Florence – a delightful surprise at every turn
Ever since I’d read EM Foster’s ” A Room with a View” as a 16 year old, I’ve been dying to see Florence so when I got a chance to visit Italy this year, I just had to include Florence in my itinerary even if it was a short trip.
I love train travel so I decided to take Trenitalia’s high speed train the Frecciarossa from Roma Termini to Florence’s Santa Maria Novella or SMN as it is commonly known. I booked my ticket online before leaving Mumbai so all I had to do was go to the main station around ten minutes before departure and board the train. Like all stations the world over, Roma Termini has a busy air with hundreds of people walking around – travellers as well as shoppers because the Station truly has some amazing shops. But unlike several busy stations, Roma Termini was clean and efficient with platforms are well marked and train movements well indicated on signboards that worked and were updated every minute. An hour and a half of Tuscan countryside and I found myself at SMN bang on time.
Staying at Florence
Since I am a budget traveller, my main requirement of a hotel is location and cleanliness. I booked a room at The Hotel Axial because it fulfilled both criteria. The hotel had given precise directions how to get there, yet the minute I emerged from the subway I just forgot the name of the Hotel. I couldn’t even remember the directions ! Suddenly, I remembered that the hotel was near the Duomo. I also remembered Anna Shetty telling me that the Duomo was visible from almost every street in Florence so I decided to follow the first set of tourists trotting behind a flag toting guide. Luckily they were headed towards the Duomo.
The Hotel Axial was extremely well located in via dei Calzaiuoli, just off the Duomo. Even though it was on the first floor of an old medieval building, it was quite unlike my hotel in Rome. For starters, the passage was spotlessly clean, the lift new, and the hotel refurbished with fittings that worked. And a bed that was by far the most comfortable hotel bed I’ve slept in for a long time. The front desk was managed by Kiara the owner of the hotel who actually welcomed me without me having to tell her my name! I knew I’d come to the right place. Kiara showed me to my room and told me how to get around the city.
|The Duomo from the Uffizi|
Since I had very little time and lots to see so much, I got down to seeing the sights as soon as I’d checked in. Luckily for me, there was a small booking window right next to the hotel which sells tickets to all the Museums and Galleries so I quickly made a dash to that window. I couldn’t believe that a 12 o’clock slot was available and quickly booked my ticket to visit the Uffizi. With around half an hour to spare, I wandered around the Piazza della Signora and had a quick lunch of panini with cheese and ham.
Forearmed with Rick Steves, I went into the Galleria Uffizi confident that this time I would know the details of every picture I stood before. Alas! It came as a shock to me to find that several of the paintings mentioned by Rick Steves were moved around as the Gallery was under renovation. His commentary did not follow the museum tour at all! However, that did not detract from the beauty of the paintings and I spent a wonderful two hours walking about the place absorbing all the glories of Renaissance art.
|Jewellry on the bridge|
Getting out of the Uffizi I was surprised to find myself beside a murky looking river . This was none other than the Arno and lo and behold ahead of me was the famous Ponte Vecchio. This was the only bridge to have survived the bombing of WW 2. Since the bridge was there ahead of me, I decided to walk down to the other side of the river and was amazed to see how crowded it was with tourists of every colour and hue looking into hundreds of jewellry shops selling ornaments made of gold and coral and lapis lazuli .
|The Last Judgement|
The narrow cobbled streets were truly maze like but I made the trip back to the hotel with the ease of a practiced Florentian! Following the recommendation of my hotel manager I rested my weary feet while munching on the most fabulous gelato at Perche No! – which consisted of a scoop of a semi freddo or whipped cream souffle of chestnut, the flavour of the season. With so many calories replenished, I continued my tour of the city and walked back to the Duomo . This square which was swarming with people despite the grey and gloomy sky strangely reminded me of Islamic architecture with its inlaid coloured marble. Since the girl at the hotel recommended a closer look at the gorgeous Last Judgement on the cupola, I foolishly bought a ticket to what was supposed to be the stairway to heaven. It turned out to be a hellish ascent up a corkscrew and I actually had to stop several times to get my breath back up this narrow steep and tall climb. While the ceiling was worth it, I would definitely not recommend it to any elderly tourist.
|Inside the Batistero|
But not being faint of heart, I continued with the sight seeing.. This time I went inside the Battistero or squat octagonal building across the Duomo . It had the most gorgeous bronze doors and intricately decorated mosaic ceilings.
A quick look at the Battistero across the Duomo was well worth it and once I’d got my breath back my spirits were much lifted and I resumed my trek of the ancient city.
Walking down the narrow streets filled with shops selling Italian leather wares, high fashion and gelatarias, I was fascinated by the sweets in a shop window. On closer inspection I found it to be Gilli, an iconic Florentine Cafe and I decided to go inside to have a cup of coffee. To my surprise, the shop opened into the Piazza Repubblica where several people were just hanging around shooting the breeze, having turns on the carousel or meeting up with friends.
And this square turned out to be just behind the hotel so I decided to have an early dinner at the much recommended ( by the hotel owner) Cantinetta dei Verrazzano, a family owned eatery in via dei Tavolini that serves authentic Tuscan fare from its own home grown produce. I sipped a glass of light and fruity Rosso Verrazzano( the house wine) which perfectly complimented the Cecina con proscuitto al profumo di tartufo, a delightfully flavoured and tastefully served dish of stuffed pancake of chickpea flour, drizzled with olive oil and finely shredded aragula. It was a welcome change from the tried and tested pasta and pizza. It had a wonderful smoky taste and I slept peacefully that night with visions of the Renaissance masterpieces dancing in my head.
- The train is by far the most convenient way to get top Florence from either Milan or Rome
- Book a hotel that is close to the sights because all of historic Florence is truly walkable
- Mind your purse as you walk around because there are several shady characters on the street