Florence and Tuscany

I was really looking forward to our time in Florence. Of course, the big ones in Italy are Rome and Venice, but whoever has the chance to visit Florence seems to rave about it. And I could immediately see why.

We arrived on a Wednesday afternoon, having taken the train from Venice. We took a bus to our hostel, which was a 15th Century convent. (It doesn’t resemble a convent today; it’s a happening hostel for members of both sexes) Evidently though, the city is seeping with history.

That afternoon, we began to discover the beauty of Florence. Around each corner, there is something awe-inspiring to look at. Whether it be a church, a sculpture, a bustling Piazza or Palazzo, or simply the streets themselves.

As we walked along the river, through markets and squares, and past impressive pieces of architecture, the lesson I first learnt in Venice was reinforced: Never put your camera back in your bag – you’ll need it again very soon, even when you don’t expect to. (Perhaps it’s worth mentioning here that I took more than 1000 photos on the trip.)

Ponte Vecchio – my favourite sight of Florence

That evening, we discovered a pizza place near our hostel. After ordering our take-away pizzas, we were able to watch the chef assemble them and stick them in the wood-fire oven. You could tell it was a place locals went to, not just tourists. It was fantastic pizza.

People queue for hours to get into the galleries and museums in Florence. We decided to go the day before to book our tickets to the Uffizi Gallery, so we turned up there in the morning and didn’t have to wait in line. The gallery is home to the world’s greatest collection of Renaissance art; many famous pieces which don’t mean a whole lot to me, but were amazing to see nonetheless. There were rooms of sculptures, paintings, and more. It was quite something.

From being cultured in the morning, we became religious in the afternoon and visited the gothic-style Duomo, one of the biggest Cathedrals in the world. Spectacular from the outside, and even more so on the inside.

The whole thing wouldn’t fit in my photo; that’s how big it is.

With a few hours left of daylight, we spontaneously turned up at the train station, hoping for tickets to Pisa. When we arrived in Pisa, it was strange. There was little signposting to the leaning tower and few tourists around. But, we walked a while, and eventually found it. We took the obligatory cliché photos there, and had a walk around. There isn’t a whole lot to see in Pisa besides the leaning tower, but it was definitely worth the hour-long trip from Florence. It’s a cool, slightly shocking sight.

Because you have to!

In front of the tower, we ran into a girl we had met in our hostel in Venice, and spent some time with her; a lovely fellow-Canadian for Sabrina. Speaking of bumping into people, I didn’t mention an amazing thing that happened in Venice. On our first day, we ran into two girls I know from Melbourne. Seriously, what are the chances! Small world.

Running into Aviva and Chloe in Venice

I know I have to stop talking about food, but my dinner that night deserves a mention. I had read about the classic Tuscan dish, called Ribollita. It’s a heavy vegetable soup, often with beans, and served with bread. I ordered it at the cute little restaurant we were at, and it was fantastic stuff. They sure know how to cook in Italy.

The next day, we decided to explore Tuscany on a guided bike tour. We were taken from the company’s office in the city on a shuttle bus to the hills of Tuscany. Together with a group of about 15 people, we set off on a bike tour that was given a ‘moderate’ difficulty level. Either the word ‘moderate’ has a different meaning in Italy, or I am just incredibly unfit. (Probably the latter) Despite the exertion, the bike ride provided absolutely beautiful views of Tuscany. Vineyards, orchids, rolling hills…

Typical Tuscany

We stopped at a winery in the Tuscan region of Chianti, where we had a tour and lunch. There we had the chance to sample various olive oils and wines. This was a bit of a luxurious day in the midst of our student-budget travel. It was interesting to be shown around the winery (which is apparently owned by a princess), to get some insight into the long process that is wine-making. The lunch consisted of multiple courses, and was delicious.

After a sunny morning, by the time we were ready to get back on our bikes for the afternoon, the rain had started to come down. As we waited for it to stop, it only got worse, and turned into a thunderstorm of epic proportions. People began opening the bottles of wine they had purchased, rightly anticipating that we wouldn’t be going anywhere any time soon. About two and a half hours later, the company decided it wasn’t safe for us to ride in such conditions, and brought shuttle buses to take us back to Florence.

So, under the Tuscan sun became under the Tuscan rain. It was a shame to miss out on an afternoon of bike riding through Tuscany, although I must admit that I was a tiny bit relived. I was exhausted and sore after only half a day of riding; I can’t imagine the state I would have been in after a full day.

The next morning we lined up for the Galleria Dell’Accademia, home to Michelangelo’s David, perhaps the most famous sculpture in the Western world. I felt it lived up to its hype, because some things don’t (I think I have previously shared my thoughts on the Mona Lisa in this blog). Aside from the impressive David, there were plenty of other sculptures and artworks to be seen in this gallery.

We recovered from our cultural onslaught with a bit of market shopping. The best markets we found in Italy were in Florence, I think.

One of the many markets we went to in Florence.

That afternoon, we went to Palazzo Pitti, a vast 15th Century Palace. Today it houses four museums. We didn’t visit the museums, but the Giardino di Boboli, which rise above the palace, were sensational. Walking through the Renaissance gardens was a delight, and from the top, you get a fantastic view of Florence.

A grotto type thing in the gardens

The view from the top of the gardens

Florence lends itself to many day trips around Tuscany. On this, our final day in Florence, we decided Siena was the go. The weather in the morning was glorious, but once again the Tuscan sun turned rapidly into Tuscan rain. We had been in the gothic town for barely two hours when it began to pour.

The centre of the action in Siena is Piazza del Campo, a sloping square surrounded by impressive buildings and countless dining options. Beyond the square, dark lanes are exploding with churches and historical bits and pieces. I found it to be quite an enchanting place.

Piazza del Campo

The highlight of the day was the Duomo, perhaps the most impressive one I saw throughout our trip. From the 14th Century marble floor, to the stained-glass window depicting the Last Supper, to the enormous dome, to the main altar – it’s certainly a feast for the eyes. For many, I’m sure – of the right faith – it’s pertinent on more than an aesthetic level.

I was pleased that we were allowed to take photos inside this one, although a picture doesn’t quite do it justice.

In the same complex, there is a crypt and a museum to visit. Beyond that, the weather didn’t permit much exploring. In between the rain we wandered some of the streets, and saw another church or two. When we decided to call it a day, the trains were delayed, probably because of the weather. Not our most successful venture – but not every day can be perfect.

A street of Siena

And that was it for Florence. Watch this space for a post about Rome.