On Sunday we once again boarded the Circumvesuviana train to Naples, this time to catch our connecting train to Florence. Both of our longer trips (Rome-Naples and Naples-Florence) have been on the Italo trains, and we’d definitely use them again. Comfortable, spacious seats—and on each of our trips we somehow ended up in very quiet cars.
On our arrival in Florence, we took a taxi to our new apartment… and met with the host/owner, who let us in…. and up and up and up. Somehow I’d managed to book us into a 6th floor apartment with no elevator. (Later I’d look at my email exchange with the owner, who’d claimed it was on the 3rd floor. This seems… a stretch.) But once we were inside, we found a spacious layout and a lovely Florentine house-top view out of our kitchen window.
Our apartment is in a neighborhood with many churches, and the church bells are curiously unsynced… causing sequential rather than simultaneous hourly bells. A fun experience at 4pm. We were less enthusiastic later that night at 11pm and midnight. I suppose locals just tune them out altogether? The rest of the travel day was spent in the usual way: finding our nearest grocery store and laying in supplies for the next week.
Monday, after a schoolwork morning and an early lunch at home, we set out on Rick Steves’ Renaissance walk, as a way to cover ground and introduce ourselves to the various wonders of Florence. We turned the first corner and stumbled upon the Dante museum, with a curious sculpture outside. Was it made of… ice? It was! A very cool installation.
We made another detour at the Bargello Museum, just a few minutes’ walk from our apartment. The Bargello was wonderful, filled with all sorts of sculpture—both small and enormous—and all historically and artistically significant.
After an hour or two at the Bargello, we resumed our walk through the city, leading us from the Duomo to the Piazza della Reppublica, where we indulged Penelope with several rides on the lively carousel.
From there it was on to the Palazzo Vecchio, to stand in the very spot Savonarola was burned, to the Uffizi and then ending on the amazing Ponte Vecchio. Except for the Bargello, we didn’t go in to any of the sights—but the walk was, as usual, a wonderful way to get our bearings in a new city.
Tuesday morning I had booked a special treat for myself: a walking tour of artisan workshops with a local guide. Jeremy and Penelope spent the morning at home, while I met with Maria, who led me to half a dozen wonderful workshops. Maria has lived in Florence for more than 20 years, but she’s originally from Sweden. After years as a graphic designer, she recently started her own business as a tour guide and personal shopper (I found her tour via AirBnB Experiences). When I showed up at 9:30am, I found that I was the only person to have booked the tour, so it was a private outing—lucky me! We started with a mosaic workshop—in the Florentine style of pietre dure—and I was immediately blown away by the experience. We chatted with the various artists, including the maestro himself, Bruno Lastrucci, as Maria showed me around the workshop and translated my questions for the artists.
After spending nearly thirty minutes in the small workshop and gallery, it was time to move on. We visited a custom shoemaker, a goldsmith, a woodworker who specializes in wood inlay, two different leather shops, and ended the tour at a bookbinders/paper shop.
At each stop, the artisans were friendly, engaging, and happy to spare a few minutes to show us their current projects—and it was so wonderful to see these artists at work! I can’t recommend Maria’s tour highly enough—and I’m so glad I decided to go early in our stay in Florence, as now I have a chance to return later in the week for potential purchases. 🙂
After the tour ended, I returned home to our apartment to have lunch with Jeremy and Penelope, then we all headed out to meet with my folks, who’d arrived in Florence the evening before. We met them for an early afternoon drink at a café near the Duomo, catching up on news from the week before, when we’d been traveling in different areas. They left to walk around the city a bit while Jeremy, Penelope, and I headed into the Duomo museum.
After touring the museum, we walked over to the Baptistry—wonderful mosaics on the ceiling. I loved all of the gold especially—and Penelope was keen to point out scenes she recognized from the Old Testament.
By then it was almost time to queue for the climbing of the Dome. Leery of heights, Jeremy had happily surrendered his spot to my dad, so my mom headed back to their camper and Jeremy and Penelope went home to our apartment while my father and I waited in line for our turn to climb the 463 steps to the top of the Dome. Just inside the cathedral, I spotted Dante.
In preparation for our Florence travel, I’ve been reading Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King. It’s quite a wonderful book, but I have to say that King’s portrayal of Brunelleschi as a temperamental and all-too-human architect made me rather less confident than I might have otherwise been in climbing to this dizzying height. But we set off nevertheless, climbing first into a very narrow ledge inside the Dome itself.
And then after quite a few more flights, each narrower and more canted than the previous…
…we emerged, blinking in the sunlight, to the topmost perch. It really was quite something—coming up that final ladder and seeing all of Florence and the hills around spread out beneath me. We circled round, taking in all of the views—and taking a few selfies too, of course.
A lovely end to a wonderful second day in Florence!
But Wednesday had something even more fabulous in store… a paper marbling workshop! I’ve been wanting to try my hand at this ancient art for years—really ever since my first trip to Florence when I was in high school. The paper in Florence is simply exquisite, and Penelope and I were delighted to join a workshop to make our own. 🙂
We met our teacher, Francesca Vannini, in her art studio in the Santa Croce neighborhood, just a ten minute walk from our apartment. Francesca is a wonderful, patient, and super organized teacher—and within a few minutes of her demonstration, Penelope and I were already making our own papers!
Everything we needed was at hand, and we each created ten different designs. At the very end of our time, once the papers had dried (helped along by a hair dryer), we learned how to make bookmarks and pencils out of the paper too. I can’t say enough about how wonderful this experience was! And it was so fun to make art with Penelope. She’s been such a trooper during all of our museum and church visits in Italy, and I think she’s genuinely enjoying those sights… but it was terrific to indulge in something hands-on for both of us.
After lunch at home with Jeremy—and the chance to show him all of our gorgeous creations—the three of us walked over to the Accademia. Timed tickets are recommended/required for many sights in Florence, and this time of year there are positively dozens of high school field trip tour groups at each sight. But once you move beyond whatever the main attraction is, the museums aren’t too terribly crowded. At the Accademia, David is the star (and was, predictably, a mob scene)—but nearby galleries had more breathing room, and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit. I especially enjoyed Michelangelo’s Prisoners, and Penelope spotted a few fabulous instruments in the Musical Instruments Museum, attached to the Accademia.
After a stop at a local grocery store, we were on our way home to cook dinner and plan the second half of our stay in Florence… the Uffizi, Santa Croce, bistecca alla fiorentina—and, of course, more gelato!