Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Adventures in Italy, Part Two: Florence

Our Italy trip continues--well, the details of my trip, do, anyway. After our three fantastic days in Venice, our tour group boarded the high-speed train and headed to Florence, the home of the world's greatest collection of Renaissance art. It is a city known the world over for its monuments, churches, and amazing buildings--the most famous of which is the domed cathedral of the city, Santa Maria del Fiore, known as The Duomo. 600 years after its completion, it is still the largest brick and mortar dome built in the world. The dome dominates the skyline of Florence and can be seen from anywhere in the city.

The world famous Duomo in the heart of Florence.

The Piazza della Signoria, home of the municipal government and the original site of David,
until it was moved in 1893 to protect it from damage. It's also where the "bonfire of the vanities" took place.

The Uffizi (which means "offices") gallery is one of the best art museums in the world. The massive gallery space occupies what was once office buildings belonging to one of the most powerful families in Florence, the Medici family. On our morning tour, we saw works by Raphael, Caravaggio, da Vinci, and Michelangelo, to name a few. The majority of our group was enthralled by our surroundings, however, I'm afraid that our small town, public school educations started showing: as it turns out, Clint and I are not art aficionados. After truly appreciating the magnificence in about three rooms in the museum, team Stancil started getting antsy. Shamefully, we lingered toward the back of the group and people watched, discussed the museum's snack bar and gift shop, and planned the rest of our afternoon. The Uffizi was amazingly beautiful, it's just that our guided visit there started to feel amazingly long.

View of the Ponte Vecchio ("old bridge") from the Uffizi Gallery.

Michelangelo's Doni Tondo (The Holy Family) painted circa 1507 in the original wooden frame
designed by the artist himself.

After a full day of sightseeing,Clint treated himself to a signature dish of Florence: bistecca fiorentina for dinner. It is a huge piece of meat, similar to a T-bone, from large white oxen (I, of course, stuck with pasta--it's part of my no-carb-left-behind lifestyle commitment). The steak is served rare with a pinch of salt, and it was so delicious it needed nothing else. Well, except maybe an excellent glass of wine to wash it down. Luckily, we had that, too.

And that, my friends, is the bistecca fiorentina. I do believe he ate it all.

The next day, we took a short bus ride to Tuscany. On the way, we stopped at the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial. Most of those buried there are from the Fifth Army who died in the fighting that followed the capture of Rome in June 1944; others fell in the heavy fighting in the Apennines between then and 2 May 1945. The cemetery is 70 acres and when you are there, you are technically on American soil. It is hard to explain how incredibly moving and peaceful this unexpected stop on our itinerary really was, but it was certainly a highlight.

There are 4,398 headstones in the cemetery, all made of Carrara marble.

We enjoyed a very colorful tour of a vineyard in the Chianti region, (our spirited Italian sommelier managed to use the f-bomb twice, but he did it with such charm that even the grandmothers in our group giggled), and then were treated to an olive oil tasting, followed by a 4-course lunch with wine pairings from the Antinori brand that the vineyard produces. The wine cellars were actually housed in the Badia a Passignano Abbey cellars; the monks have allowed Antinori to use their cellars to age the wine. It goes without saying that it was a memorable and unique part of our tour, and it embodied everything we had imagined about Tuscany--the country side, hills and hills of grape vines, and cellar rooms stocked with hundreds of barrels of aging wine.

Badia a Passignano Winery in Chianti Tuscany

Florence, like much of Italy, is filled with piazzas that are the gathering places for people to socialize, take a break, and enjoy coffee, cocktails, a snack or a meal. We took a break one afternoon with some creamy gelato down the street from the Duomo, shopped for souvenirs in dozens of jewelry and leather shops, and enjoyed a breathtaking view of the city from a rooftop bar one evening before dinner. I don't think I have ever seen so much beauty, all in one place, as I did during our trip to Italy.

Beautiful views of Florence at night from the rooftop of the Westin hotel at the Exelsior bar.

Highlights of Florence: The Duomo, Michelangelo's David, the Ponte Vecchio bridge, the Florence American cemetery, our afternoon in Tuscany.

Pros: Amazing art collections, huge array of leather goods and gold, and (at least for Clint) bistecca fiorentina.

Cons: There is a risk, at least for the uncultured among us (read: me), of overdosing on art history. Also, my flatiron did not work in our hotel, even with our adapters, and required the use of a 20-foot, industrial extension cord. It's hard being me, but I still manage to do it...every single day.

Overall rating: A-. It's hard to find anything not to like about Florence. It is brimming with art and history, and is still a small enough city to allow you to walk, wander, and explore. I could (easily) be persuaded to visit again.

My next post will cover our visit to the eternal city of Rome, including the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Vatican, and the Sistine chapel. Until then, ciao, amico!

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