To our eyes, the great tourist city of Florence isn’t beautiful or charming like Venice, or awe-inspiring like Rome. But it has a truly singular cathedral, some imposing buildings that take you straight back to the late Middle Ages, and a lot of fabulous art.
We saw all of that during our four days in Florence—plus a ton of rain. We came to Florence to escape the rain that had plagued us at Lake Como, where we’d spent a few days with Chris’s parents, who were taking a Smithsonian tour of Italy. You won’t find any pictures of Como in our gallery because everything was gray and cloudy. But the long lake—lined with green hills, picturesque towns, and fancy 19th century villas—was still pretty enough to enjoy by ferry, even if the tops of the mountains were always hidden by clouds and we got a bit damp.
The rain followed us south to Florence (meaning, among other things, that we have very few pictures). But there it worked in our favor. Remembering our three-hour wait over two days to get into the Vatican Museums in Rome, we thought our best chance of beating the notoriously long lines at the Uffizi (Florence’s version of the Louvre) was to get there early. So we woke up at 6:30—the crack of dawn for us—and made it to the gallery by 7:20, an hour and 10 minutes before opening time. It was pouring, as usual, but since we were waiting in a covered loggia, we didn’t mind. However, the rain apparently discouraged the rest of the tourists, because when we arrived, there were only two other people in line! Thus, we were numbers 3 and 4 into the museum, so we were able to spend many art-filled hours there and still be back at our hostel in time for an afternoon nap.
We made all sorts of discoveries at the Uffizi: for instance, we found we both like Botticelli much more than we’d thought, and we decided that Lorenzo “the Magnificent” di Medici was probably given his nickname sarcastically, because in his portraits he always looked like he thought he was pretty swell. We also saw the triptych that Medici banker Tomaso Portinari commissioned in Bruges, with himself and his family painted in adoring the Madonna and child. (That last sentence is for fans of Dorothy Dunnett’s Niccolo books.)
Besides the Uffizi Gallery, we visited the Bargello Museum (Renaissance sculpture and various other neat things, such as Islamic art and carved ivory knick-knacks in a fortress-like building) and the Museum of the Duomo (a modern and very well done museum that displays the originals of nearly all of the carvings that decorate the cathedral, bell tower, and baptistery).
The cathedral buildings were the biggest surprise of Florence for Chris. She’d seen pictures of the famous egg-shaped terracotta dome on the Florence cathedral (an engineering marvel in its day), but she’d never seen pictures of the rest. So that first evening when we rounded a corner and the cathedral came into view, its riotously carved walls of green, pink, and white stone came as a complete surprise. We’ve seen a lot of churches in Italy, but nothing like this one.
Another wonderful thing about Florence is the presence of “ethnic” restaurants. Italy generally has terrific food (especially compared with what we ate in Spain), but even Italian cuisine gets a little repetitive after a while. In Florence we had our first tastes of Mexican and Japanese food in more than four months. The Japanese (Aji Tei on Viale Spartaco Lavagnini near Fortezza Da Basso) was fine, though pricey. The Mexican (Tijuana on Via Ghibellina near the Bargello) was a little odder, since the cooks had to substitute Asian peppers for Latin American ones, parsley for cilantro, and Italian cheeses for Mexican varieties. But it was still fun to get something like a little taste of home.
And just in case you’re wondering, no, we didn’t see Michelangelo’s David statue, which seemed to be the main thing (other than bars) that all of the college students at our hostel had come to Florence for. Damned if we were going to wait hours in line for one famous sculpture, when there’s a copy of it in a public plaza. We saw three other original Michelangelo statues in Florence, plus some other notable sculptures. Also churches full of fabulous frescoes, and one of the best collections of Renaissance paintings on the planet. So that seemed like more than enough for one visit.