September 23rd, 2008 – by: Stevie_Wes
Iāve tried to do a bit of āLonely Planetā revision ahead of Florence as of all the cities in Italy, excepting Rome, this is the one they tell you straight is gonna bowl you over. Principle seat of the Medici family and home of Machiavelli and Michelangelo amongst others, set in the undeniably beautiful Tuscan countryside and seen as the cradle of Renaissance art and culture the reputation, almost intimidating in stature has you salivating at the bit just at the thought of the place. āOverwhelmingā is often an adjective to be found in the same sentence giving any mention to Florence and (back to the āGuideā) Florentine doctors (it claims) 'reputedly treat a good dozen cases of āStendhalismoā a yearā following an extreme reaction over over-awe to the city by the French writer Stendhal. Hmmm? We shall see.
Iām coming from Venice. My standards are high right now.
Perseus slays Medusa.
I donāt really get the relationship between buying tickets and getting on buses in this city, Iām so whacked out trying to get my head round a new public transport set up in every frickinā city I come to that I mostly drift off and on the Florentine buses without a ticket or not stamping the ones Iāve had to buy at the Youth Hostel. I get off at Piazza del Duomo within which sitās the famous and very elegant, beautifully marble-rendered Florence Duomo. I will come back to this at several other points in my time here so move swiftly on to the Uffizi Gallery.
The Palazzo Vecchio
The Uffizi amongst several of Florenceās main attractions is legendary for its entry queue times. You are encouraged in guides and outside the venue itself to use the special advance booking hotline that they have. This means you can turn up the day after or so and - in theory - walk right in. The queue for just walking in on the day can apparently be up to 4 hours long in high season (!!!). Today Iām here at a pretty early 9.15 and the queue looks modest enough but still takes 2 hours. Half the time it feels the only way the queue's moving forward is whenever people just give up and leave it to go do something else. Personally I could have booked ahead if Iād been more organised but actually, honestly I kinda wanted to do a bit of queue-mooching.
In a sado-masochistic kinda way it actually sounded like a necessary part of the ātrueā Uffizi and Florence experience so I donāt mind the two hours of people watching at allā¦ wish Iād brought my f**kinā book along with me though!
(David &) Muju [www.mujuworld.co.uk]
So 2 hours and 15 Euros later (about 10 for general entry and 5 for an audio-guide) I am in the legendary Uffizi Gallery. Now it canāt be denied that this is pretty much a āmust doā activity if you find yourself in Florence and contain more than an ounce worth of cultural appreciation within you. The Uffizi houses probably indisputably the finest single collection of (predominantly Italian) Renaissance art in the world. Some of the works you will be privileged to set your eyes on include unfinished masterpieces by Leonardo de Vinci, many of Botticelliās finest including 'The Birth of Venus' and works by Raphael and so on and so onā¦ however, I have reservations to state aside from all the happy-gabbling.
I was not entirely āoverwhelmedā by my Uffizi experience. The building itself never captivates or augments your experience of the art laid out before you (excepting possibly the corridor-window views over the Arno River and my first glimpse of the Ponte Vecchio bridge). The relationship between venue and content feels uncomfortable and forced. Ill-lit too. I feel that you end up looking at some of the finest works by the hand of āmanā but in a dimly lit, uncomplimentary way. I think some better gallery curators are required. Paintings are sparsely, ineffectually and uninformatively labelled for the most part and the audio-guide (the first one Iāve bothered to shell out on in my trip thinking I must for the Uffizi) is total crap. Highly uninformative about most of the paintings, their themes and the context of their creation.
Whole rooms of masterpieces are dashed off by the narrator in 20 seconds flat leaving you thinking āUhh?ā¦wha-was-tha?ā¦ā. I think this wilful uninformativeness is just a mechanism for making sure people have less reason to hang around and turn the 4 hour queue outside into an 8 hour one. And this brings me nicely back to the main point. Okay, priceless culture but 4 or even 2 hour queuesā¦ whatās all the fuss about? Hmm, Iām impressed by a lot of the art but generally not by the āUffizi experienceā.
David and his bits (full scale replica)
Maybe itās got a bit to do with the fact that once again Iām aaaall cultured out to the max. Just too much of a good thing Iāve been having every step of the way in Europe.
Iāve consumed so much religiously themed culture I see angels swimming perpetually before my eyes as I try to sleep. Iāve seen so many cultural interpretations of Crucifixions, Assumptions, Annunciations, Depositions, Passions, Glorifications and Resurrections and Iāve copped a glance at more Last Suppers than Iāve had hot meals since leaving home! Itās all a little bit exhausting on the mind in the end.
Ponte Vecchio seen from inside the Uffizi Gallery.
I stroll around Piazza della Signoria as itās close to hand and contains large open-air collections of stunning Renaissance statuary. A full scale stone-carved replica of Florenceās most famous resident, Michelangeloās āDavidā stands in state here before the Palazzo Vecchio. The original resides in the Galleria del Accademia.
Itās quite amusing in the era of digital cameras to stand behind the crowd as they all lift their cameras high and as often as not just you can see on a myriad LCD displays they zoom straight in on the giant-slayerās famous hand-chiselled wedding-tackle. I need not state to such a discerning audience that this is of course as puerile as it is predictable so I feel I must make a stance. āMaintain standards, what-what!ā So no close ups from me of the worldās most famous and reproduced one-eyed trouser-ferret. āSorry ladies!ā ;D Arenāt I mean!
I now stroll just down the way to the banks of the Arno river and hit the Ponte Vecchio bridge.
This bridge in ways reminiscent of Veniceās Rialto with the line of predominantly jewellery and tourist tack shops that almost seem piled on top of each other at points, and especially if viewed from the riverbank. Historically it was home to Florenceās butcher stalls (the offal and other bloody discards being cast into the river) but at some point in history was forced to the more appealing trade of gold and jewels. It is in observing the Arno that I finally start to make a connection with Florence. The beautiful weather creates pleasing and coloured reflections upon itās surface. Ducks and pretty, accidental patterns of weed glide upon the waters surface. Captivating formations of cloud float overhead. It was these Tuscan skies and waters that actually most enthralled me seen from the windows of the Uffizi rather than the more human works of majesty set there before my eyes.
A group of young'uns sunbathe actually over the wall and on one of the butresses of the Ponte Santa Trinita over the Arno!
Across the Ponte Vecchio a brief skip down Via de Giucciardini and you are at the Palazzo (Palace) Pitti. I feel Iāve spent my one entrance fee for the day at the gallery and anyway the idea of seeing any more ornate rooms or paintings and statues right now just about makes my mind shut down with cultural fatigue so I just sit and eat some street-stall fruit in the sun. Find an internet cafĆ© thatās vaguely affordable for once and log on even though the sunās still high in the sky. One thing curiously that is NOT cheap in Florence is gelato. For reasons I cannot quite fathom ice cream in this one city is (relatively speaking) staggeringly expensive.
Your average 3 flavoured scoop gelato cone or tub shouldnāt normally cost you more that 2,50 Euros (3,00 maybe) but here the average seems to clock in between 6 to 8 Euros!!! No idea why. Of all the places Iāve been, even including Venice, Florence is busy with āorganisedā tourism I.e. seemingly endless numbers of laaaaarge groups of wealthy Europeans, Americans and Japanese on guided city tours. Their presence is much more marked than anywhere else I go in Italy (even Rome) and I think everything economically within the city is geared to target this phenomenon. This is frustrating on many levels as it means a) all tourist attractions are perpetually plagued with locust-like masses of Nikon-brandishing crusties and b) WHAT AM I GONNA DO HERE ABOUT MY GELATO ADDICTION?!! āHelp!ā
People mill around the roof of the Duomo cupola.
After a walk around on the far bank streets of the Arno and a visit to the impressive Basilica di Santo Spirito I head back to the Duomo too see it cast in shades of early evening light.
The tri-coloured, mesmerisingly intricate marble-patterned faĆ§ade of this building with its iconic brown-tiled cupola really is quite something to behold. Momentarily bewitched I hand over 6 Euros to climb the 82 metre (414 step) Campanile de Giotto, the bell tower designed by the Giotto in 1334. āYes, Iām chasing heights yet again!ā This involves quite a dizzying ascent up through various āmidwayā floors all of which offer viewing opportunities and as you ascend the stone stairways (of course never designed with tourism in mind) get narrower and narrower and narrower (even though strangely the tower does not?). The final stretch in high season must be a nightmare with nervous (often overweight) tourists trying to squeeze past each other. The panoramic views of the Florentine; the Tuscan countryside in the distance and the Duomo itself from up here are superb.
Well worth the climb. As you look over, throngs of people also circle the balcony set atop the Duomo cupola dome, also ascendable for a fee.
Sunset over the Arno
Itās still early evening but if Iām honest Iām done with Florence for today already so get some snacks and head back to the Florence HI Hostel. This one is a no-joke looong way outta the town centre. No walking to this one except for the truly hardcore. Itās a half hour bus-ride and even then you have to walk a good 15 minutes up hill road to get to it. Itās worth it though. Ostello Villa Camareta (similarly to Verona) is a converted 17th Century villa set in very extensive grounds.
As you walk up the (long) hill to get to it the Tuscan hills are in sight to some extent and scenic vineyards line the road. There is also a campsite that can be stayed at here. For my part I now just sit in the hostelās grounds eating crisps and drinking a beer writing some of this guff whilst the sun continues to fall towards the tangled vineyards.