A short summary
This trip report will focus on the trip that my wife, Nikki, and I took to Florence and Tuscany in the period from July 17th - 27th 2007. In Florence we visited attractions like Galleria dell'Accademia to see David, Uffizi Gallery, the Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore), Ponte Vecchio, Pitti Palace (Palazzo Pitti) etc. The trip report is split into sections: 1) our four day stay in Florence; 2) eating and drinking in Florence and 3) our six day stay in Tuscany (near Castellina in Chianti). Please get in touch if you have any questions or comments. All pictures are taken by Nikki and Gard with our Canon Powershot S1 IS camera. Click here to check out the Florence Google map which will indicate where attractions are located etc.
In 2003 we went to Milan and Venice and we had a great time there. After that we decided that it would be nice to visit Italy again and in 2005 we went to Rome and that was also great. So when we planned a vacation this year we decided to check out Florence and Tuscany as it’s short travel time from Norway and we had a limited number of days for vacation. In order to appreciate this trip report to the maximum it might also be useful to check out the other trip reports that we have made from Italy for some other useful tips.
The trip begins
Our Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt was bright and early in the morning of July 17th. So already at 05.30 AM we were at the airport in Stavanger. It was quite crowded already as there was a charter flight leaving for Magaluf. It is said that Norwegians have a strange relationship to alcohol - I guess we saw evidence of that when we were trying to get some breakfast at the airport at 5.30 AM and a group of guys in front of us were already trying to buy beer! There was a marked air of disappointment when they were informed that they only started selling alcohol at 6 AM. We got another example on our flight when some young Norwegian guys found out that the alcohol on the plane was free. So one of them went for beer, Bailey’s and rum and Coke just to top it of. But hey, I’m not judging - I have ‘been there, done that’ on similar trips :-)
The flight from Stavanger to Frankfurt was only about 1 1/2 hours and after a short stop in Frankfurt where we had time to get a shot of coffee to wake us up at Starbucks, we were on our way to Florence :-)
How to get
Most of the buses seem to go through the main bus station located right next to the train station Santa Maria Novella and this is also where you find the main stop for the Florence sightseeing bus. For 20€ you can get a 24 hours pass and you can get on and off as many times as you want to. We took this one day and they provided us with pretty good earphones and we could choose which language we wanted to have the commentaries in. If you’re on a budget then maybe use the bussini ecologici to get your bearings in the city and have a good map to refer to for identifying the major tourist sites en route.
gallery – a walk through the renaissance
Our tour of the Uffizi took place on a Thursday and we had to meet up at the walking tour office on Via Sassetti no. 1 near Piazza della Repubblica at 1.30 PM. We got some entertainment as we were waiting outside the office as a guy managed to park in another couple’s Smart car - or so we thought. The couple returned to their Smart car a few minutes after the guy left. They seemed unfazed and after some remarkable and deft manoeuvring they managed to squeeze out and drive away!
Our guide Sylvia led us from the office to the Uffizi gallery and handed out audio equipment, gave us instructions about the tour and other practical info. Before I say something about the tour a few words about the Palazzo degli Uffizi: the building was built by the Medici family in 1560 as offices (Uffizi means office) to start with but parts of it was turned into a gallery so the Medici could show off some of their vast art collection. Trust me, if you go to Florence you will hear and read a lot about the Medici family as they had the power and control over Florence in the golden age and you can see their coat of arms more or less everywhere.
Back to our tour: after going through metal detectors and walking up all the stairs to the gallery we were ready to start our tour with Sylvia. It was a bit annoying to find out that you can’t take any pictures inside the gallery and our guide also made some sarcastic comments about this and implied that it was only done to make more money as there would be lots of gift shops to go through towards the end of our tour. The guards at the Uffizi reminded me of the guards at the Sistine Chapel; from time to time they would run over to tourists that were trying to take a pictures and from time to time they would “shhhhhh” to get the noise level down. It must be a sad job walking around looking constantly peeved.
The guided tour took us to several of the main works of the gallery and we started with examples from before the renaissance and from there we were shown works of Lippi, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Rafael and Michelangelo. One of the most famous pictures of the gallery “The Duke and Duchess of Urbino” was unfortunately not present as it was loaned to a museum is Arezzo. I think the one painting that impressed me the most was “Ritratto del papa Leone X con i cardinali Giulio dè Medici e Luigi dè Rossi” by Rafael. The details were just amazing. By 4 PM the tour was over and we had a chance to walk around a bit on our own. We also went to the coffee shop which has an outdoor terrace over the Piazza della Signoria. Unfortunately we didn’t get a view of the piazza as we were barred from going all the way to the edge.
All in all it
was steep to pay 39€ per person for the tour but it was nice to not have to
wait for hours in line. I suppose we could’ve used an audio guide but
Sylvia’s guiding us to the most important works seemed very knowledgeable
and she told stories around the various paintings that we would not have
read about in the general guidebooks.
On our way out of Uffizi we realised that Sylvia was not joking when she mentioned the gift shops. We did have to go through quite a few gift shops selling books, postcards, food, umbrellas....you name it :-)
If you want to read more about the museum check out these web sites:
Palazzo Pitti – a mini Versaille palace
After a bit of a wait we got on to the sightseeing bus again and took the short drive to Palazzo Pitti. On the bus I got a bit of a laugh as we got an example of the modern tourist challenge. In front of us were two Asian ladies and they were both falling asleep as we were driving through the part of the tour that probably gave the best view of Florence. I guess that is the kinda stuff that can happen if you are jet-lagged but still determined to try to cover as much as possible in one day.
Back to the Pitti Palace: this palace was originally built for a banker by the name of Luca Pitti in 1457 but when he went bankrupt the Medici family took over the palace and made it into their official residence. The palace is divided into various museums and we bought tickets to cover most of it. I think we had to pay 11.5€ per person for the Palatine and modern art gallery and 9€ for the Boboli gardens, Museo degli Argenti, costume gallery etc. It was the museo degli Argenti that impressed me the most. The rooms were beautifully decorated and many were painted with a 3D effect that made it hard to see where there wall/ceiling ended and where the painting started. It was also nice to see the royal apartments and we had a bit of deja-vu as it reminded us of the Versailles palace outside Paris but the Pitti Palace is less crowded. The Boboli gardens is not as huge as the Versailles gardens either but it offers great views of the city as it stretches up a hillside behind the palace. Try to walk to the Kaffeehaus and take a look at the view from there - it is almost as good as Piazzale Michelangelo. We also stopped by La Grotta Grande where the castes of Michelangelo’s 4 prisoners are shown. We would later check them out at the Galleria dell’ Accademia but I will get back to that later on.
It seems like Italians can do everything on a bike or scooter. While we were there we saw people talking on their cell phones, drinking from a cup, smoking, eating some gelato etc. I guess it takes years of experience as the traffic can be a bit crazy at times :-)
The Duomo –
amazing engineering and stunning views
The last stretch towards the top gets pretty narrow and we got into a bit of a “traffic jam” when an American couple came down the way you were supposed to go up. As an engineer I’m in awe of the achievement of building such a large structure without having the modern aids we have on our hands today. I guess the architect need to have quite a vision and the ability to also see this structure in 3D in order to decide where to place the staircases etc.
Once we got up to the top we were about 90 meters above the ground and got a stunning view of Florence and the surrounding hills. Quite close to the dome you will find the campanile which is just a few meters shorter than the dome, but when walking around you get a full 360 degree view to the city and it was easy to make out Palazzo Pitti, Santa Croce, Uffizi, Palazzo Vecchio etc. I think we must have spent an hour up there just gazing out at the view, taking pictures, helping others taking pictures etc. I think they must only let in a limited number of people as it wasn’t too crowded at the top. On the top there were all sorts of people: Japanese girls posing with their typical V/peace finger sign, kids that were warm, thirsty and bored, couples on honeymoon etc. Going down again was much easier of course but going to the top was absolutely worth the effort and money.
The place in front of the duomo (Piazza del Duomo) was always filled with crowds when we were in Florence. The line to get into the Duomo is long so get here early (or late) and remember to dress decent (no shorts or sleevless tops). I didn’t think the interior of the cathedral was that amazing compared to e.g. St. Peter’s in Rome. I guess I would have gotten a better idea of the building if I had come on time to take the free guided tour of the church. But I came there right before closing one day and the last tour was just about to finish off.
The campanile next to the Duomo is 6 meters shorter than the dome but is still offers great views and seems less crowded than the dome. So if you are up to it you can walk the about 414 steps to the top and this also offers great views of the city, the surrounding hills and the dome of the Duomo. The entry ticket costs 6€ per person.
We also went over to the baptistery (Il battistero) to check out the doors “Gate of Paradise”. The doors are beautiful but be warned - the place is crowded and tour groups (from cruise ships too) gather around here and we were more or less pushed out of the way and not all of them have modern audio equipment. One tour guide had a big loud speaker hanging around his neck so it was not only his tour group that could hear his commentary :-) There is some renovation taking place in the dome of the Duomo. They were removing some scaffolding on the outside when we were there but I assume they will continue with the next section of the dome.
dell’Accademia – The David
To get more out of it we decided to go for an audio guide and I got in line. A Spanish tourist was in front of me and he pointed at the poster and indicated that he wanted two audio guides. They lady behind the counter found two and said 11€ (5.5€ each). But then the guy pointed at the poster and indicated that there was a small sign with a man and a woman and that was only 8€. It turned out that this was for 1 audio guide and one headset which meant that one person has control but both can listen in. But this Spanish guy did not get the concept at all so there was a big discussion between him and the women behind the counter. In the end he said “Fine, I will take two for 11€”. Then he paid with a 10€ note and a coin. When he didn’t get any change he was like “Where is my change?” and the woman behind the counter was like “You gave me a 10€ and a 1€ coin” but the Spanish guy was convinced that he had given her a 2€ coin and he turned to me to get support. At this point I was getting a Soup Nazi flashback from Seinfeld, he was seconds away from her yelling “No audio guide for you” :-) But he backed off eventually. I went for the husband/wife edition which was one audio guide and one headset for 8€. Btw, I gave her a 10€ note as payment and when I got the change I gave her a quizzical look and asked “Didn’t I give you a 20€ note?” *gheghe* I had her for a second before she broke into a smile and understood that I was just pulling her leg.
Back to the gallery: the first room contained paintings and also the caste of “The rape of the Sabine women” but the original on Piazza della Signoria is better. Again it was not possible to take pictures in the gallery and again there were some peeved guards walking around making sure that no one would snap some photos. I controlled myself but there were lots of people that found a way to take pictures. One teenager, with her family, was caught red handed and got a lecture from one of the guards but seconds after the guard was gone she was snapping pictures again! But hey, what can they do? I guess the worst thing that can happen is that you get thrown out of the museum.
Galleria dell’Accademia is quite small and it is room 2 that contains what “everybody” is there to see: Michelangelo’s David (also referred to as ‘The David’ on the audio guide). The 5.2 meter (17 feet) statue is beautiful and this is the original that used to stand on Piazza della Signoria. It was moved to the gallery in 1873 for its own protection. The statue is on display under a glass dome (what better spotlight can one get?) and you can walk all around it to view all the details from all the angles. There are also some chairs where you can sit down and just admire him.
The gallery also contains The Four Prisoners (Quattro prigionieri) also by Michelangelo, works by Filippino Lippi, Botticelli etc but everything fades a bit in comprison to The David, of course.
Signoria – the outdoor gallery
Centrale – all the stomach desires
museum – amazing collection but no air-con
– gothic church and famous tombs
A road trip
The car from Avis (class B) cost us 275€ for the 6 days we had it and we were assigned a small Opel Corsa 1.2. Getting out of Florence was a bit tricky but in the end we found out that we had to trust our GPS (we nicknamed her Consuela) and she pointed the way to the local Harley-Davidson store and from there towards Pisa. We rented the car to be able to get to our next stop in Tuscany (and to get around there) but we found out that the distance to Pisa is only about 80 km (about 50 miles) on the Stranda Grande aka FI-PI-LI (after Firenze-Pisa-Livorno) so we decided to stop by on our way. Our trip took a bit longer time than expected as there was a car accident that blocked both lanes going towards Pisa.
We came to Pisa about 3 PM and to my surprise it was not a big problem finding parking as there were well marked parking lots in the area. The side trip had one target of course: the famous leaning tower of Pisa or Torre Pendente. The construction of the tower started already in the year 1173 and was a bell tower for the Duomo right next to it. But what has made it famous is that it is...well, leaning. According to the guidebook the tower started leaning over soon after construction begun as the foundation is not the best. In the end it was leaning over so much that they had to close it for several years to take measure to make sure that it wouldn’t tip over.
When we walked into the area known as Campo dei Miracoli I was surprised to see that the tower was only a small part of the complex. In the area you will find a huge Duomo, a baptistery, a cemetery etc. Today there are also hundreds of small souvenir shops selling t-shirts, small models of the leaning towers etc. We just walked around for a while, took som pictures of the tower and the other buildings and OK, I admit it, we also took some goofy pictures of each other where we pose as we are holding up the tower (that’s the beauty of being a tourist right?). You can get into and to the top of the tower but it will cost you 15€ and there are a limited number of tickets. In the reception they have a very good overview when there is an available space next. I guess the recommendation is as usual. Come early or late to avoid the lines.
above is not in chronological sequence. But here is a short summary of what
we did on the various days. My recommendation is: don’t over-plan your trip
but buy a good guidebook and make a list of the things you want to see and
do and take it from there. Having a schedule where you have to run from one
place to another will not make your trip fun.
Arriving, getting settled at the hotel, figuring out the bus schedule, walk
to get to know the city center (Uffizi, Santa Croce, Ponte Vecchio, Piazza
della Signoria, tourist information)
Florence was just elected to be the best destination in Europe by Condé Nast but I'm not sure it can beat places like Rome and Paris. The downside of being elected "best destination" is of course that the city is extremely popular and there are hordes of tourists around the main attractions especially during the summer months. If you are short on time you should remember to book tickets in advance to places like the Uffizi and Galleria dell’Accademia. But also remember that you don’t have to stroll that far from the main attractions before you find small, narrow streets where you are more or less alone. With or without the crowds, Florence is a great place to visit and I wouldn’t mind going again. We had some wonderful days there: there is lots to see and do, they have some of the most amazing art works in this world, the scenery is beautiful, great gelato (ice cream) and last but not least: you can easily find mouth watering food and wine. I have to admit that part of the reason that I love Italy is the food. But you can read more about where we went to eat in the Eating/drinking section.
I hope that you found this trip report useful please give me feedback if you have comments or questions or I have made factual mistakes or if. I can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. Please move to the next page and read about eating and drinking in Florence. Below are some more tips that you might find useful.
Feel free to check out the next section: Eating and drinking in Florence :-)