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Six hours in Florence

© By Tess Bridgewater

  There's a permanent traffic jam and wall-to-wall people, but it doesn't matter; I'm in Florence, one of the most visited cities in the world, and it's wonderful!
     On a 15-day, 8-port cruise to the Mediterranean with the family: sister, brother-in-law and 93-year-old wheelchair-bound, mother, my sister and I agreed to a day on our own; I've drawn the lucky straw for Florence. I can't believe my luck.
     Our cruise ship is docked in Livorno, the nearest port of call for Florence, where we disembark early in the morning. Badly damaged in World War II, it doesn't get much ink in guidebooks but it is an interesting, historic little town worth exploring. I board the coach for Florence about 1 ½ hours away, a pleasant journey through beautiful Tuscany. Market gardens and orange groves spread across the foothills and elegant yellow painted villas with red tiled roofs and shady loggias dot the hillsides. There's even a glimpse of the leaning tower of Pisa on the horizon, but now I'm fulfilling a lifelong wish to visit Florence. I have six hours, so how to make the most of it?
     The bus deposits us on the outskirts, as far as motorized vehicles are allowed, and walking is the only way to see the old city properly, so I wear comfortable shoes and travel light. Our escort leads us to the Piazza Santa Croce inside the old town, the meeting point for our group, where we can stay with him or explore on our own. But "be back by 4 p.m." he warns, or we will "miss the boat."
     After a frustrating half hour, I take my map and go it alone. There are six other cruise excursions that day all trying the same whirlwind tour, and hundreds of other tourists mingle with local Florentines in the square. I'd love to see inside the beautiful church of Santa Croce, with frescoes by Giotto and the tombs of Galileo, Michaelangelo and the composer, Rossini, among others, but there's a long lineup so I will try later. I want to inhale the historic atmosphere and renaissance architecture at my own pace.
     I turn down one of the little cobbled streets circling the square, quieter and cooler, with tiny shops, townhouses and churches adorned with beautiful frescoed walls, architecture untouched by time. Michaelangelo and Dante walked these streets, six centuries ago. Now protected by the Ministry of Culture, conservation laws are strict, and not even a cobblestone can be removed. Soon, I'm in Piazza della Signoria, commercial and political heart of Florence for centuries. People, pigeons, vendors, bicycles, a cacophony of sound and languages surround me. I gaze at some of the historic icons, the copy of Michaelangelo's statue of David, the original now removed to the Uffizi Gallery for safekeeping, the famous Fountain of Neptune and the medieval town hall. Here, Savonarola was burned at the stake in 1498. More recently, El Duce uttered his bombastic proclamations from its balconies during WW II and the popular Merchant/Ivory film, Room with a View was filmed in the piazza.
     Close by, is the Uffizi Gallery, one of the finest and most visited Fine Art Galleries in the world, housed in a former Medici Palace home of the powerful Medici family who ruled Florence for three centuries during the Renaissance, patrons of the arts, whose wonderful cultural legacy made the city world famous. The gallery is a treasure trove of renaissance art and sculpture by the great masters including Botticelli, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Michaelangelo, but I won't get in today; there's a wait of several hours, and I can't waste valuable time. The only way is to book long in advance. Tickets are 19 EURO (about $40 US) and can be booked from North America over the Internet at www.tickitaly.com.
     Europe respects its older citizens, and if you happen to hold a Euro Passport, admission to all Italian museums and art galleries are complimentary to those over 65. I keep going, past the street artists, displaying the masterpieces of tomorrow on the sidewalks and stop by the River Arno, for a quick look at the photogenic Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence before I walk north to the Duoma or Cathedral. Dating from 1296, its marvelous Gothic façade is built from green, white and red Tuscan marble, overlaid with gold leaf and frescoes with mighty carved wooden doors, an impressive visage. There's a replica of Michelangelo's great Eastern door and you can see some of his original painted panels in the museum. Next to it, the Campanile (Tower) designed by Giotto, is considered a masterpiece of gothic art, and you can climb the tower for a view of the city; however, lineups are long again, and I don't have enough time.
     While enthralled, I'm worried about getting lost in the labyrinth of tiny streets. It would be a good idea to carry a phrase book or know a few Italian phrases. English is infrequently spoken here, so I decide to make my way back to the Piazza Santa Croce, and spend my last couple of hours people watching and shopping in the wonderful little boutiques and market stalls that line the piazza.
     Florence is known for its wonderful leather goods and fine arts and collectibles and I could have spent all day shopping. Behind their ancient facades, the shops are elegant. At a popular leather goods shop filled with Japanese tourists, prices greatly range, and I purchase some small leather goods as gifts. A fine art and gift store yields unique hand-painted trays and other collectibles, also well priced. Another store with three floors of Italian shoes was mouth-watering. Florence has been a world renowned centre for printing and graphic arts since the Middle Ages. My favourite find was a tiny basement shop which may have been there almost as long with large piles of parchment and an old style printing and bookbinding workroom where I found a quill pen calligraphy set for my grandson, and beautifully lithographed bookmarks.
     Currency is the Euro, and credit cards are widely accepted, but bring enough money with you as ATM machines and banks are hard to find. Keep your money in a body pouch or a closed shoulder bag. We were warned several times about pickpockets and purse snatchers, and to avoid the outdoor vendors, but my experience was all positive with a charming young Italian stall holder from whom I purchased a beautiful leather purse. He insisted I remain under his protection at the back of his stall while I stowed my credit card back in my wallet.
     Then there are the ubiquitous restaurants and cafes. But dining is an art form and a leisurely pastime in Italy so on a quick visit, it might be better to pick up a soft drink and fresh Panini sandwich from the wonderful selection in the little bakery shops. A word of caution if you stop to dine: posted prices are for standing only. If you want to sit down, take your time and use the facilities, expect an additional charge of about 7% to be added to the bill, but service and menu will be impeccable.
     You will need strong legs for your day in Florence. Apart from the open-air cafes, I didn't notice many places to rest, but this wonderful city is all about atmosphere, and one day is merely a tantalizing taste. You want to return again and again.

Tess Bridgwater is a travel writer who lives in southwestern Ontario, not far from Oxford County. She writes for the Record and other publications in Kitchener/Waterloo County, national magazines and is a member of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers .

Photo Credits
Courtesy: Italy's Florence Tourist Board

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