I felt a little sad to leave Venice behind as we traveled by boat to the mainland. But I was super excited to see Florence! We headed south in our trusty Toyota, with a quick stop for pizza in Bologna on the way. Now let me tell you a little more about the car we own – a 2012 Toyota Avensis station wagon, a vehicle that is over 15 feet long and 6 feet wide. Not exactly the ideal car for a guy who’s owned several seriously fast motorcycles and has a restored 1968 muscle car back in Texas. But being the lame, no fun allowed wife that I am [insert sarcasm here], I had argued it’s great for transporting our two big, clumsy dogs and awesome for road trips, with plenty of space for four people and all their luggage.
Yes, this car has plenty of space on the inside, but it takes up way too much space on the outside for a city like Florence. Our hotel, Hotel Dali, was located in the heart of the historic city center and neatly tucked away between ancient buildings, stone walls, and surrounded by slim cobblestone streets. Parking your car in their lot required you to drive through what they called an archway and what we called a narrow tunnel. How many people does it take to get this 6-ft wide car through this “archway”?? The answer is five – the driver (Ross), the father-in-law (Barry), two random strangers on the street (Man #1 and Man #2), and the hotel manager (Marco). Barry is in front of the car, yelling directions, Marco is in back of the car, yelling directions, Man #1 is pointing and waving, traffic is completely blocked, and Man #2 is watching in disbelief as Ross has to make about a 27-point turn in reverse to maneuver our massive vehicle through this stone tunnel with about a two-inch leeway on either side. Marco is shaking his head with his hands covering his mouth the whole time, Joan and I are in the car with our eyes closed, and poor Ross is sweating and cursing. But…he did it! We made it through, no stone was chipped away, no scratches on the car. Marco was very impressed – he kept saying what a good driver Ross is. As we got checked in, Marco gave us a map of the city, telling us what to see and where they were located. Ross just couldn’t leave well enough alone and said, “Oh, that’s no problem – we’ll just drive there.” The look of panic over Marco’s face was priceless. “No, no, no – don’t drive!” he said. We assured him Ross was only joking, we weren’t planning on getting back into that car until we absolutely had to. It was quite humorous.
Florence may not be car-friendly, but it is a joy by foot. We really liked our hotel and the location was ideal. One thing we discovered very quickly is that, if you have a pension for leather goods, Florence is the place to be. There are tons of outdoor stalls and stores everywhere selling leather purses and wallets of every color, briefcases, and jackets. I think Joan and I looked in every one of them. I just couldn’t seem to make up my mind (what a surprise) and ended up leaving Florence without buying anything! So don’t make that mistake.
Another reason to come to Florence is for the art. It’s all about the art here and if you aren’t into art, chances are you will be by the time you leave. We took two different tours with a tour company called Art Viva, recommended by Marco. I am one of those people who likes art, but only on a surface level. It’s just something pretty to look at, but I’ve never taken an art history class or know much about artists or techniques. For someone like me, taking a tour with Art Viva was the best decision we made on the entire trip. Our guide, Brenda, was fantastic and we lucked out and had her for both of our tours.
Our first tour was to the Uffizi Gallery – a large museum packed with world-renowned paintings. Let me just warn you that this place is busy – crazy busy. Even though we were part of a scheduled guided tour, we still ended up waiting an hour to get in. But the wait was worth it and Brenda expertly maneuvered us through the hectic crowds for about 1.5 hours to see the highlights – seeing all the art in every room would have taken about 8 hours, she said, and I certainly don’t have the attention span for that. Brenda, a native Florentine, was so knowledgeable about all the art and artists, but more importantly, she was passionate about them. Her description of the techniques used and ability to point out minute details that my casual observation would surely have missed were eye-opening. Her juicy tidbits about the artists, who they loved, the politics of the era, and the motivations behind what they painted really drew you in and made you look at the art in a different way. I also liked the fact that they gave us headsets to wear that helped block out the surrounding noise, while allowing us to clearly hear what she was saying without her having to shout.
Our second tour with Brenda was my favorite, a visit to the Accademia Museum to view the statue of David by Michelangelo. This tour turned out to be quite an emotional experience for me. As we strolled through the streets on the way to the museum, Brenda conveyed the story of Michelangelo’s life and described what he was like as a person. She did an excellent job of building up the suspense before we even laid eyes upon David, telling us how passionate she is about David and visits him often, almost as if he were a living, breathing person. This may sound a little creepy, but it really wasn’t at all. And when I finally did lay eyes upon the marble man, at a towering 17 feet tall, I could completely relate. David truly is perfect and so spectacular, he took my breath away. LIke I mentioned, I’ve always been just a casual observer of art. And I’ve never really admired statues or appreciated the work required to chisel one out of a solid block of stone. But I had a very emotional reaction to seeing David – I was so awestruck that it took everything I had not to start sobbing right there. I felt embarrassed, I could feel my eyes burning and turning red, but he was just so incredible! Since then, I have heard of others having this reaction to David, so now I don’t feel quite so weird about it, but it was definitely a first for me. And Brenda, once again, was able to point out all the nuances about David that I never would have picked up on. For instance, how Michelangelo dissected human bodies to understand anatomy and this is the only way he could have carved David so perfectly. The look and stance of confidence that David portrays when the viewer first approaches him, yet move around to the right (David’s left) and you can see the look of anxiety and fear in his eyes, the look of someone who is about to battle a giant. Amazing, brilliant, and beautiful. If you ever find yourself in Florence, you absolutely have to see David and you have to take this tour. You will get so much more out of the experience (and bringing a few tissues along isn’t a bad idea either).
The rest of our trip consisted of walking the streets, poking our heads into shops, and eating good food. Ross and I had the best cheesecake ever, so good we went back the next day for seconds. I also got a workout walking up the Duomo bell tower (Giotto’s Campanile). My legs felt every one of those 414 steps, but the view at the top was well worth it.
The time had come for us to say arrivederci to Italy and bonjour to France because our next destination is the French Riviera! Stay tuned for our adventures among the rich and famous in the breathtaking city of Nice!