Modern Nan goes Nonna: Florence

Modern Nan Goes Nonna

The first time I visited Florence, I knew there was something special about this place; there was something that made me feel connected to it.

And I was right.

Every day we were there I felt more at home, more connected to Florence’s life, Florence’s vibrant energy, and Florence’s history. It felt like an old friend that I was getting reacquainted with. Although it would be hard to choose one part of my trip over another as a favourite, this is where I felt happiest. In Florence, I felt at home.

Santa Maria Novella Florence

Santa Maria Novella, both church and train station

We left Paris in the morning and flew to Pisa, followed by a two hour bus ride to Florence. We climbed off the bus at the Santa Maria Novella station (named, I assume, for the church across the street), and followed the giant dome of Santa Maria Del Fiore, Florence terraceaka the Duomo, where we found our apartment in the shadow of the cathedral. The owner of the apartment showed us to our place, a beautiful studio with a terrace almost as big as the apartment itself.

The apartment was a beautiful stone room (which was very comfortable when it reached 30+ outside), with two twin beds pushed together, a stove just big enough for the kettle that took about a half hour to boil, and a mini-fridge with a horse head for the handle. It had a little picnic table on the inside, and a day bed for a couch. Mom thinks the building used to be a monastery, or something of the sortFlorence apartment.

The bustle of the city was right outside the doors to the terrace, and in the mornings we would throw open the solid wood shutters and doors to the sunshine and the din of the crowd. In the nights we would pull them closed and suddenly the world would fall silent. It was beautiful and perfect.

After the traveling that we had done that day, and the constant rush in Paris, we were glad to have an evening where we could just take a breather and relax. We picked up some groceries for the week, and poked around our street a little. We were surrounded by pizza joints and more gelato that I could ever eat – though that’s not to say I didn’t try.

That evening we picked up pizza at a little place called Black Bar. It was in the building next to ours, and they had all kinds of delicFlorence gelatoious looking pizza with ingredients you don’t see at home. Did you know Italians like putting fries on pizza? Well, they call it potato pizza. But they’re not fooling anyone. It’s fries. We ate our pizza at the apartment, then went back for gelato. That might be the best advice I can give you if you’re in Italy. Always go back for the gelato. It’s never not worth it.

Our first full day in Florence was unplanned and a bit lazy.We allowed ourselvesFlorence pizza to rest, and poked around nearby piazzas. We discovered just how many food options we had near our apartment (the answer is lots), and gained a sense of direction revisting places we had hurried past on our last visit.

We walked across Ponte Vecchio (which is pretty much entirely jewelry shops at this point) and admired it from afar after walking around to Ponte Alle Grazie. We discovered Piazza Della Repubblica, which somehow we’d completely missed the last time around. It has a carousel, and a three-piece band that seems to have its own spot there. We finished our night at the apartment with pizza, pasta, salad and a delicious cannoli.

Piazza Della Repubblica

The carousel in Piazza Dell Repubblica

The next day we left the center city, crossed the bridge, and made our way towards San Minato Al Monte. We passed Pitti Palace, a palace built by Florentine banker Luca Pitti, and bought by one of Florence’s most notorious families, the Medicis. The palace was longer than it was tall, but still loomed over the piazza with its cold exterior. We were going to check out the Buboli gardens, but we were working on a budget, and 10 euro didn’t quite feel worth it.

San Minato Al Monte

San Minato Al Monte

Florence from San Minato al Monte

The view of Florence from San Minato al Monte

We wandered through a non-touristy area of Florence for a while before catching the bus up the hill to San Minato. The view from the church was breathtaking. You could pretty much see the whole of Florence from there, including old city walls. The church itself was just as beautiful. I’ve heard it’s the oldest church in Florence, but I’ve read conflicting things on that, so let’s just say it’s really old and leave it at that. Construction on the current church began in 1063. It has an adjoining monastery, and the largest graveyard I have ever seen, called Cemetery of the Holy Doors. Mom and I spent nearly an hour wandering, and only saw a fraction of the tombs, monuments, and mausoleums that surrounded the church.

Eventually we headed back down the hill, and found a great, poorly lit, non-touristy restaurant where we ordered their set menu of bruschetta, gnocchi, and tiramisu. We hung out and watched football with the locals. I have no idea who played or who we were cheering for.

The front of the Duomo

The front of the Duomo

Florence Duomo side

Walking alongside the Duomo

The next day, we visited churches a little closer to home. Since the Duomo was right outside our door, we went there first. It really is a masterpiece. On the outside it is a gargantuan building, one of Italy’s biggest churches, and it looms over the whole of Old Florence. Brunelleschi’s dome, built in 1436 (140 years after construction on the church began), is still the largest brick dome ever built.

Florence Duomo Brunelleschi's dome

The cuppola inside the Duomo

Inside it is completely open – no pews. Standing room only in this church, I guess. It’s a beautiful place full of design, but inevitably your eye is drawn to the cuppola. The Grand Duke of the day, Cosimo De’ Medici (hey, those guys again!) decided that the cuppola should depict the last judgement. So as your eyes travel up the dome, they start in hell, with the capital sins, and make their way up through virtues, Mary and saints, Jesus Christ, and a choir of angels.

Once you’re done appreciating the cuppola, there is a lot more beautiful art to take in, such as the painting of Dante (who was banished from Florence in 1301) and his Divine Comedy, or my favourite, the clock depicting hora italica. The 24 hour clock has one hand, and hits the 24th hour mark at sunset. Less useful  these days, but an interesting piece of history.

Down a somewhat-discrete flight of stairs near the exit is a museum, Brunelleschi’s tomb, and (what else) a gift shop. You can buy tickets there to climb multiple hundreds of stairs and walk around the dome. We did not.

Santa Croce Florence

Santa Croce

Our next stop was the Santa Croce basilica, one of my favourite places because of all the history inside. But on the way, we were distracted by organ music. We found a little church, no elaborate decor or anything significant, subtly nestled between two other nondescript buildings. The little church, Chiesa Santa Maria De’ Ricci, apparently plays recorded organ music from morning until evening, pretty much every day. There were little altars inside, each dedicated to a different saint. And each one was littered with notes from people in all kinds of languages, with all kinds of prayers and requests. It may have been one of the most moving places I visited on my entire trip, and I’m so glad the organ music caught our attention.

Florence Santa Croce altar

Main altar in Santa Croce

Eventually we tore ourselves away to visit Santa Croce, where (almost) all the cool Italians are buried or memorialized. This includes NL celebrity Guglielmo Marconi, who is buried near Bologna (Newfie to the end) but has a plaque in Santa Croce. It also includes an empty tomb, just waiting for Dante. They exiled him back in the day. But it’s okay, because they gave him a tomb (ready for whenever Ravenna decides to give him back), and a statue. They feel bad about it, you see.

Santa Croce is the largest Franciscan church in the world, and rumor has it that it was founded by the St. Francis. I can’t confirm that for you though, so don’t go tellin’ mudder I told ya. The last time I was here, the altar was under restoration, but I was too fascinated by all the big name tombs and monuments to care. This time around, it was open for all to see, and my heart broke for the rest of my family who missed it last time because my God is it ever a thing of beauty. Everything is bright and colourful from floor to ceiling, every bit vibrant and full of splendor, so bright that light seems to emit from the walls themselves. (It doesn’t actually, but it kinda feels that way when you’re there.)

The rest of the day was a downpour, so we took refuge in the apartment, leaving only for pasta and gelato. According to my journal, it was this day that I realized I belong here – at least until the summer heat sets in. I’m not much for stifling heat.

Florence Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio at night

The next morning we picked up Uffizi tickets for the following day at the Orsanmichele church. The rest of the day was dedicated to souvenir shopping, finding streets we hadn’t seen before, and making ourselves a huge and delicious supper. Then we walked some more in the night, enjoying the vibrancy of the city, and the lights on the Arno. Mom tried to convince me that opening a fries, dressing, and gravy joint in Florence is a genius idea. I think she just wants an excuse to visit.

Our visit to the Uffizi was much more comfortable than the Louvre. It’s easier to see most, or even all of the works housed there if you give yourself the right amount of time. I saw so many amazing things, one of the biggest being Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. The painting is beautiful, but I’m gonna go out on a limb here, and say that Botticelli painted funny looking toes. Just take a second and google the picture. Look at the toes. Just look at ’em! I’ll wait.

See? They’re weird, right? I knew it wasn’t just me.

One thing I love about art museums is the mIMG_1817arble statues. It absolutely fascinates me that someone could  take a block of marble and carve something so gentle, so fleshy, so human that if you reached out to take their hand, you could almost believe that they’d squeeze yours back. (With this being said, I will admit that I didn’t make it to the Academia to see Michelangelo’s David. Partially because we were working in the confines of Mom’s chronic fatigue and partially because some part of me always wants a reason to come back.)

After spending much of our day in the Uffizi, we ate a good meal and spent another evening wandering the increasingly familiar streets. It was getting harder to accept that our time in Florence was almost done.

Santa Maria Novella

Santa Maria Novella

On our last day, I visited one more church: Santa Maria Novella. In a chapel at the front of this church, there’s a fresco with a young girl who inspired one of my favourite novels, The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant. I’m pretty sure I found her, although there are a lot of people on those walls. Other than that, we just did what we did best – explore. We found a street that was completely lined with vendors. Mom added to her jewelry collection, and I added to my Venetian mask collection. (Only small ones this time.) We enjoyed music in the Piazza Della Repubblica, watched the lights reflect on the Arno, and had a late supper in the Piazza Della Signoria.

Then, with mingled heartbreak and excitement, we packed our bags. We were ready for our morning train to Rome.

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