After my stay in Venice I jumped on a high speed train — the trains in Venice leave directly from the main islands via a bridge — over to Florence. Or as the Italians call the city, Firenze.
I stayed at Hotel Axial, a relatively no-frills hotel that occupies a single floor of a building (this is far more common in Europe than in the US.) Everyone who I interacted there was completely fluent in English. Finding the place proved to be challenging because my phone couldn’t get a signal, so I had to ask around to find it. As luck would have it there was an Apple Store nearby. After checking in at the hotel I walked over to the Apple Store with my iPhone to find out what was up.
The guy booking appointments for the Genius Bar told me suggested to first ask my carrier for help as the problem was likely on their end. Sure enough, after contacting a T-Mobile support person via their web chat my phone had a signal once more. Phew! I have to hand it to them, Apple Stores have consistently good customer service; even in the Mediterranean where “customer service” isn’t exactly part of the culture. Fortunately I never had another issue with T-Mobile’s (free!) roaming anywhere else on this trip.
The hotel was steps away from the Florence Cathedral, better known as the Duomo. It’s a massive building, one of the largest churches in Italy.
On the one hand staying near the Duomo was great due to the central location. On the other… oh man was it crowded outside! I wish I’d looked at the map more closely before booking that hotel because as I mentioned back in the Barcelona post, “Hard Rock Cafe, Stay Far Away.” This hotel was right around the corner from a Hard Rock Cafe, and that chain tends to rent locations as close to tourist traps as possible — lesson learned.
Originally I’d booked a food tour for my first night in Florence but that was cancelled at the last minute and I was offered a different tour. More on that in a second. While the food in Florence (and Venice, for that matter) generally wasn’t anything to write home about, I was surprised by the quality of the espresso in Florence. One place I went even served a small cup of sparkling water with their espresso. Sound familiar? It should if you’ve ever ordered espresso at Blue Bottle.
Instead of the food tour I opted to take a guided tour of Michelangelo’s David. Originally the statue was going to be one in a series of similar statues lining the buttresses of the Duomo, but that never worked out. Today the statue is located in the Galleria dell’Accademia, a tiny but crowded museum primarily devoted to David and a handful of Michelangelo’s unfinished works.
Carved out of a single piece of marble, it’s hard to describe the scale of the sculpture to anyone who hasn’t seen it in person. I don’t think I would have appreciated Michelangelo’s works at all based on what I saw in the Vatican (my stay in Rome will be in another post) if it weren’t for this epic statue.
Florence is home to one of the oddest structures I’ve ever seen. From the Palazzo Vecchio government building with its tall clock tower is a long indoor hallway that goes across the Ponte Vecchio bridge to a palace on the other side of Tuscany’s Arno river.
Although this corridor was closed while I was in Florence, it was once used by the powerful banking and political Medici family to commute between the seat of government and their own palace. Now it’s being renovated into a walkway between two museums of Renaissance art. This makes sense today because if Florence is known for anything, it’s Renaissance art.
That said, the reputation for art doesn’t stop at the end of the Renaissance. These days Florence has an active street art scene, most of which involves wheatpaste. The second photo here is also an interesting example of something I’ll get back to in a moment.
But first, someone clearly spent a lot of time playfully messing around with Florence’s “Do Not Enter” signs. This might be the most common form of street art in Florence, which is impressive considering the overall abundance of street art in general.
On my final day in Florence I’d thought about visiting the Duomo, but it was closed. Why? Well that turned out to be related to a number of parades around town, which looked like a Renaissance fair gone overboard. Turns out it was one of the local patron saints days for the city which meant there were celebrations all over town. There were also fireworks over the Arno river, though I unfortunately didn’t get a good look at the fireworks due to the massive crowds along the river.
As for that tiny door from earlier — the one with the wheatpaste over it — it was far from the only such door. Back in the day buildings with a wine cellar tended to have a small door on the side. If you wanted some wine you’d knock on the door, hand over some cash, and you’d get a cup of wine. This was basically a precursor to a modern wine bar. Who knew?
Here’s a more obvious example of a wine door:
I went on the following tours in Florence:
- The David Tour from Artviva. A British art historian walked my group to the statue of David, explaining the life of Michelangelo and the history of the statue along the way. The tour price includes museum admission. If you’re interested you should book online in advance.
- Artviva’s Original Florence Walk. This covers a lot of the history of Florence near the city’s center. There’s a lot covered regarding the local religious and political families, as well as some of the historic architecture. Both this and the David tour start at Artviva’s office, which is located a couple blocks from the Duomo. Their office can be a little challenging to find at first since it’s upstairs in a large building with multiple entrances. Again, book in advance when possible.
- The Florence Free Tour is a big free walking tour that cannot be booked in advance — just show up and bring some cash to tip your guide at the end. There’s some overlap between this free tour and Artviva’s paid “Original Florence Walk,” but this one is (surprisingly) longer and goes into more depth about the Medici family. That said, my guide wasn’t as fluent in English as I would have liked but I still got the gist of the tour. I should mention that both tours take you inside different historical buildings, and the Free Tour takes you to the other side of the Ponte Vecchio bridge whereas the Artviva tour does not.
The rest of my photos from Florence can be found in this Flickr album.