Restricted Driving Zones & San Gaggio
We checked into our B&B, a nice little place called the San Gaggio House, about a 20-minute walk south of the Ponte Vecchio, the old bridge leading into the main part of the city. Many of the Italian cities frequented by tourists have enacted restricted driving areas in the older parts of the city, or what are known as ZTL’s. Florence is a prime example. Driving inside the ZTL boundary is allowed only for residents who have registered their car with the city. The boundary lines are under video surveillance, and every car’s license plate is filmed as it crosses into the ZTL. Anyone who drives into the ZTL without permission is issued a fine on the order of $500+. Therefore, we needed to either find a hotel with parking outside the ZTL, or find a place on the outskirts to stash the car for a few days. SanGaggio house lies just outside of the southern boundary of the ZTL, which worked out perfectly for us.
We had several major sites we wanted to hit while in town. The big ones included:
- Uffizi Gallery – one of the greatest Renaissance art museums in the world
- Firenze Duomo – Florence's Cathedral, boasting a large painted dome that inspired Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel
- Accademia Gallery – museum housing Michelangelo’s David
- Piazza Michelangelo & Basilica di San Miniato
Our first order of business was to invest in a Firenze Card. This card, valid for 72 hours from the first use, allows you access to 72 different sites throughout the city – including all of the major places we wanted to visit - for one price. You guessed it - 72 Euros! It also gets you free public transportation. But the best benefit is that you get to go through a designated line at most of the major attractions. This meant that the longest we ever had to wait for any of the museums or other sites was about five minutes. For instance, when we arrived at the Ufizzi Gallery, the line to enter the museum was snaking around the building, past the sign that read ‘Wait time from here: 90 minutes’. With our Firenze Cards, we walked up to the door and right into the museum. By saving us an hour and a half in line, we thought the card had already paid for itself; even if we did not visit anything else! Needless to say, we highly recommend buying this card if you visit Florence.
We arrived in the afternoon, checked into the San Gaggio House and had some lunch at a nearby café that was absolutely packed with locals. It was here where we discovered our new favorite salad, featuring Brasiole - a type of cured ham from northern Italy - that we would later make on a daily basis for lunch while in Umbria. After lunch we went to the famous Uffizi museum. The last time I was in Florence, I waited over and hour to get into this museum and then had to abandon the line in order to catch a train on time. So I was delighted when we got into the museum in just 5 minutes with our Firenze Card!
The Uffizi Gallery
Uffizi actually means offices in Italian. It’s so named because the building was built by Giorge Vasari in 1560 for Cosimo I de’Medici as the offices for the Florentine Magistrates. In addition to being offices, Cosimo I also arranged to have his best art pieces displayed in this palace. Over the years, more of the palace was used to display the Medici family’s extensive art collection - either acquired or commissioned. Great artists like Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelango would gather at the Uffizi both for work and for inspiration. The last Medici heiress, Anna Maria Luisa, worked with Florence to transform the palace into a museum. It was first opened to the public in 1765.
The museum boasts pieces from some of the greatest artists of all time – Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bottecelli, Raphael, Giotto, Caravaggio…the list goes on. My favorites were Bottecelli’s Magnificat Madonna (her gold hair looks 3d!), Primavera, and of course the most famous, Birth of Venus. Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo was also spectacular. We spent about 2 hours here and then it was closing time. We probably could have spent another half hour or so looking at the collection of foreign paintings in the basement! We appreciate art, but are by no means Renaissance experts (I prefer 20th century art). If you are a big fan of Renaissance art, you should allocate at least a half day to this museum. Even if you aren’t an art lover, come here to see the Bottecelli pieces. They are amazing and you just might become a fan!
The Big Dome:
After a lovely breakfast of freshly baked croissants at our B&B we walked back into town to discover more of Florence’s treasures. Our first stop was the Duomo:
Duomo: The Duomo, or Cathedral, of Florence, was begun in 1296 and construction was completed in 1436. As it took 140 years to build, construction was overseen by many different architects and builders. The outside of the building is decorated with marble, and the process of finishing the exterior design work lasted nearly 500 years until the late 1800's.
Dome: At the time of its construction, the dome was the largest octagonal masonry dome to be built without the use of wooden scaffolding. The architects of the dome looked to the dome of the Pantheon in Rome for guidance on how to construct the dome in Florence. However that dome is made of concrete, is circular, and was built using wooden supports. At the time, there was not enough wood in Tuscany to construct scaffolding to support the Florence dome during construction. The solution was to use bricks, which are relatively lightweight and strong, and to surround the interior layer of the dome with four iron chains to keep the dome from spreading under its own weight. This dome remains the largest brick dome ever constructed. The inside of the dome is covered with a fresco depicting The Last Judgement. The painting was started in 1568 by Giorgio Vasari and was completed 11 years later by Federico Zuccari. When viewing the fresco, you can discern the two artists different styles in different areas of the painting.
Tower: Next to the Duomo is a 280 foot tower called Giotto's Campanile, completed in 1359. We climbed about 400 steps to reach the top of the tower. It offers great views of the Duomo next door and the city of Florence below.
After the Duomo we went to see the statue of David at the Accademia Gallery. Created by Michelangelo sometime between 1501 and 1504, David is a 17-foot tall marble statue depicting the biblical hero David either before or after he slays the giant Goliath (there are many interpretations of the statue). During this time, most sculptors depicted David either immediately after he slayed Goliath, with the giant’s head underfoot, or during the fight, where David is in the midst of using his slingshot. Michelangelo’s version shows David in a contemplative state with no Goliath in sight. No Florentine artist had ever omitted the giant before Michelangelo. Some say this sculpture depicts David just before he is about to fight Goliath. Others say he is reflecting after the battle. While no one knows for sure, David has become a one of the world's most recognizable pieces of art, representing youth, strength and beauty.
This was Chris’ favorite piece of art we saw in Florence, and although I’ve seen it person before, it was still as impressive as seeing it for the first time. We spent some time staring at the statue from all angles, appreciating how difficult it must have been to sculpt, while at the same time trying to find some imperfections to prove that Michelangelo was indeed, human. After admiring the statue (while being knocked around by the throngs of tourists), we went to a side gallery that described the ancient process of making replicas of plaster sculptures.
Right around the corner from the Accademia Gallery is a fantastic restaurant called Ristorante Accademia, recommended by my cousin Elizabeth. Here I had my favorite meal in Italy thus far: Truffle ravioli. Our waiter was fantastic and incredibly funny!
Dinner: Trattoria Sostanza.
This place was recommended to us by my sister in law, Jen, who had been there last year on a company trip. It’s a little hole in the wall place, but VERY popular. We visited the night before to get a table and they were full for the evening. Luckily, they had a 9:15pm reservation for two open the next night so we deicided to try it out. It’s very casual - maybe fits 30 people - and you sit at the same table as other parties. We sat next to two really friendly Italian guys who fortunately spoke a bit of English. Chris ordered the dish they are famous for - Pollo al Burro, or Butter with Chicken. He said it was about the best chicken he has ever had. Of course my bird aversion meant I had to take his word for it! I had a Florentine steak which was massive. While I’ve had better steak before, it was tasty and a nice change of pace from the pasta I had been eating for 2 weeks. The two Italian guys at our table couldn’t believe I ate the entire steak and even told me it would be a good idea for me to walk home instead of taking the bus because I ate the whole thing! Their concern over my food intake didn’t stop them from offering me some of their dessert – a berry merengue – which was fantastic:)
We checked out of the hotel in the morning and headed over to Piazza Michelengo to see a stunning view of the city. This is also where we discovered the Smurf gelato. Then we walked up the Basilica di San Miniato which had a very interesting layout inside – much more compartmentalized than other churches. The best thing about the Basilica was, of course, the view!