Italy – Florence

We arrived in Florence (Santa Maria Novella train station) on an afternoon train from Pisa. Our lodging for two nights was the centrally located Wow Florence Hostel (good value at 52 Euros a night, with a private room/bathroom and kitchen facilities). Dreading the thought of lugging our gear through the city for the 20 minute walk to the hostel, Robby figured out how to catch the bus, so we queued up for bus tickets (1.50 Euro each). From Firenze SMN, we caught ATAF bus number 17 (direction Viale Verga, stop Venezia), and were at the hostel in no time. The reception was located on the 4th floor but thankfully there was an elevator. The friendly receptionist checked us in, gave us the wifi code and a map of the city. The entire hostel is decorated in bright cheery colors with a superhero theme, and our room was Spiderman. Since we still had an hour before sunset, we decided to hustle over to the Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square), which was a 10 minute walk from the hostel. We could see Brunelleschi’s Dome from far away, and our excitement grew as we got closer and closer.

The Piazza del Duomo is located smack dab in the middle of Florence’s historical district, and its one of Europe’s most popular sights. Indeed, even in the off season close to dusk, the square was filled with thousands of visitors milling about. We had heard about purchasing a single ticket (10 Euros), granting access to Brunelleschi’s Dome, Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Baptistry of San Giovanni, and the Crypt of Santa Reparata. This seemed like a great deal, especially since we were keen on climbing both Giotto’s Bell Tower and Brunelleschi’s Dome. We bought our tickets at the ticket counter in Giotto’s Bell Tower so we’d be ready to roll first thing tomorrow morning. In the twilight, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore looked stunning. What a beautiful square in a gorgeous city! After reluctantly tearing ourselves away, we found a nearby Carrefour supermarket where we stocked up on supplies for dinner, breakfast and lunch. Back at the hostel, we were surprised to find that we were the only ones in the kitchen. At least until a crazy lady appeared muttering to herself and dipping her fingers into everyone’s refrigerator food. Ahhh, such is hostel life!

28 Oct: Rain was pouring down this morning…the heaviest rain of the trip so far! It was raining so hard that we could see it splattering back up as it hit the ground. Definitely put a damper (pun intended) on our sightseeing plans this morning. So we had a nice lay in, vowing to hit the road the minute the rain relented. As the hours dragged on, we were a bit worried that Florence would be a bust. Either that or we’d have to suck it up and get completely soaked as we wandered about the city. Luckily, at around noon, the rain finally eased up a bit, enough for us to don our rain gear and face the elements. We made a beeline for Giotto’s Bell Tower (414 steps with lots of platforms for a rest). The views overlooking Florence were magnificent, even in the rain! We were absolutely mesmerized and took our time looking at the city from the 360 degree platform. Highlights included seeing a bird’s eye view of the Baptistry, the skyline of Florence with its many, many towers, and Brunelleschi’s Dome (there were dozens of people crowded at the top of the Cupola and since it was our next destination, we readied ourselves for the hike down the bell tower and back up 463 steps to reach the cupola). Entrance to Brunelleschi’s Dome is via the Porta della Mandorla (north side of the cathedral). Apparently, when the egg shaped Dome was commissioned in 1418, it was the largest dome in the world. Not only that but it was built entirely without any scaffolding! We made great progress on the lower part of the stairs, and were at the base of the interior dome in no time. There, we paused to admire Giorgio Vasari’s frescoes of the Last Judgment (painted over a seven year period from 1572-1579) up close. Once we passed the base of the dome, climbing the last set of stairs to the cupola was a lot slower and more arduous than the bell tower because the staircase is narrower (allowing only one group to climb up or down at a time). Patience is key because no amount of pushing or shoving will get you to the top of the cupola any faster. The climb was a bit claustrophobic at times, because you have to contort your body to allow descending visitors to make their way down the stairs while perched on a little itty bitty space of your own. Needless to say, we were very happy to reach the top where we had space to stretch out our legs and soak up the marvelous view. If the Bell Tower and Cupola were this crowded on an off season rainy day, we couldn’t even imagine what it would be like in peak season!

After climbing back down, we had lunch on a bench outside the Duomo and then headed over to Piazza della Signoria (located midway between Piazza del Duomo and Ponte Vecchio). Highlights of this piazza were the statues in the open air gallery of the Loggia dei Lanzi, the Fountain of Neptune, and the town hall (Palazzo Vecchio). We spent some time here admiring the square before continuing on towards Ponte Vecchio (“Old Bridge”). The Ponte Vecchio was a medieval stone bridge that used to have butcher shops built along it, but today jewelry shops line both sides of the bridge. From here, we strolled over to the Pitti Palace, a Renaissance Palace built in the 15th century. Afterwards, we lucked out seeing a large group of beautiful models wearing wedding dresses for a photo shoot on the Saint Trinity Bridge. We then headed back towards the Piazza del Duomo by cutting through Piazza Santa Trinita and Piazza della Repubblica (upmarket cafes and a merry go round). Our next visit was to the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (free) and the Crypt of Santa Reparata (ticket required, built under the cathedral). Finally, to round out our very busy day, we stopped by the Baptistry of San Giovanni (Saint John) which is one of Florence’s most important monuments. This octagonal baptistry is one of the oldest buildings in the city, famous for its bronze doors and magnificent mosaic dome.

We were tuckered out after a very busy afternoon in Florence. Dinner was a repeat of last night: shopping for ingredients at Carrefour, hastily preparing a hot meal in the kitchen (getting weirded out by psycho lady again but this time we had safety in numbers with the rest of the kitchen guests staring incredulously at her increasingly bizarre behavior), followed by a hot shower and research on our next destination (Bologna). Overall, awesome day in Florence! Definitely one of Italy’s most memorable towns.

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