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31 May 2020 - Day 50 – Florence, Day 2

Sunday, Pentecost, and the start of my eighth week of this trip. Breakfast was included with the Hotel St James booking, so once presentable, I headed to the dining room. Fruit, pastries, cereal, cold cuts, bread, coffee and tea were laid out buffet style, and tables were set in groups of four. About half the tables were occupied, another quarter had yet to be cleared, so I found a table and left my rucksack. Selecting a banana, a hard-boiled egg, several slices of cheese and some bread, I brought my plate back. I returned with a bowl of caffe crème and a cornetti. Conversation in the room was low, murmurs mostly, as the sun poured in the windows. The weather would be partially cloudy, in the 70’s again. Blessed weather for tourism, and much better than this time last year, when there was a serious heat wave. (My brother Bob and his wife Linda were travelling in southern Europe then, while I was leaving for Britain.)

My plans for #Florence today were to start at the Pitti Palace, and move to the Boboli Gardens. Following Elisa’s careful and detailed instructions, I’d secured tickets for each. Her introduction in my #ViaHero trip guide is worth sharing:

Let's dedicate this morning to the visit of Palazzo Pitti and Boboli Gardens. This enormous palace is one of Florence's largest architectural monuments. The original palazzo was built for the Pitti family in 1457, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and built by his pupil Luca Fancelli.

Today, the Pitti Palace houses some of the most important museums in Florence: on the first floor is the Palatine Gallery, containing a broad collection of 16th and 17th century paintings (including works by Raphael). On the ground floor and mezzanine is the Treasury of the Grand Dukes (formerly known as the Silver Museum or Museo degli Argenti) displaying a vast collection of Medici household treasures. The Gallery of Modern Art is on the top floor, holding a collection of mostly Italian 19th and 20th century paintings.

Behind the palace lie the famous Boboli Gardens. They're the largest monumental green area in Florence and one of my favorite spots, especially on a nice sunny day. Boboli Gardens are an open-air museum filled with attractions: Buontalenti's Grotto, the Amphitheather with the Roman basin and the Egyptian obelisk at the center, Neptune's Fishpond, the Grand Duke's Casino, the Cavalier's Garden, Parigi's Fountain of the Ocean.

The two-kilometer walk would take me back past the cathedral to cross the River Arno at the Ponte Vecchio. The Palazzo Pitti is open for 5 hours starting at 8:30 Tuesdays to Sunday, so I was out the door of the hotel shortly after 8am for the half hour stroll. I knew I can’t do a museum for the full hours open, but I figured I get in early to get ahead of any Sunday crowds or organized tours.

I started on the ground floor with the Treasury of the Grand Dukes. [Much better professional pictures of these wonderful works can be seen online at the museums’ website, while here I’ve copied some examples.] I continued to the mezzanine sweeping through these marvels, focusing on the several which truly intrigued me. I didn’t want to hit saturation too soon!

Working my way up a level, I entered the Palatine Galleries. With heavy gilt frames mounted on walls covered with burgundy silk, and monumental crown molding, the paintings are placed much too closely to do them justice. Walking from salon to salon, I’d stand back, spot the ones I was most curious about, and after studying it, find out the painter and subject. While I typically spot 1 or 2 in a room (say at the national gallery in DC), here it was more like one per wall. I then ventured on to the Imperial and Royal Apartments. These residents obviously knew how to live to the fullest.

Mounting to the second level, I’ll admit to making a cursory tour through the Museum of Costume and Fashion. For me, clothes need only to be functional and comfortable, so historic examples don’t really appeal to me. Gaining the Gallery of Modern Art, while feeling a little fatigued, my interest did pick up. Nineteenth and twentieth century painting has been a preference for me. While most (?all?) of these artist, mainly Italian, are unknown to me, there were a number I’d welcome to my walls.

I was ready to get outside. Though these gardens are known mostly for their formal layouts and sculpture, it is the end of May and flowers were blooming. My favorite were probably the roses – I’ve probably inherited my paternal grandfather’s interest in roses, although I’ve never been into growing them as he did. Besides, they do poorly in Florida. But strolling the expansive area and having places to sit and just observe was so relaxing.

Relaxed, I was getting hungry. Elisa’s notes included three places to get a quick bite. They involved crossing the Arno, so I walked across on Ponte alle Grazie to All’Antico Vinaio.

And I ordered what she recommended: super filled "focaccia" bread with "Spalla Toscana" (a Tuscan typical cut of ham), Pecorino toscano (a typical Tuscan cheese, with a very intense flavor) and sundried tomatoes. When I got there, there was a queue of about a dozen, which I was given to understand was “short”. I guess all good Italians in #Firenze were home for Sunday dinner. To my benefit. And, as I finished paying, there was a small table that just got free, so I was able to sit and get a large glass of red. Someone somewhere was smiling down on me. And it was delicious and filling.

Finishing about 14:30, I had three hours before my next rendezvous, and my instructions were to stroll through the #PonteVecchio area. The implication was to window shop, as the bridge itself is lined with small family-owned shops. Not a hardship, and I’d be able to people watch as well. During the period, I probably took 200 pictures, and rather than sifting through them to find two handfuls to include, here’s a 4-minute YouTube with no narration that pretty much summarizes my time on and in the neighborhood of the bridge.

Elisa had recommended seeing Florence from the water, and to enjoy an aperitivo aboard a traditional Florentine gondola. The suggestion was for sunset, but there are two launches and I was on the later at 6pm, but sundown is just before 9 tonight. We met at the Piazza Menana. I’m going to quote the website:

“… you will meet your friendly and knowledgeable guide, who will start to tell you about the city as you stroll through the elegant Piazza Signoria and below the Uffizi Gallery, from where there is a great view of the Ponte Vecchio. When you reach the “embarcadero” (landing point), you are welcomed aboard your “barchetto”. This is, itself, a little piece of the history of Florence. Back in the 14th century, the residents of Florence invested in strong walls to protect their city and the “barchetti” were used to carry the building materials to where they were needed. Only a handful of these original boats are still in use on the Arno. Coming from a time long before there were engines, the boats are steered by a “barcaiolo” (boatman) using a long pole instead of oars. This means that there is nothing to disturb the peace of the evening and you can focus on the view around you as your guide explains what you are seeing.

From the river you will have an outstanding overview of many of Florence’s most famous attractions. The Arno is famous for the many picturesque bridges which link its banks. In addition to the Ponte Vecchio itself, you will also be able to see the Ponte Santa Trinita, built in the 16th century, it is the oldest known elliptic arch bridge anywhere in the world. There are also a number of magnificent palazzi along its banks, in particular Palazzo Corsini. You guide will show you the route of the secretive Vasari Corridor, which was built on the orders of Cosimo I de Medici to provide the Medici family with a convenient and private route between their private residence and the government palace. As the tour comes to a close, the early evening sunshine turns to a magnificent sunset, which bathes the city in golden red light and casts a wonderful reflection on the river. You can take in this stunning view as you sip your complementary glass of Prosecco and nibble an aperitivo from an exclusive spot on the riverbank.”

Well, back in January when I read this, I was sold. And the ride lived up to the trip. Probably another 100 or more photos, so I’ll just post 3. With 20 folks on board, it was a little snug, and the parasols did get in the way at times. The guide “Pete” had good English, was somewhat of a character, and kept us all entertained.

The trip lasted 75 minutes, the prosecco and nibble were standard fare. We got on the barchetto between the Ponte Santa Trinita and Ponte Veccho, so when we debarked, I was about 10 minutes from Ristorante “Paoli” where I had my dinner reservation. With 40 minutes, it meant a slow stroll, as I wasn’t going to hustle back to the hotel to change. I spent a little time watching folks back at the Piazza della Signoria, the square in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, which I’ll be visiting on Tuesday.

Still, it was a chance to get a few shots in. This was deep in shopping and tourist country, so I was cautious and aware of my surroundings. I arrived safely at #RistorantePaoli.

A known restaurant (1827), Paoli has a tradition for authenticity. Steak Florentine is a dish known worldwide, and this seemed like the place to give it a try. A relatively underlit space, Elisa had suggested that I might not notice the frescoes that fill the walls and arches above the seating space, but I was impressed. After studying the menu (no, I wasn’t trying to memorize it, and it was fortunately in both Italian and English), I chose the Bruschetta al pomodoro fresco as a light starter. To follow as my primi Tagliolini all “Paoli”. At that point, I needed to order a wine, as the bruschetta really didn’t call for anything in particular. A supertuscan fan, I opted for Vigorello San Felice, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and pugnitello and touch of petit Verdot. Then for the main, “La Magnifica” Bistecca alla Fiorentina; this had to be ordered by the kilo, and so I’m mentally figuring out how much cow I want to eat. I opted for just under a third of a kilo, which would be near three-quarters of a pound. Medium, hoping that it came out closer to medium rare. With roasted potatoes and a small salad.

That’s a lot of food. The bruschetta came with caramelized whole baby onions, which I’m going to have to figure out how to make. The wine was opened, and started out at a peak and only continued to get better. A winner! The pasta was almost fettucine, but a tad wider, but the ragu “Paoli” was a variation on Bolognese without tomato, but included pine nuts and diced garlic. Another one I’m going to strive to duplicate. Then the steak arrived, and it was cooked to perfection. Juicy, tender, the waiter made a big production of slicing it off the bone and into strips. Too many potatoes, but they were tasty too. After taking a breather, the salad was refreshing and a good afterthought. Then they pulled up the dessert cart. I was almost stuffed. Most of the choices looked too rich, so I opted for a strawberry concoction that had a cookie, something like rice pudding, whipped cream and berries. I mainly ate the strawberries, but sampled the other elements.

While I know cappuccino is not an after-dinner beverage in Europe, they obviously accommodate us, and they even were able to make me one with decaf. A grappa appeared while it was being made, so I had my firewater before try and write anything remotely creative. Leaving a handsome tip for the vast staff that made the evening such a treat, I headed out to the street.

Down to the corner, I turned north and walked in front of the cathedral, continuing past the Palazzo Medici Riccardi to the Piazza San Marco. A left and I was down the block from the Hotel.

The front desk staff greeted me and asked how my day had been. They were impressed with both on my dining venues, asking how I knew about them. (Thank you, Elisa!) I headed upstairs, finished a few more notes in the journal, downloaded the pictures and started writing the journal. I’m up earlier again tomorrow, on a day trip, so I expect I’ll sleep soundly.

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