As I got on the water taxi at Venice Airport to make our way into Central Venice, I smiled, looked around and thought “oh, how I have missed Italy and Venice!’ It must be twenty years at least since I was last in Venice, and….I really had missed it! I know… they say it is full of tourists, but trust me….it is still just fabulous and well worth a few days! The pace of life just seems to be slower – maybe because you have to wait and catch water taxis around in the central area, or walk. (Hint….get a good map as it is easy to get ‘geographically misplaced’!). We arrived at the Rialto bridge stop after a very pleasant journey on the water and were met by our friends who where waiting there for us. Thank goodness they were as we did need some assistance with the luggage to negotiate up the steps and down the steps, and up the steps and down the steps, and up the….you get the idea! Hint…. ensure you do not have too much luggage with you if you have to walk any distance. On making it to our apartment, the next ‘challenge’ was to get the bags up the stairs. I have never seen such steep stairs in my life! But, we managed it. We were in a great location though and on going out to explore later on, it was all worth it. What’s a little jetlag when there is so much to see, taste, explore and experience. The next day we were heading to Florence just after midday. So of course we had to go out and have the obligatory ‘cappuccino’ and pastry for breakfast before a little more exploring, negotiating the luggage back down the steep stairs, onto the water taxi again and off to the station. We decided to get there nice and early so we could find our way to the correct platform with plenty of time, get ourselves ensconced in our first class carriage and relax.! Well, that was the plan! What we hadn’t realised is that they had changed the platform for our train from the one on the screen and while we are happily sitting on platform 3 awaiting our train, it was loading on platform 5! So, with five minutes to go when they announced the new platform, there was a mad dash, suitcases were hurled onboard, (with one landing on my big toe!) and we managed to scramble on board just as the whistle blew for the train to pull out! Apparently this ‘platform change’ is quite common…..so watch out if you are catching a train in Italy! But the 2 hour journey was pleasant once we got ourselves organised, bags stashed and Quattro biere ordered. (Purely for medicinal purposes of course!) Hint….buy your rail ticket before you leave, otherwise the queues are very long and take ages, and pay the little extra and go First Class!
Florence ……..for me, Si….Firenze è la città più bella d’Italia…….Florence is the most beautiful city in Italy, in fact I think one of the most beautiful cities in the WORLD really. It is five years since I was last in Florence and I just love it. Again we had an apartment for the 10 days we were there. But what is it with these European apartments…..they all seems to be up flights of steep stairs with no lifts! Yes, they are authentic old buildings! Once settled in, we again explored our area and found the local restaurants, deli, superette, greengrocers, bars and the local Gelato shop and many local shops we didn’t even know we would need. I love apartments as it gives you such flexibility. You can do your washing, cook if you wish, have snacks if you don’t want to cook, all very relaxing I find. Hint…get an apartment central if you are walking around. We were within approximately 20 minutes walk to the train station so we decided that we would do several ‘day trips’ out of Florence during our time there.
But what of gorgeous Florence. Where to start? In 1982, the historic centre of Florence was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The centre of the city is contained in medieval walls and the heart of the city, to me is the Piazza della Signoria. The first day that is where we went and spent considerable time admiring and photographing the great statues that are there. My favourites – The Fountain of Neptune, the Rape of the Sabine Women, a copy of the statue of Michelanglo’s David, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, and Hercules and Cacus. In this piazza you will also see Florence’s town hall, the medieval Palazzo Vecchio.
From there we went onto the Ponte Vecchio, (old bridge). It was Florence’s first bridge across the Arno River and is the only surviving bridge from Florence’s medieval days (others were destroyed in World War II). The Ponte Vecchio is still lined with shops selling gold and silver jewelry, (great window shopping) and from the bridge, you’ll have a great view along the Arno River and beyond.
We do have a friend however from our ‘old days’ who has a gold and silver shop so off we went to pay a visit (not Euro’s!). How lovely to see Walter and Christine….and they recognised me straight away! Can’t have changed/aged that much!
After a chat and a coffee, we went to visit Florence’s most popular site the Duomo (cathedral), the Cattedrale de Santa Maria del Fiore. This huge Gothic duomo holds 20,000 people. Its exterior, made of green, pink, and white marble, has several elaborate doors and interesting statues. Inside, the Dome is a masterpiece of construction. If you feel fit enough you can buy a ticket to climb the 463 steps to its top. We didn’t bother! Opposite the front door of the Duomo is the Baptistery of John the Baptist one of Florence’s oldest buildings. Its exterior is made of green and white marble and has three sets of amazing bronze doors (reproductions – the originals are in the Duomo Museum, also worth a visit). The Campanile, bell tower, gives great views of the Cathedral, its dome and the city of Florence and surroundings. However…you do have to buy a ticket and climb the 414 stairs (no lift) to see it! We thought about it, and then decided to go for lunch!!
I can’t tell you everything that we did in Florence as that really would just take too long. But here are some other highlights for us:
Shopping – Florence is famous for its leather. Have a browse through the shops and don’t pay the first price. Also, if you are buying a leather coat/jacket, ensure you get the VAT forms to claim that back on your departure from Italy. Handbags, belts, wallets, all manner of leather goods are good value here. There are a number of open air markets, and they all have good quality goods and are fun to go through. Lots of bargaining and yes, we did shop! I love also visiting the Food markets. Mercato Centrale is a great place for food shopping or just browsing and seeing what is for sale. I can spend ages in these markets and you get a feel for the real Florence. If in an apartment, it is a great place to get in some supplies.
Santa Croce, in Piazza Santa Croce – It is the largest Franciscan church in Italy and holds the tombs of several important Florentines including Michelangelo and Dante. The vast interior contains some exceptional stained glass windows and frescoes. The square is a great place to just sit and soak up the atmosphere and ‘people watch’. You will find there is a lot of the street art for sale here also.
Piazza Michelangelo – This is an area at the top of the hill just a little out of town. It is quite a walk up to the top but well worth the effort as you the get the most amazing views of Florence and some fantastic photo opportunities from up there.
Some of the things we didn’t see….because we had not brought the tickets in advance and kiwi’s are notoriously bad ‘queuers’! Next time I shall pre purchase the tickets and go and visit these places again.
The Galleria degli Uffizi which holds the world’s most important collection of Renaissance art, but it is also one of Italy’s most crowded museum. So…. buy tickets ahead to avoid long ticket lines. Artists whose works you’ll see include Michelangelo, Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Perugino, and Raphael.
Pitti Palace – This is a vast mainly Renaissance palace which used to be the main seat of the Medici grand Dukes of Tuscany. It is situated on the south side of the River Arno, a short distance from the Ponte Vecchio. Just behind the Palace is the BoboliGardens. They are some of the first and most familiar formal 16th-century Italian gardens. (If you have not heard of the Medici family before, you surely will have by the time you leave Florence!).
We often went out for dinners in the evening and would pick a different restaurant each time. Get off the beaten track and go to some of the more ‘back streets’. You can eat fairly cheaply in Florence…just check out the menu before you to in as most will have it at the door. Sometimes the translations are hilarious. (Little piggie in the wood…we think that was wild pork….but it was delicious!). The house wine is usually pretty good too!
After a couple of days in Florence, our first Day trip was to Siena. Approximately one and a half hours on the train, you can just go and buy your train ticket at the station and away you go. BUT….here is the thing to be aware of! Make sure that you VALIDATE your ticket on the validating machines at the station that you are leaving from. If you do not, and a train inspector comes along and checks your ticket during your journey, you can get up to a 40 Euro fine! Yeeks! We did see some English people get caught and they did fine them, but luckily only 5 Euro’s each. But do be careful.
It is not a long walk from the Siena station to get into town and the next inside tip is, go into the shopping mall just across from the train station and catch the escalators right up to the top of the hill. Beats walking! Sienna is a beautiful old city and it is here of course that the famous traditional medieval horse race, the Palio is held and is run around the Piazza del Campo twice each year, on 2 July and 16 August. The main Piazza (the Piazza Del Campo) is the historic centre of Siena and has been declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site. Make sure also that you go and visit the Cathedral (Duomo). Fabulous. Have a stroll around and explore this wonderful city and find a little back street for a nice lunch.
Our second day trip was to Lucca, Again, easy to get to (approximately 1.45 hrs by train) and the train actually goes through Pisa on the way there. So, if you wanted to, you could do both places in a day. Hint….remember siesta time when many shops are shut and plan accordingly. On getting to Lucca, you can actually cross from the train station to the old intact Renaissance city walls and walk around these on your way into the center of town. Wander around the lovely cobbled streets, visit the Piazza’s and churches, and make sure you have a Gelato while you are there. It is all very peaceful here in Lucca and really takes you back to the Renaissance times.
Our third day trip was a bus trip, to San Gimignano. This is fabulous place, San Gimignano which is on the top of a hill right bang in the middle of the Tuscan countryside. Maybe a bit more of a hassle to get to, but believe me….well worth it! My sisters favourite place on her Italian trip! but you have to either do a tour or catch the bus to get there. We caught the bus! The buses leave from the SITA terminal in Florence,which is located near the Santa Maria Novella train station. You will have to change buses at Poggibonsi and it really is a ‘Day trip’ because of the change of buses. (Takes about 2-2.5 hours on the bus). You don’t need reservations, just buy the ticket the day of the trip. You can walk over to the bus station and check the schedule the day before, but try and leave early in the morning. Hint….when you get there, check out the bus return times. Again there are fabulous old city walls, towers, archways, eight gates leading into the town, and the center is also a UNESCO world Heritage site. But the views from this town on top of the hill are just amazing! You get to see all of the gorgeous Tuscan countryside…photos really don’t do it justice. And…it is well known for its fabulous white wine! Had to check it out of course over a pizza lunch! J
I could ramble on about Italy and Florence for ages, but my best advise is to just take some time and Walk around! Some days we would not need to go anywhere in particular, so we would just ….walk around and go wherever we fancied. Stop, have a coffee, have lunch and a glass of wine and just browse through the streets. One day we were over by the PittiPalace and the Boboli gardens and I decided to go for a stroll. I found a little Piazza with a market in it. After browsing, I just sat on the Church steps and relaxed and enjoyed what was going on around me. How great that was!
Take plenty of time so you are not rushing and can enjoy things. Look at things such as the way the Italians park! Anywhere, anyhow and we would have a fit if it happened in NZ. I also just love the Italian language and the people. Do a little homework before you go and know at least a few words in Italian. It is part of the fun. Go to the local markets and shops. Talk to the people and ….smile….you just can’t help it anyway when you are in Italy!
(we can provide quotes for apartments in Italy or if you prefer a tour we have varied trips featuring in depth Italy)