SPEAKING OF TRAVEL
Firenze, or Florence, Italy is a beautiful city full of impressive art and churches that are works of art. It is a Renaissance city that invites a lot of walking and some of the most uneven cobblestone I have ever traversed.
There is a long list of “must see” items….the Duomo, the Uffizzi, Piazza Signoria, the Pitti Palace, Ponte Vecchio, the San Lorenzo Market, the weeping “angels” surrounding Michaelangelo’s tomb in the church of Santa Croce and his statue of David in the Accademia. Consult any guidebook and you will find the tourist favorites. Because they are favorites, though, they can be very crowded. As one of our local drivers explained, “we have busy season and very busy season.”
If you have the time, try to enjoy some quieter moments away from the hustle and bustle of tourists. Take time to sit back and enjoy the city as a whole.
One of my favorite places for a quieter moment, although still an area popular with visitors, is Piazzale Michelangelo and the nearby 12th century San Miniato al Monte church and cemetery. Piazzale Michelangelo is about a 30-40 minute ride on bus number 12 or 13 from the train station. The walk back down to the city core is shorter. From the area around the Piazzale, there is a magnificent panoramic view of the city. There are also some bars, snack and gelato places and a very tacky bronze replica of the Piazzale’s namesake’s statue of David. If you are there during the height of tourist season, ignore the tour buses which often make a quick stop there and head either down to the road just below the Piazzale for the best view or stop at the terrace restaurant we found tucked away to the left. It was not crowded and the food was surprisingly reasonable and good. And the view, breathtaking.
Do make sure, though, that you visit San Miniato. Legend has it that the saint to whom it is dedicated was decapitated down in the city, picked up his head, crossed the Arno and walked up to this site. Note that if you walk up to San Miniato from the Piazzale, it is the second church you encounter. The first one is much simpler and doesn’t afford the spectacular view. The interior of San Miniato is worth a visit and there are Gregorian chants at either 4:00 or 5:00 PM, depending on the season. Buried in the adjoining cemetery is Colloidi, the author of Pinocchio and a peaceful stroll through it leads to a vista of angels overlooking the city.
If you are up to it, it is an easy walk back down to the city. If you follow the staircase from the west side of the Piazzale, it will take you through a sculpture garden resplendent with roses in May and June and, of course, another view over the city.
The walk down will take you to the Oltrarno section which is discussed below. From there, it is a short walk across one of the bridges to the centro storico or there are bus stops.
A second peaceful and panoramic escape is a trip on bus 7 from a side street adjacent to the church of San Marco to Fiesole. Fiesole was the site of some of the earliest settlements in this area, dating to the 9th or 8th century BC. Early on, it became a favorite summer destination for wealthy Florentines. Its cooler temperature, breezes and views still offer a respite from the city. The ride up to Fiesole affords the opportunity to observe beautiful villas and gardens. The town is small and offers a few restaurants with vistas. There is a Roman theater which hosts performances during the summer and a museum with Etruscan and Roman artifacts.
Walk uphill a few minutes for a terrace with more breathtaking views and a little further to the church of San Francesco and the Franciscan monastery. Above the cloisters, you can observe some of the rooms, or cells, of St. Bernadine of Siena, a 14th century saint. It is a very peaceful and introspective location. There is also an “alpine” way up and back, with switchbacks through a wooded area.
Closer to the city, and also popular with tourists but still a somewhat tranquil option, are the Boboli Gardens of the Pitti Palace. Filled with formal landscaping, fountains, a man-made grotto and sculpture, wandering up through the Gardens leads to yet another great view of the city below. The adjacent Bardini Gardens also offer peace and a panorama and they are less frequented by tourists. Many locals seek out the Bardini for relaxation.
We had pleasant memories of our last visit to the Boboli Gardens, sitting on a terrace high above the city and enjoying gelato. When we revisited it recently, we looked for the “Kaffehaus,” following the signs and even consulting a map to no avail. When I finally asked directions, I was given them but then told that the Kaffehaus had been closed since 2003 for renovations. Yet, it is still listed on all the maps and there are signs for it. I was reminded of some of the charm that is Italy!
A quieter alternative for dinner is visiting one of the many good restaurants in the Oltrarno section, across the Arno from the center of the city. Oltrarno, in fact, means “across the Arno”. This is an area that fans out from the Pitti Palace and is still home to many artisans whom you can observe as they ply their crafts. Tree lined Piazza di Santo Spirito with its center fountain offers some restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating. Yes there will be tourists dining here, but also many locals frequent these establishments.
Incidentally, if you have visited Florence before, but not recently, you might be pleasantly surprised to revisit he Duomo. The new mayor of the city has turned the area around and the Duomo into a pedestrian only zone. Unless you visit early in the morning, it is still very crowded with people, but at least there are no more vehicles adding to the congestion.
Florence is a wonderful city to visit and revisit. If you do, try to plan some quieter moments away from the crowds.
Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.