The Many Circles of Florence

Florence: such a romantic and romanticized city. I have loved the idea of Florence for many, many years. I have a fascination with all things Dante Alighieri. When I first read The Inferno as a freshman in college, I was captivated by the vivid imagery and insane imagination, and since then, I have gravitated to anything that has even the smallest degree of separation from the tome.

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When Florence was mentioned as one of the cities to visit on our Italian tour, Jeff handed over the reigns. I would plan this city. Dante hailed from Florence and many of his subjects and victims were citizens of the city. But before I go too far off on a tangent, let’s get back to the whos and whats of Florence.

We arrived from Pisa to the Santa Maria Novella station in the north west quadrant of the city. Situated right next to the Santa Maria Novella Cathedral, the train station is much like a mall with more train terminals than some airports we’ve been in. It’s easy to get turned around with all of the streets splitting off in random directions, but we eventually found our hotel: Hotel Ester. If used as a place to lay your head, the hotel has a great location and price with very helpful staff, but beyond that, it’s a no-frills place.

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It was about one o’clock when we arrived, and we had pre-booked tickets to see the Duomo. In tourist high season, I cannot recommend booking ahead enough. After we stumbled through throngs of people in a marketplace maze, we turned the corner and saw the massive structure as well as a massive line.

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There were two lines to get into the building: one for the cathedral, and one to climb. We had tickets to climb. A note about the cathedral though–you can see a lot of it from the upper circles (of course not everything), so unless you want a closer view, you may want to save your time from walking in. We were also turned away thanks to shorts and tank tops. They take covering up very seriously, even in August.

IMG_2725Our climb, despite our scheduled time, took nearly an hour. We were stopped at virtually every landing, for what–we didn’t know. We just knew it was hot, humid, and cramped in the tiny, stone staircase. But we finally made it to the upper circle. There was a large plastic partition that surrounds the upper circle barring a clear view to some of the ceiling. I was forced to hold my camera high over my head to snap a few photos. But what of the ceiling I could see floored me.

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It was illustrations of Dante’s Inferno by Federico Zuccari completed in 1579. I had no idea! It was glorious…in a morbid and dark way. But Satan was depicted with his three heads, and the various levels of hell were painted in the dome’s curves. Now, I understood why the line was at a standstill. I was just like everyone else staring, mouth agape, at the ceilings. We were shoved into the next portion of the climb which revealed the real reason why the traffic was at a stop.

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The Duomo, when originally built in 1296, was not designed as a tourist attraction, so when it was opened to the public for visitation, additional staircases were not included. This left a portion of the ascent and the descent in the same narrow passage. We got to know some other people very well as we squeezed and pushed through the tiny corridor. A few minutes later, we literally got a breath of fresh air as we stood on top of the famous dome with all of Florence around us.

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Construction on the massive church was finished in 1436. Built because the population in the Tuscany region was growing, the Duomo is one of the most visited places in Florence with a UNESCO World Heritage Site stamp. The intricate design of the exterior of the church took nearly 400 years to complete starting in the 14th century only to be completed as recently as 1887.

From the top, it took nearly an hour to make the circle around and then climb down the stairs thanks to the hoards of people, but of all the views to be stuck with, I was okay with overlooking Tuscany.

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* * * * *

When we made our way back to Florence later in the trip, we had a car. Parking in the city is near impossible and there are ZTL or Zona Traffico Limitato (Restricted Traffic Zones) areas that close off the center of the city from thru driving. These signs are posted everywhere but can be easily missed if you take a wrong turn. I’m sure we have a couple tickets coming our way after breaking one of these borders, but here is a link to a video that explains more about driving in Florence.

For parking, we found a lot on the out skirts of the city and took a bus into the center. Bus tickets can be bought in a tobacco shop or on some of the buses. I say “some” because the first bus that came to our stop refused to let us buy tickets. But the next bus that came along, thankfully, obliged.

* * * * *

The bus dropped us off south of the river, and we walked toward the Basilica of Santa Croce where a large, marble statue of Dante stands in the piazza. We did not go inside the church since our time was already running short, but I stared up at the statue and thanked him for his work before dashing off to his home.

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Tickets to go inside Museo Casa di Dante are only €4, but I was a little disappointed in the museum. It was mostly focused on the time of Dante rather than the man and the work itself. There were a few cursory things like posters of the poems and sculptures interpreting the work, but many of the information boards talked about how the government ran the city of Florence and the many, many clans that lived during that time.

I did enjoy seeing Dante’s death mask. As I stared at it, a couple of younger fan-girls asked me to take their picture alongside it. I was glad I wasn’t the only one so fascinated by this man.

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Running around trying to find a quick bite, we came across the Ponte Vecchio, an old bridge (now shopping mall) connecting the north and south sides of Florence. Shopping on the bridge is not new, but the shops were mostly butchers and banks back in the day–not jewelers and souvenir shops.

An interesting fact: the concept of bankruptcy comes from an altercation that occurred on this bridge. When a merchant could not pay his bills, soldiers came by and literally broke his table of wares. “Banco” meaning wares and “rotto” meaning broken equaled “banca rotta” or “broken bank.”

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The bridge was first built in Roman times but was first documented in 996 AD. What you walk on; however, is not from 996 AD. It was destroyed in a flood in 1117 and rebuilt only to be destroyed again in the 1300s by another flood. Rebuilt stronger over the centuries, it was the only bridge in Florence not destroyed in WWII by retreating Germans, supposedly by Hitler’s orders. However, it was severely obstructed on either end to stop transport during the war.

Now, it is a tourist attraction, as most other historical sites are. Flooded with people, it is difficult to grasp what you’re walking on between dodging screaming children and wealthy couples elbowing through. The bridge really is more beautiful from a distance than from standing upon it.

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Not ten minutes walking distance was the large Piazza della Signora. In this square, there stands a copy of the David next to the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffitzi Gallery. We did not go inside the Palace, but we took our fair share of pictures of the David.

We had pre-booked our tickets for the Uffitzi Gallery. Some nights during the summer, the gallery is open late, which was pretty neat. Looking outside the windows was artwork in itself as pink and purple slashed the sky along the river.

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But we did get mixed up thinking the David was inside the Uffitzi. He is not. He stands proudly in the Accademia under spectacular lighting. When we tried to book tickets online to see if we could get in on short notice, but it was all booked up. The David in the Piazza would have to do. Besides, you can’t have gelato in the Accademia, so I think we got the better end of the deal.

When standing in line for the Uffitzi, we did notice day-of tickets were cheaper than what we had booked online. However, you’d be playing fast-and-loose with the museum being sold out if you don’t pre-book. One of the many clever ways Italy gets their money’s worth.

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The gallery, as many museums around the world, was beautiful. Three levels of exquisite marble statues, 12th century paintings of Christ, and the famous Sandro Botticelli painting, Birth of Venus. Out of all the works, it seemed that Venus was the piece people were clamoring to see.

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The building was first built in 1560 as an office building for the magistrates. “Uffitzi” actually translates to “offices.” Over the years, it molded into a artistic building with Da Vinci and Michaelangelo influences as they were visitors to the building, but it did not open to the public until 1765.

In 1993, a car bomb detonated killing five people and destroying a portion of the museum including a precious fresco. The culprit is still unknown but is believed to be connected to the Mafia.

After taking in the gorgeous masterpieces, we bid goodbye to Florence and headed back to Tuscany that evening. But as we stared up at the David, stars behind him with gelato in our hands, we vowed to come back to the bustling historical town.

Stay tuned for gluten-free eats in Italy and the rolling hills of Tuscany.

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