A van with a view

In order to give our heads a little space before hitting Florence, we headed to the edge of the Appennine mountains, towards Parma and Modena, taking us into Emilia Romagna. Yet more fantastic mountain scenery – nothing, of course, on the scale of the Alpine passes that we’d gone across, but still dramatic. Our campsite gave us a great view of Pietra Bismantova – according to the effusive welcome we received, one of the eight monolithic flat-topped mountains of the world. Cape Town’s Table Mountain and Australia’s Uluru being the best known of the other seven.

So we dived into Firenze. We were heading for a campsite on the Northern edge of town, in a small hill town called Fiesole – Panoramico by name, and very definitely Panoramico by nature – to the point that whilst actually in the pool, you could see the Duomo rising above the city centre. We found a superb spot, overlooking a fold of the valley (but unfortunately not the city), and girded our cultural loins in readiness.

What can we say about Firenze that hasn’t been said before…? It’s incredible. It’s packed to the rafters with artistic and architectural treasures that would be individual stars in any other surroundings, but are so easy to overlook here. The bus into town took us to close to the San Lorenzo church – the Medici family’s local – so we figured we may as well start there. To be honest, that wasn’t the best plan. We quickly figured out that this is a town with an aim to take as many pennies off each and every tourist as possible. In San Lorenzo’s case, that was achieved by the simple expedient of charging separately for entrance to the church itself, to the Medici family tombs, and to the Medici library. In total, about €12 each – for just one church… The church was a good intro to the city’s artworks for me – Ellie’d been to the city before, with the added bonus of staying with Cate, a postgrad art student friend whose part-time job was as a Duomo tour guide – but probably not a lot more than that. In retrospect, skipping the church and going for the tombs would probably have been better than vice-versa. Hey-ho.

So off we wandered, past the Duomo, the Palazzo Vecchio, and the legendary queues to get into the Uffizi. Except there weren’t any. A quick double-check reassured us that, yes, the gallery was open – and, yes, this was the entrance. But there wasn’t a queue at all. Interesting… A quick look at the Ponte Vecchio and some lunch later, we headed back to the Uffizi. Still no queue. In that case, let’s not bother paying the extra to prebook, and just dive in there. Again, what to say? Room after room after room after room of masterpieces. Cultural overload set in at about the same time as utter fatique…

Following day, the Duomo was still there – and so were we. The queue turned out to be much quicker than it looked, so by the time Ellie got back from checking something with the tourist office, I’d not only got to the front but had to stand aside. In we went. This one was a freebie – and just as well, too, since literally half of the interior was barriered off. Unfortunately, it was the half with the dome itself. That’s right – you can’t even stand underneath the dome and gaze up into it unless you pay and queue separately to do the full interior tour, including several hundred steps up to the top. Hmmm…

Anybody else would just have an Atlas. Not the Medicis.

A longer wander around the city afterwards took us to the Palazzo Vecchio, originally a Medici palace, and backdrop to Savonarola’s “bonfire of the vanities” (and, a year to the day later, to another bonfire – this time, of Savonarola himself). Room after room of the most sumptuous decoration, including the huge Chamber of the Five Hundred – for a while after Italy’s unification, the parliamentary chamber. The wander continued. Eventually, we came to the “lesser” sight of Santa Maria Novella. A whole stack of “big names” to tick off, and enough other sights to set off overload again. A roasting afternoon when we left, we grabbed an ice cream without checking the price first – fortunately, we misheard him, since it was “only” €8 for the two, instead of the €18 we initially thought he’d said! They were, admittedly, very very good ice creams, but…

Sunday saw us having a break from the city itself, and going to the outskirts to see Ellie’s father’s cousin Adrian – more on him in a separate post – then a bit of a bimble round the northern stretches of Chianti, before heading back in to a different campsite. The Fiesole one was very pleasant, but expensive and on extremely steep terrain, and with a long walk to the bus to town. We’ve been using an out-of-season site discount scheme run by the Dutch ACSI organisation – and their local entry was on the other side of the city, so we thought we’d get a change of scenery. It’s a nice site, not quite as nice as the Fiesole one, but the bus in is just as quick and with a much shorter walk. Don’t even ask about the prices in the campsite shop, though – we overheard one American girl asking the staff if they’d heard the phrase “Highway Robbery”. Strangely, they had. Probably quite frequently…

A little light housework

This, of course, put us to the dreaded Monday though. A quick check on the tourist office list of opening times showed that the main museums and churches we still wanted to see were closed on Monday. However, thanks to the Genoan train times mix-up, we’d learnt that Italian footnotes are rather important. In these cases, Monday closing only applied to the 2nd and 4th Mondays of the month…

Just one small fragment of one small fresco...

So back in we went. Santa Croce was our first destination – again, utterly wonderful, and with the side benefit of housing a leather-working school, workshops and shop – founded by the Franciscan Monks after WW2 to give war orphans a trade. Then, in the cloisters, a small sign for the museum of the church’s restoration work gave us another gem. Santa Croce is close to the River Arno, and was one of the worst hit by a devastating flood in 1966. Some of the works are only very recently back on display after extensive restoration, and the museum gave an insight into the work required. Several painted boards and panels had even required the layer of paint to be removed from the original boards and re-affixed to new boards…

Saved from ruin under layers of mud, oil and filth after the flood.

By the time we’d finished wandering around Santa Croce, and headed towards the next on our list – the Bargello sculpture museum – it was early afternoon. Unfortunately, it turned out that the Bargello might well be open on the 1st, 3rd and 5th Monday – but only in the morning. Next on our list, San Marco, was also AM-only… <groan> So off we wandered again – this time, just diving into a couple of random smaller churches. Santa Trinita and Orsanmichele were both absolute gems – Orsanmichele, in particular. Originally a marketplace with grain store above, it was quickly walled off and turned into the church for the guilds, with the biggest requested to commission statues of their patron saints to fill niches on the outside walls. After a slow start, they pulled out the stops with style. With hindsight, the statues produced are now recognised as being one of the major kick-starts of the Renaissance. As well as the church itself, there’s a little sign in one corner to a staircase, signed as the museum. Up we went, expecting not much more than a slightly dingy attic space. Nope. The very few exhibits (the originals of the statues, since the ones outside are now replicas – some of the originals are in other galleries, leaving more copies to the museum) were great, but the real jaw-dropper was the space itself. Two floors of beautifully light and bright airiness, with fantastic views above the rooftops. For free.

Today’s been our last day in town – this time, we’ve finally managed to catch the Bargello. Very well worth it, with some utterly beautiful statuary on display in a wonderful fortified palace formerly housing the judiciary and jail cells… If anything, though, it seemed a bit as if there was an imbalance between the amount of “stock” and the amount of space – leaving several rooms full of rather mis-matched miscellany, some very poorly displayed with an abysmal lack of information. San Marco was our final stop – the monastery, now converted into a museum, where Savonarola and Fra’ Angelico both resided. The monk’s cells were utterly sublime – one wall of each cell bearing a fresco, mostly by Angelico himself, all underneath exquisite wooden rafters. Various other rooms in the monastery – the Pilgrim’s Hospice, the Refectory, the Library – housed displays of related frescoes and paintings. Quite probably, this was the best single site we went to – a great way to wrap up the stay.

As well as all that, the city itself charmed us. Narrow streets, bustling with life. Everything you could possibly want, but you might have to hunt a bit to find it. We even managed – eventually – to change some old Italian Lire into Euros, at the branch of the Bank of Italy itself – more than a bit intimidating, under the glare of several Carabinieri shouldering submachine guns guarding the multiple layers of entrance before you managed to find the sole cashier… No problem at all, though, once in. We even managed to find some superb and good value food in proper “local” establishments, yet barely a street or two off the main tour-group packed areas.

Oh, yes – and those artworks themselves? Where to start… Donatello, Michaelangelo, Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Giotto, Lippi, Fra’ Bartollomeo, Fra’ Angelico, Verrochio, Leonardo, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, della Robbia (several of ’em), Gaddi, Masaccio, Cimabue – and many many others. Then there were the Medicis and their various rivals, and other key figures. As we wandered around, we quite quickly started to figure not just the names and styles but the interrelationships between them – who’d trained with who, how styles had developed, influences and commissions – and the rest, including the political framework that made it all possible.

It’s been a fantastic few days, and we’ve seen a huge amount – there’s still a huge amount we haven’t seen, though – we’ve barely scratched the surface. Do we stay for a few more days? There’s so many more places to see…

This entry was posted in Art & Culture stuff, By Country - Italy, Travel stuff. Bookmark the permalink.

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