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A Tale of 3 Cities Pt. 2


Hope you haven’t been waiting on the edge of your seats too much! Here’s the continuation of the thriller in this 3-part adventure…

Getting on the train to Florence was somewhat of a struggle, as there was no room to stand at all! It was just a jumbled mess of bodies packed into the carriage. There was room enough to stand and swivel, but that was it. We stood there like sardines in a can for an hour, before the doors thankfully opened up and we spilled out of them faster than I can rattle off a half a dozen corny jokes. Making our way through the mob, we regrouped in the center of the station and began to set up a plan of action. Rosalind had bought us tickets for the Ufizzi Art Gallery (only the “premiere” Renaissance Art Gallery), so we needed to be there in the next half hour to make our time slot. When we burst out of the station, we were blinded by the brilliance of the sun that shone down on that cloudless day. Making our way through the crowded, narrow, streets, we struggled to make it in time as we beat back the swarms of people that stood in between us and Caravaggio’s masterpieces. When we did get there, the line seemed to stretch down through street after street. It would be at least forty-five minutes before we would even get inside, so several of us split off in search of food. I found a delicious pizza place that served heaven on a breaded triangle slathered in juicy tomato sauce. By the time we were done eating, the line was almost at the entrance. Hopping back into the queue, we began to make our way through the Uffizi.


As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not much of an art aficionado, so I may not have appreciated the frames that hung on those walls as much as I should have. What I found interesting was the history and the backstory behind each painting: what inspired the artist behind their work. Alas, I had no tour guide leading me, so I hopped from group to group and heard a bit about a painting before moving on to find a new group. Bits and pieces of AP Euro from 10th grade would come back to me at times. We spent a good bit of the class learning about art from different periods, so it was fascinating seeing some of the famous pieces in person. The museum itself was massive and every inch of it was decked out with artwork, sculptures, showrooms: you name it. Even the ceiling was a fresco of a glass-covered roof! My favorite exhibit was that on Leonardo da Vinci. It had some of his original pencil sketches on display.

While I zoomed through the entire gallery in an hour and a half (I look at art quickly, what can I say?), the others progressed more slowly and filtered out one by one around the two-hour mark. Lorenzo got so caught up in the artwork that he spent an extra half-hour enjoying it all. Once we were all back together, we made a new plan of action: head back to the hotel, unload our hefty bags, and head back out on the town. We would split up from Maggie and Glen, who were staying close by to us. Before we departed, we grabbed some dessert and I chowed down on a real canoli. Now, I’ve been eating canolis for a long, long, time, and - sad to say - this didn’t live up to my expectations. The crust was a bit too crunchy and the entire thing was short and compressed. The entrance to our hotel took some serious detective work in finding, but once there, it felt incredible to remove the sweat-soaked bags from off of our weary backs. After a half hour in this state of relaxation, we geared up and got ready for the next trek. Getting some advice from the check-in desk, our new mission would have us stopping by several Florentine landmarks on the way to our end goal: the Piazza Michelangelo. From here, he assured us, would be the best view of the city (and he didn’t lie!).


Meeting up with Glen and Maggie outside of a 500-year-old church, the first stop on our list had us walking through an open-air forum. Within fifty feet of it, the smell of leather was so overwhelming that it could almost knock you back. Its vendors sold everything and anything in leather. The most common products were wallets, jackets, purses, belts, and shoes. We perused the shelves, but there wasn’t much you could buy unless you didn’t mind selling a kidney. A five-minute walk from here, our next site was the star attraction of Florence: the Duomo. You could see the Duomo from almost anywhere in the city. It had an intimidating presence the closer you got, as the sheer magnitude of its massive dome seemed to block out the sky. Making our way through the crowds of people milling around its exterior, we stopped for pictures and a chance to take it all in. As one of Florence’s iconic sites, its well worth a visit. After fueling up with gelato, we began to make our way to the next site on our laundry list: the Golden Gate Bridge. Ok, no, that’s a lie. However, the bridge that we went to is still a magnificent feat of engineering. The Ponte Vecchio is a 3-story masterpiece that houses high-end shopkeepers fifty feet above a river. I guess retail space is so precious in Florence that, even on this narrow strip of land, they had to find a way to sell you more things.


On the other side, our adventure continued on. Now, we were within a twenty-minute walk of the Piazza and it was starting to get towards 6pm. We had heard that there would be fireworks at 10pm, so we wanted to be up on the Piazza around 9pm to get a good view. We headed over to the Palazzo Vecchio, a giant castle, and played around on its sloping concrete rampway. There was an adjoining park to it, but they were closing just as we walked up. Even with my smooth moves that I laid on ‘em, they still wouldn’t let me through (Maybe if I’d told them a pun, things would have gone differently…). Despite the setback, we decided that we were hungry enough to find somewhere to eat. Walking towards the Piazza Michelangelo, we found a smattering of restaurants nestled at the base of the hill that the Piazza is perched on top of. I had been looking forward to eating some true Italian pizza (and not just a single piece like earlier), so there was no doubt in our minds as we walked into a cozy place with the word “Pizza” scrawled across its entrance. We each got our own personal pizza and had a great time sharing among the different flavors before us. Our host was warm and funny, offering great suggestions on pizzas. When it came to dessert, I caved and ordered a dessert that was a delicious combination of a chocolate-filled funnel cake. As a struggling choco-holic, I feel an urge to eat chocolate whenever I can.


After this much-needed respite, we were ready to move on once again. Trudging up the hill, we were at the summit in ten minutes. As we made our way over to the Piazza, the crowds of people became thicker and standing room decreased dramatically. Unfortunately for us, the Piazza was closed for the fireworks! Standing at the edges of the police barriers were crowds of people waiting like us: they knew that this would be the best spot to watch from. However, with an hour and a half to go until 10pm, we got antsy and decided to try our luck somewhere away from the crowds. We saw it come into view as we backtracked away from the Piazza: a giant mansion with a clear view of the city, but guarded by thick, wrought-iron gates. We saw people up there, so we knew that there had to be a way to get in. Rosalind, Lorenzo, and I split off and took a circuitous route around the side of the mansion and through some woods. The trail took us past a WWI statue and the sounds of a concert drifted up to us through the trees. Within a couple minutes, we reached winding switchbacks lined with cars that led to the entrance of our mystery mansion. Going through its arched entrance, we found the Florentine skyline open up in front of us. There was a large, sandy square, with steps leading down to a cemetery and the same iron gate from before. The area was relatively uncrowded, so we knew we had a good find. We grabbed some seats on the steps and spent the next half hour watching the sun go down. Tonight, it gave us a brilliant display of orange, violet, and red that was eventually swallowed up by the clouds. I love watching sunsets because it signifies the end of another day of living: another day where anything is possible. Seeing it go down is a reminder of the preciousness of time and how important it is to be thankful for everything you have. It definitely helps keep me grounded.


Shortly after 10pm, the fireworks display began to beat back the darkness and light up the night sky. It was a long show (about 30 minutes) with many cool pyrotechnic tricks. Bright bursts of red, green, and white were intermittent reminders of Italy’s colors. The finale was a slow buildup in intensity and frequency of fireworks, until there were so many that it looked like permanent splotches of color were fixed to the night sky. When the show ended, it took some time for our eyes to adjust back to the darkness after the explosion of light. Following the crowds, we trekked back down the switchbacks and began the tiresome half-hour walk to our hotel. Before we got back, we couldn’t resist getting gelato at least once more for the day. Melon seemed to be the popular flavor among our group, although Jake was trying Tiramisu gelato at every stand to find the best one. By 11:30pm, we were finally back in our room for the night. I was so exhausted that I fell asleep in the middle of the next day’s planning. Apparently, I continued to be part of the conversation and decision-making, but I have no recollection of it.


When I did wake up at 6:30am (see, sleeping in again!), I took a quick jaunt around our neighborhood in search of breakfast and anything that might be of interest. During my walk, I came across a little church tucked away in a square. Its exterior was unassuming, but upon stepping inside, it opened up to beautiful frescoes and intricate architecture. It was the last thing I expected to see. When I entered, several nuns shot me dirty looks for wearing shorts, so I slid into a pew as fast as I could to blend in and remove their wrath from me. Just as I was getting ready to go and leave this holy place, my phone picked the worst time to inform me that I had received a text message. I guess I had forgotten to turn off my ringer (whoops). Now, those wrathful gazes swiveled back onto me like Sauron’s eye and I beat it out of there as fast as I could.


Returning to the hotel, I met up with Lorenzo and Rosalind for a continuation of the morning adventure. We spent an hour and a half walking around the narrow streets of the Northeast corner of Florence and seeing the city slowly come to life. Circling back to the Duomo, we arrived around 9:15am to stand in the line to get inside. Although it didn’t open until 10am, there were already thirty people in front of us. As one of the most famous churches in the world, the line can stretch so far that you might end up spending two hours or more waiting. Not far from us was a large open-air market, so Lorenzo was nice enough to hold our place in line while Rosalind and I went to check it out. Leather vendors were everywhere again, and inside the main building, tiny stalls sold all varieties of fresh produce. There were meats, spices, local vegetables, and our favorite, the dried fruit. Although we couldn’t stay long, we promised that we would return here to show Lorenzo. We arrived back at the Duomo right at 10am and hopped back in line, which began to steadily progress forwards. When we did get inside, I’ll admit that I was a bit underwhelmed. Most of the area was cordoned off and you couldn’t really see the church. The ceilings stretched to the Heavens, but even the cool factor from that wore off after a bit. Downstairs was an exhibit featuring the construction of the Duomo, but it required tickets in advance (of which we did not have). In short, the Duomo is somewhere you can go to say that you’ve been, but for a college student it may not be as spectacular as you think.

Leaving the Duomo, we still had two hours to kill before we needed to make our 1:15pm train. Like we promised Lorenzo, we headed back to the open-air market to check it out again. We spent some time haggling with vendors, tasting free samples, and getting lost in the stalls. He loved the place just as much as us. Then, as if the market wasn’t enough for us, we decided to break our banks at the worst possible place: a 1-euro store. Akin to a dollar general, we picked up lunch and souvenirs at dirt-cheap prices. We found a bench on a small side street and dove into our snacks while mopeds and carts trundled past in front of us. When we finished, we still had an hour to kill, so we made our way North of the station to a small park that was home to a fountain. It blew a refreshing mist onto us that quickly evaporated in the hot sun. This was one of those rare moments that I wished I could hit the fast forward button and skip ahead an hour. Normally, I feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day to get everything done. Now, however, it seemed that there was an abundance of free time, which is something strange and foreign to me after these past 2 years at Georgia Tech. I should appreciate the fact that there were no obligations, deadlines, or places to be for that hour, but mostly I was just bored.

At long last, the time arrived and we met up with Smalls and Jake inside the train station. Maggie and Glenn were on a wine tour, so they would be joining us in Venice later that evening. The past few days had felt like a whirlwind of never-ending activity. I was especially excited for Venice: next to Paris, Venice was the city that I’d always dreamt about visiting. I’m not particularly sure why, but I was not a huge fan of Florence. It might have been the incredibly crowded streets that made me nervous about knocking over people (being the giant that I am). Maybe it was the sensory overload of how much history the city has. I could spend a week studying an individual street, but with only a day to fit it all in, it was like getting a single bite of a sampler platter rather than getting the full entrée. Or maybe it was the heavy emphasis on art, which I lack the sophistication to appreciate. Of my “Favorite Cities of Italy” list, Florence comes in 3rd. However, in just a few short hours, I would be in the city of my dreams: Venice.

Posted by oklempay 11:02 Archived in Italy Tagged italy florence fireworks duomo pizza piazza forum mansion gelato uffizi caravaggio ap_euro Comments (0)

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