery where we ate dinner. Fattoria Poggio Alloro is a family run farm, winery and restaurant. In addition to wine, the farm also produces assorted grains, olive oil and wildflower honey. They gave us a tour of the property before we sat down for dinner. Our meal was to have been served on the patio overlooking the rolling hills and fields, but the earlier rain forced us indoors. We dined on regional dishes made from the finest local ingredients. This traditional Tuscan meal was the best dinner of the whole trip, in my opinion.
As good as the meal was, I couldn’t resist the urge to step outside to catch the beauty of the Tuscan sunset. I’m so glad I did! I captured shots of golden hills with San Gimignano in the background which proved to be some of my favorite photos from the trip.
Reluctantly, we returned to Florence for the night. We would be off to Cinque Terre in the morning – which is part three in this series. Arrivederci for now!