In Italy: The Florence meanderings

Florence is so much more than a city. The past of this small community on the banks of the Arno is forever intertwined with invention and progress. The Renaissance began here, advancing all forms of intellectual inquiry and creation. The Medici, essentially the world’s first modern bankers, built a Florentine empire with a strong patronage for the arts. Once the center of the banking and art world, it now exists simply as a quiet city in the Tuscan hills. Florence has come down gracefully from its apogee unapologetic and ready to just be. It forges on ahead with shops full of artisans; architecture that has shaped our conception of beauty, and an art scene that may never be eclipsed. The Florence experience serves a welcome respite from the supercenter and highway lifestyle. Florence is more than a city. It is an ideal from which every other beautiful city should be measured.

Once you have arrived in Florence, the beauty can be overwhelming. I do not have a cure for Stendhal Syndrome, but I do have some experiences for you to enjoy while exploring this old town.

Bistecca

My first night in Florence, I sauntered by a dimly lit restaurant on my way back from the gym. In this restaurant, called Perseus, gigantic cuts of meat hung gracefully from the ceiling. That settled it. I had to go. And go I did. Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is a gigantic mass of beef similar to a multi-story T-bone weighing at least a kilo (2.2 lbs). They cut the beef extremely thick and cook it over burning wood coals. Black and crusty on the outside, scarlet in the center, this robust cut is a true carnivorous delight. The meat is so tender; you could eat it with a fork and spoon. The type of beef used is from the prized Chianina Cow, the largest breed of bovine in the world. It is also one of the oldest. These cows have roamed the hills of central Italy since the age of the Roman Empire.

Bistecca Alla Fiorentina is a famous Tuscan indulgence, and is quite easy to find around Florence. To be sure you are getting the real thing, find a local place that appears to be busy. I happened upon Perseus, and they slapped me silly with their decadent beef, fresh baked bread, and nutritious greens. I left that place with a smile and not a care in the world. A good cut of Bistecca starts at around 45 Euros, but don’t expect to finish it alone.

%Gallery-102594%

Drink the Local Stuff

The countryside surrounding Florence boasts some of Italy’s finest vineyards. Chianti flows like the Arno River in this part of the world, and the straw-flasked bottles are an ubiquitous sight along the streets of Florence. A great place to sample wine is at an enoteca. These are wine shops that cater to all classes and tastes. Some are small street booths to stop for a quick glass while the upscale ones serve elegant meals with their wine offerings. No Florentine experience is complete without nosing into one of these establishments for some nectar from Chianti.

Enoteche range from the basic Casa de Vino, to the opulent Cantinetta Antinori. For a truly wonderful experience, take a tour of the Tuscan countryside and check out the surrounding vineyards. Some great vineyards to visit are Le Cantine di Greve, Castello di Meleto, and Castello di Brolio. Italy and Wine offers great wine tours of Tuscany.

Visit with David

David looks like, at any given moment, he could break free of his pedestal and take off down the hall of the Galleria dell’ Accademia. Michelangelo created a true masterpiece. Nothing really prepares you for its chiseled perfection and gargantuan size. This statue has been considered a masterpiece for over 500 years, and standing there in front of it only confirms this well-worn denotation. His alive eyes insinuate a level of intimacy beyond the customary experience with a fine work of art. He seems to follow you around the room.

Michelangelo’s David is housed in the Galleria dell’ Accademia north of the Duomo. If you are visiting during peak season, then purchase tickets ahead of time online to avoid wasting time in line. Entry is €6.50, and fees are added with online purchase. Open 8:15am-6:50pm Tuesday through Sunday. A replica is available in Piazza Della Signoria, but you need to see the real deal.



Brunelleschi’s Ambitious Dome

The Duomo began its life in 1296 by artist Filippo Brunelleschi and was finished by Filippo Brunelleschi in 1436 Emilio de Fabris in 1886. It is still, today, the largest brick and mortar dome in the world. To complete this herculean feat of engineering, Brunelleschi reverse engineered many lost Roman masonry techniques used in old structures such as the Pantheon in Rome. He also invented several new machines to complete this impossible commission made possible by Medici wealth and renaissance intuition.

The Duomo dominates the Florence skyline, and is thus quite easy to locate. The climb to the top is almost 500 steps up narrow stairwells filled with tourists. I know that part sounds awful, but the views of Florence and surrounding Tuscany from the top is well worth the torment. For a fantastic view of the Duomo, climb the adjacent Campanile, which is much quieter. Cost to climb the Duomo is €8, but free if you just want to enter the cathedral. Hours vary by day – Monday-Wednesday, and Friday 10:00am-3:30pm; Thursday and Saturday 10:00am-4:45pm; Sunday, 1:30pm-4:45pm. And to make things even more confusing, on the first Saturday of the month, the Duomo is open from 10:00am-3:30pm. The Campanile is €6, and is open daily from 8:30am-7:30pm.

Shop for a Fine Vintage

Florence boasts Guccio Gucci, Emilio Pucci, Roberto Cavalli, and Salvatore Ferragamo as native sons. As the list goes, so must the shopping. And while these names come with stratospheric price tags more likely to inspire shock than awe, Florence is also filled with some seriously amazing second hand boutiques. These small shops peddle vintage Gucci, Pucci, Valentino, Prada, and more. The finest vintage shop in Florence is quite possibly Elio Ferraro. Check out the website for sure.

Guccio Gucci started the House of Gucci as a craftsman supplying leather goods to the equine set of Tuscany. Florentine leatherworkers have established themselves as some of the greatest in the world, and Gucci’s wide spread success illustrates this point sufficiently. A fine way to bring home some fine Florentine leather craftsmanship without dropping hundreds of Euros is to purchase gloves. My black and red leather cashmere lined gloves are one of my favorite possessions. They cost me about €50, and are softer than a whisper.

The Secret Vasari Corridor

During World War II, the Germans blitzkrieged much of Florence. They bombed all of the bridges crossing the Arno River, except Ponte Vecchio. Rumor has it; Hitler found it too beautiful to destroy. This is an unlikely tidbit of local lore, but not as unlikely as Ponte Vecchio’s secret passageway. The Medici commissioned a secret passage leading from the Uffizi Palazzo Vecchio, over Ponte Vecchio, and to their home at Pitti Palace on the other side of the Arno. This was done so that they did not have to be bothered walking among commoners. The passageway is called the Vasari Corridor. It begins on the top floor of the Uffizi at a nondescript wooden door, passing covertly over the rooftops of the city.

Getting access to the Vasari Corridor used to be near impossible without bribes or connections, but now you can book a bundled Uffizi/Vasari tour here for around €100. The corridor is set to close down for 3 years at the end of 2010. Walking Ponte Vecchio with the commoners at the street level is also beautiful. The bridge is filled with old world jewelry shops. Ponte Vecchio is a popular and romantic sunset spot.

The Dead in Santa Croce

The Basilica di Santa Croce houses 16 different chapels, and is considered the largest Franciscan church in the world. The grounds are filled with frescos, sculptures, and most impressively – a fine collection of worthy tombs. Like a Hall of Fame for notable Italians, many individuals of great renown are buried here: Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Dante, and Rossini. The aesthetics do not disappoint either. The Basilica has several quiet courtyards to solemnly admire. If you happen to visit in early February, then check out the artisan chocolate festival in Piazza Santa Croce right out front. They give out prodigious amounts of free samples.

Santa Croce is located in the Santa Croce neighborhood next to the Biblioteca Nazionale. Doors open at 9:30am and close at 5:30pm, except on Sunday, when they open at 1:00pm and close at 5:30pm. Cost is €5. The 2011 Artisan Chocolate Festival has not yet been announced, but will likely be the first weekend of February. Cost to enter the chocolate festival is free.



Boboli Gardens

Spending an afternoon admiring the ornately appointed lawns behind Pitti Palace will put the Medici wealth into perspective. They began as wool traders and eventually came to form the most respected bank in Europe. They used their wealth and influence to build up Florence as a banking and art center for Europe. They sent family members to the papacy, invented double-entry bookkeeping(debits and credits!), and in many ways, initiated the Renaissance. They had fantastic taste and the Boboli Gardens were their backyard. Be sure to check it out.

The Boboli Gardens open at 8:15am daily, though closing time varies by season. They close at 7:30 in the Summer, 6:30 in the Spring, 5:30 in the Fall, and 4:30 in the Winter. Entry to the garden is through Pitti Palace on the south side of the Arno and costs €6. Pitti Palace boasts 7 different galleries, and was the original home of the Medici. The Palatine gallery houses the Renaissance stuff, and they also have a silver museum, carriage museum, royal apartment museum, a costume gallery, porcelain museum, and a museum of modern art.

The Uffizi Gallery

The Galleria Delgi Uffizi is the top art museum in Florence. Once the base of operations for the vast Medici empire, Uffizi translates to offices. The Uffizi has an extremely simple U shaped layout, and floating from room to room is effortless and awe-inspiring. From Botticelli’s Birth of Venus to Da Vinci’s Annunciation, the Uffizi impresses with over 1500 master Renaissance works. The frescoed corridors lined with statues lend a divine aesthetic to the experience.

During high season, the line for the Uffizi can take upwards of 3 or 4 hours. To expedite this process and ensure that you are not wasting precious Florence time in line, book your tickets in advance here. If you go in the winter, then you can get away with just showing up. The Galleria degli Uffizi is open Tuesday to Sunday from 8:15am to 6:50pm. Cost is a low €6.50, though booking online adds a few Euros to the fee.

Eat, eat, eat, and eat

I used to eat at this Chinese restaurant as a kid. I always wondered how their food was so freaking good. I would just shovel the stuff in until my instincts waved a white flag. Later, I found out that every entree was showered in monosodium glutamate – the bastard child of salt and science. I understand that now. The food in Florence also defies my notions of how good something should be. Everything tastes so fresh that I almost feel insulted by the banalities I drag out of the supercenter back home. Salads seem to grow straight out of the plate. Tomatoes burst with flavor and are “real,” not aberrations genetically tinkered to ripen as they jostle down the interstate. Whereas the secret to good 80′s Chinsese food was msg, the secret to great Italian food is closeness to the source, and of course, love. Everything feels as though it has been loved to fruition rather than simply cooked. From chocolate to pecorino to truffles to basil to gelato, everything tastes, as it should – perfect.

The Tuscan Countryside

While most of Florence can be explored on foot, taking to rural Tuscany requires some sort of wheels underfoot. Some great options for exploring the surrounding countryside include tours on bicycles, cars, or even by Vespa. A great car tour company, The 500 Club, rents out classic Fiats for you to drive in an arranged convoy. Tuscany Bike Tours offers a great bicycle tour of the Chianti region. If you want to take to the Italian countryside by Vespa, then check out Tuscany by Vespa.

To reach Florence from the United States, Alitalia offers a code share with Delta from New York, and Lufthansa flies from Boston and San Francisco. None of these flights are nonstop. From London, you can fly on Ryanair for under $30 nonstop to Pisa, and take a short train ride to the heart of Florence for about $16. It is difficult to find an inexpensive flight directly to Florence in Europe, but budget airlines easyjet and Ryanair serve nearby Pisa International Airport. Florence is just an hour and half express train away from Rome, so you can also fly to Rome and take the train to Florence for around $60.