We were vacationing in the Tuscan countryside, but you just can’t visit Italy without exploring some of the bigger cities. So, we had reserved the better part of one day to experience Florence (locally known as Firenze, capital city of Tuscany and the art and architectural center of the world). This post has nothing much to do with wine or food, except that we did have some fantastic wine and food that day. But the point of this post is to tell you that you really should visit (or revisit) Florence and you definitely should allow more than one short day in which to do it. Our challenge was to figure out exactly what to do and see in Florence, starting around midday on a hot June Sunday last year. Despite all of our trip planning, we had made no specific plans for Florence—no reservations, let alone advance purchase tickets that you need for the various indoor “must see” art attractions. My father had spent a lot of time in the Firenze area during World War II and had always said it was the most beautiful city in the world. How could we have screwed up so badly on our planning?
The Internet is such a lovely thing. Just a few days before we were to arrive in Florence, I emailed a friend who said he had a friend who knew someone who might be able to help us. A handful of frantic emails later, we had our solution—a genuine Italian tour guide named Dr. Alessandra Bernabei, “Guida turistica di Firenze”, who has an advanced degree in Art History. She emailed me the right questions and I sent back the best answers I could give—two adults, four children ages 11–16; we have three hours available; we’d like to see the major sites; some of us enjoy art and museums, but some don’t have a lot of patience; I’d like to visit the Uffizi Gallery; one person wants to browse the local shops. You get the picture—a set of inconsistent and irreconcilable desires and objectives. Not to worry. Ale knew just what to do. “Meet me in front of the Santa Maria Novella Church at 2 p.m. sharp. I’ll find you.” OK, I thought. We’ll go and see what happens.
After a leisurely breakfast at the farm, we drove towards Florence on the A1 autostrada, arriving by 11:30 a.m. at a parking garage about three blocks from the church. It was fairly hot that day (a heat wave had just set in), so we stopped at one corner of the piazza for some gelato. By the time we finished, it was high noon and we decided to attend Mass at Santa Maria Novella Church, which (as with many churches in Italy) is both a church and a museum. We were hoping for the genuine Italian immersion experience (the language kind, not the baptism kind). Oops! The guard at the door decided (correctly, we believe) that our 16 year old daughter was a “young lady” (something about vergine or something Italian like that) and so she couldn’t enter the church wearing short pants and a short–sleeved shirt. Now, how do we solve that one in three minutes, there being no teen clothing shops nearby? I found myself simultaneously attempting to convince the Italian–speaking guard that there must be a “heat wave” exception to the “cover up” rule while trying to get Leah to stop asking why the same rule didn’t apply to her. Finally, I asked everyone to stop talking and inquired innocently what could be done to allow our poor family to attend Mass on such a lovely Sunday afternoon? A empathetic elderly woman suddenly appeared with a sort of “cover up” slip that our daughter could wear over her clothes—kind of a see–through version of a green hospital gown (shown to the left—our daughter asked to have her identity masked so as not to be seen endorsing such a fashionable outfit). The solution worked for me, even though our daughter remained somewhat unconvinced. So, into the church we went.
After the service, we briefly looked around inside the church at some of the artwork, including a piece that our daughter would write about in one of her college application essays later that summer (see how things work out?). Then, it was out the door and nearly time to meet our guida. We didn’t know what she looked like, but apparently we stuck out like the proverbial American sore thumb. At precisely 2 p.m., Ale walked up and introduced herself. As we walked along a quiet street named Via del Banchi, which turned into Via dei Cerretani, Ale asked us some more questions in an effort to fine tune the tour plan. We later learned that tour guides in Florence have to be licensed and it is a difficult license to obtain. Ale grew up in Florence and is one of a small handful of licensed Florence tour guides who are actually licensed to give tours in English and Italian.
Before long, we arrived in an architectural wonderland. The Campanile and the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, together with the Baptistry building, are a very dramatic and awesome site. The pink, green and white marble design, typical of Florence, dominates the area. Ale showed us some of the many details outside the buildings, such as the golden door, and told us various stories about the history of the various statues and art pieces we were intently absorbing. (I won’t repeat the stories here, in case you make the trip yourself). Inside the Cathedral, we looked up at the inside of the Duomo as Ale explained the story of how this majestic structure was ingeniously designed and constructed with the tools and limitations of the era (constructed as a series of inverted cone shapes, one laid upon the other, using more than 4 million bricks and built without the use of scaffolding, it is octagonal in shape and still the world’s largest masonry dome). I was intrigued by the tile floor inside, which was designed to give the illusion of a series of upward–sloping steps, even though the floor was perfectly level.
We turned towards the river and walked past the house of Dante until we reached the Palazzo Vecchio, essentially the “city hall” of Florence, at the Piazza della Signoria (the site of many Florentine historical events). Ale entertained us with some stories about the location and the many art pieces strewn throughout the Piazza. Then, it was time to tour the Uffizi Gallery. As we approached, I noticed the extremely long line of people waiting to get into the museum—it looked to be a 2–3 hour wait. One of the advantages of being with Ale was that we totally avoided any delay as she swept us directly inside. To my amazement, she had tailored the tour to our children, having asked them questions as we walked along. She focused the tour around Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci and engaged them in a sort of “Italian art trivia” contest, asking them questions designed to elicit information about each piece. She stopped us at the end of one hall to take pictures of the Ponte Vecchio (or old bridge)—the original was built before the year 1000; the current bridge was reconstructed over the Arno River in 1345 and amazingly not destroyed in World War II (unlike all the other bridges in Florence).
If you look at the top of the Ponte Vecchio (pictured above), you will see a corridor along the top with windows facing the Arno River. A similar corridor appears in the airspace between the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery (pictured to the right). These are part of an elevated, covered walkway constructed in 1565 at the order of Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici using the design of Giorgio Vasari. Named the Vasari Corridor, Cosimo had it constructed so he and his family could safely walk from the Palazzo Vecchio through the area that is now the Uffizi Gallery and over the Ponte Vecchio to their residence at the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno River. One version of the story is that his wife didn’t want to mingle with the common folk as she made her way around town, and so the elevated corridor was built to accommodate her.
Back on the street, we walked to the Mercato Nuovo, a covered outdoor marketplace for some quick shopping. Along one side of the Mercato is a statue of a large wild boar. Ale explained that if you rub the boar’s nose, it means that you will certainly visit Florence again in your life. (It actually works—I rubbed Il Porcellino’s nose and I unexpectedly found myself in Florence again this past April and, of course, visited the boar again, just to be safe.) Along our walk to the Piazza della Repubblica (the site of the original Roman forum), Ale stopped occasionally to talk briefly about the art work embedded in various building walls along the way. In Florence, art is everywhere.
Before long, we were back where we started and it was 5:00 p.m., time to part. I asked Ale for a restaurant recommendation for dinner in Florence. She suggested an intimate place in the suburb of Fiesole, in the hills overlooking Florence. Ale explained, “The streets to get there are very narrow and they have very little parking, so I need to call and ask the owner for permission for you to drive up there.” After a few minutes on the phone, she nodded her head and gave us directions. Before long, we were up in the hills enjoying one of the most breathtaking views of Florence at La Reggia degli Etruschi, just before sunset.
The setting was beautiful, the Vermentino and Chianti were just right and the homemade pasta was deliciously wonderful. After dinner, we made the exciting drive down the hill along the narrow streets (you have to pull your exterior side mirrors in against the car in order to let another car pass from the opposite direction), remarking all the way how well worth it the drive was in order to experience the restaurant. Back at the farm that night, we recalled the day’s events and realized how lucky we were to have discovered Ale and how grateful we were that my father had done his small part to save Firenze for us to enjoy.
Note: To save Alessandra Bernabei from receiving spam, we won’t list her email or phone here. But if you ever want it, just contact us and we’ll gladly give the information to you. Ale also gives tours of the Tuscan town of Siena.
May 11, 2009 at 7:48 pm
Wow, you are connected in a really great way. Thanks for the tour.May 19, 2009 at 11:36 am
Marcus, Florence Italy said:
Sounds like you really got the most out of Florence, the best Italian city in my opinion.
I hope you managed to do some Tuscan wine tours while you were in the area? There are some really good ones for children and adults alike.
Salute from Florence Italy.
We did tour various wine areas in Tuscany on our own. We know some wonderful places and have written about some of them in our blog. You can click on the Categories button in our sidebar and then select “Italy” or “Tuscany” to find them or do a key word search using the search box at the top of the sidebar. We also list a lot of our favorite wineries under “Wineries” (use the Wineries button at the top of the sidebar). If all else fails, Contact Us and we’ll be happy to share information we have.June 1, 2009 at 8:58 pm
Great post! Just wanted to let you know you have a new subscriber- me!