Day 1 – Arrival, Churches, Modern Art and Live Music
I took the fast train up from Rome today, sweating over the vast journey from the station across leafy suburbs to the entrance of my hostel, which itself was a good 1km through a park and campground from the hostel proper. As you will see in Bologna (next post), many cities in Northern Italy have very few hostels, and those that do exist are confined to well outside the city centre. In this case, the hostel was in an old country villa that had been gutted and outfitted with many a militaristic bed and utilitarian bathroom facilities. The remote location was very pretty and peaceful, the suburbs were very normal which certainly made a change from always being in the city centre, and ensured that I always came home ready for bed after walking all day and then up from the station, but it did make spending time writing this blog a little more difficult – especially since the wifi for some reason would not connect to my computer!
Anyways, after I dropped my gear off, I took a walk down to the city centre (first to scout out some food, and then to have a look around for something interesting and open on a Monday). I found my food, consumed an intemperate amount of supermarket-brand ice tea (one of the greatest things I’ve found in Europe – ice tea for a euro when you’ll easily pay $3 for Lipton at home), and, sloshing slightly but feeling refreshed, I proceeded to bump directly into the monumental Duomo and the busiest square of the city, the Piazza del aforementioned. The Duomo was impressively striped, intricately painted and facaded with a vast vaulted interior that is nicely austere with bursts of colour, and they conduct free guided tours by a team of twitchy interns, which is always a plus.
I then kept wandering around, popping into two more little city churches – one where Dante Aligheri married his wife and met the woman he was actually in love with and who inspired a lot of his poetry (both are buried there, which is a bit awkward), and another which featured altars of all kinds from the trading guilds, which I’d learnt about being stripped out of the Scottish Catholic churches during the 1560s when it turned Presbyterian but had never actually seen in context! So this was a lot of historical fun and games, but when it came down to it I was still left with many an hour left in the day, and I continued to look for interesting things to do.
Fortuitously, I had seen a billboard for a new and spiffy modern art gallery that was open all week and late into the night, which sounded ideal for an interesting experience – you don’t expect to see anything newer than the Renaissance in Florence, after all! On my way there I passed through the Piazza Santa Maria Novella – which I’ll come back to later – and set up there was a big and colourful stage, with some British guys playing and talking about some free live music later at 6pm that night. I’m always up for free music – and again, something tourists wouldn’t expect in Florence – so I resolved to come back and at that headed into the museum. I was pleasantly surprised to get the reduced ticket – so far in Italy I’ve had to pay full price because I’m not an EU citizen AND a student – and in a good mood headed up to begin a backwards journey through 20th century art in Florence, moving from the 90s to the 80s to the 70s and so on. I had an unusual but interesting time meandering through the various exhibits, chuckling at the pieces that were blatantly ludicrous and admiring those that displayed real talent and/or creativity. Some fun photos are below.
The exhibit ended with a rooftop film room where you could watch an apparently unordered series of films made in Florence, and I exited the building. It was still an hour or so till the show started, so I sat down in the sun and read for a while, and then took a place near the front as people started to arrive. The event was part of a European tour organised by Hard Rock Café to promote local music in deferent areas. The British band I had heard earlier turned out to be the only international act at this show, the rest were all locals, and all in different styles, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. There was the winners of the Italian Battle of the Bands competition and several others: one more hard rock, a couple sort of pop-punk, and one acoustic/folk duo. Interspersed with throwing free tshirts and giving out prizes for posting online with the right hashtag (I won a board game), it made for an excellent evening. I can recommend Italian music – they even sometimes sing in English!
Day 2 – Free Tours of Medieval, Renaissance and Medici
Today I planned to once again take advantage of some free tours, and the requirement that all tour guides in Italy must be trained and licensed by the city they work in. This hadn’t produced particularly good results in Rome – the tour was pretty lacklustre – but as always I was happy to try it anyway and set my price later. As it turned out, both tours – taken by the same guy with the air of an erudite art history professor – were excellent. We took in Renaissance and Medieval sights in the morning and an overlapping but separate visit to many sites that were of relevance to the Medici family that held power in Florence and considerable influence in the Catholic Church for pretty much all the Early Modern period. Both were very interesting and as usual I absorbed an enormous selection of fun facts. Enjoy.
Day 3 – Siena and Pisa
I made a change from Florence and took a train out to the acclaimed medieval town of Siena. For such a popular place, coming out of the train station and taking some time to reach the top and then walking through the streets from one end of the oval shaped town towards the other – it seemed very quiet. For the most part, all I saw was long cobbled streets, vintage buildings and loads of locals and students from the university. I popped into a couple of churches and a medieval cloister that is now a university building but without a map I had no plan except to look around and enjoy the sunshine. After an hour or so of this pleasantness, almost out of nowhere I turned a corner and the place was SWARMING. An enormous bowl-shaped piazza opened up in front of me, liberally filled with tourists, and then I hit the Duomo square, ringed with street painters, hawkers, museums and visitors. It was surreal. Apparently the train station is right at the opposite end of the town, but all the tourists arrive by bus or car and don’t penetrate into the rest of the city, which is exceedingly agreeable to walk through and dead quiet apart from a healthy smattering of locals. After taking a few photos and having a sneaky go on some free museum wifi, I beat a hasty retreat into the comparative quietness, before walking along the main road I must have completely missed before, which did have some tourists and rich-people shops for a good proportion of its length, though even they petered out well before the gate to the start of the long road down to the station. Satisfied with my experience, but with still some time to go, I decided to jump on a train to Pisa.
The train to Pisa arrived in the early evening. Unlike Orvieto and Siena, Pisa is built on a flat plane, so it was a pleasant 15-minute walk through the city centre to the Duomo green and its famous tower. Coming from the station I actually approached it from the rear, with the sun behind. I saw the silhouette and it was one of those moments where you just have to crack a smile – you’ve seen it a thousand times all over the place and it’s exactly as you imagined, and being there is like hearing a bit of good music or walking out into the sunshine, it’s a rousing feeling. It’s hard to predict when it will pop up – I didn’t get it looking at the Colosseum, for instance, it seemed smaller than it should be – but when it does, you know it. The whole cathedral area, once I walked through it to the front, was beautifully green and well-maintained, the day was still sunny but starting to cool down to a more pleasan temperature, the sun was lending everything a golden glow. The only drawback for me was that the Duomo is free, but there is a limited number of tickets available per day so by the end they are often sold out. However, I had a wonderful time just hanging out and looking around that little area of Pisa, and then, satisfied with my impulse train trip, returned to Florence.
Day 4 – Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens
Back in Florence once again – this time for a visit to the other end of the secret Medici tunnel, the Pitti Palace and attached Boboli gardens. I was slightly mislead by my guidebook – I was looking for a three-day ticket that would cover all the six or so museums and the vast attached Boboli Gardens, but apparently they’d discontinued that and raised the price on the two one-day part-tickets; so, because the Boboli Gardens had been specifically recommended, I went for the ticket that included this, the Medici Treasury, the Porcelain Museum, the Costume Gallery and the Bardini Gardens. I started with the Treasury, which in Italian was called the much more badass Argenterium. I didn’t expect a lot from what I assumed to be just a filler to make the garden ticket not seem so empty, and this seemed to be confirmed when the first room was a pretty eclectic collection of reliquaries, but from there it just went on and on! There was silver, wood, marble, glass, and amber sculpture as well as paintings and sundry other pretty and valuable things set up in palatially decorated staterooms; and what was more, a good proportion had captions in English as well. Top tip: it’s easy to miss that there is about the same amount of rooms again upstairs, that start with the traditional Renaissance things but quickly get much more eclectic and international, before merging into a collection of modern art jewellery tucked in at the back. It was thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately, the other two museums turned out to be much more filler than anything else. The Costume Gallery was a series of 20th-century fashion with little biographies of the designers – there was some interesting stuff but it hardly took up more than half an hour. The Porcelain Gallery was exactly as it says and nothing more: displays of unlabelled tablewares from various periods and locations. Also not that interesting. The Argentarium was well worth seeing in its own right, but the others are hardly up to serious scrutiny.
In contrast, the Boboli Gardens were enormous and agreeably wildernessy. If you’re expecting the splendour of the Versailles palace, they’re nothing as manicured as that, but there are plenty of great forested areas and hedges with hidden bits, and since it is built right up a hill, you get great views over Florence. It was enough interesting and pleasant stuff to wander around for a couple of hours. The Bardini Gardens were quite separate from the rest, smaller, and a little hard to find, but in their own way they were even more agreeable – especially the first agapanthus I’d seen since Christmas!
Day 5 – Cinque Terre
On this, my final day based in Florence, I had grown somewhat tired of a) historic towns and palaces and b) spending money on the aforementioned, so I decided to go out on a bit of a limb and take a trip way across country to the Cinque Terre National Park, which essentially comprises five villages built on the clifftops and headlands along the west coast of northern Italy, with a reputation for being completely stunning and as far as I could tell as long as I stuck to bouncing between the villages by the frequent train and didn’t walk far inland, would be completely free to me. Sounded pretty good. Because of my long distance from the station, the small amount of dithering and procrastination that meant I didn’t leave till a little later, and the length of the journey, I didn’t get over there until after 2pm, and then I had to stop and get wifi to sort out an accommodation emergency. I finally reached the villages proper at about 3pm. And they really were unspeakably beautiful. There had been bad weather recently – in fact, it was still grey and occasionally raining (though very fortuitously not as bad as earlier in the day), which meant that some of the free trails were closed; but some were still open and it was fine just shutting between the villages on the train when you couldn’t walk over. Well, it really was splendid. I was beguiled by the terraced farmland, the winding cliff top paths, the colourful and tightly-packed houses, and the hidden monasteries and churches built at the peak of each headland to be closer to God. I’ll show you some photos, and I reckon you’ll see what I mean.
And there it is! Another leg of my epic journey. I hope you’ve enjoyed keeping up with me so far, and maybe I’ll hear about your adventures soon as well. Tune in soon for another exciting instalment as I visit Bologna!