Florence is OK, I Guess

When I first arrived into Florence, I did not like it. D.H. Lawrence's description of the "tired flower of Florence" floated around in my head as my taxi from the airport passed endless decaying dun-coloured buildings, render falling off walls whose every surface was lavishly covered with black and grey graffiti; as sweat trickled down my legs, and traffic surged adventurously close in every intersection and corner. We finally rattled up the romantically named Via Laura, a narrow dingy street of flat unmarked grey buildings which looked entirely industrial, with no shopfronts or cafes, not even any doorway I could see into. I was reluctant to get out, but my driver insisted that this was it, so in I went to an empty foyer with a sign indicating that the reception for Hotel Morandi alla Crocetta was indeed up some stairs covered with a rather dirty red carpet. The room I had been given was the size of a walk-in closet, and a small one at that; it was about 2.3 metres wide, and I could only (ahem) sit on the toilet by turning my shoulders sideways. The single bed looked uninviting. To cap it all off, the air conditioning was not working, while Florence was enduring an extraordinary heat wave with almost 100% humidity. Of course it was my fault, because I forgot one of my cardinal Solo Lady Traveller rules: in Europe when booking a hotel, never, ever say that you will be alone. Always ask for a room for 2 people. The price will be very similar, and you will have a room 3 times the size and in a better location. Everything  seemed wrong. I was depressed. I wished I had stayed home in France. Perhaps I had no soul, otherwise how could I not love Florence? The entire Solo Lady Traveller joie de vivre and adventurous spirit had deserted me. I had not eaten at all, the whole day, due to an early start, a longish drive to the airport, some badly delayed flights and rather strange check-in hangups in Montpellier, so low blood-sugar was not helping. Armed with advice from the gently charming concierge, I set out rather grumpily into the evening to find some dinner. Real dinner, not a sandwich or a pizza. I walked past the back of the Accademia and on until I found Cafeggi in Via Guelfa, exactly as it was described, a real family restaurant in the heart of tourist-ridden Florence. A soul-restoring dinner of deep fried artichokes in a feather-light batter, followed by spaghetti alla vongole with sweet little clams and parsley tossed through it; that and a 'quarto' of white wine (total €27) ironed some of the crimps out of my attitude, and by the time the ancient padroness came out with her walking stick and had a chat, I was a renewed reinvigorated SLT. Even so, on an after-dinner stroll Florence did not show me her famous beauty; all I saw was hordes and hordes of tourists in shorts eating gelato and dawdling on the extremely narrow footpaths, which were already burdened with garbage bins. On my first morning in Florence I walked across the Piazza Santissima Annunziata near Via Laura and around the corner to Galleria dell Accademia at 9am, imagining that I might to get in more easily early in the morning, but  already the queues stretched hundreds of metres along Via Ricasoli into Via Cesare Battista on the east, and Via degli Alfani on the west. I just do not "do" long queues, so I abandoned that idea and went into the adjacent Piazza di San IMG_3045Marco where I found, firstly, a coffee and croissant, and secondly, quite by accident, the delightful church of San Marco and its attached museum. IMG_3050 The museum is in a monastery built about 1440, where Fra Angelico lived and painted the famous murals which are still fresh and delicately coloured in peach and lemon and gentle blues. Ironically, the cruel fanatic Savonarola also lived in this monastery before being burned to death. A few people wandered around the cloisters in peace, perhaps a hundred metres from the thousands of people queuing for the Accademia. The Solo Lady Traveller finds it rewarding to take the road less travelled. I did later in my stay visit the Galleria dell Accademia, where Michelangelo's David deserves every bit of its fame; it is not a very large museum and the management does a good job in limiting the number of visitors insStatue of Davidide at any one time, so if/when you do finally get in, you can move around easily and see what is on display. (I got into the Accademia because a guest at my hotel had donated the remainder of his Florence Card, which entitled me to free entry through a priority queue; even that queue was dismayingly long, but I attached myself to a tour which was going straight in, showed my Florence Card, and woohoo! instant access! I truly would not have bothered if I had to stand in those 300-400 metre long queues). The museum also a houses 5 unfinished statues by Michelangelo, and paintings by artists including Botticelli and Ghirlandaio as well as a rather interesting collection of plaster models for marble statues. But the remainder of the collection failed, I am afraid, to touch that regrettably absent soul of mine.accademia-florence Feeling virtuous at having ticked off one of the tourism essentials, I walked down to the River Arno to see the Ponte Vecchio.  The earliest surviving parts of the bridge date from about 1333, but it has been built and rebuilt in stages after major floods destroyed sections. It now consists of three arched stone spans topped by a rather jerry-built looking bunch of 17thC additions clinging to the outside of the structure like limpets on a rock, hiding the interior shops which face the pedestrian centre of the bridge. All rather gloomy - the colourful photos that you see are heavily post-produced; this is what it really truly looks like. florence-ponte-vecchioThe inner shops facing the walkway are a mix of jewellers and souvenir shops, and the walkway is crowded with North Africans selling imitation Dior and Chanel handbags and electrical adaptors. The habit of fixing locks to part of the bridge has arisen in recent times, apparently at the instigation of the locksmith at one end of the bridge; this damages the bridge, costs thousands of dollars in regular removal of the locks and repairs, and is illegal with a €160 fine; and I am pretty sure that it does not ensure the permanency of love. The bridge is better seen from the Lungarno deli Acciaioli, ("atchaioli" - now doesn't that sound like someone sneezing "garlic" in Italian?), the road running along the north bank of the Arno, than from the bridge itself. At least you do not have to negotiate the handbags sellers. A rather muddy Arno runs sluggishly below the famous arches; the Solo Lady Traveller felt all her romantic illusions shatter and crumble and fall in a sad little heap around her ankles. IMG_3016 (1)Over the next few days I walked the extremely hard granite pavements of Florence, exploring its undoubted treasures. I passed quickly through the ludicrously crowded squares around the massively impressive Il Duomo (but I have to say, despite the intricate green and white marble facing, it is rather brutalist and ugly - it suggested to me a giant cane toad hunched over the piazza). I walked up and down the narrow streets between forbiddingly dark stone buildings which to be more about brute power than about elegance or beauty.                                          But it gets better. Thank goodness. Not all in Florence was doom and gloom and disappointment! The San Lorenzo markets consist of the Mercato Centrale and the surrounding street markets. The streets are reduced to alleys by the stalls crammed with colour and bustle, selling leather handbags in turquoise, lime, pink, lemon, cobalt, and orange, and belts, scarves, rather wonderful shawls (I admit I bought 3 for €5 to €12 each), shoes, shirts, in short everything that you would expect to see in an Italian street market. The Mercato Centrale is a square building which has food stalls on the ground floor, selling wonderful meats, cheeses, and so on; but if you go up the stairs you find yourself in a large hall of restaurants selling everything from vast pizzas to large slabs of meat to seafood pasta to cream horns, with a central bar; a wonderful bustle of cooking smells and shared long wooden tables and people. I had pappa al pomodoro, a tomato bread soup, a Florentine favourite which is much more delicious than it sounds, and covetously eyed off the enormous golden pizza  of a cheerful young Liverpudlian couple beside me. IMG_3067The market place is richly fringed with restaurants, and one foot-sore  day I spent a delightful couple of hours at Da Nerbone in Via Rosina, facing Piazza del Mercato Centrale, with a baked fish and a bottle of white wine, watching "the people come and go speaking of Michelangelo"  and eating gelati and buying belts and shawls. A couple of men with impressive moustaches and a piano-accordion came and sang "Never Never on a Sunday" and "O Solo Mio" just outside the restaurant, which was so jolly on a sunny day that everyone gave them a few euros. museo-riccardo-mediciAfter lunch I went to the Museo Medici Riccardo, led by the trusty donated Florence Card, not so famous as Accademia but certainly the nicest museum I saw in Florence, with a large internal garden courtyard and exceptionally beautiful murals. Like the other palazzi, it was built to impress with soaring ceilings - I counted 46 steps in the grand staircase up to the first floor. This has the most spectacular and beautiful murals that I have ever seen. The building is typically large and forbidding but the enclosed courtyard is a lovely haven of peace with roses and fountains lightening the grey granite. On my third day I did a trip to the Cinque Terre which was actually the highlight of my fleeting 5-day visit to Florence. On the Saturday, having returned weary but delighted from walking the Cinque Terre, I went to Santa Maria Novella, which is entered from the vast Piazza Santa Maria where thousands of people were wandering and eating in cafes and a lively flower market was underway; you pass through the throngs and through a gate, straight into the tranquillity of a long garden with pine trees which leads you the church (entry €5). I was interested to see Santa Maria Novella because I had just recently read The Birth of Venus by Susan Dunant, which is set in and around the painting of frescoes in Santa Maria Novella and other churches during the upheaval caused by Savonarola. It was the first grand basilica in Florence and was decorated to show the vast wealth of the great Florentine families, who built their wealth on luxurious silks and trade. The soaring murals covering the walls inside the church are quite overwhelming; painted by Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio and other masters of the 14th and 15th centuries. The complex is a vast maze of halls, cloisters, and stone-lined corridors, and I managed to do the really dumb-tourist thing; I walked off leaving my (new) iPad on the pew where I had been sitting. I only realised some minutes later when I was in a whole different part of the basilica, and rushed back to find a lovely young German couple patiently holding it and waiting for the owner (me) to return. With renewed faith in people, I abandoned culture for pistachio gelato in the Piazza. On my final morning I took a 20 minute ride on the Number 7 bus from Piazza San Marco to Fiesole (for 1€). Glorious, sunshine, gardens, children playing in the square, and Roman ruins and more than made up for any disappointments in Florence. I think that I just enjoy smaller towns and villages more than great cities, so perhaps you are better off ignoring my views on those!                                      
Like this?
Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterPin on PinterestShare on LinkedInShare on Google+