Hastings Battleaxe goes to Florence

We had a lovely few days. If anyone fancies Florence, my advice would be to go at this time of year. Yes, the weather is pretty much like the UK, so a bit risky, but it is much cheaper, far less crowded, the city is decorated with the most beautiful Christmas lights, and we even found a big Christmas market.

View of the Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi. Our hotel is just below us on the right
Looking at the Uffizi from outside our hotel
The Ponte Vecchio

We stayed at the Hotel Degli Orafi, on the Arno river-front, next door to the Uffizi, about 50 metres from the Ponte Vecchio, and a few minutes walk to the other major sights, so it wouldn’t have mattered too much even if it had poured with rain – but in fact, the weather was fine – some wintry sun, cold and dry until our last morning.
The hotel is where they filmed ‘Room With A View’. We didn’t have the actual Room, but we were upgraded to a larger double with a view of the Duomo and the Campanile across the rooftops. The hotel was excellent – it would have been far too expensive in high season but was plenty affordable in December.  It was a rabbit-warren of an old building – severely damaged by a terrorist bomb explosion in 1993, and subsequently refurbished and re-opened with a new identity. It still had some traces of the old building remaining, notably the painted salon where we ate breakfast. Battleaxe would totally recommend this hotel

Room with Almost a View
Hotel breakfast room

On our first full day, we legged it up to the marble-clad complex of the Duomo, Baptistry and Campanile and their associated Museum – probably the tourist mecca of Florence. I can’t say that was the greatest experience ever. The outside views were impressive, but inside? Not.

Battleaxe wuz ‘ere

We started off in the newly refurbished Musee dell’Opera del Duomo, which, for reasons I don’t still fully understand, contains most of the works of art orginally created for the Duomo and other things including Ghiberti’s famous Baptistry Doors. However, one thing I had fully failed to grasp about Florence before visiting was the devasting effects of the flooding of the Arno. The most recent major flood, in 1966, did an appalling amount of damage. The waters rose 17′ and submerged many parts of the city. In the museum, I particularly liked Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene – she looks really rough…

     The queue for the Duomo itself was still about 30 minutes long, even in December. When we got inside, it was…no surprise… a vast empty space. In common with everyone else, we peered up at the interior of Brunelleschi’s famous dome…. and that was about it.  We had turned down the chance to climb umpteen million steps to the top of the dome, or even to the top of the Campanile… We took a quick look inside the Baptistry. Nice gold mosaic roof, but much of the rest was under restoration. Battleaxe would have to say that although one would never dare to return from Florence having not seen those world-famous sights, really, there are better things to visit….

Duomo Dome

In the afternoon, we had a much better time, at Santa Croce. The vast piazza outside the church was filled with a Christmas market. We had a wander round – much the same Christmas tat as yu’d get in Birmingham or Bruges…. I confined myself to a small witch on a broomstick and a custard doughnut – one of my habitual Italian favourites….

Michelangelo’s tomb

     Although Santa Croce is still on the tourist map, it is much quieter than the main drag in the centre and very beautiful.  The cloisters are especially peaceful, and it was interesting to see the the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo and of course, Michelangelo. We also saw the newly restored and rehung Cimabue Crucifix. Santa Croce suffered terribly in the floods. In 2017, the church was closed to visitors due to falling masonry which killed a tourist from Spain…. Battleaxe would recommend!
Next day was Uffizi day. We had booked tickets on the internet but even so we had to queue to turn the piece of paper into real tickets, and then queue again to get in. Imagine what it must be like in mid-summer….  I won’t spend too much time on this. It is vast, full of amazing art works… and even at Battleaxe and Philosopher’s normal 100 mph-viewing-art-galleries-sprint it took us a long time and wore us out. A marathon, but very worthwhile.Why are art galleries so tiring? We were both taken with the Ucello Battle of San Romano. However, one’s mind does boggle at the infinite number of Madonna and Child paintings – and some of them are not that good….

It was interesting seeing the gawping crowds in front of the best-known paintings, for example, Botticelli’s Primavera. What do they expect to see?  I wormed my way to the front and photographed people looking at the painting….some of them are not even looking in the right direction…. and on our way out of the gallery we passed an installation of someone’s film of the same thing… so here is a photograph of a photograph of people taking photographs of a painting…..

Looking at Primavera
Looking at the crowd looking at Primavera
Photo of a photo etc etc
Philosopher gets racy….

Still, we were able to stop at the cafe on the way round. Now, here’s a funny thing about Italy. Look into a popular cafe and it will look rammed, with a horde clustered round the counter. Push past them and the seats inside are empty. Italians enjoy their coffees and drinks standing up at counters…. and so it was at the Uffizi.

View from the Uffizi cafe…

After a brief recuperative break lying limply on our beds back in the hotel, staring vacantly at the ceiling, we set off again, across the Ponte Vecchio to the Boboli Gardens, behind the Pitti Palace. The sun was out… and just for a little while, it was warm enough for us to eat our lunchtime snack sitting outside a cafe… Incidentally, the Ponte Vecchio is lined with the most unbelievably expensive jewellery shops… I can’t imagine who buys the stuff. But you can say that of much of central Florence. Streets hung with fabulous Christmas lights, filled with unbelievably classy designer shops – Ferragamo, Valentino, Pucci, Bulgari, Tiffany, Prada, Versace, Gucci… on and on they went…. several branches of each….

One of the main shopping streets

I had wanted to visit the Boboli Gardens largely becausee of the Medici grottos… but you can’t actually go in them. The garden has good views, but is a bit featureless. Battleaxe not impressed. We gave the Pitti Palace a miss….

Views of Florence from the Boboli Gardens


View of the Pitti Palace

Next day, the Bargello sculpture museum. Whoa! It was free entry first sunday of the month! The old building housing the museum is beautiful, and it has some good stuff in. Again, crowds ten deep around Donatello’s David. So, what did we not go to see? Yes, Michelangelo’s David – we couldn’t face the crowds.

The Bargello
Donatello’s David

After that, across town to the Capello Medici – the tombs of the Medici family, and most notably the chapel designed by Michelangelo, with his sculptures adorning the tombs. Again, free entry, but crowds not big at all. This was the one site that Philosopher remembered from his first visit to Florence in the early 1960s, and he was delighted to revisit the statues. That Michelangelo had very strange ideas about women. The female nudes on  the tombs look like muscular blokes with very unconvincing tits clapped on their chests…

Strange tits….

In the afternoon, to Santa Maria Novella. Another interesting, peaceful place, covered in frescoes. In the main church they had recently discovered patches of origonal fresco hidden behind the huge oil-paintings on the walls. Several of these had been re-fitted as hinged doors which open to reveal the fresco behind. It was like a huge Advent calendar. Again, we are lucky, the picture doors are open only rarely, on the first sunday of the month…. We principally wanted to see the Ucello frescoes, but they were mightily faded….

   What else? Eating out in central Florence is of course, wickedly expensive, but  not as bad as our previous Italian city experience, Milan. We had one meal in the hotel, and sampled three trattorias in ascending price order. The first was too basic, the second was OK but a bit chilly, and the third was very good… but expensive. During the day we soon fell into the Italian hot chocolate habit. Just right for a chilly winter’s day. Again, given the strange Italian cafe behaviour mentioned above, we were able to visit – and revisit – Gilli, the most famous cafe in Florence for peaceful interludes with hot chocolate and for lunchtime tramezzini (sandwiches, which Philosopher finds seductive because Inspector Brunetti is always eating them in Donna Leon novels). I had egg and truffle…. it sounds wildly expensive but actually it wasn’t that bad…  Then of course, there was gelati… OK, yes, I put on a few pounds….

Hot chocolate at Gilli. Most civilised.
Cafe Gilli

Phew, it all sounds exhausting, and now, back home, I realise it was…. here are a few more pictures to finish up.

The reproduction David outide the Palazzo Vecchio – the nearest we got to it!

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