Day 1: We left Roma Termini station early by Trenitalia for Santa Maria Novella railway station in Florence. After leaving the platform, turn left and after exiting the station turn right to be st the taxi stand. We had fixed up hotel near the railway station ( Piazza Della Independenza) since we would again a take train to Venice after a few days. Also the Tuscany trip which we had booked starts from the station.A third reason for staying near the Santa Maria Novella railway station is that you can catch bus no. 12 or 13 ( and comes back)which goes to the hugely popular Pizzale Michelangelo.
It makes sense to head towards the focal point of Florence on the first day itself: Duomo or Cathedral of Santa Maria Del Force or Florence cathedral.For you will end up going there time and again as you go to other sights or for dining.
Since the entrance to the main sanctuary of the Duomo is free you might as well see inside but you may be slightly disappointed with what you see inside as the decorative is sparse.But since the entry is free do light a candle and put some Euro coins on one of the donation boxes.
And while you are near the Duomo you might as well admire the bronze- glazed door of baptistery of San Giovanni located in front of the entrance to the cathedral.
Explore the area around the Duomo and do some serious people gazing. You can choose to purchase painting from artists who sets up shop near the Duomo.
No vehicles are allowed in the area which is a blessing.Have a gelato in one of the lovely lanes near the Duomo.
Walk on to Piazza Della Signoria and admire the statues( including the David copy) and the crowd. Check out the leather items which Florence is famous for. Genuine Florence items will have an insignia debossed.
Day 2: Today we had a date with David at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze( the academy of Fine Arts). We had booked advance online ticket( @ 8 euros plus 4 euros of convenience fee) for entry to Michelangelo’s master sculptures at the Accademia gallery. The office to exchange your online ticket for a beautiful ticket is across the road from the gallery. We did not find long queues at around in the peak season of October as in the Vatican museum or the Colosseum.Our entry slot was 10-10.15 am but it looked like they do not bother about the ticket as they had done in the Vatican museum.Audio guides are available but we did not rent them as we had read somewhere that they are not worth it.
Although The Accademia Gallery is famed for a Michelangelo’s masterpiece “David” it houses other things of interest. First you will enter into a hall with paintings and an interesting sculpture( not by the master).
Take your time to admire David. There is even a seating space around the wall behind David. It will be difficult to get your perfect picture of the flawless sculpture with so many tourists hanging around.
The statue originally stood in the Piazza Della Signoria which we had visited on Day 2.After you had your heart’s fill the staggering statue carved from a single block of marble , do visit the room containing a collection of sculptures by Lorenzo Bartolini and Luigi Pampaloni.
Plan to spend at the most one and a half hour at the Accademia Gallery.
Next we went to the Santa Maria Novella station to check out the site to report for tomorrow’s Tuscany trip. While we were there we visited the Santa Maria Novella church.There is no clear sign to the entrance. The church is interesting but you would have seen more exquisite churches in Italy.Since the entrance is free do remember to light a candle and offer some donation at the boxes.
The exit is through a rather impressive passage as you can see below.
Next we wanted to visit Pizzale Michelangelo. Using Google map we found our way from near the Basilica through deserted and scenic lanes like the one below before crossing to the other side of the river Arno and the walk took us about 30 minutes.
You reach Oltrarno and you are in a different world than the hustle and bustle of the Dumo in the other side of the river. The lanes are deserted and lined with impressive shops where you will see very friendly artisans working.
We discovered it is a long way from Oltrarno to the Pizzale Michelangelo and since it was raining we called it a day.But my IPhone app showed that we had walked more than 15 kms during the day.ext day our guide for the Tuscany tour told us that locals hang around at Oltrarno and frequent its cafes in the evenings.
Day3: Today was an aberration in our DIY agenda in the sense that we opted for a conducted Tuscany tour. My decision was taken in view of the very high rating the tour has received from numerous users.And the opportunity to see do so much of Tuscany: “Siena , San Gimignano & Pisa with a winery lunch……All in One Day”, as the tour pamphlet says. We had booked the tour through aviator but it is actually a local outfit called ” Walkabout” who conducts the tour . And it probably makes sense to book directly at http://www.walkaboutflorence.com for a better deal.
The tour starts from the Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station at around 8.15 am. I would recommend you go early to get a front seat in the . And use the washroom before you board the bus as the bus doesn’t have one. You can purchase water at a slight premium onboard.
Your bus will cross the Arno river to get out of Florence. Enroute you can enjoy scenic countryside while your friendly guide will tell you that there is no love lost between the people of Siena and Florence. You can see the main entrance to Florence as you leave the city.
After about one and a half our you reach Siena and are joined by a local guide. You are given a headset so that hear the guide’s commentary. Siena is an iconic Medieval town of stone in Tuscany. They take you on walking tour past unmatched yellow shaded buildings and terracotta rooftops.If you are lucky , as we were, you will see a deep ccoliured Vespa scooter parked against the wall of a house and presenting a perfect photo opportunity ( unfortunately we missed that).
The first landmark on show is the square which houses the oldest bank in the world.
You are told that there are 27 districts in Siena each with unique insignia which you can see on some structures. And you can not change the district you are born into. You then walk to the Duomo located in the highest point of the city passing scenic sights as illustrated below.
The entry fee for the Duomo is 5 Euros which was part of the tour package.The highlight of the cathedral is the floor made of world’s most precious marble and which took 200 years to complete.Most of it remains covered most of the year to protect it except from 29 June to 31 July and again from 18 August to 26 October or a when the entire floor is exposed. The tour guide will tell you that the floor is entirely exposed only on the day of your visit but do not fall for it.We were lucky as we There on 14 October.
The interior of the Duomo is most impressive with works by Bernini and Michelangelo, as the following photographs will bear out.
Unfortunately we did not get enough time inside. The guide will tell you to purchase traditional Sienese sweets such as “ricciarelli” and ” panforte “but we did not fall for the tourist trap. Next we were at the Piazza Del Campo, where the 600 year old Palio horse race is held amongst the districts of Siena. The place is massive and impressive. You will do justice to the place by taking a 360 degree as I had recommended you do at St.Peter’s Square at Vatican.The Piazza is shaped like a sea shell probably so that rainwater does not stagnate. There are cafes around which you can rest and enjoy the ambience.
After leaving Siena and about one and a half hour bus ride we were treated to a wholesome Tuscan lunch at a chianti vineyard called Fattoris Poggio Alloro. There were four types of unlimited helping of wine( including one to go with dessert). The homemade pasta, local cheese, organic salad and biscotti were outstanding.The location was gorgeous with a distant view of the towers of San Gimignano.
After another one and a half hour of bus ride we were at the enchanting hilltop town of San Gimignano. Sometime back I had asked of a Canadian travel writer about his favourite place in Italy and without battling an eyelid he said: San Gimignano. Well, he was probably echoing the opinion of many.You can go around in foot in this town with cobble stone streets and small squares. It is also an ideal place to pickup a souvenir from one of the many local shops. We are the proud owner of a wooden Pinocchio bought from San Gimignano.
The tour guide will also tell you to visit Gelateria Dondoli in the Piazza Della Cisterna. The outlet had the distinction of winning the gelato world championship in 2006/2007 and 2007/2009. You will have to queue up to purchase gelato of your choice. And if you are lucky a chef will present you with a view card of the outlet, as we were.
While leaving The small village of San Gimignano, you rue the fact that a package tour does not do justice to such a picturesque place in Tuscany.
After two hours of bus ride through scenic and classic Tuscan countryside we reached our final destination: Pisa.After your bus is parked in the appointed place you are taken in an unique carriage to the ” Field of Miracles ” whose flagship monument is the ” leaning tower of Pisa”( Torre Tower).The other landmarks are the Duomo and the Baptistery . To get onto the leaning tower you have to buy tickets. People advise about purchasing tickets in advance. You are also allowed to be on the tower only for limited time. We did not go up as my wife has pain in her legs.
The other attractions in the Field of Miracles also attract admission fees except for the Duomo/Cathedral. However even for getting a free entrance to the Cattedrale( Cathedral) you need a ticket from the booking office . The Duomo is said to represent the best of Pusan Romanesque architecture from the eleventh century. It’s black and white interior is similar to the Siene’s Duomo. Although the Duomo of Pisa was built before Siena’s Duomo , the former was rebuilt after a fire at the end of 26th century.Since the entry to this quiet church is free do leave some donation and you may collect a view card in return.
The Battistero( baptistery) of Pisa is the largest of its kind in Italy. The guide had advised us to visit it and once inside to stand underneath the dome try out the unusual acoustics- there are demonstration every half an hour.
You can use the washroom near the Cathedral after paying an entrance fees higher than what is applicable at the other places in Italy. There are also cafes and souvenir shops around the Field of Miracles.
After the visit to the Field of Miracles we were taken around the historic heart of Pisa include the university where Galileo used to teach. The maze of piazzas and streets made it clear that Pisa needs an exclusive visit.
We reached Santa Maria Novella railway station around 8.30 pm. A tiring but fulfilling day . No wonder the tour is advertised as one with maximum number of Excellent rating on Trip Advisor.
Day 4: Our first destination on the penultimate day in Florence was to the Santa Croce area as the Tuscany tour guide had recommended it for purchasing leather shoes. However once at the square we were attracted to the “Opera di Santa Croce ” . A quick check on “Lonely Planet” put this as a must- see attraction in Florence.The entrance ticket cost 8 euros (the money collected is used for conservation purpose)and you can pay by credit card provided you have a PIN.
The other highlights of Santa Croce are frescoes by Gitto and Tadfeo Gaddi’s fresco of the Crucifixion .
There is also a leather museum known as “Scuola Del Cuoio ” unless you want to see expensive leather items while matronly salesgirls gives yo the onceover.No we could not see artisans at work. They once again inspect your ticket to try and make the visit to the leather school exclusive.
Yes the Santa Croce area does have nice boutique stores selling lovely items including leather shoes. Once you enter a shop the salesperson would invariably announce a hefty discount. We ended up not purchasing leather shoes.
Next up was the famous Uffizi gallery. It is 15 minute stroll from theDuomoand opens from 8.15am to 6.50pm. The gallery boasts of the greatest collection of Italian Renaissance art.Long queues confirmed that our decision to pre- book @ 12.50 Euros ( plus convenience fees of 4 Euros )was worth it. Of course like everywhere else you have to exchange your online receipt for a lovely ticket at the ticket redemption office across the square from the entrance.You can also pickup audio guides but we did not. Before going in do check out the painters at work in the area outside the gallery and you can get some excellent bargain.The timing indicated in our ticket was 2 to 2.15 pm but it looked like the timing was not sacrosanct.The entrances are on the left wing as you approach the square.
It may be a good idea to head to the top floor first ( located the lift and do not take the steep steps in the excitement as we did)as the works of all the masters like Giotto, Fabriano, Lippi, Botticelli , Michelangelo etc. are located there.You can do the other floors later when you are bored.It is not possible to see everything inside the gallery so check out only the things of interest. Another word of caution. The gallery is mostly under renovation. So from your online research if you expect that Leonardo’s work is located in a particular room and you do not find there be patient. It might have been moved and the friendly employees who speak will be happy to help. And like most of Italy, signs and directions are few and far between.
Research on the net helped me shortlist the following attraction in the gallery apart from the corridors and statues.
1. Piero Della Francesco: The profile picture of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino are very well known painting by the artist.
2. Sandro Botticelli: The large hall full of masterpieces by Botticelli on the top floor is one of the first things you will probably head into.
4.Filippo Lippi: Filippo was a monk and married a nun in a scandal.Do not fail to enjoy his “Madonna and Child with Two Angels” drawn in 1460-65. Botticelli was his pupil.
Search out for the artist’s self portrait in “Coronation of the Virgin”(picture below)
In the painting (Tempera on wood), Fillipo has portrayed himself as a monk with dark hair on the left, who mingles with saints and angels who watch the Virgin being crowned the Wueen of Heaven by God the father.This is one of the most important paintings of the early Renaissance.
5. Leonardo da Vinci: A room in the gallery displays the artist’s two early works: the Baptism of Christ(1470-75) the test results of which attribute da Vinci to parts of the landscape, Jesus and the angels.The painting was a tempera and oil on panel.
The other painting , an oil on panel,is Annunciation ( circa 1472). The elongated shape of the lectern and the Virgin’s hand probably means that the work is to be viewed from the lower right-hand corner.
6.La Tribuna: On the top floor you will find a long line of people before a room. That’s La Tribuna which can be viewed from three sides but most popular from the front.The octagonal- shaped treasure trove has most precious masterpieces created by Francesco. A small collection of paintings adorn the wall upholstered in silk and the room also has classical statues displayed.6000 mother-of -pearl shells painted with varnish encrust the domed ceiling.
7.Michelangelo: The master’s Doni Tondo, a depiction of the Holy Family is the highlight of the room no. 35. The composition has Joseph holding Jesus on his muscled mother’ s shoulder as she twists to gaze at him.
8 Andrea Del Sarto
Picture top: Madonna and Child flanked by SS Francis and John the Evangelist “Madonna of Harpies” 1517(oil on wood). Restored in 1984.
The artist lived from 1486 to 1530. The above painting is called “Madonna of Harpies” due to the monstrous creatures on the pedestal thought to be Harpies.
Raphael painted the Madonna of the Goldfinch ( photo below)during his four year sojourn in Florence .
10 Caravaggio: The painter’s works were deemed vulgar at the time for his direct interpretation of reality.
11.Titan( Tiziano Vecello)
12. International Gothic
13 Gentile da Fabriano
Gentile pursued his career in the first quarter of the 15th century .He developed extraordinary technical skills and his work showed a material opulence and realism which earned him praise from his wealthy patrons.
Next we walked from Uffizi gallery and crossed the Arno river towards Pizzale Michelangelo. The directions to the Piazza is rather confusing and it being a steep climb we took the bus no. 13 to reach Pizzale Michelangelo. The bus originates from Santa Maria Novella railway station and we caught the same bus on the way back from the Pizzale. The square is large and full of tourists waiting to view the sunset.
There are a few vendors who keep interesting souvenirs and sell them at a premium. I would suggest that instead of only spending time at the Pizzale you should wonder around and enjoy lovely views as the deserted road for example shown below.