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2 June 2020 - Day 52 – Florence, Day 4

Another (blasted) early start, so I was up again at 7:30 and picked a light breakfast of coffee, toast with cheese, a hard boiled egg, a banana and juice. Out and walking the 400 meters straight down Via San Zenobi (which changed to Via degli Arazzieri) to the Piazza San Marco for the start of a paid escorted “Jump the Line” tour. A tall, thin, bearded and bespectacled man, wearing a slim-fit blue t-shirt was gathering a small group around his similarly blue flag on a short pole. His name is Giacomo and comes from Avezzano (near the center of Italy). Married to a Florentine, he’s lived in Firenza for 13 years and in addition to leading tours for City Wonders, he is the organist and choirmaster at the Basilica di S. Miniato al Monte south of the city.

Our group numbered eleven, with six being “exchange” students at the University in Bologna from the States, taking advantage of the holiday, National Day. The other two couples were exploring Tuscany from Calgary. Giacomo remarked that he didn’t usually get a group solely from North America. He hoped his British-flavored accent wouldn’t be difficult to understand. With introductions handled, we were introduced to the statue of Manfredo Fanti, a general in the war establishing the Italian Republic, appropriately. This gave us an opportunity to test the earbuds we’d been issued. Then we crossed the piazza across Via Ricasoli to enter the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze.

Our tour included timed admission to the Accademia, so we bypassed the queue of those unticketed and walked directly into the Entrance. Herding us briskly past the statuary in the Hall of Prisoners, we gathered to the side of Michelangelo’s David in the Tribuna. Giacomo related the story of the sculpture from inception, to its various placements in Florence. We were given specific suggestions as to where to look and where to stand. I suspected his urgency had to do with the potential arrival of other visitors, as the gallery had opened at 8:15.

With an hour planned for the Accademia, he moved us back to the Hall we’d bypassed. Focused on the four unfinished sculptures, the Schiavo or Prigioni are later works by Michelangelo, destined for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Continuing back towards the entrance, we went into the Hall of the Colossus to view and hear about Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines. A plaster copy, the sculpture in the Accademia occupies the center of the room and commands attention. (The original is now in the Loggia dei Lanzi in the Piazza della Signoria.

Giacomo then gave us 20 minutes to roam the museum, advising us to be timely, as he doesn’t wait. I opted to head to the long hall beyond the David, which was filled with a massive number of works. The originals of the sculpted heads of the popes, which had been removed from the Duomo, were here, as well as about two dozen full-sized works. My personal assessment was that there are too many in too small a space to do them justice.

Meeting outside the souvenir shop, our group returned outside, where the partially cloudy skies persisted and temperatures were lifting into the 70’s. Walking down the Via Ricasoli, Giacomo related some of the history of the cathedral as we passed retail and commercial storefronts (and a courthouse.) Several of the young women insisted on a quick stop at La Strega Nocciola to get gelato.

At the Piazza del Duomo, Giacomo pointed out the continuity of design between the baptistry, the cathedral exterior and the campanile. We moved around behind the tower as he explained the engineering challenges that Brunelleschi overcame when constructing the huge dome out of bricks. Backtracking a little, he led us down Via Roma.

At the Piazza della Repubblica, he gave us its history. Site of the original Roman Forum, it had devolved into a ghetto. Swept clean during the Risanamento, it is now a large square with a carousel, restaurants and a triumphal arch. Further down the street we came to another famous tourist destination, the Fontana del Porcellino.

Rubbing the snout of this brass boar is supposed to bring good fortune to the rest of one’s travels, so we all queued up to pat the statue. And the students needed a group photo.

Turning at the next corner, after a block and a half we entered onto the Piazza della Signoria.

Here Giacomo talked about the square and the Palazzo Vecchio, giving us some history about the Medici. He then “released” us on our own for lunch (it wasn’t 11 yet) and said the tour would resume at 13:30, meeting at the Piazzale degli Uffizi, where we would visit the Uffizi Museum.

The students split as a group, looking for cheap eats. The Canadians were going to return to visit the cathedral. I decided I’d head over to the Piazza di Santa Croce and the basilica there, as Elisa had me planned for the plaza and palace tomorrow.

Crossing via Borgo dei Greci, I entered the Holy Cross Plaza. A big open square, at the far end was the church and a statue of Dante Alighieri.

The principal Franciscan church in Florence and largest Franciscan church in the world, it has the nickname Tempio dell’Itale Glorie (Temple of Italian Glories) because of the illustrious countrymen buried there: Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Rossini and Foscolo. [Thanks to Nicola Bandini for some of the interior shots.] As Anthony of Padua was a Franciscan, there was a chapel to his memory, and I sat and prayed for my mother and grandfather after lighting candles.

Lunchtime seemed to be upon me, so I opted for a nearby pizzeria, Finisterrae, which is on the piazza. My order of a Ghiotta was up in 12 minutes, by which time I managed to snag a single table. House wine, a glass of red, was a chianti. I wasn’t rushed, and got a page of journal written while I ate my pizza. I figured if I wanted dessert, I could get something on the street later. For then, I was happy.

The Piazza degli Uffizi is a long plaza paved in a diamond pattern of foot-square stones, between two mirrored buildings with three floors above a wide loggia and connected at the river end. Statues of notable Italians at fit into niches along the central walkway.

This included my favorite Renaissance Man, Leonardo da Vinci, between Leon Battista Alberti and Michelangelo Buonarroti, who were in turn bracket by Donatello and Dante Alighieri.

Our rendezvous point was down in the far corner by the river, under the statues of Galileo Galilei and Pier Antonio Micheli. As I was 10 minutes early, I (jay)walked across the one-way Lungarno to view the Arno as I was between the Ponte Vecchio and Ponte alle Grazie.

The Albertans were at the corner when I came back, and Giocomo showed up behind me. He told us the students had only booked for the morning, so it would just be the 6 of us. Trolling past a long queue of tourists, our “skip the line” worked again. And we headed in. Giocomo had a routine and itinerary for the 75 minutes we’d be there, and we followed like sheep. Rather than my seriously photobombed pictures, I’m providing 2 YouTube videos – the first is 5 minutes and hosted by Rick Steves; the second with considerably more content is 30 minutes by Andy’s Awesome Adventures.

While we all could have probably spent the full afternoon there, our guide had more to show us of Florence. Out to the Arno, we walked up to the Ponte Vecchio under the enclosed walkway of the Medici. On arriving at the bridge, he talked about the multiple crossings of the Arno, their histories, and pointed out his favorite shops as we walked across the river. (Yes, it felt like he was promoting.) He pointed us towards the Boboli Gardens with the suggestion we visit when we had time. We then set off towards Ponte Santa Trinita, giving us a great view of the dome of the Duomo. We crossed and while in front of the Basilica di Santa Trinita, he ended the tour with a discourse on the “other” churches in Florence.

Note: while a guide is helpful at times, and having pre-purchased admission tickets is definitely the way to visit popular museums, I would suggest that the tour would have been organized better by ending each session at that particular museum, so that participants could chose to stay longer. Entry at the starting time does mean that the group enters during its admission window, however.

Not yet 4pm, I took advantage of being by the basilica and visited. Romanesque façade, the church has about 20 chapels, many with notable art. Somewhat dark, and poorly documented (for the English-speaking tourist), I did learn it is the mother church for the Vallumbrosan Order of monks since 1092. Most notable are the chapels of Sassetti and Bartolini Salimbeni. I was glad to have the opportunity to visit.

Upon exiting, I started heading towards the hotel. The interesting statues on the Baroque façade of Chiesa dei Santi Michele e Gaetano intrigued me enough to want to check out the interior. Entering, my eyes were immediately drawn to the cornice, that area at the top of the columns on either side of the arches. Statues depicting the apostles were at the arch level, and a bas relief of a scene (usually their martyrdom) was on the column below. The white marble statues and bas reliefs stood out against the dark gray of the arches and columns. The chapels were equally ornate to the main altar, in full uber-Baroque style.

As I was getting closer to the train station, I came across the basilica for which it is named. A Dominican church, the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella has a façade that blends Romanesque and Gothic. Dominicans were planners, and knew that they could capitalize on this building. The side façades were extended to allow for sarcophagi to be placed alongside the exterior of the church. Chapels were established with wealthy Florentines’ patronage to ensure them burial places on hallowed grounds. The pulpit, designed by Brunelleschi, achieved note as the source of the first condemnation of Galileo. The basilica definitely belonged on my list.

Looking for an alternate route, I took some smaller streets, which took me by the Mercato Centrale. Too late to take a trip through, I put it on my list for tomorrow. I passed a restaurant, La Cucina del Garga, which looked interesting, and thought I might return for dinner tonight, as I had no direction from Elisa on this, a non-ViaHero day. When I got to the hotel, I went up to the room and wrote in my journal for an hour, and for the second, I started on today’s blog. At eight I headed out for dinner, aiming for Garga. Being a holiday evening, I had no idea if there would even be room, but they had three open tables, so I entered.

With two rooms, one in oranges with paintings on the walls, the other rather eclectic with modern art hung tightly together, I took my chances. The maître headed into the latter, and I was seated next to a statue reproduction of a naked golden god. My waiter was a character, flirting shamelessly with everyone in the room. That certainly kept me in good humor, watching his antics. To start: a variation on bruschetta, with half being a green version made with zucchini. I ordered a bottle of a Roero Arneis from Bruno Giacosa, a white from northwest of Alba in the Piedmonte. For my primi, the Tagliatelle del “Magnifico” con panna, scorze di arancia e limoni, menta, cognac e parmigiano. And because I was pretty close to being beef-ed out, the Petto di pollo alla “Chantal” con asparagi e salsa cremosa alla senape.

The zucchini bruschetta were pretty good – definitely worth trying to make once I get home. The wine was superb, a nice dry light wine with citrus overtones and a light caramel finish. The pasta was truly wonderful, a nice mix of the citrus zest with mint and cognac and the cheese. And I bet it’s not that hard to make either. They had run out of asparagus, so the chicken came with broccoli, which just meant that my pee won’t smell tonight. The chicken had been marinated before cooking in a semi-dry white wine and it went so nicely with the mustard sauce. And I didn’t miss having cow at all.

Carlo was pushing the cheesecake for dessert tonight, but after last night, I had to give that a rest as I’m not sure much could stand up to it. Asking about the alternatives, he offered a dish of fresh berries in crème anglaise, which was a winner for me. Blueberries, blackberries and raspberries, a sprig of mint, a dusting of powdered sugar and the cream. With a cookie. Light, fresh and hit the spot.

Mellow and full, I strolled back the block or so to the hotel. Downloading the pictures, charging the batteries, and finishing the blog: that’s my routine. My time tomorrow is untimed, so I can sleep later and have breakfast (before 9) to start my last day in Florence.

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