A9 sent a bunch of us here in May to attend WWW 2015. While the conference kept us busy during business (and museum) hours, we had plenty of time in the evenings to explore the city, and as the week progressed we felt an ever growing connection with this cultural treasure.
One of my favorite ways to explore a new city is to book a bike tour. Bike tours are fun, informative, and allow one to see many more points of interest than otherwise possible on foot. Nearly every major city offers them, and Florence is no exception — we chose Florencetown and were led by the charming and knowledgeable Julia, who at the end gave us referrals to some of the best restaurants in the city.
The tour started at the Piazza di Santa Croce, which every year in June is converted into a stadium for the so-called “historic football.” It is difficult to imagine that this bloody, medieval sport with its gladiatorial lack of rules was the origin of soccer. Towering over the square is the Basilica of Santa Croce, whose Jewish builder left an interesting touch: the Star of David just under the top cross.
We continued on to the Piazza della Repubblica, the center of town in Roman times, and then over to the Palazzo Vecchio, the Medici Family's second home in Florence. Today, the grand building serves as the town hall, but its top floor has also had the honor of hosting political prisoners over the years. This is where Michelangelo's David stood symbolically for hundreds of years in defense of civil liberties threatened by the powerful Medici. The famous statue was moved to a museum in 1910, but a full replica still stands in its place today.
Biking across the Arno, we stopped to admire the sunset and continued over to the Piazza Santo Spirito, where locals like to gather for drinks and dinner. The basillica of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito on one end of the piazza is famous for granting Michelangelo access to corpses from the convent's hospital for his anatomical studies. To show his gratitude, Michelangelo sculpted a wooden cross for the church, which still remains in the church's possession despite numerous attempts from museums to acquire it.
The tour concluded with a visit to an authentic gelateria, where Julia taught us how to tell whether a gelateria was likely to be a good one — the gelato should be stored in small containers with a lid, not in towering mounds that look alluring but are often watered down and not made fresh every day.
In general, the best restaurants, cafés, and gelaterias are often found away from the main tourist areas because they are supported by the locals whose patronage these establishments must work hard to maintain, unlike the main parts of town that have a guaranteed stream of visitors. We saw evidence of this on one occasion when we stepped into a small café on a busy street for a coffee and snack. We were seated upstairs and when placing our order, we asked what's in the paninis, to which the waitress replied: “Oh, I don't know; you'll have to go downstairs and ask — I don't make them!” To an American, this kind of response from a server is beyond comprehension, touristy area or not.
The Piazzale Michelangelo, on a steep hill is famous for offering sweeping views of the entire town. I had wanted to take a good sunrise or sunset photo from here, but the weather was fickle the entire week. I made several attempts to go up before sunrise, which required strong will and dedication given the 4 a.m. wakeup time required to be able to haul my camera gear on the 40 minute hike up from my hotel, but each time the sun's rays failed to poke through the cloud cover. It was only in the evening on our fourth day that the rain cleared up in time for a brilliant sunset.
The Boboli Gardens, behind the the Pitti Palace, are another tourist attraction. The grand estate was built by the Medici in the 16th century to satisfy Eleonora di Toledo's desire to have a house with a garden. With an entrance fee of 10€, I cannot say a visit is worthwhile given the dearth of flowers and poorly maintained grounds.
Wandering around town, it is hard not to notice the strikingly grand entrances of the buildings, many of which are probably older than America herself. Below is a sample of these wonders, the doors of Florence.
By the end of the week, I was so smitten with Florence, I wanted to move here permanently, strolling through town, going on picturesque runs along the Arno, enjoying amazing food, sipping magnificent Chianti wine, savoring gelatos for dessert every night, and of course, drinking excellent coffee. On our last day at the Piazza della Repubblica, we stumbled, quite by chance, across Pausa Caffè, an incredible coffee festival hosted over three days, where one could sample a jittering array of espresso blends from around the world. For a coffee lover, this was heaven.
Yes, living here would be wonderful, if Italians were not so resistant to technology. Internet access is painfully slow and unreliable, an irony that was not lost on most of the attendees of one of the biggest web conferences in the world. Credit cards are almost never accepted, forcing one to keep pockets stuffed full of bulky Euro coins, the only form of payment worse than cash. In other ways, the Italians are remarkably technological, however. Electric buses, known as bussini, are common in town and are as environmentally clean and quiet as you might expect.
Cinque TerreAfter the conference, I had an extra day in Florence before leaving for Munich and decided to book a day tour to the Cinque Terre, an extraordinarily beautiful cluster of five coastal villages implausibly tucked into the rock face of the Ligurian coastline. A couple of friends who were also not immediately leaving Italy chose the same tour, and the three of us got packed into a large bus at 7 a.m. that Saturday morning for the two-hour ride to La Spezia.
Our tour guide spoke three languages, neither of them well, and by the end of the bus ride I could barely stand hearing every announcement three times in broken English, French, and Spanish. She was a nasty mix of part evil school teacher, part Gestapo, which I found intolerable.
Arriving in the first village, Manarola, at 10am, we were allowed just twenty minutes to grab a bite to eat and maybe snap a few photos before taking a one-minute train ride to neighboring Riomaggiore. There, the guide sternly delivered further instructions to regroup at the boat dock in another fifteen minutes to go on to the next village. This kind of rigidity just did not belong in such a magical place, so I decided to separate from the group and hike from one village to the next on my own, asking my friends to inform the Gestapo of my plans and that I may or may not reunite with them later in the afternoon for the bus ride back to Florence.
No sooner had I said goodbye to the group than the sun came out almost symbolically in all its glory and lit up the entire village, bringing out an array of vivid colors. Each house is painted a different hue, giving the villages the semblance of a political map when viewed from afar. The color scheme was apparently chosen by fishermen as a way to identify their houses easily when offshore.
The beautiful coastal hike from Riomaggiore to Monterosso al Mare normally takes five hours, but due to a series of rock slides, some sections of the trail were closed for repair, making the trip longer but also more scenic. Trying to figure out how to get around the first obstacle, I met Ed and Annie, a lovely Australian couple, who were also attempting the same hike, and after getting directions, we hiked on together, huffing and puffing up the steep terrain, chatting, and admiring the picturesque terraces etched into the hillside that form the most impressive vineyard in the world. Annie carried a Rick Steves on Europe and superbly narrated the self-guided walking tours at each village, serving as our own personal tour guide.
By lunch time, the three of us were friends, and by 4:30, it was sad to say goodbye. I took the train from Corniglia to La Spezia to catch the 5 p.m. bus. I would have preferred to stay for sunset, but the weather was deteriorating again, and getting to Florence by train would have been a lot more cumbersome. When I met up with the group again, my friends warned me our guide was very displeased with my actions and wanted to have a word with me. I tried to avoid her, but when she spotted me, she unleashed a gush of vitriol that was wholly unwarranted and inappropriate.
On the slow bus ride back, as we passed the Carrara quarry, where Michelangelo picked out the solid block of marble for the Statue of David, I vouched to return to this wonderful region and explore further, without the heavy burden of a paid tour guide.