florence ponte vecchio

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Florence is the most crowded tourist city I’ve known: more hectic than Paris, busier than New York. People walk through its major streets and squares—the Via de’ Panzani, Via de’ Cerretani, and Piazza della Signoria—from early morning to late evening. If you walk among them, you feel like a blood cell pushed through arteries and veins by the pulsing heart of this Tuscan icon. My description is not meant to put you off Florence; this is a beautiful city that all travelers should experience. Its history, architecture, and its art galleries hold some of the most intriguing pieces and bits of western civilization.

florence italy_5With just a little imagination, however, you can use the tourist crowds to your advantage; you won’t beat the tourist crunch at the hot sites, but you can see a lot more of Florence and still enjoy the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi Galleries, and Ponte Vecchio. All you must do is trust your sense of travel exploration and use your city map.

I often write in travel columns about the need to get lost in a city to find its other treasures, the ones unheralded by travel guidebooks or city visitors maps. These can be specialty shops, family restaurants, two-room museums, or cellar churches that you would never have found (or suspected were even there) if you had not taken a left turn at a crossroads instead of continuing ahead. I don’t mean for you to literally “get lost”—but more so get lost from the crowds. Believe me, the tourists won’t miss you; they have many bodies to take your place.

Florence’s ancient, narrow streets—huddled bestride the Arno River—make convenient detours to any of the city’s most famous buildings. Along the way, slow down and look at what’s around you. Go into that small wine shop and looke at the bottles on the shelf. The proprietor will likely offer you a sample, with some cheese and proscuito on the side. Poke your head into the dressmaker’s shop to see the vintage clothing at bargain prices.

On my second morning in Florence on a recent visit, I found myself hurled along an interesting street, but because so many people were behind me, I could not stop to admire the buildings and their balconies, or even stop to read a sign in a window. Shopkeepers in their storefronts looked on in amazement. People were pushing me! Where were they going in such a rush? I wondered. In a flash I scooted through an opening between the ranks and stood in a side street. I walked down the street, unfazed where it might lead me.

florence italy_2Within 50 feet I stopped in front of a window. Staring through the polished glass were dozens of faces: pigs, clowns, vultures, dogs, ghouls, and assorted human children. The smell of potpourri and pulp paper flowed from the open door. By sheer luck I had just found Professor Agostino Dessí working in his art studio, Alice’s Masks Art Studio (named for his daughter). The shop is on Via Faenza, a street unnamed on the city’s free tourist map. I looked back from where I had escaped the crowd. People moved past via Faenza like they’d been shot from a hose; in fact the stream of people looked more like a raging river. And no one was walking down this street.

I stepped inside the Professor’s shop. He looked up casually from his workbench in the back. “Buon journo,” he said, and just as casually went back to his work. I stood among hundreds of masks, marionettes, headdresses, and puppets. They hung from the ceiling, along the walls, propped onto chairs and next to decorative boxes. This was a store I could spend some time in. I ventured in further. On a bookshelf nestled between colorful, flower-festooned masks, I discovered handmade books. I picked up a volume and hefted its weight. Could I really carry this all over Italy in my backpack for the next week? Yes.

“Do you make the books?” I ventured to the professor in my worst Italian (not a hard feat). He answered me in English, and thus began a 40 minute conversation on the paper arts, his 35-year career as an award-winning mask designer and producer, and my choice of this six-pound book—another of his designs and handicraft. Professor Dessi had traveled around the world to promote papier-maché mask making and design. Now he and his daughter work together to keep the art alive. They conduct mask-making workshops each week. I left the shop with photographs, memories, an education, and that six-pound book.

Out on the cobblestone road, the smell of lunch floated from a nearby café. I looked again down the street; the tourist orgy had not abated. I walked in the opposite direction, knowing a left turn somewhere up ahead would get me to the Piazza San Giovanni soon enough.

florence duomo_2Florence Museums and Sites
When people think of Florence, they see the Duomo, the city’s cathedral. And this sight is for good reason. The beauty of the Duomo begins on a side street as you approach the piazza del Duomo. Its walls rise like woven tapestries, inlaid with patterned green, pink, and white marble. The building is so huge that you cannot see it all from within the piazza. You can climb into the dome for a spectacular view inside and out. The adjacent bell tower also offers breathtaking views of the city. Open daily from 9am.

West of the Duomo is the Baptistery, built in 1059. Its bronze door is both a work of art and an ancient storyboard: biblical scenes are carved as panels on the door for those patrons who were illiterate to follow the stories they heard told at mass. Inside the building, biblical stories are also told in elaborately painted murals on the dome overhead.

South of the Duomo you will find the Piazza Della Signoria, Florence’s celebrated square. A copy of Michelangelo’s David is here, as well as Donatello’s Marzocco. In Ammanati’s Neptune fountain water-drenched nymphs and satyrs stare through the spray. The dominant structure is the Medici family’s historic palace, Palazzo Vecchio, a 13th century building that looks more like a fortress than the stately home to generations of merchants, religious leaders, and patrons of the arts. Of course, back in the day, the city states of Italy did conduct a little warring from time to time. And when the battles heated up, the family could always retreat to the tower to wait out the siege. Inside you’ll experience the birth of Renaissance opulence: intricately carved columns; murals on every ceiling depicting stories from Roman mythology; paintings by Botticelli, da Vinci, and Michelangelo; and furniture fit for royal residences. Open daily, 10am-6pm.

florence italy_3Through the south avenue exit you enter Piazza Degli Uffizi. Before you begin your wait in line to enter the Uffizi Galleries, walk along the plaza and look at the statues of famous Italian artists, literary figures, arts patrons, and philosophers. Now you can get in line, but remember: book tickets online for Uffizi and you can queue according to your time slot. If you come into Florence without Uffizi tickets, you will wait 3 hours or longer and then still not be assured of getting into the gallery. Now…Uffizi is housed in the former administration buildings of the Medici mercantile empire. The galleries are the largest holders of Renaissance art in the world, and much of it came from the Medici’s personal collection. In one room you’ll experience nothing but Botticellis, including “Birth of Venus” and “Allegory of Spring.” Michelangelo’s work is highly represented here, as is Titian, and early Leonardo da Vinci. I nearly failed to see all of Uffizi simply because there is so much to see; if you rush through the galleries, your memory will not keep up with the beauty within. Open Tues-Sun. Closed Monday.

If you’re looking for Michelangelo’s “David” you must visit Galleria dell’Accademia. Just west of the Piazza della Annunziata, this is the student quarter of Florence, a young, hip place with great cafés and wine bars. The Academy Gallery has a good Renaissance-to-Modern collection, but the crowds linger around David, carved by Michelangelo from a single block of marble in 1504. Open Tues-Sun. Closed Monday. Via Ricasoli 58.

More Renaissance art is in the Galleria Palatina, inside the Pitti Palace. The Medici’s bought this palace years after a fellow (rival?) merchant built the relatively unadorned structure. Inside you’ll find works by Lippi, Raphael, Titian, Rubens and Perugino. Behind the palace are the Boboli Gardens, a great recreation park, on whose page within this site you’ll learn more about Pitti’s history and the galleries housed there. Open Tues-Sun. Closed Monday. Via Guicciardini, at Piazza Pitti (south of the Arno River).

florence italy_6Florence Restaurants
The traditional trattoria has become an endangered cuisine, increasingly displaced by “tourist chow” found throughout Florence. In my own way I’ll try to bring back this species of home-cooked-food restaurant by focusing on a few remaining examples:

A great bargain for simple Italian food is at Salumeria Vini Trattoria, a small place that is at once grocer’s shop, wine bar, and trattoria. You’ll find the menu a simple blend of risottos, Tuscan red-sauce pasta dishes, and some meat favorites. Kitchen is closed Sat & Sun. Via Ghibellina 27. Phone 055 679 390.

Da Ruggiero is a family-run restaurant that is off the tourist path (but you’d expect that of a dwindling species). It serves Tuscan specialties and a good selection of wines. Closed Tue & Wed. Via Senese 89. Phone 055 220 542.

Finally, for an Arno River dining experience, visit Ristorante San Jacopo. The interior is modern sophisticate, but the food is Tuscan traditional. If you’re lucky, you can get a table on the small terrace. Closed Tuesday. Borgo San Jacopo 62. Phone 055 281 661.

For a completely alternative eating experience, try one of Florence’s numerous wine bars. They look like wine shops—and they are—but along with samples-by-the-glass you can get a snack; or buy the bottle and get a full meal. I tried so many good ones that to highlight one bar would cheat the others (and besides, after hitting five in one day, I forgot to write down some of their names. Oops! Find your own favorite and let me know about it). Anyhow, all of these wine bars have huge selections of wine for purchase. Most wrap them well for easy travel.

Florence Transportation
Florence’s Central Station is happily close to its tourist center. You’re within a block of its narrow Old Town streets, so renting a car is needless; even if you plan on touring hill towns, the train system can get you there quicker and more cheaply. And short cab rides are preferable to hunting down parking lots.
Florence has no underground, but it does have a decent bus system. You might have to wait for your ride for a bit if you’re staying far from the city center, especially at night. However, in the mornings buses come frequently and get you near the city center more quickly than walking.