Cold house, blue skies. It is hard to be cross here even if you must wear full body armour once you get out of bed. We wanted to see Florence today (is it ‘See Florence and die’ or is that Rome?). It is not too far from us, about an hour. We tossed up between car and train. We could catch a train from a larger town than Vicopisano called Pontedera just down the road, or we could drive and park the car in Florence. We drove to Pontedera to check out the train. All things begin equal, parking in Florence would be cheaper than the train fare, but the thing that really had us deciding to drive was that all the parking in Pontedera was meter and we didn’t have anything like the right change for an eight hour wait. So we decided to take our chances.
Samantha, as noted in a previous post, is close to nervous breakdown and cannot really be relied on to get us anywhere near where we want to go. But she is our only resource; we could buy a map, but I figure that Samantha is not only a guide but a relationship saver. After all, we can all be cross at her, but if one of us navigates, it could all be over; yelling matches and ripped maps, and people getting out of the car at inopportune moments. You can see my point.
Holding our breath a little, we programed her for Florence and set off.
The Tuscan countryside is amazingly picturesque, just like a Leonardo background, hills and trees and, in this case, little houses all dotted across the landscape. There is, of course, deep ugliness – industrial sites and suburbia and, indeed, the road down which we drove. But it seemed softened by the indecent beauty of the alternative. It is cold here, so there is frost and ice, but it is also sunny, so this ice and frost glitters in the sun and gives everything a kind of surreal shimmer. And the sun and sky here are real blue and real sun. Unlike the veiled sun of Venice, here is pours out like – how does that go? – a mighty pulse?
Like Paris, there was no heralding of the city, you are just suddenly and very much IN Florence. We were suddenly driving beside the Arno, with the Ponte Vecchio in the foreground and the streets narrowing to a trickle. Sam was doing her usual nonsense; insisting we drive down one way streets (the wrong way, as it happened), and refusing to find us another way. So we turned her off and took a chance on some road signs. Apparently, the carpark at Parterre had spots. And there were enough signs to get us there. (In our limited experience, the sign thing can go very wrong. You get a sign that lists the exact place you wish to go. There is an arrow directing you. You turn your car with hope in your heart. And then there are no more signs – though you might see one twenty minutes later on the other side of the street going in the other direction – and you drive with increasing sadness through streets that only ever seem to take you to the autostrada. Or a deadend.) It was two euro an hour. We were content.
Once we emerged, there was a tiny problem. We didn’t know where we were in relation to the rest of the city. We did have a kind of map (from the Lonely Planet guide), but it wasn’t great and it didn’t have a ‘you are here’ dot to orient us. We were by a small canal though and we figured that we should follow the run of the water because it was probably going into the Arno. The street was called Via Giovanni Milton which I thought was kinda funny. And I wasn’t going to forget it which was good. After a decent distance, we came to Viale Filippi Strozzi, and suddenly, we were on the map. In seconds, we had worked out exactly where we were and wandered off to the old city with little hesitation.
Florence is so beautiful (there is, it is told, a condition you can get when in Florence – the name of which escapes me – that renders you prostrate from the beauty. I think we were told this about Paris too …), and the old city is very free of cars which makes it a joy to walk around. All cities should do this.
The Duomo is unlike any other we have seen to this point. It is not muted colours for a start, but bold green on white and large geometrical shapes across the entire building. It is sparse, no intricate filigree across everything; just chest out and audacious in the centre of the piazza. We went inside; it is empty. This was quite shocking; are there no services held here (and if so, does everyone stand?). The roof of the dome is completely painted and is exquisite, and there are some wonderful paintings on the wall. But all in all, not the hushed, fearsome place most other churches are. There were even some male tourists wearing hats, so the church police aren’t so visible here. You can go down a series of steps and into what I first though was a crypt, but turns out to be a museum of the excavation done under the Duomo, and the artefacts that have been discovered. We didn’t go in. It cost money … But we did go into the historical gift shop and I bought a proper map of Florence so we at least knew where we were.
Having said that, now we just started to wander. The weather was glorious, perfect to walk in, and it was a real pleasure to be guided by what you see down a side street (oh my lord, what is that?), to find a series of marble statues standing around awaiting you, to be overcome by a huge palace. We stumbled on the Uffizi by chance, but because the weather was so good, we decided to come back later on in the afternoon and wander so more. Along the Arno, over the Ponte Vecchio. More gold than in all the bank vaults in the world and then some. The place was blinding with gold. And some of the most glamourous police officers seen anywhere in the world. Myles wondered if this was specific to the Ponte Vecchio and generally the more beautiful places in Florence. Who cares? The police are half the fun.
We did one of those aimless wander up and down a street that alerts me to the fact that at least one member of the party is looking for food. So we went in to the first place we found and had some things to eat.
This kind of offered some time to organise the next place to go; and I decided (through some advice from others and guidebooks) that we would walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo to see the view. We crashed into an ice cream place first (it looked so good that I had some too; tirami su – happy days). Along the River Arno with its lonely rowers going up and down (prevented from full stretch by the little spill ways that scatter the river). In that open sun, there must have been worse things to do than row along the river in long ovals. Piazzale Michelangelo requires a walk up some steep steps. And a walk through Via San Niccolo (who was excited to see his name written somewhere other than the top of his work page at school). And then up the steps to the top of the Florentine world.
It was a spectacular view. The blue of the sky and the bright sun lit up the city, and warmed us. The view was all the more interesting because the city, at least on this side, stops abruptly at the old walls. On one side; a city cheek to cheek, with little space for light or movement, and on the other, a scene of pastoral serenity. You could herd your sheep right up to the walls, and duck in for a good coffee in a humming piazza and then return to the sheep without even breaking a sweat. Perhaps all cities should be thus – very much a city, and then not. Down with suburbia I say.
Piazzale Michelangelo is a carpark, by the way, with a replica of the statue of David. I’m not sure Michelangelo would be hugely impressed by this homage to him.
We were all lulled and cradled by the sun and then the three o’clock bells rang and we remembered we had a date with the Renaissance at the Uffizi Gallery. Paris queried the distance and, from our vantage point, I could show him in some detail. He agreed. And once he agrees, the others are a shoo in.
Back down the steps; Niccolo at a brisk gallop. When we got to the Uffizi, it was cheaper than when we had been there earlier, must have been the afternoon rate. We paid our money and went straight to the second floor. Not point in dallying in other places. And here, like the countryside, we struggled with what was real and what wasn’t. When I stood in front of the ‘Birth of Venus’, it was like standing in front of a replica, except I KNEW it wasn’t. I went up close, as close as the thick glass and the prohibitive rope will allow, to see the brush strokes. Where did he touch the canvass? It wasn’t easy to see. But I had to go with the idea it was real. The same with ‘Spring’. In the Leonardo room, there was a painting that I didn’t know of his, and this (why?) gave me a thrill. This, because I had not seen it reproduced a million times, felt real, felt authentic (authentic is a terrible word, isn’t it?). I looked at it for ages.
The kids were unmoved; they need a story, a narrative, to really engage. They liked the ancient statues (‘but why no pants?’ they kept asking, ‘why?’). And they look for dogs in all paintings; it is their favourite part. ‘Le chien,’ they call to one another, ‘le chien’. Luckily, chiens were well loved in the Renaissance and they litter the paintings. We liked the one and only Michelangelo painting (but it was very full of very pink people; I guess anyone who paints like this now would be considered mawkish. But not here). The Rubens and Rembrandt rooms were shut off for renovations. But there is a whole section dedicated to foreign painters that was great and a series of still life paintings that Paris and I loved by a female painter (perhaps one of the few here) called Rachel ... Something. At this point, I'm hamstrung because of limited internet access and Google not working. I'll try and find it out at a later date.
The Uffizi building itself is so lovely, every panel on the ceiling in the long hallways is painted; all the windows accept and welcome the light. It must have been lovely living here.
In the historical gift shop we found a stand with really cheap penguin books in English. We were drawn like moths. And I went in search of the loo. I have to say, the loo on this level of the Uffizi is worth a visit. You have to walk for ages, down a series of corridors, and you suddenly feel like you are in a kind of archaeological dig. And then the toilets are suddenly before you and all modern. It is very surreal.
We wandered back to the car. It took some time, but Florence is incredible. I almost wish we were staying there, but the country is really amazing and I’m a little over cities. We will be in Rome soon enough; a huge city. We probably don’t need another city.
Getting out of Florence was interesting, not really because of the traffic but because of Samantha who has really lost it (Zelda, in the back seat, intoned: ‘Now downloading a mid-life crisis – please wait’). She was all about: ‘bear left, and turn right’ and so on. Myles was close to killing her and crashing the car. I think I’m right about needing the GPS to save the marriage.
At home we ate and watched more middayesque movies on True Movies – our new favourite addiction. The kids are learning about all kinds of social issues. They are now terribly modern.