Never in Florence: Tips for Surviving a Visit to Firenze
On Surviving Italian Curses
The mendicante's language was both florid and impressive. Her words swirled around me and along the eternal queue waiting to enter the Uffizi. At least the performance provided some entertainment to fill the hours.
Not understanding Italian, I remain unclear as to what curses were being showered down on me. Yet it dawned on me that Florence is a city of guidebooks; everywhere stand tourists with guidebooks in hand, none of which mention how to manage being cursed by one in full eloquent flight. At the front of each guide book should be a list of what of not to do in this city—in bold letters.
Avoid the Queues
Occasionally, standing in a queue can be entertaining. More often it becomes soul destroying, and taints the pleasure of whatever art gallery or museum waits at the other end. Depending upon the time of year, queues in Florence can stretch for hours—I have seen the line for the Uffizi stretch back to the Ponte Vecchio.
There are a few alternatives. Arrive before a place opens, and with luck you may be amongst the first inside. Better still, for a while at least the gallery will be largely empty—I often head to the furtherest rooms and work backwards, against the flow.
I tend to avoid rainy days, when museums and galleries seem to be at their most crowded. Always double check opening times (which are notoriously haphazard in Italy), what days a place is closed, and if it closes during siesta.
Alternatively, tickets can be pre-booked for a set time of admission, either online or at the place in question—if the queues are ridiculously long, it is well worth the extra money. I did this successfully at the Uffizi. After buying my ticket, I enjoyed a stroll through the Oltrarno, visited a church or two, partook of a leisurely lunch—and still entered ahead of people I had seen in the queue three hours earlier.
Don't Miss Florence's Forgotten Museums
People who have been waiting in a queue for hours rarely take kindly when asked to step to one side so one can actually view a painting. In some places the exhibits become next to impossible to see. With so many museums in Florence, however, there are always less-crowded alternatives.
The Casa Buonarroti, for example, has amongst its treasures Michelangelo’s first sculptures, done when he was about 15 years old and living in the Medici household. At the Museo di Storia della Scienzi are the telescopes with which Galileo discovered four of Jupiter’s moons. The Horne Museum boasts works by Giotto, Lippi and Giambologna, as well as period furniture and domestic trappings. Virtually behind the Duomo, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is often empty, especially of a morning. Here are the original sculptures once displayed in the Duomo and Baptistery, including Michelangelo’s Pieta, originally intended for the artist’s own tomb.
Don't Forget Much of the Artwork Is (Almost) Free
Florence is a city of churches, and not all charge admission prices. At the Chiesa di Ognissanti are paintings by Ghirlandaio, (in one can be seen the young Amerigo Vespucci, after whom the New World was named) as well as works by Boticelli, Tito and The School of Giotto. In a side chapel is the habit worn by St Francis when he received the stigmata.
The Bascilica della Santissima Annunziata boasts paintings by Fra Bartolomeo, including one reputedly finished by an angel. Inside the Santa Felicita are some masterpieces of 16th century Florentine painting. The Chiesa di Santa Maria del Carmine is famous for the frescos by Masaccio.
Aside from the artwork, remember to look at the buildings themselves; many are masterpieces of design. It becomes too easy to forget to notice the colours in the marble floors and pillars, the craftsmanship in the designs of even lintels and pews. At those places which don't charge, I usually light a candle or buy a card, my small gift to the maintenance of such wonders.
Stop Being a Tourist!
With limited time, the days can pass in a blur of churches and museums. Why not take a few hours off from being a tourist? Perhaps buy a gelato and stand on the Ponte Vecchio, dreaming of buying gold from the overpriced jewellers who have made the bridge their home since medieval times. On the other side of the Arno, the quiet streets of the Oltrarno are full of artisan workshops and medieval buildings. This is a perfect place to imitate the locals and choose a place to enjoy a coffee with some schiacciata alla fiorentina, or maybe a glass of wine and some crostini, as tourists hobble by on tired feet, guidebook in hand.
Don't Forget to Go Outdoors
I always love visiting a local alimenatri and stocking up on goodies for a picnic. The Boboli Gardens, behind the Pitti Palace are a perfect place, being exquisitely maintained and filled with artwork and grottos to explore. Florence’s public park, the Cascine, was once the Medici dairy farm before it became a hunting reserve. Shelley wrote his Ode to The West Wind here, and a statue marks the spot where the Maharajah of Kohlapur, who died in Florence in 1870, was cremated.
Another option is to catch the number seven bus up to Fiesole, an old Etruscan hill-town above Florence. For the price of a bus ticket, you get a tour past the icons of Florence as the bus winds through the city up to Fiesole. This ancient town boasts Etruscan ruins, a beautiful Franciscan monastery, and stunning views over Florence. Villas built by wealthy Florentines in the Renaissance dot the countryside, including the Villa Medici. In the forest above the town is a plaque marking the spot where Leonardo once tried to fly. For the energetic, the walk back down into Florence passes forgotten churches encompasses the beauty of the Tuscan countryside.
No Backpacks in Florence
Unless you wish to spend all day being searched whenever you enter a museum or church, before being made to check your backpack into a cloak room (you won’t be allowed to carry it through a museum or art gallery), leave back packs and bulky day bags at the hotel. Bottles of water are also often confiscated. Handbags, however, are allowed through, as are camera bags. Besides, you won't look like a tourist (or at least, with a decent camera bag, you'll look like a professional one).
Florence: Always Have a Plan B
Places might be crowded, it might start raining, somewhere might suddenly close—there are always other options which don't involve traipsing across to the other side of the city. I always have a list of things I want to see and do. I don't always stick to it, but it's great to have when the unexpected happens. In a place such as Florence, simply wandering is always a great alternative, whether its discovering a perfumery running since medieval times, or a workshop which restores artworks. Or simply sit somewhere, and watch the world go by as you gather your breath.
And the lady so full of colourful language? Perhaps guessing I don't believe in curses, her flow of expletives came to an abrupt end, and she simply wandered away, cornered another tourist, and started again.
© 2014 Anne Harrison