A Tuscan Pilgrimage
Three wide-eyed days in Florence, the City of Lilies: memorable, invigorating, and leaving a longing for more
Is Florence a real city? There are some who write it off as a living museum, trodden with tourists and impossible to appreciate. Don’t believe them! Whether a maiden visit or an annual pilgrimage, to me, three days in Florence are always memorable and invigorating. This high altar of Renaissance art and architecture, as well as of food and sunshine, is still one of my definitions of beauty. Better yet, it is just not that far away.
Of course it is possible to fly (for speed) or drive (for flexibility), but I personally love overnight trains. From Vienna, you arrive in Florence after a night’s sleep at 6:18 in the morning, an hour that is magical. The empty streets are being washed, the market stalls around San Lorenzo are still packed up, and the front of the cathedral is bathed in soft shadows.
The cathedral’s dome, a wonder designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, was built in the first half of the 15th century. Sitting so elegantly in the centre of town – its lovely form and red tiles so feminine and friendly – no descending horde of tourists can wipe the smile off my face.
A month of music
This time I went for the 75th Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Italy’s oldest music festival. Directed by Zubin Mehta, events continue until 10 June: The final performance will be Fabio Biondi conducting Handel’s Israel in Egypt. With all the art to see in Florence, it is a shame that tourists seem to overlook its opera. The beginning of May saw four performances of Rosenkavalier (especially moving: Angela Denoke as the Marschallin and Caitlin Hulcup as Octavian). The quintessential Viennese opera is perhaps better suited to Florence than might first appear. The tale of age gracefully relinquishing to youth seemed to be a metaphor for this city, still vibrant despite the vicissitudes of time.
Next were the Uffizi Galleries. The sheer enormity of the collection, with 50 rooms of Renaissance masterpieces, means that even if you have already seen Botticelli’s Spring – and who hasn’t, about a million times? – there are certainly many works that you have never noticed before. I wandered from one Annunciation scene to another, reflecting on the various reactions of Mary to the news-bearing angel: surprised, shy, fearful, questioning, bold. Indeed, despite time, human emotions remain the same.
A Florentine appetizer
There’s another reason to go to Italy: ice cream. Near the opera house is B.Ice, a simple gelateria that just opened last March. The flavours of the absolutely natural ingredients burst in your mouth. Try apple and cinnamon. That’s all it is, frozen. Or for those of us who would like to be virtuous, but can’t (yet) get over our love of cream, choose stracciatella with figs (richness disguised as wholesome). A moment in ice cream heaven.
Nearby is the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. This year the perfumery and pharmacy of the Dominican monastery is celebrating its 400th anniversary of uninterrupted business: The extraordinary shop opened in 1612. Enter and be prepared for baroque splendour within a cloud of fragrance – mint and sage, rose and citrus, woodruff and chamomile. Despite all appearances, including the marble entrance and its five frescoed sales rooms, it is not a museum. Behind huge bouquets of lilies and irises are real sales clerks.
As usual in any tourist trap, unexpected quiet spots are often unbelievably close to (and overseen by) the guided tours. Le Volpi e l’Uva (the Foxes and the Grapes, after the Aesop fable) is an enoteca, a wine bar, just off the beaten path to the Palazzo Pitti. After crossing the Ponte Vecchio, turn left at the second possibility: Le Volpi is past a couple of doors on the left. Luckily the frustrated fox’s grapes aren’t sour here: The enticing list of wines (which changes regularly) includes about 20 whites and 20 reds, chosen carefully to represent small, reasonably priced wineries from South Tyrol to Sicily.
Galileo, Bardini and Palazzo Strozzi
Continuing up the road and the hill takes you past the house at Costa di San Giorgio 19 where Galileo Galilei lived and observed the stars until his arrest by the Inquisition in 1633. Disregarding a small frescoed portrait above the door, the house is not much different from the others: The doorbell is tarnished and the walls are ochre. As I stand contemplating Galileo’s discovery of Jupiter’s moons, a woman opens the front door and takes her newspaper out of the mailbox. Yes, this "museum", too, is full of life.
A little further up the road, at the point the Tuscan hills and their olive trees begin to beckon, is the entrance to the Bardini Gardens. Neglected for a century, they were renovated during the last decade. After the sun-drenched streets, the "English woods" at the top of the garden offer paths that are blessedly shady. They lead to the roofed pergola of the Belvedere Café, with its view of the city lying serenely around Brunelleschi’s dome. Descending the hill, you pass through orchards of historic apple and peach trees, past roses, azaleas and hydrangeas, and down a final baroque stairway that ends almost at the river banks.
One block from the exit is the Museo Stefano Bardini. Named after the man whose garden you just enjoyed, it is one of Florence’s "smaller" museums, quiet and non-crowded. It contains the eclectic collection of Bardini (1836-1922), an antiques dealer whose clients included the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The pieces are beautifully displayed on varying shades of blue walls, like the twilight sky deepening into evening, creating stunning colour contrasts, especially of the golds and reds.
Another surprising (and relatively empty) smaller museum is the Museo Galileo. Renovated and reopened in 2010, it is dedicated to the history of science and holds the only remaining functioning telescope made by Galileo (1564-1642). Although the Inquisition found his heliocentrism "vehemently suspect of heresy", Galileo has become something of a secular saint, complete with relics (a bone of his forefinger is also on display).
The Palazzo Strozzi is known for its temporary exhibits. Until 15 July, it is hosting a wonderful show called Americani in Firenze. The sub-title is "Sargent and the American Impressionists" – the Anglo-American painters and writers who discovered Italy at the turn of the last century, infusing their own view of the world, and of Florence, into the new style of painting. Striking is the number of women artists among them.
One enchanted evening
For elegant eating, try the Golden View Open Bar. Just over the Ponte Vecchio – in Oltrarno, the "left bank", so to speak, of the Arno River – the white and black minimalist restaurant, bar and café have the best views of the old bridge and the Uffizi. Also of the Florence rowing club, with its roses and lawn below the Uffizi’s walls. The restaurant offers both seafood and "landfood"; the bar has live jazz every evening. And for ultra-traditional Florentine food, especially a bistecca fiorentina, go to Alla Vecchia Bettola, also left bank but a little further away, just outside the old city walls.
The Firenze Card (€50, valid 72 hours) is a must. It grants you free access to the major museums, villas and historical gardens (50 in total), with the extra perk that you don’t have to wait in line. (Even at 8:15, when the Uffizi opens, there is a line.) And if you plan to go to Florence even twice in one calendar year, you should become an Amici degli Uffizi (Member of the Uffizi). This costs €60 (or €100 for a family of four) and also grants you free access to a large number of museums, as well as reduced rates at the theatres.
Trains run to and from Florence daily, leaving Vienna in the evening and getting you to the heart of Tuscany 11 hours later; the return train arrives back in Vienna at 8:30, early enough Monday to be at the office on time (almost). Book early online and tickets are cheaper. There are seats, but also sleepers for six (with an all-women compartment available), four, three, two or solo.
For a last view of the city and its dome, I climbed the 414 steps to the upper reaches of the cathedral’s campanile, the bell tower whose cornerstone was laid in 1334. Half an hour before closing time (at 18:30) on a Sunday in May, there was no line, and the guards waited for me to come back down before locking the doors at the bottom. The sun was still quite high, but the evening breezes had begun. Peace and loveliness radiated from the wide, light blue sky and the layers of green hills in all directions. It was clear where Botticelli had gotten his inspiration.
For more information:
Le Volpi e l’Uva, www.levolpieluva.com
Golden View Open Bar, www.goldenviewopenbar.com
Alla Vecchia Bettola, www.allavecchiabettola.com