Saturday, March 7, 2009


Italy's Jewel of the Renaissance

"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God"
(Matthew 19:24)

Since I'm gonna assume Matthew was right, a trip to Florence confirms that the Medici's are probably toast. The amount of wealth they unabashedly flaunted in this treasure of the Renaissance is hard to fathom.

This is the City where the word "Patron of the Arts" was born. And as Florence's wealth grew the desire to out do the neighbors took on epic proportions.

In 1296 when Florence decided its old Cathedral just would not do, it decided to begin its replacement with a new one. The new cathedral would have to be spectacular. It would have 3 naves and a wide choir. Its theme would reference the flower of Christ.

60 years later when the main structure was being completed, the overall design had become progressively more and more complex. So Florence now had a church already under construction for a lifetime, where no one really knew how (if) a roof could be designed to enclose it. The Florentines just knew if it could be done they would possess the most spectacular dome ever created. The task to figure it out was awarded to Filippo Brunelleschi and his masterpiece of engineering was completed in just 16 years.

Two hundred years after completion of the dome its frescos' were being completed. The actual facade of the church was not completed until 1884. For those keeping score the project took 588 years!

Today the Duomo, visible from miles away, is still the most defining feature of the City.

Most of the achievements of many of the wealthy families of Florence have long since fallen into obscurity, but their relentless obsession with trying to outdo each other in the creation of art and architecture has turned out to be their real legacy to the world.    

The Baptistery Doors

Almost as a complete juxtoposition to the size of the Duomo, its baptistery is a small octagon shaped building, set just outside of the main cathedral. On each side of the baptistery are huge bronze doors that depict the entire story of Christianity culminating with Ghiberti's "Door to Paradise". The doors on the baptistery today are replica's as the original had to be moved to save them from degradation resulting from exposure to smog. You can access the doors by day, but armored covers arise from beneath the door thresholds to protect them at night. 

The Hilltop Oasis of Fiesole 

When the summer heat and smog in Florence become unbearable, head up the nearby mountain to the Village of Fiesole. The winding road to it is filled with gardens, schools, homes and trees. At the top you are rewarded with spectacular views of Florence. Check the double decker tour buses as one route goes to Fiesole. 

The English Cemetery

Expatriates from around the world have always come and made Florence their home, whether to paint, write, or just dream. Some wind up resting here forever. Elizabeth Barrett Browning is buried in Florence's "English" Cemetery.

Florentine Style is Appreciated the World Over

Like everything else in Florence, the ability to demonstrate ones wealth translates into every aspect of life; expensive cars, the best art, and very well designed clothing. This is home to Ferragamo and Gucci. Similar to the Spanish, Florentines discretely evaluate each other with a glance at each others shoes. Fine shoes move you up in status. Of course American's in their comfy sneakers are gently dismissed.

Florence and The Duomo From Fiesole

The Ponte Vecchio 
From The Uffizzi

Florence's dense historic core is filled year round with pedestrians. Every block seemingly leads visitors to more designer stores, more museums, more restaurants, and more sculpture.  

Since most visitors would never think of leaving Florence without seeing the David, the Duomo, the Uffizzi, they eventually wind up at the Ponte Vecchio (old bridge). 

The Ponte Vecchio is sort of Florence's Rialto Bridge. Originally filled with butcher shops and food stalls, its smells made it a poor neighbor to the uber rich that lived by the river. So much so that Ferdinand I replaced the butcher shops with the goldsmiths still found there today.

When you look at the bridge note the private walkway built above all of the shops to allow private passage across the bridge by the Medici's. In both of my visits to Florence I had never even noticed the "Vasarian Corridor" that links the Palazzo Vecchio (Florence's original City Hall that was converted to be the Medici Family Palace) to the Pitti Palace (which was built by Florentine merchant Luca Pitti) and eventually purchased by the Medici's. This allowed them to walk between both properties without having to mix with the crowds in the street below. Today the corridor serves as an art gallery.

Although the core is off limits to most automobiles, and for the most part a pedestrian's dream, the shear density of people, eventually makes me long for relief. That relief comes merely by crossing to the south bank of the glassy Arno River. Here you find more hills, the Pitti Palace, and its beautiful Boboli gardens, and lovely tree lined streets that leading up to Piazza Michelangelo and some of Florence's most beautiful neighborhoods.  

A Replica of David Gazes Down Upon Florence 
From Piazza Michelangelo

Rubbing the Boars Nose in The Mercato Centrale 
Assures a Return to Florence

Getting to Florence is easy.  It is served by air and is the regions major rail hub. Once there, you can use buses, cabs, and good old shoe leather. 

Staying in Florence is more of a challenge. Hotels in the historic core are old and expensive. We opted for the quiet and modern suburban Hilton Metropole. This business friendly highrise offers all of the amenities of a modern hotel along with a decent rooftop concierge lounge and a free shuttle between the hotel and the train station at the edge of the historic zone. A word of caution, since Italians eat late restaurants are just opening for dinner when the hotel shuttle is ending its runs, so there is a disconnect. While we found staff and facilities in the the hotel to be fine, Trip Advisor comments from other guests clearly indicate the hotel has its warts.  Next time we visit we are going to try to stay in Fiesole.

Florence is one of those places everyone should see (at least) once in their lifetime. But try to avoid it in the stifling hot, tourist deluged, summer. You will enjoy a visit much more in the spring or fall.

Last bit of advice if you visit Florence you must stop at GROM for gelato. If you go to Florence and miss GROM, well then turn around and go back!

Roadboys Travels © 2009

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