In Florence, Tuscany

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In my Tuscany blog series this August, I have shared my experience of staying in the Tuscan countryside, spending an afternoon in Pisa and Lucca. It was the day trip to Florence that I was most looking forward to for this trip, somewhere I had been wanting to visit for quite some time.

I was given the important job of deciding on a sensible itinerary for the day which was not exhaustive; this turned out to be something of a challenge as there are so many wonderful things to see and do in this historical city and I had to postpone some ideas from my list for next time.

We arrived into the train station at 11am, ready to take on Florence for the day. The cathedral, the Duomo, also known formally as the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, was a short walk away and we decided to start there. The Duomo is what everyone seems to identify Florence with: the building, with its magnificent Renaissance dome dominates the city’s skyline, and is easy to spot on arriving by train into Florence.

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The Duomo

We had chosen to visit Florence in the heat of the tourist season. I would recommend that you arrive as early as possible into Florence to start your day, not only to make the most of your day but also to beat the queues. I’d like to go back to Florence out of season to hopefully experience it with fewer crowds.

The cathedral is free to enter but we had to wait in an exceptionally long queue for 25 minutes. During this time, we were able to stand and marvel at the vast Gothic structure of marble while we waited. Ladies, make sure you cover your shoulders if you decide to go inside the cathedral; don’t wear too many revealing clothes as you will not be allowed in and will have to resort to buying a scarf from the frantic sellers around the entrance, which is something you don’t want to have to do.

The Duomo

The Duomo

The Duomo

The Duomo

The cathedral is a masterpiece on its exterior and we could not help but feel slightly disappointed on the interior which is quite bear to walk around. The decoration on the interior of the dome and the marble floor designs however are very beautiful, but it felt like the long queue was not really worth it if you are just wanting to look around. There is also a separate queue to go up the tower, which we decided not to do. In the crypt, you can choose to buy a ticket to explore the remains of the 7th century church of Santa Reparata which can be seen there, however the tickets were quite expensive so we were reluctant to enter.

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I would recommend enjoying the exterior of the cathedral by walking around it, seeing it from different perspectives and taking plenty of photographs! If you are looking for a panoramic view of the city with the Duomo in the distance, scrap the long queue for the cathedral tower and choose instead the nearby Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall, former royal residence and another important historical building in the city that is worth a visit.

Palazzo Vecchio exterior

Palazzo Vecchio exterior

The Palazzio Vecchio overlooks the Piazza della Signoria, an important historical and political hub of the city. Outside the main entrance to the building, you spot a copy of Michelangelo’s David statue. The original, now housed in the Galleria dell’Accademia was in fact originally positioned in this very spot. There are also many other statues in the adjacent Loggia dei Lanzi. It’s a great place to sit and enjoy the sites around you and we chose to eat lunch in a nearby Pizzeria for convenience and to also marvel at everything around us.

Main entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio

Main entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio

We chose to go up to tower of the Palazzio Vecchio as I had researched that it had great views over the city as an alternative to the Duomo, as it was much quieter with fewer queues. I think every tourist in Florence that day must have read that tip online, because we were queuing a grueling 45 minutes in the queue to go up the tower! When we walked past the tower entrance later in the day, there was no queue, much to our annoyance. So here is my tip: yes, do go up the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio as it is worth it, but go up later in the afternoon (4pm) if there is a queue earlier in the day!

The tower has a very small capacity, which explains the queuing. It was one person down, one person up when we were queuing. On a more positive note, it means that there are few people squeezing past you on the tower stairs which makes the experience more enjoyable when you finally get the chance to go up there!

On the way up, you go past various prison cells which you can go into. There aren’t very many safety measures because as a joke, I got locked into one of the cells! The doors can open and close freely, with working locks; so don’t upset any of your companions or you might be locked in. There are staff monitoring the tower so I am sure that your screams for assistance will be heard sooner or later, but they should probably do something about that…

The view from the top is worth the climb and the long wait. Straight ahead in the distance is the Duomo and all of Florence!

View from the top of the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio

View from the top of the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio

I had originally only intended to go up the tower of the Palazzio Vecchio in our itinerary, but whilst queuing for our tickets (forever queueing), James played with the idea of combining our ticket for the tower with the museum which is also inside the building. It was only a few euros extra but it was really worth it and I’m glad we did it. The museum is not overwhelming, and it is easy to climb the tower and look around the museum in under 2 hours.

The museum includes entrance into the royal apartments of the Medici family that once resided there, the impressive and richly decorated Salone dei Cinquecento, the small Studiolo which I particuarly liked and the Stanza delle Mappe geografiche (The Hall of Geographical Maps) where you can marvel at old maps. The one of the British Isles is great because it is totally bizarre:

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Salone dei Cinquecento, can you spot the wonky ceiling?

Map in the Stanza delle Mappe geografiche. Ireland and Wales are a bit off...

Map in the Stanza delle Mappe geografiche. it is a bit out of proportion…

Florence is renowned for its museums: the Uffizi which houses the Birth of Venus and the Galleria dell’Acadademia which has Michelangelo’s David are two of its most popular. Unfortunately, online bookings on their websites are a nightmare and there is an exceptionally large charge for booking in advance which does not justify the convenience of skipping the queue. For 2 adults, 2 students and a child, we were looking at a whopping 90€, as the online booking system forces you to also buy audio-guides which you cannot opt out of! Queuing for either of these museums on a Saturday in August did not feel worth the hassle, but when I do go back to Florence in the future, I hope to be able to include them in my itinerary.

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio

We stretched our legs after touring the Palazzo Vecchio with a gelato and a walk across the Ponte Vecchio, admiring at the many jewellery shops on the bridge, before circling back to the other side of the river, on a bridge further up.

IMG_2226We stopped to admire the exterior of the Santa Croce church, but by then it was time to head back to the train station to catch the next train and we didn’t have the opportunity to go inside. The chapel is adorned with frescoes by Giotto, and it holds the tombs of some of the most important personalities of Italy, including Michelangelo and Galileo. This is something I’m looking forward to seeing on my next visit.

Santa Croce

Santa Croce

The day trip was a wonderful introduction to Florence and I am so pleased to have been given the opportunity to go; but as you can gather from this post, one day just is not enough to see everything but it has lived up to its expectations of being charming, beautiful and fascinating. Florence is magnificent.

A presto Italia…

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A Look Around Lucca, Tuscany

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Lucca is famous for its Renaissance-era city walls which have remained intact, something quite rare. Driving through Lucca from Pisa Airport into the Tuscan countryside on our first day, we were intrigued to venture inside these walls the following afternoon for a few hours.

Lucca is easy to reach both by car as well as by train from Pisa and Florence. For fear of not finding parking in Lucca itself, we parked at Altopascio, a little town with a train station, a 9-minute journey from Lucca to be on the safe side, as we were coming from Casoli di Lucca. The train station is located right outside the southern wall and is an easy walk into the small town.

We weren’t sure whether this was the case, so in my rusty Italian, I managed to ask the guy working in the tiny train station at Altopascio, how near the train station in Lucca was from the actual center, throwing in a Spanish or Portuguese word when I didn’t have a clue. He responded back to me in very fast, fluent Italian, but I grasped from what he was saying, that he thought we were being ridiculous and of course the train station was very close to the town center. Okay, just checking!

Once upon a time, I studied Italian at GCSE level. I was actually quite good at it, and when I went to Rome at the age of 15, I was able to order at restaurants, ask for directions, haggle, and bond with little old ladies about their beautiful cats. When I picked Spanish up at university, I was always using Italian vocabulary much to my teacher’s annoyance. Several years on, I have lost all knowledge of this language other than the basics and I am incorporating Spanish when speaking Italian! It’s quite amusing how things can change, but I am still rather sad I have lost my competence in Italian too so quickly. I find the spelling totally foreign – so many double consonants that is simply not done in Spanish!

Back in Lucca, the top of the walls seem less of a fortress, but more of a park circling the city. One of Lucca’s main attractions is simply to walk or cycle around the walls whilst enjoying the greenery and nature around the the walls. James rightly commented, “it’s like the Planty Park!” referring to our trip to Kraków, Poland last year. The Planty Park is a large green belt that encircles the old town of Kraków and was also a lovely place to have a stroll on a hot, summer’s day.

We climbed the Guinigi Tower in the northern part of the town after wandering slowly through the streets, stopping at a café on the way and passing the cathedral. The exterior of the cathedral was absolutely stunning. Unfortunately there is a fee to go inside, and we didn’t have much time so we decided not to go in.

Duomo di San Martino, the cathedral

Duomo di San Martino, the cathedral

The cathedral is a bit annoying as it is not symmetrical but it has a belfry on one side, so I will let it go this once.

The Guinigi Tower is a bit of a climb, but for £3/student it is worth it for the views over Lucca and the Tuscan hills in the distance. The roof is nicely shaded by the trees that are growing on it, but this means that there isn’t much space to walk around, when so many people are squished up there with you! The lower level to the roof had a large collection of bird droppings near the windows and I felt that they could probably do something about cleaning that up, because it was a bit grim to walk around, but you are only there for a few seconds so it didn’t ruin the experience overall.

View from the Guinigi Tower

View of Lucca from the Guinigi Tower

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View from the southern wall of Lucca

We also took the train the following day from Altopascio to Florence, which I will be blogging about next!

Read my earlier posts on Tuscany:

Four Days in the Tuscan Countryside

Tuscany: Afternoon In Pisa

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Tuscany: Afternoon in Pisa

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James and I landed into Pisa Galileo Galilei Airport from Manchester Airport with Jet2.com for our four day trip to Tuscany. Read my first post here.

Our early flight meant an exceptionally early start at 4am for us to catch the first train from Sheffield to the airport. We arrived at midday, which was the perfect time to make the most of the afternoon and explore Pisa with his family.

Pisa is very compact, and it only took us a few hours to see the main sights which are all clustered together in the same area, the Piazza del Duomo, of course only after a pizza stop first.

Torre pendente di Pisa

Torre pendente di Pisa

We joined the many tourists in attempts to get funny pictures with the Leaning Tower, but in the heat of August, there were just too many people and it was very difficult to find a space available to jump into quickly to try and get an acceptable shot, before someone would then walk in front of us. It was very frustrating, and I am sure that going out of season would be much more enjoyable and anyone going during those months must feel very smug with their cool Leaning Tower pictures.

Our attempt at a picture with the Tower

Our attempt at a picture with the Tower

We purchased our tickets for the Baptistry, Cemetery and Cathedral. The cathedral is in fact free but if you include it with your ticket, you can go in at any time, instead of a time slot which could be hours after you want to go in.

Of course, the main highlight is the Leaning Tower, and I was a little disappointed to have not been able to go up it. However, the earliest time slot available that day was at 7pm and it was only 2pm when we arrived! We did not feel that waiting 3 or 4 extra hours in Pisa just to go up the Tower could be justified as there was not much else to do, plus we needed to drive back to Casoli, an hour and a half away. You can pre-book tickets online or arrive earlier in the day which I would really recommend you do, if you would like to go up the Tower. I don’t feel like I missed out that much though as I was able to see the Tower from the outside.

View of the Baptistry

View of the Baptistry

Great view of the Cathedral and Tower in the background from the Baptistry

Great view of the Cathedral and Tower in the background from the Baptistry

Front view of the Cathedral

Front view of the Cathedral

Inside Il Camposanto

Inside Il Camposanto

The cemetary, known as Il Camposanto was an interesting place to visit. The walls were once covered in frescos, some of which were applied as early as 1360! Unfortunately, on 27 July 1944, a bomb fragment from an Allied raid started a fire which severally damaged the building as the fire could not be put out in time, and it burnt the wooden rafters and melted the lead of the roof. The destruction of the roof severely damaged everything inside the cemetery, destroying most of the sculptures and sarcophagi and even the frescoes.

After the war, restoration work began and the roof was restored as closely as possible to its pre-war appearance. The frescoes had to be separated from the walls to be restored and put elsewhere.

The restored frescoes that still exist are gradually being transferred to their original locations in the cemetery, inside the cemetery, to restore the building’s pre-war appearance but it is a slow process.

Images of the destruction after the fire

Images of the destruction after the fire

One of the frescoes

One of the frescoes

Another fresco

Another fresco

After a gelato stop, it was time to head to the car and drive into the Tuscan countryside!

View from the river

View from the river

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Four Days in the Tuscan Countryside

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I have just returned from four days in Tuscany. We managed to pack so much into four days, yet it just did not feel enough to truly appreciate this region, steeped in history and blessed with outstanding beauty, it is a place to return to for more.

We visited Pisa one afternoon, a full day in Florence and an afternoon in Lucca, while we were based in the picturesque Casoli di Lucca, 13km from Bagni di Lucca, the closest town. I’d love to return to spend at least several more days in Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance and home to some fantastic art collections and museums. One day just isn’t enough to appreciate this amazing city. I would also consider visits to Siena and San Gimignano. Still, there is still so much more of Italy I have not yet discovered, having only been to Rome and the Vatican during a school trip in 2010. Herculaneum, Pompeii, Venice, the Cinque Terre and Sardinia are up there for me.

Casoli is an isolated Tuscan village situated at the top of a very large hill, accessible only by car, turning off the main road onto a narrow stone bridge over the river, and then up a tight, steep winding road, I pray to never have to drive up myself; each time you turn a corner you are holding your breath in the fear that a car may be coming round the corner towards you, very fast (Italian drivers know no fear). The road is so narrow in places that it is impossible to pass safely. If this were to happen, which I am sure does happen occasionally, a very challenging and awkward session of reversing up or down several corners on the hill would ensue – the possibility of falling off a cliff to your doom or banging into jutting out rocks when doing this is very high. It is just too scary to contemplate!

Cats everywhere

Cats everywhere

Upon arriving into the village, you have to park your car in the small parking area before then walking towards your house higher up the hill, as the pathways are too small for vehicles to pass. The village boasts two churches (one small, one large), one restaurant (where we ate two fantastic meals), a hundred or so feral cats (you can look but you can’t touch) and amazing vistas over the Tuscan countryside. It’s the perfect place for some peace and quiet, but beware that if you run out of milk, the nearest supermarket is a 30 minute drive!

View of the village from the restaurant

View of the village from the restaurant

View from the garden

View from the garden

The place we stayed in had the most beautiful views looking over the Tuscan hills from its rooms, including the garden. It’s the ideal retreat to sit and read for hours on end undisturbed.

Also in the area, 3km from Bagni di Lucca, you come across the Ponte Maddelena on the Serchio river, also known as ‘Devil’s Bridge’. It is impossible not to notice it’s steep arches from the roadside.

Devil's Bridge

Devil’s Bridge

View from Devil's Bridge

View from Devil’s Bridge

Walking up Devil's Bridge

Walking up Devil’s Bridge

Even James was impressed

Even James was impressed

The bridge served as an important river crossing on the Via Francigena, a medieval road to Rome from France, built around 1080-1100. There is a small car parking area next to the bridge, and it was a nice stop along the way to Lucca on the Friday afternoon to take pictures and walk across it.

Legend of this bridge is the reason why it has been given the name ‘Devil’s Bridge.’ According to the story, the architect hired by the council to build the bridge made a deal with the devil. The devil agreed to help the architect finish the bridge in exchange for the first soul who crossed the bridge from the village. When the bridge was complete, the townspeople tricked the devil by sending over a dog instead of a person. Poor dog.

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