European Vacation Fall 2013 – Florence

Florence – Wednesday, October 2

This is the fourth of five posts from our fall vacation to Europe. This entry captures our last day in Italy, exploring the historic city of Florence.

Wednesday turned out to be a day Dickens would appreciate because it was one of those best of times, worst of times days. OK, that might be a bit dramatic but we certainly went through an unexpected set of emotions.

We started the morning with a walking tour of Florence where we were given an art history lesson of Medieval and Renaissance art. No, that wasn’t what I thought we were getting but, hey, go with it. Right? Our guide, Mario, must be an art history teacher. Within minutes, he was calling out our names and quizzing us on the lessons he had imparted upon us. Kidding aside, his lessons made the sights of Florence more meaningful and a richer experience. We have all heard that the Renaissance was born in Florence but probably couldn’t explain or identify the differences, or understand what precipitated the change. Apparently it was the Black Plague that  is believed to have influenced the change in art.

During Medieval times, art reflected separation from reality and an attempt to be near God. When almost half of the known population died, it brought about a change in thinking, a new point of view. The Renaissance brought in reality, human interaction, perspective, symmetry, and motion into art and architecture.

Along the tour, we visited the Ponte Vecchio, the only remaining 14th century bridge over the Arno river that lasted through WW II. Witnessing this medieval bridge with all it’s merchant shops and mass of people was, again, like going back in time. Originally, the bridge housed butchers. Present tenants are jewellers, art dealers and souvenir sellers. It is believed the bridge was originally built in Roman times. It was reconstructed in the 14th century. Interesting Fact: The concept of Bankruptcy originated here. When a merchant could not pay his debts, the table on which he sold his wares (the “banco”) was physically broken (“rotto”) by soldiers, and this practice was called “bancorotto” (broken table; possibly it can come from “banca rotta” which means “broken bank”). Not having a table anymore, the merchant was not able to sell anything.

Michelangelo’s David

Since we were at the cradle of the Renaissance, we were obligated to see one of its finest works, Michelangelo’s David, at the Academia Gallery.  So we made our way from Porte Vecchia up to the Academia Gallery then waited for nearly an hour in the Tuscan sun before entering the gallery.  I wish we were more educated in art so we could appreciate all the other works of fine art. There were countless depictions of the Madonna with child, several depictions of the death of John the Baptist, even a room dedicated to various versions of “Doubting” Thomas touching Christ’s wounds at the resurrection. All were outstanding and great appetizers for the central piece of work in the museum.

Nothing could prepare us for what we had only seen in pictures. Michelangelo’s David is a giant; seriously, it is a 17 foot monster piece of work standing on a 4 foot pedestal positioned in the middle of a domed rotunda built specifically for him. I have never said this before because it has never happened, but the David almost took my breath away. It is truly an incredible piece of work that you must see in person to appreciate. The brilliant position in the rotunda under a dome presents limitless angles you can use to marvel at Michelanglo’s work, worth every minute of wait and every penny of entrance fee.

Other Things We Saw in Florence

During the day, there were so many things we saw that caught our eye that we had not seen at home, starting with this little truck. Sean had been asking us for a truck, so we thought we would pack this one in our carry-on luggage and bring it back home for him. One thing we haven’t seen in the states is anything like this charging station. Of course, there were countless scooters all over Italy but this one next to the elektrocar is battery powered. Then, there’s another one of those guys that defy gravity.

One of the most impressive architectural structures we saw in Florence was the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower. The Cathedral and its two additional buildings are in the historic centre of Florence. It is said that the people of Florence built this grand cathedral in the 14th century to draw tourists. The basilica is one of Italy’s largest churches, and until development of new structural materials in the modern era, the dome was the largest in the world. It remains the largest brick dome ever constructed. Looking up into the dome from inside is even more impressive. While we were in the Academia Gallery, we heard that the stone used by Michelangelo was planned for the statues on the Florence Cathedral but it was not good enough. Good thing for us, eh?

Then the day turned

It was getting late in the day, so we headed back to the hotel so we could freshen up for dinner. When we arrived at the hotel, everything turned south and Dicken’s words “the worst of times” rang loudly in my head. We had been kicked out of our room because somehow, our reservation expired. Panic set in as the desk clerk informed us we had 30 minuted to gather our belongings and leave.

I knew there had to be a mistake somewhere between the travel agency and the hotel but the desk clerk would only show us our reservation papers that expired on October 2. While I was in a panic, Deb was still talking to the clerk, who managed to find us a room at a hotel 50 meters down the street. After we raced up to our room, packed our bags, walked down the street, and checked into our fourth hotel of the week, Deb convinced me to gather myself and call the travel agency. It took a little time but they found their error and were kind enough to offer a refund for the additional hotel. So it was time for a nice dinner.

The desk clerk at Hotel Palazzo dal Borgo recommended an authentic and special Tuscan restaurant called Il Perione on via delle Perione one block off the river. When we arrived, our hearts skipped again because the manager did not have a reservation for us. After explaining how we had suffered a hard evening and could not even recall the name of our hotel, he waved us in immediately, as if to say “you are not going to have a bad time in my town.” Then, he sent over two glasses of champagne with his compliments and best wishes for a better day.

Again, these words don’t come from me often, but we both had the best meal ever. Il Perione is our new favorite restaurant. Every stage of the meal was outstanding. From the Tuscan bread with Tuscan extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette to our caprice was the best we had ever eaten. My lamb chops were perfect and Deb’s cheesy, sage pasta was excellent. At then end of the meal, I gave the manager a big hug for turning our day around and making our best meal ever.

I was so pumped after dinner, that I was inspired to capture some night pictures of the Ponte Vecchia and the Arno River. Deb went with me too. While we were taking pictures, we were fortunate to witness a young couple get engaged on the bridge. Alex and Amy asked us to take their photo so they could preserve the moment. Of course after getting back to our room, I realized that I had captured all those night pictures in low resolution, so I had to go back out and shoot them again. Take that Dickens, back to “best of times” all in one night.

Thursday, October 3 – Traveling from Italy to London

All was good the next morning. After breakfast, we were packed and heading to the Florence airport to catch our flight to London through Rome and our 5th hotel of the week. Now, if Alitalia can get us to Rome in time to catch our London flight.

Should you give yourself more than an hour layover to get through Rome airport from C concourse through customs to G concourse? Technically, duh. We made it to our London flight and even had time to grab a sandwich for the ride.

Have I mentioned how interestingly casual the customs folks are in Italy? Well, the folks in London make up for that times 100. We were in customs for almost an hour in London before we finally made it to our prearranged car-ride to the Hilton Tower Bridge.

We are definitely going back to Italy. Deb reminds me …a lot.

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