Florence: Of churches, markets and gastronomic perfection.
Florentine mornings are a bit abrupt. You wake up with sun streaming into your room and you stumble out of bed in alarm, believing that you’ve slept away a good part of the day - only to find out that it’s only quarter past seven. And then the sun does things to the Tuscan rooftops that make them blush. In shameless voyeur style, you sit down with your coffee and stare. Italy in early October is temperamental - one minute it is chilly and the next, you find cats finding warm sunspots on roof tops. The mood of an Italian cat must be made of a million shades of impatience.
After a terribly unmoving breakfast, we decided to check out the famous San Lorenzo Market. It was interesting and not exactly cheap. I think you can bargain here. But we didn’t want to try it out. But just because it looks pretty mainstream, doesn’t mean you won’t find any nice treasures to take back home. I found myself a red bowler hat, which my cousin gifted to me - which I think I’m going to make permanent to my traveller avatar. We found some nice leather bound books and some cutlery. But if you’re the kind who likes to take back home food, the Central Market is where you should head. That’s probably where you can get a great taste of Florence - I say probably because we didn’t go there. We went from small shop to small shop falling in love little things Florence has to offer.
If you like markets you should consider these
1. Sant'Ambrogio market. It’s more of a local place, so it’s probably a great place to take advantage of more realistic prices over the tourist price tag.
2. Piazza Ciompi. The flea market of Florence. The last Sunday of the month features antiques and treasures untold.
3. Piazza Santo Spirito. Yet another Sunday market - this one though is on the second Sunday of the month. You might find some vintage clothing
4. Mercato del Porcellino. I’m not sure how this historic market where once the rich and famous of the Renaissance shopped for gold and silks, fares in present days, but at night it’s a magnificent sight. (Below are the marketplace by day and night)
Half way into the day, we find out that so far, Italy was turning out to be expensive in terms of food. We found ourselves making comparisons to France, where we could eat good for cheap. But in Florence, we found cheap was cheap. Lunch and breakfast were complete disasters. And yours truly has a "Hanger Management" problem. It didn’t help matters that we discovered that the climb to the Duomo was fully booked during the length of our stay. If you have any plans of climbing to the top, BOOK IN ADVANCE. As great as Italy is for wandering around and taking things as they come, some planning is great.
For instance, most churches charge an entrance fee. But if you’ve gobbled away your budget of the day in pasta and gelato and souvenirs (like we did), or tip just about every street accordion player that happens to be playing the theme from The Godfather, no matter how terrible the rendition (like my husband did) the crowd will do its best to put you off. It’s embarrassing to say that we satisfied ourselves with outside views of these ancient churches. But since you’re reading this, I’ll make your time a little more worthwhile.
Santa Maria Nouvella. This 14th century church was Florence’s first great Basilica and is a dedication to renaissance art. It features the work of over 18 renaissance artists. Entry is free during mass, but the again, you can’t visit like a tourist but as a pilgrim. So take your time with this church. Also look out for the 600-odd year old pharmacy, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella.
The full ticket costs 7.5 Euros and gives you access to the entire museum complex. Also booking online is advised, so that the long line doesn’t chase you away, like it did us. Listen to my advice?
Santa Maria del Fiore. Florence’s icon, this church was a watershed event in Medici history and architecture itself. The cathedral was designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th century. The famous dome was added later in the 15th century and designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. The entrance is always crowded and the entry to the cathedral is free. A 15 Euro pass gives you access to the rest of the complex, namely the cupola, which requires you to climb up 463 steps, Giotto bell tower with its seven bells (another 414 steps) - the largest is named Santa Reparata after the saint to whom the original church was dedicated, the baptistry, the crypt where you can find remains of the church that previously stood on this site and the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. Book your tickets here.
San Lorenzo. A personal project by the Medici, Florence’s oldest church is the final resting place of most members of Florence’s most illustrious Renaissance family. The Medici Chapel or the mausoleum of the family is everything you’d expect from a family that practically were the patrons of Florence as we know it - opulent and filled with big names. Entry is 5 Euros.
Santa Croce. The final address of Florence’s most renowned names, this church with its tombs dedicated to Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Guglielmo Marconi, the poet Foscolo, Dante, Leonardo da Vinci, the composer Rossini and Niccolo Machiavelli of the Machiavellianism fame. So no wonder it has the sobriquet Temple of the Italian Glories. No surprise then that the best place to find Italian leather is here. The Scuola del Cuoio or the School of Leather is within this cathedral premises. The cathedral is currently closed for repairs. But otherwise, entry is at 8 Euros. Would you like to book in advance?
Santa Maria del Carmine. Want to experience art for free? The Brancacci Chapel has some very impressive frescos that survived a fire that ate up most of the 14th century parts of this church. In Florence, never underestimate the sweetness of the words “No Entry fee”.
Santo Spirito. Another free entry featuring famous names like Brunelleschi and Michelangelo. Don’t let its austere facade fool you. Inside is one of the best places to experience Renaissance sculptures and frescoes, and then chill at the adjoining piazza. A wooden crucifix in the sacristy was 17-year-old Michelangleo’s token of appreciation to the convent hospital for letting him make anatomical studies on the corpses. Though it’s on the other side of the Arno river and away from the main squares of Florence, its promise of less tourists offers an opportunity to experience the art up, close and at leisure. Tip: Stop by before you plan your climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo.
San Miniato al Monte. Just when you wheeze up the final stairs that lead to Piazzale Michelangelo, you’ll see another flight of stairs and your exhausted lungs and legs just might kill all possible chances for curiosity. Don’t let it. Take in the views, catch your breath and take those stairs. The church courtyard hosts better views of Florence. As for the church itself, it’s one of the finest example of Florentine Romanesque styles and has the same white and green marble symmetric facade like Santa Croce and Santa Maria del Fiore. The legend behind this church will give The Walking Dead a run for its ratings. St. Miniato was denounced as a Christian for turning into a hermit. After a failed attempt at feeding him to the Amphitheatre’s big cats (Christian act much?), the Emperor ordered his execution by beheading. St. Miniato apparently picked up his detached head, crossed the Arno river and walked up the hill to his hermitage. The site upon which the church stands. If a corpse can climb that hill, well it’s only fair that we try. Besides, the church offers free entry. The San Salvatore al Monte church is also nearby.
Russian Orthodox Church. To literally bring about a change of scenes. A Russian one, with the hypnotically shaded onion domes. The murals and the sculptures lean towards the Byzantine style. The entry is free but I believe you need to make an appointment to visit the church.
San Frediano in Cestello. One of the stars of the Oltrano skyline, this church was built on the site of a 15th century church which was annexed to a Carmelite convent where St. Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi resided. She was famous for her ecstasies and visions. The interiors have their share of beautiful frescos and comes with fewer tourists.
But enough about churches I didn’t get to visit. Let’s get back to my account of Florence. As I mentioned earlier, breakfast and lunch were so phenomenally bad that it WAS something to write home about. So writing, I am. By dinner time, I was a bristling ball of disappointment and hunger. So I got to choose the dinner place. We googled local favourites and zeroed in on this little place that wasn’t too far away. La Scarpetta. It turned out to be another benediction from Florence. They spoke no English and we spoke no Italian and yet we got along famously.
We experienced true Italian warmth and hospitality. We were among friends and the wine, spaghetti, cheese, limoncello and everything else we gobbled up went down easy enough to be called 50 shades of Pasta. (sorry about that) The meal was perfect and we left with Arthuro promising to make us lasagna for our next dinner. And it wasn’t even on the menu. Florence is magical, indeed.