If Rome can be described as the city of ancient wonders then Florence is certainly the city of medieval marvels. Known as the cradle of Renaissance, Florence is also the birthplace of the most famous Italian poet – Dante Alighieri and the city where Leonardo da Vinci underwent his apprenticeship. But what amazed me is how underrated Florence is as a tourist destination. Whereas Rome is a pretty hyped up city, Florence is more of a hidden gem. It does not get the same glory as Rome but is certainly no less glorious. To use a cricket analogy, if Rome can be called Sachin Tendulkar then Florence is definitely Rahul Dravid.
We took a train from Rome and reached Florence on 14th Apr at approximately 11:30 am. From the Santa Maria Novella station we took a bus to our hotel which was 10-15 minutes away. We stayed at Diva Hotel and our 3 night stay at the hotel was largely comfortable. After checking in and freshening up we took a bus back to the city centre. Florence has a pretty good bus transport system but we didn’t use it a lot as most of the important places are within walking distance of each other.
We chose to begin our sightseeing in Florence with Palazzo Vecchio as it was open till 7 pm which gave us sufficient time to explore it. This medieval palace cum fortress, originally built to host the members of city council and later used as a residence by dukes of Florence, currently serves as the town hall and contains mayor’s office and other municipal offices. Michelangelo’s famous sculpture – David stood just outside the main entrance of the palace for more than 3 centuries but was then replaced by a replica. Recent excavations have shown the presence of an ancient Roman theatre beneath the palace and we started our visit by seeing those subterranean Roman ruins though ultimately we found them disappointing. After emerging from the underground depths we entered the main arena of the palace and were immediately awestruck. What greeted us was a huge hall with a grand ceiling and beautiful wall frescoes and sculptures known as the “Hall of five hundred”.
After visiting various other rooms on the first and second floors, each decorated with gorgeous frescoes and paintings, we climbed up to the battlements and then all the way up to the top of Arnolfo Tower. The climb to the top of the tower was steep but totally worth the effort as we got a breathtaking bird’s eye view of the entire Florence city.
After spending close to 3 hours in Palazzo Vecchio we walked to Ponte Vecchio passing the Galileo Museum on our way. Ponte Vecchio, built over River Arno, is a legendary and probably the strangest bridge I have ever seen in my life.
This medieval bridge has small jewellery and souvenir shops built along it and there is a corridor known as Vasari Corridor above these shops which connects Palazzo Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti. This corridor was used by dukes to travel between the palaces away from the eyes of common public. We spent some time at the bridge and as the sun set, the city looked even more spectacular under the lights. Even though we had 2 more days to spend in Florence, we were already besotted with it.
We started our second day in Florence with a visit to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, commonly known as the Duomo. If Colosseum is the icon of Rome, then, the Duomo is the icon of Florence. With its huge red dome, which is the largest brick dome in the world, this monument dominates the skyline of Florence.
We spent about 20-30 minutes looking almost reverentially at the facade of the cathedral which was gigantic but had extremely detailed and magnificent sculpting.
We then took a walk around the cathedral complex which, apart from the cathedral, also had Giotto’s bell tower, an 85 meter high structure and the Baptistery of St. John. The entrance to the cathedral was free but there was a long line. We decided not to go inside the cathedral and joined another line for entrance to the dome. As the top of the dome was not very spacious hence people were being sent up in batches. Once our turn came, we climbed the steps to the base of the dome from where we saw the interior of the cathedral, the stunning fresco under the dome and the stained glass windows.
After climbing down from the dome we headed to the Baptistery of St. John which is famous for its intricately carved bronze doors. The east doors of the baptistery which face the Duomo were called “Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo and even though what we saw were just the replicas of the original, they were still one of the best pieces of sculpture we had ever seen.
The interior of the baptistery is also decorated beautifully with geometric patterns and has a spectacular mosaic ceiling.
Our next stop was the enormous and majestic Palazzo Pitti which lay on the opposite side of River Arno. In the mid-16th century, Palazzo Pitti replaced Palazzo Vecchio as the official residence of Florence’s dukes and it was even used as a base by Napoleon in the late 18th century.
We were a little tired from climbing the steps of Duomo and then walking all the way to Palazzo Pitti hence we spent some time sitting outside the vast building munching on the snacks we had brought from home. After that we purchased a full ticket which included entrances to all the museums and galleries inside Palazzo Pitti as well as the Boboli and Bardini Gardens. The adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” suits Palazzo Pitti completely. This palace looks imposing, austere and plain from outside but is welcoming, rich and simply exquisite from inside. There are various types of collections in different museums and galleries and all the things that can be associated with a royal family are found in these collections. Museo degli Argenti (The Silver Museum), the Palatine Gallery and the Royal Apartments stood out for us.
We exited the palace from the rear gates and entered the famous Boboli Gardens. The gardens were spread over a large area and had many sculptures, fountains and an amphitheatre too. We did not particularly like the Boboli Gardens although that might be because it was not the blooming season.
A short walk from Boboli Gardens took us to Bardini Gardens. These gardens were smaller than the Boboli Gardens but much more beautiful and better maintained and even offered a great view of the Florence skyline. We could not spend much time in the garden as it was about to close soon and we left wondering how lovely it must look in the right season.
The next couple of hours provided the postcard moments of our visit to Florence. We took a bus from Palazzo Pitti to Piazzale Michelangelo. This square, which has a bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David, is located at one of the highest points of Florence and offers a panoramic view of the city. And what a view it was! The Arnolfo tower of Palazzo Vecchio, the Duomo and the Santa Croce church dominated the skyline on one side of River Arno while the other side was covered with lush greenery.
As the sun went down, we just sat there soaking in the view. After sometime we shook ourselves out of our reverie, took one last sweeping view of the glorious sight that lay before us and then boarded a bus back to our hotel.
The next day we visited Pisa on the day trip which we will recount in our next post. It was late in the afternoon when we returned to Florence. There were a lot of basilicas that we wanted to see but we had only limited time hence we chose the Basilica of Santa Croce which was a short bus ride away from Florence station.
The basilica had many marvellous frescoes and some incredible stained glass work but it is more renowned as the burial place of some of the most famous Italians like Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli.
Once the basilica closed we returned to the station and spent some time sitting in front of the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella after which we returned to our hotel.
When we decided to include Florence in our itinerary it was because we wanted to visit the beautiful Tuscan countryside but we had no idea that the city itself is so amazing. We had run out of time in Florence but there was still so much to see. We had missed out on the Uffizi gallery, some beautiful basilicas and we did not even touch the countryside. We visited many more cities in Europe but for me none had the magic of Florence and if someone today asks me which city would you like to visit again and again; yes you are right – it would be Florence.