June 2011
More photos here

Wednesday 1st June

A bit of preamble...three trips to Florence and Venice in the early 90s were what led to the love of these places that had inspired this site. I have since made a fair few visits in the noughties to Venice, but spent only a few days in Florence in 2007. A good reacquainting week here was therefore more than overdue. So two weeks after our return from Vienna it's back to Gatwick and the long snake of the easyJet check-in queue. But a fresh experience comes next as we're discreetly funnelled upstairs to Gatwick's new automated boarding-card-checking gates and somewhat slicker security rigmarole. All watched over by many people with clipboards. Exciting! After the Vienna flights it was also refreshing not to be engulfed in a boisterous school party on the flight. More kids than usual, truth be told, it being half-term, but they were not so badly behaved.

At Pisa Airport we dutifully went to queue lengthily at the train ticket window to the right, only to find that there are queue-free ticket machines on the platform which presumably DON'T charge the €2 booking fee that you pay at the ticket window. There wasn't a direct train for a good while so we got the next train, to Pisa Centrale. There we were confused by the fact that there are three platform 1's, the other two being called 1 Est and 1 Ovest (1 East and 1 West). After a bit of a run we made the about-to-leave Firenze train. Our relief was somewhat tempered by realising we were sharing a compartment with - of course! - a school party of English teenage girls. And they were so keen to share their crap music played tishily on their mobiles. And to shout 'Oh. My. God!'  loudly, at regular intervals. And the train was the slow train - stopping almost everywhere in Tuscany before arriving in Florence in the middle of the following week. OK, it was just over two hours, and it is advised that you avoid making this same mistake, if at all possible, as the direct train is supposed to take an hour. So we arrived in Florence not exactly without headaches and grumps. Check in at the Unicorno - a somewhat basic joint that we'd stayed at before - was quick and painless. Hallelujah! Being sent up to the third floor was a little unnerving: it's all new up there and the keycard swiping and putting it in the slot when you get in your room was not something I'd had to deal with before. Slick new fixtures, anyway, even if the dark Formica-y furnishings are a bit 70s.

Unpacking was followed by a walk along and over the Arno, to reassure ourselves that Florence is all still gritty and looming and chunky and lovely. Then it was back through Piazza della Signoria to La Grotta di Leo near the hotel for tasty pizzas and needed beers. A gelato (peach and coconut) from the corner joint in Piazza Santa Maria Novella made for a nice nightcap. This piazza (see photo above right) has been spruced up muchly in recent years and is now much less squalid and full of dubious types than it once was. Back to the hotel for some much-needed (trip writing-up and) sleep.


Thursday 2nd June

The swank hotel we stayed in in Vienna last month had a breakfast bar that had everything, almost literally. The Unicorno in no way competes, but we're paying much less so what can we expect? Becoming a hotel snob? Moi?

Intending to visit the Museo Horne - a highlight of a past trip of Jane's that she wanted to share -  we headed east this morning. The church of San Gaetano (i.e. the one that looks like it's made of cork) had invitingly open doors so we made a detour to look inside. It has that dark and grey thing going on inside, tempered only a little by the light grey thing, some impressive art and sculpture; but no English guiding, no English guide book, and no mention in the Rough or Everyman's guides. Shame. Heading on past the Duomo we found a food shop selling my fave San Benedetto water for 60 cents a bottle, which seemed a good omen. Finding that the Museo Firenze Com'era (Museum of the History of Florence) had closed last October was a less good portent, so our surprise was not vast at finding the Museo Horne closed with no explanation. It turns out that the Florence History museum has closed pending the vague promise of a city museum in the Palazzo Vecchio in the future. Why the Horne was closed was anyone's guess.

So, a good time to take some cultural refuge in Santa Croce. If you (like us) haven't been in a while you'll need to know that entry is now a very slick process and takes place through the loggia around the left of the church. €5 gets you in, another five will get you a comprehensive audioguide, with a map giving the numbers for all the various works and some general topics like the building of the church, and why it's so typically Franciscan, and stuff. And if you're showing too much flesh there are fetching blue capes to wear around shoulders or legs so as to not give offence. Inside, Santa Croce is calming and spiritual, rather than aesthetically overawing, and this is all very Franciscan we're told. I got far more out this visit than previously, partly thanks to the audioguide, and the fact of more bits being accessible, I think. The Pazzi Chapel is an old favourite space, and there are some special tombs. I recommend the odd Corridor of the Romantic Tombs too (see photo below right), off the first cloister. After a few hours the old Stendhal Syndrome was setting in and so we decided to break for lunch.

Lunch was taken in Baldobar, a little way down the street past Santa Croce's entrance loggia, and was, for me, a very nice mozza/tom/pesto panino. During this time it was noticed that someone had inadvertently bought the Santa Croce guide book in Italian, necessitating said person having to slip back in past the understanding entrance guards to do a swap. There was some show/dance/event thing, called Notre Dame de Paris, on in the piazza in front of Santa Croce at the time so the whole square  was a mess of scaffolding and seating. On the way back to the hotel for a siesta I took us by the Gelateria dei Neri and had the fig and walnut sorbet with the Mexican spiced chocolate, which were the most fun my mouth has had in ages. Truly special flavours. The walk back unfortunately exposed the sore lack of shops selling either cakes or chocolate for a chap to nibble on with his afternoon tea, so a prosaic Kit-Kat from a tabaccheria had to suffice. Oh how I suffer!

An evening stroll passing San Lorenzo to (not) find a particular record shop from my last trip. East into Piazza Santissima Annunziata as it's an old fave, but not helped currently by the plywood Disney roadshow thingy being set up there. We then made our way to La Lampara in Via Nazionale, a large but trustworthy restaurant from past trips. And it still is both those things. I hallucinated that two of the waiters were the same, but as our last visit was 1994 I must be wrong. Almost opposite is the Gelateria Il Triangolo delle Bermuda, famed for its odd flavours. I had cinnamon and mango, which were yummy and unspecially vaguely fruit-flavoured respectively. A quick sit and atmosphere-soak in Piazza Santa Maria Novella was had, before returning to the hotel for typing and sleeping.


Friday 3rd June

I had it in my mind that I'd read somewhere that today was a public holiday in Italy. Opening my window this morning the sudden lack of double glazing had resulted in swarms of traffic noise sounding much busier than yesterday. Asking at the front desk it turns out that yesterday was the holiday, which may explain the Museo Horne being shut with no notice, and the - with hindsight - rather large number of closed shops. So, with the happy prospect of no closures today we made off over into the Oltrano. Firstly to San Frediano, the church with the perky orange dome visible over the other side of the Arno to the east. It has the traditionally no-façade Weetabix effect facing a small piazza by the riverside. Inside it's airy and two-tone white and grey, with the grey being very bluish. It's very 18th Century inside and low-key Baroque, with three interconnected open chapels down each side of the nave (see photo of one of them right).  But with no mention in my Rough Guide, and no info available inside the church, that's about as much as I can tell you. Someone should do a website... We were making for the Brancacci Chapel when we caught sight of the San Frediano gate to the city and decided to go and have a look. There's a bit of the old wall next to it too, and a typically unloved and dusty little park.

The Brancacci Chapel in the church of Santa Maria del Carmine is one of the glowing gems of Early Renaissance art. It used to be wooden-walled off from the main church, but now there's just ropes and an attendant. You enter to the right of the church and go through a cloister. You pay and go up some stairs, turn left and, there it is. There's a limit of 15 minutes and 30 people at busy times, but we were lucky. Being able to wander in the chapel or sit and scan it from benches in front makes for a more comfortable viewing experience than the walled-in days. If you've studied Renaissance art, formally or for pleasure, you'll have read much about the frescoes, especially Massacio's, but coming here is essential if you're a lover. I'm not claiming it beats the Sistine Chapel, but it ain't far off. The famous small panel of Adam and Eve being banished from paradise by Masaccio is worth the trip in itself. Work was started by Masaccio and his master Masolino in 1425-27. After Masolino pushed off to Hungary and Masaccio went to Rome the work halted. Later the patron Felice Brancacci fell into political disgrace and the chapel was renamed and the part of the fresco that featured the patrons was destroyed. Filippino Lippi finished the decoration later in the century.

We went around into the main church which is surprisingly huge, and which has some vertigo-inducing trompe l'oeil ceiling paintings (see a bit in the photo below right) and a stained-glass window with a panorama of Florence. It has shallow side altars down the nave and deep transepts, with the Brancacci Chapel at the end of the right-hand one.  The Corsini Chapel is at the end of the left one and is also impressive, for its sculpture this time. Again the actual church wasn't in the Rough or Everyman's guides, and I was forced to photograph the info board in the church. From this we learn that the current church is late Baroque, rebuilt after a fire, and that the impressive ceilings are by Giuseppe Romei and Domenico Stagi and unsurprisingly date from this late-18th Century rebuilding.

Walking towards the Boboli Gardens we found the church of Santo Spirito closing but we also found the Tabaccheria Ricchi in the piazza, which sells postcards (fridge magnets, tiles...) of the projections onto Santo Spirito's façade, showcased elsewhere on this site. And a book of them! And a goodly selection of those nice Pastiglie Leone sweeties that they sell in Venice. We were going to have a wander in the Boboli, but decided that
€9 each was a bit steep for a short pre-lunch constitutional. Maybe later in the trip, and for longer. After succumbing to the lure of some old-looking playing cards in one of the tempting paper-goods shops of which Florence is so full, we washed up at a restaurant called LungArno 23. With an impressive view over the river towards the Uffizi we had some tasty spaghetti in tomato and basil sauce with good bread. Returned to hotel, detouring via yesterday's gelateria. I had to have the spicy chocolate again, this time with pear. Jane had the mandarino. All very very flavoursome. The siesta followed.

In the evening we walked through to Piazza della Republicca, one of Florence's less lovely squares. We sat and watched the obligatory South American panpipe buskers setting up. This bunch had a generator and an electric keyboard and a certain new age vibe and quickly drew a crowd. But is it me or were they miming more than a little to recordings stored on the keyboard? After a bit of a wander we wended back to the Grotta di Leo for excellent pizzas and good cold beer. The gelato place in Piazza Santa Maria Novella was patronised again too, and they had the cinnamon flavour! Perfect.


Saturday 4th June

Today we headed off toward the Museo Horne again, stopping off at Santa Trinita. This church is famous for its Ghirlandaio frescoes in the Sassetti Chapel, another one of Florence's must-see chapels. St Francis raising a boy from the dead is the most famous scene, with the added interest of it being painted as having taken place outside this very church, with the fresco showing the original Romanesque façade. The design of this façade is visible still on the reverse of the façade. Like most of Florence's churches, apparently, this is big inside. This bigness is usually a reflection of the generosity of the donors, it seems, rather than the size of the congregation. And I presume that the, on the whole, much smaller churches found in Venice are down to the constraints of building on wooden piles driven into marshland (another big difference from Venice is how you are allowed to take photos inside the churches here. Although I still think that flash is a distraction that needs banning, this softer attitude here is most refreshing and helpful, for me anyway). This church is also fresco-fragment central, with lots of nice bits and more than its fair share of chapels all frescoed. It also has the chunky square dark grey supporting columns and pale walls with stripes: seemingly the Florence default style (see photo above, with the Sassetti Chapel to the right).

We were next distracted by a small church in a sweet little piazza with a dozing big brown dog. The church turned out to be called Santi Apostoli (I don't know what the dog was called) and there was a leaflet about the church on sale inside: hallelujah! It's small, rough and Romanesque inside, with no big-name art but lots of calm atmosphere (see photo above right). It contains the pieces of flint said to have come from the Holy Sepulchre which are struck on Easter Sunday to light the fire which is then processed to the Duomo where it is used to light the columbina, the rocket-propelled dove which flies on its wire to set off the famous firework display called the Scippio del Carro.

To the Museo Horne, finally. It's not an unmissably essential visit, but its always good to get into an actual old palazzo, and Horne collected some nice bits of stuff. Herbert Percy Horne was an art historian who lived from 1864-1916 and who revived Boticelli's reputation with a biography in 1908.  Those were the days: when art history earned you enough to buy huge palazzos in Florence. And to buy masses of tasteful items of Renaissance art, sculpture and furniture. Most of the exhibits are not by hugely famous names but all are of museum quality, I'd suggest, and well worth a look. The biggest draw is a bit of Giotto, but this was on loan to an exhibition in Rome. The courtyard is worth a look even if you don't go into the museum rooms (see photo right). It was good to finally get in: and for Jane to realise she'd never actually been here before, making her desire to share a favourite place a little misguided.

On our trips to Florence and Rome in the early 90s we became enamoured of the Twingo, a cute little car never made available in the UK. And we are usually NOT car fans. It's been nice to see some of these old favourites surviving the shame of the nasty redesign of the noughties, and posed nicely too (see photo below right).

Lunch was taken at the same place as Thursday, behind Santa Croce. We had the same panini and again watched hordes of - unvaryingly - Korean and Chinese people passing by in groups. I mentioned this to one of the restaurant's staff and she confirmed that the coach park was up the road, and we decided that the tourists from the countries concerned were more likely to travel in large guided groups than, say, Europeans. Returned to hotel via the Gelateria dei Neri (mandarino and cocco).

Another difference between here and Venice is that there you pay for your ice cream by the scoop, whereas here you pay for a  different size conno or coppa and then say what you want in it, including the number of flavours. I was curious whether the Grom branch here used the Florentine method and it does. It also has a shop opposite which has the largest selection of chocolate and sweeties I've seen since Selfridges, and some very suave flavours. I purchased a bar of milk chocolate flavoured with pear, almond and fig made by Baratti e Milano (which tasted like a Toblerone with a fruity tinge) and some 70% dark Lindt fig and caramel. Later we found the Lindt shop around the back of the Duomo and I didn't resist a Summer Special bar with a  biscuit and coconut filling (which turned out tasting of Bounty bar, without any appreciable biscuity crispness). 


Sunday 5th June

The traditional walk/slog up to San Miniato this morning. On the way to the Ponte Vecchio I think that I may have found the mystery street featured in the film Obsession (see photo right), but my screen grab from the DVD reveals quite a bit of  tarting up or post-production jiggery-pokery to add more subterraneanness.

So, over the Ponte Vecchio, around the side of the church and up the hill. The upness took its toll maybe a bit more this year what with the heat, our ages, etc. There was a service on when we got to San Miniato but after a wait in the sunshine the (very Italian-looking) congregation turned out and we tourists got in. It's a lovable mix of the rough and the frescoed and the polychrome marble inside, with stairs up to galleries and crypts behind all making for a variety of nicely explorable spaces. I didn't do any guidebooky stuff as the next service came along and a bell rang and we left. Next time. Had a little look and photograph around the bit of the cemetery in front of the church. We came back down via the rose garden and ended up lunching in an Indian/Italian restaurant right by the south end of the Ponte Vecchio. And I can report that the chick pea curry was delightfully spicy, and tomato-y. A treat. Which could only be followed by a cinnamon and raspberry coppa from the Piazza SM Novella gelateria. And a rest. But on the way back, the Arno was as still as a millpond. So I just had to take some classic picturesque reflecting photos (see below).

Post-siesta I got the netbook fired up and opened the room's windows to find considerable thundering and raining going on. The battering noise increased so I thought I'd better close said windows but got a soaking before I could do so and the floor got covered in a couple of dozen hailstones of considerable size. As I type it's still coming down in a manner that can only be described as biblical, truly. And, later, it's still coming down, and my room is leaking. And it went on for four hours. We made a dash for the Grotta di Leo and it finally stopped while we were in there. We had spaghetti, me in a carrettiera sauce (tomato, garlic and pepper) and  Jane with the puttanesca. As it was too wet for an al fresco gelato tonight I tried the Leo's  house speciality panna cotta, which came in a dark chocolate sauce and was really rather nice.




Monday 6th June

My pelmet is still dripping. To San Lorenzo this morning via the railway station, and on the way to the station we're distracted by the open door of San Paolino, in the street down the side of our hotel. It's a little late-18th Century place with pale greeny walls. A plain and nicely-proportioned interior (see photo right): it has two pairs of connected chapels in the nave and two more large altars in the shallow transepts. Also a lot of balconies, for some reason. The first chapel on the right as you enter is the most striking, with its pair of facing tombs with emerging skeletons (see photo below).

San Lorenzo is a desert-island church of mine, not visited these 16 years, so to say I was looking forward to getting inside is to say the least. The Brunelleschi calm inside is even more striking after the hustle of the piazza outside - one truly needs the pietra to be as serena as it can. It's not big on frescoes inside, although the big Bronzino of Saint Lawrence getting grilled is, well, big. Highlights are the cool cube of Brunelleschi's sacristy, an early work of his (so it was actually finished while he was alive) with its tomb of the first rich Medici plus decoration by Donatello. There's also a painting of the marriage of Mary in the second chapel on the right in which Joseph is a curly-haired youth, not the white-haired old geezer he's usually portrayed as. There is a strict no-photo rule in San Lorenzo which is also unusually strictly enforced. My hopes for a visit to the Medici Chapel again after said 16 years were cruelly dashed by the realisation that it's closed the 1st and 3rd Mondays of each month. Of course! How could I not have predicted that? Italians! Maybe, what with Berlusconi and all, they might be better off  letting someone else run things and get on themselves with cooking and making gelato.

The sore missing of a visit to the Medici Chapel left us with time to dash up and look inside the Foundling Hospital. This was new to both of us. Beyond the two fine cloisters by Brunelleschi - one unphotographably spoiled by lots of intrusive big blue signs, the other by a buffet being set up - you eventually reach the museum, up a long staircase. This long gallery contains mostly works donated by ex-foundlings who made it good, and mostly they seem to have been a pretty ungrateful bunch. But making the visit worthwhile, right near the end, is a Ghirlandaio alterpiece, The Adoration of the Magi, sparklingly restored, and taken from the church in the complex. This church is not visitable but right at the end of the museum floor you can peer down into it through the grills high up in the walls, as the inmates would have done.

Lunch was taken in a restaurant in the shadow of the Duomo, but it wasn't that expensive and the food was eminently edible. I had a cheese, fresh tomato and basil pizza and Jane had grilled vegetables and chips already. A classic chocolate and vanilla coppa from the place in Piazza SM Novella preceded the siesta.

I'm going to review it fully later but a boon on this trip for the answering of pressing questions and the providing of odd and fascinating facts has been Secret Florence. And this evening we let it lead us to a rare example of Art Nouveau in Florence (see detail from façade below). And wackily worth the detour it was too: especially as it's not that far from our hotel, being in Borgo Ognissanti, down by the Arno in the right hand corner of a piazza of the same name, on the directly opposite bank to San Frediano. We snuck into the Ognissanti church  too, but there was a service on, with nuns even, and so we'll try to get back there tomorrow, our last day, as it looked to be full of good stuff. The Borgo Ognissanti also contains the excellent English bookshop, remembered fondly from past visits. We walked through to Piazza della Signoria, which wasn't too heaving, and up around the Duomo to the Lampara again.


Tuesday 7th June

My pelmet has stopped dripping, but it is raining again this morning. It stopped very soon after breakfast, though, and out we went. To the Ognissanti church first, briefly visited yesterday evening. On the way we found the Ospedale di San Giovanni di Dio, with its spiffy staircase (see photo right) and Vespucci connections, which it shares with the Ognissanti church, the Vespucci being a local family whose son Amerigo had a continent named after him, says our guidebook: but it doesn't say which one. The original medieval Benedictine church was taken over by the Franciscans in 1561, who baroqued it up. Botticelli, another local lad, is buried here, but it's Ghirlandaio's work you come here for. His Madonna della Misericordia is on the right as you enter and is supposed to include a portrait of said Amerigo as well as Simonetta Vespucci, the mistress of Giuliano de' Medici and, reputedly, Botticelli's model for his Venus. Ghirlandaio's detached fresco of Saint Jerome is half way down on the left, and shows his technique and way with colour, or would do if it hadn't been replaced with a photograph mounted on board, with no confession or apology. Sigh. The trompe l'oeil ceiling is fine, though: dating from 1770, by Giuseppe Romei, who collaborated on the similarly impressive work in Santa Maria del Carmine over the Arno, seen on Friday (above). The ceiling here shows The Glory of St Francis and lots of vertigo-inducing architecture (see photo below right). To the left of the church is the entrance to the cloister, frescoed early in the 17th Century with scenes from the life of St Francis by Jacopo Ligozzi, Giovanni da San Giovanni, and others. The opposite corner of the cloister leads to the refectory and Ghirlandaio's Last  Supper, a treat improved no end by our having the refectory to ourselves. The underdrawing (or sinopia) for the fresco is displayed here too, discovered when the top layer was removed for repair after the 1966 flood. All most fascinating. And did you know that lettuces are symbolic of penitence, and apricots of sin? Me neither: educational, what! On our way to Santa Maria Novella Jane bought a cuddly toy bat - reversible (one side sleeping and the other awake) - and I bought some very cute little nail clippers. No, really.

Santa Maria Novella is one of our favourite places on earth. It has more Ghirlandaio, concentrated around the chancel and known as the Tornabuoni Chapel. This sequence represents scenes from the life of the Virgin and John the Baptist and has all the charm, hidden portraits of contemporaries and shear neck-wrenching wonderfulness that you expect from masterpiece frescos. There's also Masaccio's Trinity: an early example of in-your-face use of perspective, but moving and well, very red, too. These are the highlights of a church you could, and should, spend hours in. We will next time. Today we left the church and, paying some more euros, went into the cloister to the left, the Green Cloister. Here are frescos by Uccello, almost too flood-damaged and ghostly to appreciate. But here also is the Spanish Chapel, all frescoed in praise of the Dominican order by Andrea di Firenze in 1367-69, for Cosimo I's Spanish wife Eleanor of Toledo. The picturesque small Chiostrino dei Morti has been "being restored" for many years now and is still closed. The big cloister we're not allowed into as it's used by the Carabinieri, although you can see it through a door by the entrance to the church's odd little museum. Here you'll find reliquaries, robes, and a couple of 18th Century paintings restored using funds provided by Rotary Clubs in Berlin and ... Wanstead!

For lunch we took pot luck on a place nearby and enjoyed linguini with pesto and artichoke risotto, followed by a cinnamon and coconut gelato in Piazza SMNovella. Now, after the siesta, it's raining again, and my pelmet it drips.
To the old Grotta di Leo when the rain eventually stopped, for a final cipolla pizza and a berry panna cotta. Then, as Jane had decided to try out the train, I took her to the station to wait for the sleeper to Paris, where she will, she hopes, get a Eurostar before mid-day and be home before me. Me, I'll be easyJetting it tomorrow afternoon as planned.


Wednesday 8th June

After breakfast (who knew Nutella was so nice?)  I had a couple of hours before needing to catch the train to Pisa, allowing one last wander. Up past the Ufizzi and back, looking in some shops, resisting some retail temptation, and generally having a last soak-up of the whole Florence thing. And a last church, for a mid-morning breather. It was called San Remegio and is a big bare buff-coloured gothic box. Well it's bare of chapels and altarpieces, but full of bits of fresco and painted decoration (see photo right) and I liked it, especially as I had it to myself for so long.

The train journey from Florence to Pisa Centrale and on to Pisa Airport was without incident or problem, but I will point out that if you do this journey and are trudging through the underpass at Pisa Centrale heading for Platform 14, where the airport trains leave from, do check the little dot-matrix board for Platform 13, where it may be the train will be waiting, to confuse you. The wait for our easyJet was a confused farce of changing gates but when we got on the plane, about an hour late, I had three seats to myself, and good time was made. I was famished by then, though, and paid €7 for a 'Rustic' cheese salad baguette and a tiddly bottle of water. Worst. Baguette. Ever. We flew in at the wrong terminal at Gatwick but a bus took us right to passport control, so saving us the seemingly endless trek down corridors that you usually experience. All smoothness then: case on carousel when I got to it; short queue for rail tickets and plenty of booking windows open; good train connections; enough seats on trains; cats pleased to see me; etc.

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