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Day 8: Views of Florence

So far, our apartment in Florence has been our favorite.  Not because it’s in Florence…just the space itself. It has a lot of charm and it’s very first rate.  We are staying on the Via Vinegia, a narrow side street.  Literally a few feet from our front door sits one of the oldest churches in Florence…the tiny little San Remigio built in 1200.

Oddly, even though you could find a super market within the maze of streets on the island of Venice….there seem to be none in the historic center of Florence.  Which is fine.  There are markets that sell water and milk…meat markets, enotecas with pasta and olive oil…so it is all we need, and to be honest, the food is so good here that we prefer eating out anyway.  The heat is also intensifying again…back up to 100…so who wants to cook anyway?

So after a quick caffe and cornetti (croissant)…we went to see the Duomo (Cathedral) for the first time. Florence’s cathedral is actually named Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Church of Saint Mary of the Flower) and it was begun in about 1296.  Brunelleschi’s magnificent dome didn’t come until later…in 1436.  The facade of the cathedral was left plain for hundreds of years…it wasn’t completed until the 1800’s…and the design of the white, green and red marble was based on that of the Baptistery of the church, which is the oldest building in the complex (built in ca. 1100).  The zebra-like pattern of the Baptistery’s exterior was very influential on a generation of Renaissance architects.

The Baptistery with its signature zebra like patters of green and white marble.

We went inside the Baptistery…it was another eye popping experience.  And as with everything else in going into these old, Italian buildings…look up and prepare the neck for being tilted back for a while.

They are actually restoring the stained glass window from the Duomo and have it resting inside the Baptistery.  It’s interesting to get to see a huge stained glass window like this up close.

The Baptistery is also known for it’s famous bronze doors…two sets for each entry.  These intricately sculpted doors tell various New or Old Testament stories from the Bible. One set famously called the “Gates of Paradise”. And then, around the corner from the Baptistery is the Campinelle (bell tower) which was designed by Giotto and completed in 1359.  It stands 280 feet tall…and of course, we climbed all 280 feet.

The red and green marble patterns of the facade are beautiful and there are inlaid panels with statuary  representing everything from religion, science, farming, astronomy, virtues, etc.  The climb was intense, due to the heat and the tiny stair, with people coming up and going down–shoulder to shoulder– and honestly, it smelled like the inside of a 15 year old boy’s shoe.  But the pay off was worth it.

Santa Croce in the distance.

It was amazing to get to see Brunelleschi’s dome so up close and personal.  We would love to have climbed to the top of that, as well….but it was only open today (Sunday) for about 4 hours and the line was half way through Florence.  You simply can’t do it all!

After the bell tower climb, we happened upon a tiny little farm-to-table place for lunch.  Local olives for the salad…locally farmed pigs for the bacon on the salad…and a local wine to wash it down…local everything.  Nice and light lunch on a hot day.

Josette had bacon and egg on her salad.
Really good bruschetta
Strawberries macerated in red wine.

Next up, we crossed the Arno river and visited the Palazzo Pitti…the huge Renaissance palace that was bought (yes, purchased–not built) by the Medici family in 1549.  If you recall from my post from yesterday, the Palazzo Vecchio had been used as the residence of the Duke.  But when the Medici clan came into power, they thought the “old palace” was just that…an old and unfashionable place that simply wasn’t suitable for the family.  So they bought a Palazzo across the river and moved in…thus the Palazzo Pitti.

When Napoleon took over and became King of Italy….he moved into the Palazzo Pitti…as well as a succession of other Italian Kings and rulers who put their stamp on the place in terms of decoration.  A lot of what you see in 19th century baroque revival.

The jury is still out on how much we liked our visit to the Palazzo Pitti.  There is no question that it is a grand and beautiful palace.  But as a visitor, I have to say that it was all very confusing and there was very little signage in English, so we were never sure what we were looking at…who painted it and when.  We didn’t even know where to get tickets…which tickets to get…what to see…what we were seeing.   For whatever reason, and to our fault for not doing better research,  we were under the impression that we were to tour a Renaissance Palace…decorated and in the style of the Renaissance period.  However, since the Palace was used from the 1550’s up until the 1920’s (when it was donated to the City)….the decoration and decorative arts were from a HUGE array of styles and periods, most of it being in a revivalist 19th century style. Once again, very beautiful, just not what we expected.   There was also a costume exhibit in one wing showing the fashions of several individual female Italian style makers…from the 1920’s up women of today….but even that exhibit was a bit wonky.

After touring the interior, we went out in the hot, scorching Boboli Gardens. I am going to reserve my opinions about the gardens because I know that my view was tainted by the fact that we were extremely over-heated, parched…and the gardens looked like they felt the same way.  Parched.  None of the famous fountains were turned on…and quite frankly, everything had a dry and sad demeanor.  I’m sure in the springtime months the place is beautiful. Regardless of the garden’s condition on the hot afternoon that we visited,  there was beauty to be found.

The day was winding down…we had already climbed 400+ steps up the campanille in the morning and then walked around Florence all day, not to mention the ALL uphill tour of the Boboli gardens.  But despite that, we were determined to walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo, a famous square way up on a hill offering a panoramic view of Florence…where we would see the sunset.   We would also visit San Miniato, a beautiful little gem of a church on Florence’s highest point.  But first, we had to get there. We passed through a very quaint neighborhood on our way there.

San Miniato was built in about 1018 and honors St. Miniato, who had been serving in the Roman army but was found out to be Christian.  Brought before the Roman Emperor, he was given the punishment of being thrown to the panthers in the local Colosseum….but the animals would not attack him, so they decided to behead him.  After the beheading, St. Miniato got up, picked up his head and climbed up what was then called Mons Fiorentinus.  And this is where the church honoring him would be built years later.

On our way out, we sat on the steps of San Miniato to take in the view of Florence.  While sitting there, I happened to look up and I saw a familiar face.  I thought…I know that woman…she was elegantly dressed in a cream lace dress…she looked sophisticated.  And then it clicked in my tired, sun-baked brain…it was the actress Helen Mirren and her husband.  I knew it was her, but then some bold young woman came up and asked to have her picture taken, and Ms. Mirren graciously agreed..so it confirmed by suspicions.

That’s Helen Mirren on the right.

Then the monks came out and started to lock up the gates…we got worried that we would be locked in, so we quickly split and finally walked the final few steps over to the Piazzale Michelangelo to see the incredible view of Florence and watch as the sun descended for the day.

With aching and tired feet and sweaty bodies, we found a taxi and made our way back down to our neighborhood and enjoyed a quick dinner before crashing for the night.

Tomorrow is another early day.  We have a private tour into the Tuscan wine country with visits to two medieval hillside towns.

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