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The Beguiling Beauty of Florence
By Alastair Wallbanks
Surrounded by gently rolling hills, Florence was once the capital of Italy and one of the most influential cities in the world, still maintains its splendour to the present day.
This magnificent city has had some famous sons including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli and Galileo many of whom had the support of families of incredible wealth such as generations of the Medici family, past rulers of the city under whom the city flourished.
Not only is the city packed with works of art but the buildings themselves are works of art, the skyline is dominated by the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace) and the dome of the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore in the Piazza del Duomo.
The Duomo was started in 1296 by the sculptor Arnalfo di Cambio but over the next century and a half or so the work was continued by other artists.
Be prepared for a long arduous climb up the 463 steps if you decide to venture to the top but the views over the ancient rooftops of the city make it well worth while. The sky line in the city centre has no modern high rise buildings so what you see is pretty much the same Florence that the Old Masters would have seen.
Apart from the views, ascending the dome offers a brilliant insight into the architectural genius of Brunelleschi. At one stage there is a narrow gallery which runs round the interior of the dome offering a vertiginous view down to the pavement of the nave.
In 1334 its bell tower or campanile, which stands separate, was designed by the painter Giotto while its splendid cupola which truly dominates the city was completed by the master architect Filippo Brunelleschi. After a visit to the Duomo, if you still have sufficient energy the campanile also has a vantage point at the top.
No less impressive is the baptistery situated opposite the cathedral. The relief sculpture on the bronze doors really has to been seen to be appreciated. So impressive are they that Michelangelo christened them 'Gates of Paradise'
The Palazzo Vecchio situated in the Piazza della Signoria housed the legislative and executive branches of the local and civic governments; the building is decorated with works of Florentine sculpture including the massive statue of Michelangelo's 'David' which today has been replaced by a copy. The original can be viewed in the Academia (Gallery of Academy of Fine Art) in the Palazzo Gerini where it has been placed under cover to help preserve it.
The whole square is arrayed with a spectacular collection of sculptures dating from the 15th and 16th centuries which include Giambologna's mounted sculpture of Cosimo 1, Neptune Fountain by Ammanannati and Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus while to the rear of the square is Giambologna's Hercules Slaying the Centaur.
The Piazza Della Signoria leads directly on to the Piazzale degli Uffizi where surprisingly enough you will find the Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Gallery) arguably the finest gallery in Italy.
Built in 1560 for Cosimo 1 it houses some of the worlds most famous and influential paintings once the personal art collection of several generations of the Medici family. The paintings includes Botticelli's 'Primavera' and 'The Birth of Venus' and Titian's 'Urbino Venus', but Rembrandt, Goya and Caravaggio are all well represented.
There are so many works of art contained here that it is almost impossible to take in everything in a single visit, in addition to the paintings there are also a number of excellent classical sculptures.
The Ponte Vecchio (The Old Bridge) spans the river Arno at its narrowest point in Florence, there has been a bridge here since Roman times, around 59BC, although the current bridge only dates back to the 14th century. It was one of the few bridges to avoid destruction by the retreating German army in World War II, apparently on the direct orders from Hitler. What makes it unique is that both sides of the bridge are festooned with goldsmiths and jeweller shops.
The Boboli Gardens (The Giardino di Bòboli) in the Piazza Pitti provide a welcome sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle of the city streets. The gardens are named after the Boboli family who were one time owners of some of the land on which the gardens now stand. The avenue named Viottolone sweeps majestically through the gardens providing a spectacular view.
The Pitti Palace (Palazzo Pitti) was once the home of Eleonora of Toledo, wife of Duke Cosimo 1 de' Medici who, in the 16th century took residence there to escape the confines of the Palazzo Vecchio. It now houses a number of museums depicting the grandeur in which they lived. Tickets for the Gardens and the Palace have to be bought separately.
Because of the narrow winding streets the preferred mode of transport for the majority of Florentines is anything on two wheels which they weave in and out of other traffic with scant regard for their own safety, or that of anyone else.
At times, wandering round the cobbled streets, with their medieval buildings you feel you are trapped in a time warp, the only things to bring you back to reality are the internet shops, trendy cafés, designer shops and numerous hotels.
So if you want a break from the culture and feel in need of a little retail therapy, all the major designer retailers such as Versace, Gucci, Armani, Prada and Ferragamo have outlets in the city giving a vibrant mix of shopping and culture.
There is no real 'off season' in Florence, we visited in October and the city was still thronging with groups of Japanese and American tourists with their miked up guides, even then the gelateries or ice cream shops were still doing a roaring trade.
In the mornings the smell of espresso wafting out of the cafés is quite mesmerising. Some of the cafés operate a system we found novel, after deciding what you want you go to the cash desk and pay for it where you are given a receipt, you then return to the counter hand it over and receive your order.
Art isn't all Florence is famous for, evenings can be spent in one of the many splendid restaurants which produce excellent and very often inexpensive food.
One restaurant well worth a visit is the Golden View Open Bar on the Via dei Bardi just across the Ponte Vecchio, whether you dine in its bistro or restaurant you can enjoy excellent food and live music with fantastic views of the Bridge and the Uffizi, served by friendly staff who, like most Florentines, speak English.
No trip to Florence would be complete without a visit to Pisa, another city which thrived in the middle ages. Everyone has heard of the Leaning Tower of Pisa but what isn't quite so well known is that the Tower is just one part of Campo dei Miracoli, the Cathedral and Baptistery completes the trio.
No matter how many pictures or images you may have seen of the Tower nothing can quite prepare you for the impact as you emerge from the Via Roma and the Tower looms in front of you.
The Tower was started in 1173 but by the time the fourth storey was added the ground had subsided and the Tower had begun to tilt, its final completion was not until late in the 14th century.
If you are inclined to visit the Tower again be prepared for a long climb up the 294 steps to get to the top but the stunning views makes it worth the effort.
Like all the galleries and tourist attractions there is an entrance fee. At the galleries it ranges between 5 and 10 euros per person and at the Leaning Tower it costs 15 euros a head but this also allows you entry to the Baptistery and Cathedral.
Visitors are only allowed entry in supervised groups of 30 which, once you experience the narrow winding stairway, you can understand the reasoning behind it. Be prepared for a wait if the preceding groups are fully booked. For safety reasons children under eight years of age are not permitted and children between eight and twelve must be hand held by an adult.
Trains run hourly from Florence with the journey time about an hour at a cost of just over 10 Euros per person return. They arrive at Pisa Centrale station and the Campo dei Marcoli is about 20 minutes walk north across the Ponte di Mezzo.
All the galleries and museums have a daily allocation of tickets which can be reserved in advance, therefore to avoid the massive queues it is wise to book your tickets the previous day which allows you to walk straight in on the day of your visit. However if you decide not to use this facility the many street buskers and pavement artists will entertain you during your long wait.
Most of the galleries contain shops selling some very tasteful replicas of the art works on display.
There are two airports serving Florence, Pisa Galileo Galilei Airport and Aeroporto di Firenze but there are very few connections from the UK to this airport. Pisa airport on the other hand is the main airport and has a direct rail link to Florence. For around 5 euros per person the hour long trip will take you to the station right in the heart of the city. There is a bus link as well though this takes slightly longer.