Italy: Florence in A Flash

June 5, 2016.  For our wedding anniversary this year, Matthew and I decided to revisit Italy, the country that had hosted our honeymoon 23 years ago.  However, this time, we were determined to check off two places that we hadn’t been able to see back then:  Florence and the Cinque Terre.  As usual, there’s a bizarre backstory to this post.

On May 27, 1993, the Corleonesi mafia clan set off a fiat full of explosives next to the Uffizi, killing six people, wounding 26 others, destroying three famous paintings, and badly damaging 30 others. The goal was to destabilize the Italian government and retaliate against the Vatican, which had violated its hands-off policy regarding organized crime. The figure seen here towards the top of the building looks out at the Torre dei Pulci, where the bomb was detonated.
On May 27, 1993, the Corleonesi mafia clan set off a fiat full of explosives next to the Uffizi, killing six people, wounding 26 others, destroying three famous paintings, and badly damaging 30 others. The goal was to destabilize the Italian government and retaliate against the Vatican, which had violated its hands-off policy regarding organized crime. The figure seen here towards the top of the building looks out at the Torre dei Pulci, where the bomb was detonated.

Just days before our wedding, the Mafia bombed the Uffizi Museum, basically paralyzing the city, which changed our travel plans a bit.  Yeah, if you’ve read my Turkey: Terrorism in Taxim Square post, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that we have a unique talent for timing our vacations perfectly to coincide with crises.  But really, it just goes to show that crap can happen anywhere at any time, and ya just gotta roll with it.

Back then, even though we revised our plans and bypassed Florence to hang out longer in Rome, Venice, and along the Amalfi coast, we still saw a little excitement.  On our flight home, our plane was diverted to Milan for “technical problems.”  We dismayingly watched as airport staff systematically dismantled the plane, carrying off first the luggage, then the seats, and finally most every other imaginable component on the plane.  Turns out, our flight had been the target of a bomb threat.

We eventually re-boarded that same aircraft, and everything turned out just fine.  Unless you count the rough landing at Dulles airport, which shook loose the plane’s entire ceiling housing — apparently, it hadn’t been screwed back in place well after the bomb sweep.  We sat on the runway, trapped in our seats, until flight attendants could free us from the metal framework and dangling oxygen masks that had showered down upon us during touchdown.  Lotsa fun.

We bought the Firenze Pass, which is great for letting you skip long lines. The only problem is that it makes you feel like you have to see all of its 87 listed sites, or you just haven't made the most of its advantages. Don't fall prey to this feeling, like we did.
We bought the Firenze Pass, which is great for letting you skip long lines. The only problem is that it makes you feel like you have to see all of its 87 listed sites, or you just haven’t made the most of its advantages. Don’t fall prey to this feeling, like we did. You’ll end up exhausted.

But as usual, I digress.  Nothing even remotely so dramatic occurred on this trip.  Our biggest stressors were trying to make a decision on where to eat, and running ourselves ragged in an attempt to squeeze in every single historic site in Florence in just three days (so as to make the most of our Firenze sightseeing pass).  Bad idea.  Touring the city this way is like pulling an all-nighter for an Art History exam, or gorging yourself on eye candy.  You end up with a headache and fervent wish to never look at another Renaissance painting again.

Matthew spends a few moments soaking in Florence's mellow vibe ... and marinating his "cantucci" (crunchy almond cookies) in his "vin santo" (holy wine). It's a Florentine after-dinner custom.
Matthew spends time soaking in Florence’s mellow vibe … and marinating his “cantucci” (crunchy almond cookies) in his “vin santo” (holy wine). It’s a Florentine after-dinner custom.

I thought I’d learned this lesson years ago:  Don’t treat a trip as if it’s the only time you’ll ever visit.   You’ll go home with a brain crammed full of blurry impressions rather than bright memories, and you’ll  feel in desperate need of a vacation from your vacation afterwards.  Instead, take time just to wander, soak in the feel of a place, and encounter little surprises along the way.  Chat with the locals, watch the morning unfold while sipping coffee in a city square, and imagine what it would have been like to grow up there.

Lesson #1 learned in Florence: take time to window gaze and admire the view from your own living room.
Lesson #1 learned in Florence: take time to window gaze and admire the view from your own living room.

To me, the best souvenir is coming home with a fresh vision of what’s important in life.   Sitting still long enough to observe how place and culture affect perspective always leads me to new revelations about ways to realign my priorities and live a more rewarding future.  Too bad I didn’t write this post before I went to Florence, to remind myself of why I travel. Instead, I reverted to my usual frenetic, gluttonous self, working to gobble up every experience and horde every historic detail as if a winter famine waited around the next corner.  Oh well, live  and learn … over and over again.

Sunset selfie in front of the Ponte Vecchio.
Sunset selfie in front of the Ponte Vecchio.

So now that I’ve finished my little soapbox speech to myself and to you, let’s move on to my favorite memories of Florence’s most famous sites.  I should warn you that, just like our visit, this post is bursting at the seams with photos and fun facts — seriously, we took almost 3,000 pictures while in Italy.  (I’ve included only a few dozen here, so relax).  Still, you might want to grab a cup of espresso and sit down for a spell while you wade through the tales.

Florence's many stone stoops in front of venerable residences are perfect places for a gelato break.
Florence’s many stone stoops in front of venerable residences are perfect places for a gelato break.

Florentine Street Life
Since I mentioned savoring the flavor of a city, I thought I’d start with observations on Florence’s street scene.  It’s low-key — not raucous, gritty, and hard-edged like Rome.  With its narrow alleyways and ancient “Tower Houses” looming on almost every corner, the place has an intimate, Medieval feel that’s surprising for such a big metropolis.  Hazy sunlight filters its way down through breaks in the blockades of timeworn buildings to bathe plazas filled with basking locals and stunned tourists.  It’s a city meant for lazy contemplation and appreciation.  But enough words, let’s look at the pictures.

And I can’t leave the topic of Florence’s street life without mentioning the emphasis on fashion.  I read long ago that the average Italian spends 50% of his or her income on a well-curated wardrobe.  Most Florentines seemed to adhere to this practice, and I spotted a fair amount of high-end labels strolling the sidewalks.  But I was thrilled to see how many shoes, hats, purses, and pieces of jewelry were still handmade by artisans rather than purchased as ready to wear.  Watching a cobbler crafting a shoe from scratch could easily occupy an entire afternoon, if you’re so inclined.

The night before our flight back to Oslo, we splurged for a room with a fairy-tale view of the Baptistry, the Duomo, Brunelleschi's Dome, and Giotto's Tower.
The night before our flight back to Oslo, we splurged for a room with a fairy-tale view of the Baptistry, the Duomo, Brunelleschi’s Dome, and Giotto’s Tower.

The Duomo, Baptistry, & Tower
With their pink-, green-, and white- marble color scheme, these buildings stand out like stacks of petit-fours set in a buffet of Tuscan-yellow pastries.  Wandering beneath Brunelleschi’s Dome is like looking at a Dante’s Inferno-themed Fabergé egg turned inside out.  And gazing at Ghiberti’s bronze doors makes you feel as if you’ve been living your life in 2-D, and someone has just handed you 3-D glasses.  We found ourselves drawn back to the cathedral square over and over again, trying to capture its beauty in every conceivable light.  And we heard one lady say, “This is my tenth visit here, and I never get sick of staring.  It calms my spirit, like visual valium.”

Commissioned by Cosimo de Medici in 1560, the Uffizi ("offices") housed Florence's magistrates as well as the Medici family art collections. The last Medici heiress left instructions for it to be turned into a museum upon her death..
Commissioned by Cosimo de Medici in 1560, the Uffizi (“offices”) housed Florence’s magistrates as well as the Medici family art collections. The last Medici heiress left instructions for it to be turned into a museum upon her death.

The Uffizi 
I’ll be honest, visiting the Uffizi is akin to stuffing an entire semester of art history into just a few hours.  To help us thread our way through the exhausting experience, we hired Marina, a private guide recommended by our Norwegian friend Vidar.  Wise move.  Not only did she give us a fantastic overview of the Renaissance itself, but she told us little stories that put the paintings in context and made the artists themselves come to life.  When asking her about her training, I was shocked to learn that being a guide in Florence requires completing a year of intense study, possessing the ability to speak three languages fluently, and passing a three-part exam that includes getting asked questions like, “in the Bargello Museum, Salon 2, what’s in the second case on your left as you enter?”  Seriously intimidating.

Between the Palazzo Vecchio pictured here, the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, the Medici-Riccardi Palace, and other Medici treasuries, it's a wonder there was anything left for others to collect.
Between the Palazzo Vecchio pictured here, the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace, the Medici-Riccardi Palace, and other Medici treasuries, it’s a wonder there was anything left for others to collect.

The Palazzo Vecchio & Ponte Vecchio
My biggest impression of the Palazzo Vecchio is that the Medici family had waaaay too much money and power.  And as with many nouveau riche families, this translated into “more is better,” leading to some questionable tastes in décor.  Beneath the roof of this fortress, cum town hall, cum personal palace, cum museum, you’ll find gobs of inlaid furniture, gilded interiors, and first-rate works by second-tier artists.  Climb to the top of the Palazzo’s tower, and you’ll see that the Medici also cornered the market on peaceful views of the city and the Ponte Vecchio — an unbelievably atmospheric Medieval bridge saved at the last minute by a German diplomat who begged Hitler to spare it.  It’s a pity that Michelangelo’s nearby bridge didn’t get a similar letter of reprieve.

Probably one of Fra Angelico's most famous paintings, "The Annunciation" shows why he's considered a transitional artist from Gothic to Renaissance. Rather than his figures floating in the scene with no spatial awareness, they're anchored in their surroundings, which have been rendered in perspective with a foreground, middle ground, and background.
Probably one of Fra Angelico’s most famous paintings, “The Annunciation” shows why he’s considered a transitional artist from Gothic to Renaissance. Rather than his figures floating in the scene with no spatial awareness, they’re anchored in their surroundings, which have been rendered in perspective with a foreground, middle ground, and background.

Museum of San Marco
Once  a 15th-century monastery, the museum is basically a shrine to Fra Angelico — the painter, not the liqueur.  When we entered the courtyard, two teenage boys approached us and asked if we’d like a free guided tour.  Paolo and Raphael explained that they were completing part of their high school finals, which require graduates to research a historic site, then volunteer as guides for several hours a week.  Pretty impressive curriculum, I’d say.  The two were absolutely adorable, taking turns telling tales, passing their notes back and forth, and consulting each other for the correct English translations of artistic and religious terms.  Highlights not only included Fra Angelico’s contemplative and sometimes surprisingly surrealistic works, but also a look into the life of the Dominican “Mad Monk,” Girolamo Savonarola, who endured a four-year reign of terror over Florence before being executed.

Okay, I could go on and on with the other 20 sites we visited, but I fear I’ve already overloaded you enough as it is, so Arrivederci — tomorrow we head to Cinque Terre!

 

2 thoughts on “Italy: Florence in A Flash”

  1. Hi Kim
    I’m so happy that you are enjoying a wonderful life in Norway and throughout your travels. I love hearing about and seeing through your eyes your escapades at your home and where you both travel. Sincere kudos on such a beautifully-worded and visual masterpiece of a blog- so much more exciting than here in Chicago. Still with Flamenco Chicago, but not getting much better unfortunately. Please do keep your fabulous memoirs coming. Best always from your old flamenca friend, Sydney

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    1. Hi Sydney! So glad you’re enjoying reading about my adventures! It hasn’t been all fun and games here, pretty stressful at times. But writing the blog helps me focus on the bright side and find the humor in everything. Hope you’re doing well — maybe we can get together next time I’m in Chicago for a conference in mid September. My old email is still working, so feel free to drop me a line if you’re free. Hope you’re doing well!

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