Home of the Renaissance Men

Trip Start Apr 03, 2007
Trip End Jun 16, 2007

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Today I visited the city that gave birth to the Renaissance: Florence.  Actually, it was the 3rd time this trip that I've been there (first time was just in the train station on the way between Venice and Cinque Terre, second time I walked around the vicinity of the train and bus stations on my way to San Gimignano.  Florence is a very touristy place, but with good reason: the palace and museum I went to are some of the best in the world.
At breakfast this morning, I met a young couple that stayed in another room here at the B&B.  They were from Hawaii, and were doing the south-to-north route through Italy (seems to be the more popular direction, I seem to be one of the few north-to-south-ers).  I told them a bit about Venice.  They checked out to head there today.
Strangely enough, the place where I bought my bus ticket yesterday was closed today, with no sign explaining why that I could see.  I wandered around searching for the Tourist Information place (the sign pointed right, but it was actually to the left), and finally found it just in time to buy my ticket to Florence and make it back to the bus stop.  The weekday busses are so much better than the weekend ones, since they run later and there's several more per day, and much less crowded.
While waiting in Poggibonsi for the connecting bus to Florence, I met a couple from the UK.  He was big time into soccer, and was telling me all about the Liverpool vs. Milan match that's going to be in Athens next week (Wed, I think).  "It's going to be the biggest thing ever!" he said.  "Tickets are going for 1700 Euros a piece".  He's got a flight booked to be there, but couldn't get a return flight.  No matter, being there is the important thing, getting back is secondary.  Soccer is, I think, in some ways the new religion of Europe.
After arriving in Venice around 10:00 AM, I wandered around the train station for probably close to an hour searching for the "D" elettrico bus.  Turns out I went every single place around the station except where the bus stops, before I finally realized where the stop is.  The elettrico busses are short, squatty busses, and easy to spot once you know what to look for.  The good news was, they run quite often (about every 10 minutes or so), so I didn't have to wait long once I finally found the stop.  In retrospect, I could have just walked and gotten there even sooner (the major sites are fairly compact, and the train station is centrally located as well), but I wasn't sure of the distance and didn't want to have a long, hot, walk like I did in Pisa.
The "D" elettrico goes right to the Ponte Vecchio, the famous bridge with the shops on both sides.  Before crossing the bridge, however, I headed for the Pitti Palace, which is a few blocks south of the bridge.  This was one of the palaces of the Medicis, and I'm telling you, it's one impressive place.  I'm not sure why, but it must have been free today since I didn't have to pay to get in (just go through metal detector and bag x-ray).  While not as large as Versailles, in my opinion it is every bit as impressive (even more so in the interiors), and the best part was it has 1/10th the crowds (per area).  Inside, room after room of incredibly ornate rooms full of paintings, fancy furniture, chandeliers, and large colorful frescoes on most of the ceilings.  And the artwork was like night-and-day from the somber religious themes of the Accademia in Venice or the Duomo Museum in Siena.  Here the artwork is almost entirely Renaissance, with uplifting and invigorating themes.  What a difference it makes in the entire mood of the place.  The "Modern Art" gallery included mostly paintings from the 1800's (I was expecting something like the Tate Modern, but luckily they have a different definition of "Modern" here).  They also had some really cool costumes, especially the ones from China.  Outside, behind the palace, are the Boboli Gardens (I wonder if Boboli Pizza...), which were beautiful with multiple levels, fountains, pools, and sculptured shrubbery.  Way up at the top of the hill was a great little garden full of pink flowers and great views of the surrounding countryside.  There was a porcelain museum up there as well, with lots of different colors and styles.  Overall, I was at least as impressed with the Pitti Palace as with Versailles.  Sure, it doesn't have the Hall of Mirrors, the Chapel, or the Opera House, but it does have amazing artwork, interior decorations, gardens, and way less crowds.
Next, I headed back towards the Ponte Vecchio to head towards the Uffizi Gallery.  Approaching the Ponte Vecchio from the south, you don't even realize you're on a bridge until you're halfway across and it opens up and you're looking out at the Arno River.  It's really just like the street continues onward, since there's shops on both sides of the road.  It was crowded, and the stuff for sale was standard touristy stuff.  The bridge does look neat from the outside, though, with its tacked on buildings hanging off the side.
Now I'd heard some dire warnings about huge waits at the Uffizi Gallery.  After all, it's packed full of masterpieces in a city that generated the spark that started the artistic revolution of the Renaissance.  Some people had heard of 2 or even 3 hour waits just to get in.  Well, it was a fairly long wait, but it wasn't that bad - right around 1 hour.  It was certainly worth the wait, though.  Room after room of masterpieces.  In one room alone are two of Botticelli's most famous: Birth of Venus, and Allegory of Spring.  Also in the Uffizi are Michelangelo's only surviving easel painting and Titian's Venus of Urbino.  There were just so many works that you just can't take your eyes off, they're that beautiful or fascinating.
Having spent the better part of the afternoon at the Uffizi, I headed back towards the train station.  On the way, I passed by the Duomo.  As usual, it's very large and very ornate on the outside.  I didn't go in this one because it's not supposed to be so impressive inside, and after Siena's it would probably be a let down.  I wandered up past the Medici Chapels and back through the gauntlet of market stalls.  Every single cheesy souvenir or gift you can think of was for sale there: Italy and Florence T-shirts, all kinds of leather items, ties, miniature "David" statues, etc, etc.
I made it back to the bus station on time, but for some unknown reason I looked at the Sunday schedule and thought the bus left at 6:40 PM, when it actually leaves at 6:20 PM on weekdays.  I did realize my mistake, but not until after the 6:20 PM bus had already left.  The next (and last of the day) bus didn't leave until 7:50 PM, so rather than hang around the bus station another hour, I just got on another bus to Poggibonsi.  I'm actually glad I did, because instead of going the direct route on the freeway, it went much of the route on the back roads, so I got to see a lot more of the area.  It's really a neat area with vineyards and large red-tile roofed houses on the hilltops.  In Poggibonsi, I still had to wait an hour for the connecting bus back to San Gimignano.  There were a couple girls backpacking there that came in by train but didn't realize that they don't sell tickets on the bus.  But since it was the last bus, the bus driver let them get on anyway.  The girls were getting worried that they might end up stranded there for the night (not the greatest place to be stranded either), so it's a good thing they made it on the bus.  Getting back into San G around 9:30 PM, the place was practically deserted since all the tourists headed back to Florence or Siena for the night.  After facing the crowds in Florence today, I'll be happy to head for the much quiter Volterra tomorrow (another hill town that's supposed to be even less touristy than San G).  As far as Florence, there's still a few things I want to see there (the Accademia, Medici Chapels, and Santa Croce), so I'll try to hit those on my way to Rome on Thursday.  I certainly liked what I saw so far.
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