Having completed 6 more stages of walking the Via Francigena Chris and I had said goodbye to Russell & Roza and Flo & Mike as we went our separate ways.
The final part of our Italian adventure was to spend two days in Florence (Firenze in Italian), the capital city of the Tuscany region. We took the direct train from Siena and arrived in Florence around 1.5 hours later. After a cold and rainy morning in Siena it was pleasant and sunny as we arrived in Florence.
We had a full day the following day to explore Florence and as the weather forecast was looking good we decided to take it easy for the rest of our first afternoon. Once we had checked into our accommodation (details below) we had a short wander for a couple of blocks to the Piazza del Duomo to see the spectacular Cathedral before returning to relative sanctuary, away from the crowds and back to our quiet neighbourhood for a glass of wine in a wine bar and then dinner in a nearby restaurant.
I had climbed the Campanile di Grotto on my previous visit to Florence (in December 2003) and with the good fortune of such a clear day I (easily) persuaded Chris that this would be a good idea! We started to queue at the tower but then realised we needed to have purchased tickets from the ticket office nearby rather than getting them at the tower. I duly traipsed across and queued for the tickets while Chris waited in the tower queue. We only spent a total of about 20 minutes queuing and after this bit of faff we thankfully were allowed up the tower, an hour or so before our allotted time!
The tower had several stages and at each stage we saw amazing views of the city. Unfortunately there is a metal cage surrounding each of the open areas meaning you have to carefully position your camera lens in between the gaps in order to take decent photographs.
The Giotto bell tower was designed by Giotto between 1334 and 1337 and stands at 278 feet tall. You have to climb 414 steps to reach the top and as you get closer to the top the stone spiral staircase narrows and it could feel claustrophobic for some.
The Giotto Tower is well worth the effort and the structure itself and the views are one of the wow factors of the city.
Florence Duomo (Cathedral)
Entry is free to visit the inside of the Duomo however even on a Monday the queue was massive and would have probably meant waiting in line for a couple of hours! Neither of us are queue fans so while this would have been interesting we decided against this idea.
As mentioned, I visited Florence in December 2003 when there was no queue for the Duomo and very few people inside.
So from the tower we went off in search of David…
The original David is a sculpture by Michelangelo and can be found in the Accademia Gallery of Florence. We settled on seeing the David replica which can be found in Piazza della Signoria outside the Palazzo Vecchio. David is a Renaissance masterpiece which was created between 1501 and 1504. Oozing strength, independence and perfection, David is seen as a symbol of the city of Florence.
And look who we bumped into…
Yep… Flo and Mike 🙂 it was lovely to see them at David (even though we were all now ‘doing our own thing’)
Chris and I continued on our way and had a look in the Palazzo Vecchio.
The Palazzo Vecchio is the town hall of Florence and is worth popping into. You can have a look around the lower courtyards for free although you need to buy a ticket if you wish to explore further. There is another tower here to climb and we though we might get a different perspective of the river and the duomo but unfortunately all tower tickets were sold out for the day.
The Fountain of Neptune can be found in Piazza della Signoria. This was commissioned in 1559 by the Medici family to mark the marriage of Francesco de’ Medici to Grand Duchess Joanna of Austria.
Just outside the Palazzo Vecchio is the Loggia della Signoria, an open air galley of Renaissance statues.
Next up was the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, the oldest bridge in Florence which crosses the River Arno. Until 1218 this was the only bridge in Florence and this current bridge had to be rebuilt in 1345 due to flooding of the original bridge.
One unique feature of the Ponte Vecchio bridge is that it is lined with shops! Shops have been on this bridge since the 13th century. In 1593 it was declared these shops should only be goldsmiths and jewellery shops which still seems to be the case today.
At the Palazzo Pitti we sat in the outside seating area of a wine bar and snacked on a selection of local cheeses together with a glass of wine each.
We had heard the Boboli Gardens would be good to visit and the entrance is here through the above building.
However there was a queue for the tickets so we decided instead to walk to the nearby Hotel La Scaletta hotel and visit its sky bar restaurant for more panoramic Florence views. Unfortunately it was closed until 4.30 pm.
Remembering our Giotto pass for the tower also included entry to 3 additional places (the Baptistry, the Museum and the Duomo) we headed back across the bridge to the Baptistry.
Thankfully there was no queue for this octagonal religious building and we went straight inside. We learned that until 1935 the Baptistry was the only place where Florence born people were baptised! This meant members of famous families such as the Medici family were baptised here. The Medici family or House of Medici were a powerful family which ruled Florence for 3 centuries. Outside the Baptistry you can see replicas of the brass door ‘Gates of Paradise’ however if you go to the Opera del Duomo Museum you can see the originals.
From the Baptistry we went to the Opera del Duomo Museum. This museum is huge and we spent nearly an hour exploring some of the 750 artworks and masterpieces, many coming for preservation from the Duomo and the Baptistry. This was also the location where Michelangelo originally sculpted David.
The original brass Door of the Baptistery with Old Testament Stories, called the Door of Paradise can be seen within the museum. These impressive doors with intricate detail were designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti 1425-1452.
The Opera del Duomo Museum is well worth visiting and left us in awe.
Food in Florence
Having spent the first 9 days of the trip enjoying Tuscan food we were delighted to find two highly recommended vegetarian restaurants a few doors along from our accommodation.
The first evening we had wonderful food in Il Vegetariano which was such a quirky awesome place! We arrived at 7.20 pm just before opening time and a queue was already forming at the door. Thankfully there was quite a few tables once inside and we were taken to a large table in the garden in a covered area. We were given menus, a small notepad and a pen to write down our choices, we then had to take this and pay, then hand our list to a woman at the salad bar. 5 minutes later generous portions of the most delicious food arrived! These included a plate of leek and asparagus lasagne and a lentil and baked butternut squash dish. The half litre of delicious local wine was only 6 euros and the entire bill only 50 euros (£45).
We had another absolute treat with vegan fine dining for our second evening in Florence. This was at Ora restaurant which was across the quiet backstreet road, opposite Il Vegetariano who specialise in local, organic, eco-sustainable products. As to be expected, this was more expensive than Il Vegetariano however it was a different experience in a comfortable and classy environment with excellent service.
We were fortunate to have found and booked to spend 2 nights in the Mr My Resort, a small traditional guest house with many historical features. This was perfect for us – we were only two blocks from the Florence Cathedral yet this was in a quiet backstreet away from the hustle and bustle (and tourists) of the city. The room was lovely and comfortable, the manager of the property was super helpful and we were provided with a generous breakfast in a box each morning! If I ever return to Florence I would definitely stay here again… far from the madding crowd but close enough with a short walk 🙂
Florence is a beautiful city with a rich and fascinating history. There is so much to explore and with the crowds it can feel somewhat overwhelming, especially for us having spent the previous 6 days in the Tuscan countryside. If you plan your visit properly, perhaps with a guidebook you will probably see much more than the few highlights we’ve captured.
And overall, what a brilliant trip to Italy! For me, a perfect combination of spectacular sights and scenery, incredible food and fabulous company with lovely friends.
This is the last of our Italy posts however we have a few more trips planned for this year. Some are solo (me only) and some are joint trips for us both. Stay tuned!