Newest Review: ... Relais Modern about 5 min walk from the Duomo. It was comfotable, modern and very welcoming. All the main sights are in walkable di... more
Land of Leather
Member Name: grahamt
Date: 14/10/09, updated on 28/10/09 (54 review reads)
Advantages: A good place for a short break ; some interesting sights
Disadvantages: Horrendously expensive ; dirty ; dilapidated ; appalling traffic ; mosquitos
It was our preparation for our short break to Florence that brought home to me with a bang the sad and sorry state of The Pound Sterling! It's worth sweet FA these days. On the news it's all about how the Euro is very nearly worth more than the Pound and how good this is for the British Economy! Well, I've got news for you, Buster, it IS worth more than the Pound, and some if you are a tourist, and the "cheap" Pound is doing b****r all for MY economy! And don't even think about changing money in Italy. It's Rip-off Central as far as exchange rates are concerned.
Sadly, I hadn't realised just how much cash I would need and was forced to change some Sterling in Florence, just in order to survive until our return. 40 Euros cost me £50! The reason I needed more Euros was that I hadn't realised that to get entry tickets to most of the attractions in Florence I would not be able to use a credit card. Most of these State-run "attractions" demand cash only, thus proving what we always knew: the Italian Bureaucracy hasn't even entered the 20th century, let alone the 21st!
If you're thinking of going then my advice to you is to ensure that you get enough Euros for the trip before you go. I recommend not less than 25 Euros per person, per day. If you plan to do any serious shopping in the street markets than double it: they only take cash as well. This should cover you for entry to all those places that are the reason for going to Florence at all; the rest you can pay for with credit cards.
Be aware that Florence is ferociously expensive. Think London prices plus 50%. It used to be said that Italy was cheap. Italy: maybe; Florence: no way. It's clear that they just think tourists are money mines; they just don't need to be so brazen about it.
So, we were off to Florence for a few days, another city of world-renown to tick off in our book of "1000 places to see before you die". We were really looking forward to it and so preparations were made in the form of flights and a hotel. The flights were care of EasyJet and the hotel was one recommended in TripAdvisor. Sadly, Dooyoo wasn't much help here, a matter I intended to address in so far as concerns the hotel, in due course.
Flights were really cheap. I paid a total of £128 return for the two of us from London Gatwick to Pisa. Why Pisa? Well, despite the fact that Florence does have it's own airport it isn't best served by international flights. Most usage is Italian internal, which would require a connecting flight from the UK and loadsa dosh. Flying to Pisa we could catch a connecting train to take us the last leg of the journey.
The flight to Pisa took just under two hours and was relatively pain-free. Pisa airport is quite small but well-run. Our bag was there on the luggage belt already after passport control. The checkin on our return confused us a little as there are two checkin areas, A and B. Checkin B is in a separate building at the end of the airport train station. This happens to be the one EasyJet uses. Whilst waiting for your flight you may decide to take in a snack. Be aware that, once again, the snack bar at the restaurant only takes cash! It is also yet another of these places where you pay in advance at one place then go and collect your food at another.
You can get to Florence directly from the airport by train or by coach. However, most trains from the airport only take you the very short journey to Pisa Central station, where you need to change for one to Florence. We decided not to wait for this shuttle but to get a taxi into the city instead.
This turned out to be not quite such a good idea. I don't know why but Pisa's taxi drivers seem to have some sort of aversion to the airport. The taxi rank was empty when we arrived, with about five groups before us already, waiting. It eventually took around 20 minutes for a taxi to take us to the main station, at a cost of 7 Euros. We probably should have taken the train after all!
Tickets to Florence from Pisa Central for the two of us cost just over 11 Euros, single. It isn't worth buying returns as there is no discount. There are around three trains an hour to Florence but two of those stop at more stations and take about an hour and a half, half an hour longer than the more direct service. It appears that the "all stopper" departs from platform 2 West whilst the direct train goes from platform 5.
As it happened, our return journey took us directly to Pisa Airport, for more or less the same fare. These services are not as frequent but in our case it just so happened that the one we wanted was conveniently timed.
If you think British trains are in poor condition then I can't imagine what you would think of Italian trains! Still, at least it wasn't packed so we got a seat for the entire journey up the Arno River valley to our destination. Not a particularly attractive journey; the Italian scenery here leaves something to be desired. Don't get out at the first Florence station (Firenze Rifredi): you still have another couple of miles to go yet until you reach Firenze S M N, the end of the line.
Standing on the Florence station concourse, with your back to the trains, ahead of you is the ticket office, which you will need to remember for your return journey. There is also a McDonalds (Doesn't serve hot tea!) and an alternative bar and shop, which does serve hot tea and takes credit cards. I recommend you turn left out of the station, where you will find the taxis and local buses and also the local Tourist Information office, where you can get a city street map. We walked the 10 minutes to our hotel from here. Florence is not a big city.
We were staying at the Hotel Bellettini, right in the heart of the city. Getting to it was not difficult. I won't say any more about the accommodation here as I am writing a separate review of the hotel.
First and foremost was a visit to the Cathedral of Santa Marie del Fiore ("Il Duomo") and it's architecturally history-making Dome. When we arrived on Saturday morning there was a queue a couple of hundred metres long, waiting to get in. We decided to come back the following day and instead visited the interior.
The inside of the cathedral is hugely impressive and the inside of the dome, with its fantastic painted biblical scenes, is wonder to behold. There are some alarming cracks, held together with iron "staples" but I suppose if it's stood up this long it will do so for a bit longer! The only thing as impressive that I've seen is St Pauls in London.
The outside of the cathedral is all decorative marble and, sadly, in considerable need to cleaning. Some work to renovate was going on, as evidenced by the scaffolding. This general dirtiness is something I noted throughout Florence. For a place that is positioned as one of the premier tourist traps of the World, you'd think they would spend more of the considerable income we must bring in on keeping the city looking a bit more presentable!
We went a bit earlier the following day and were pleased to find no queues at all. We walked in, (the entrance for the access to the Dome is on the left side as you look at the front) paid our 8 Euros each (cash) entry fee and set about tackling the 463 steps up to the cupola atop the Dome. Kevin McCloud has been doing his "Grand Tour" on ITV recently and just before our visit, he too visited Florence. He also climbed the Dome, despite his fear of heights. I was glad we had watched it as we looked out for all of the features he noted.
The final climb takes you between the inner and outer skins of the Dome, a strange experience as the angle of the steps changes with every step. Finally you climb out onto the cupola and before you is a panorama of Florence that will take your breath away. The weather was good and the view magnificent. I took loads of photos and video panorama sweeps, which I will post on Facebook in due course.
Now, I have to say that art museums and, indeed, museums in general are not really my thing, especially if their primary claim to fame is the quantity of their religious art. Once you've seen one "Adoration of the Magi", "Madonna and Child" or "Crucifixion", you've seen them all. The Uffizi has these in super-abundance.
But, I'm getting a little ahead of myself; first we have to get in! The Uffizi is like many places in Italy: where you pay for your tickets is not where you go in. Italians love their bureaucracy and seek never-ending opportunities to make jobs where they really don't need to exist.
So, first you have to visit Door 3 to buy your tickets. You can either queue up for Door 1 and for 10 Euros take pot-luck on when you are allowed in or else you can pay an extra 4 Euros to book a reserved entry time at Door 2. As the queue for Door 1 stretched as long as the covered arcade, around 100 metres, we decided on the more expensive option and went off for some lunch until our time arrived.
However, if you're not hungry then you could spend the time being entertained by a number of "living statues", that were amusing the crowed and taking the unwary by surprise. On the day we were there there was a Galileo, a Da Vinci and a mischievous Cupid. They are obviously hoping you will drop a few coins in their pot to reward them for their efforts.
The actual main gallery is on the top floor of The Uffizi and forms a U shape that continues over the arches at ground level, which lead to the river. All along the main gallery are rooms off that cover various art styles and painters. However, what I found fascinating was the rows of portraits high up at ceiling level in the main corridor, of historical celebrities. Many are of the various Popes but also there are portraits of the Crowned heads of Europe, including such British notables as Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Henry VIII and other significant nobilities such as the Earl of Norwich.
I have to say that for the main exhibits there were really none I would give house-room! The five paintings that I really appreciated was Botticelli's "Birth of Venus", a Rembrandt self-portrait, an incomplete Da Vinci "Adoration..." and two Cannaletto Venice scenes.
One of many famous bridges with buildings on them, of which the most famous is probably the Rialto Bridge in Venice. The Ponte Vecchio, however, is probably more "authentic" as its buildings hang precariously over the Arno on both sides, their projections propped up with diagonal braces between the edge of the buildings and the bridge beneath, so extending their floor-area out "into space".
The shops are mainly jewellery stores, a requirement demanded by Ferdinand of the Medici clan, to replace the butchers and other such stores that caused such a stink and a fire hazard. It probably also had something to do with the Medici's own private corridor, which runs from The Uffizi and which you can see running across the bridge, above the shops, which enabled them safe passage between their various properties throughout the city.
Prices for everything around this area are inevitably elevated, despite the competition. Nice to browse but not to buy.
This church is currently undergoing extensive renovation. The view of the marble covered frontage from the large square in front of it is impressive. Around the square there are also buildings with ornately decorated fronts, something your will also find elsewhere throughout the city, so long as you keep remembering to look up.
My reason for wanting to visit here was to see the final resting place of one of my historical heroes, Galileo Galilei. This scientific giant was cruelly abused by an ignorant and loathsome religious Mafia, whose only interest was in maintaining for themselves a life of power and privilege. Truth and enlightenment were seen as a threat to the established order and were not to be tolerated under any circumstances. I'm sure Galileo went to his grave knowing he was right and, of course, he was. I salute you!
Behind the church, hidden away, is the School of Leather. Leather is a big, big thing in Italy and in Florence in particular. Here, during normal weekdays, you can watch the craftsmen at work creating their leather masterpieces. For a not inconsiderable price you can avail yourself of these. I suggest you will find better value though probably not as good workmanship, on the stalls of the street markets.
Across on the other side of the river and up a substantial number of steps, you arrive at the huge square that overlooks the city, from a height that pretty well matches that of Il Duomo. Most of the famous panoramic pictures of Florence are taken from here and it's not hard to see why. The views are simply astounding.
Other than that though, there isn't much to do up here other than buy ice cream! However, it is still definitely a "Must Visit".
Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens
Also on this side of the river and visible from the city as another hill alongside the square. We got caught out here as, as it appears is the case throughout Florence, many attractions are either closed on Mondays or have restricted availability. Consequently we only got to see a small part of the museum, mainly a costumes through the ages exhibition and the "Silver Museum".
The most interesting thing I saw here was an indoors sun calendar! Supposed to be illuminated by a sunbeam shining through a hole in the roof, onto a scale set into the floor and wall corner, the whole effect is now defunct due to an extension to the building that blocks the sun! It would be funny if it wasn't so sad, and so Italian!
The gardens are a haven of solitude and peace and a wonderful place to spend some time on a good day, out of the heat of the city. The main feature is a large, deep lake, in the centre of which are hundreds of large pots in which are growing various citrus bushes. You can't reach them so I suppose the oranges and lemons are safe from pilfering by tourists.
Of course, you will find all of the sorts of global brand outlets throughout Florence, as you would expect of any major city, but the real attractions are the daily street market stalls found throughout the city, where you can find and and haggle for bargains of all sorts. Mainly, though, the stalls sell all manner of leather goods.
It is almost impossible to pass by without browsing, even for me. There are a lot of really good quality items on sale and prices can be negotiated within reason. Don't expect the stallholders to offer a discount, even if you walk away. You have to take the initiative. The biggest market area is around the covered food market, which is also well worth a visit.
Florence has an abundance of eateries though mostly of the pizza and pasta variety. A few stood out from the crowed and one, "Il Latini", in particular may well deserve the title of best restaurant on the Planet. I am writing a separate review of this Temple to Food and will post it soon.
The other restaurant that took our fancy was one that was very near to our hotel - CipollaRossa. Very pleasant atmosphere and decent food, well prepared. Once again, will review separately.
One other where we had a decent meal was Canto de' Nelli, in the district where the street market was centred. 47 Euros for the two of us.
Lastly, Ristorante Castelvecchi in Piazza della Signoria did an excellent lunch for 20 Euros whilst we waited to visit the Uffizi, when the Irish bar next door could only offer burger and chips for the same price!
There was one just around the corner from the hotel - Ciro and Sons (yes, in English!) where we ate the first night. The food was reasonable though not exceptional. When in Italy I often have Carapaccio of Beef. It's my test of how good the food is in any particular restaurant where it isn't obvious. I do the same sort of test with Sweet and Sour Pork in Chinese restaurants. There is a restaurant in Paris where they serve a carapaccio "to die for". Here, it was good but nowhere near that good. The bill for our three courses, including wine, came to a gob-smacking £120 for the two of us. We didn't go back. It most certainly wasn't that good.
Although we did enjoy our short stay, overall I found the experience of Florence disappointing. For such an obvious tourist trap, no effort seemed to have been spent on trying to make the place look at least a little bit cleaner and less dilapidated. They money that must be coming into the place you would have thought they could have managed that. Clearly that money is not going into the right pockets, but then, this is Italy so, no surprises there.
Even in a historic city like Florence the combustion engine rules supreme. Districts which could have been significantly improved by being pedestrianised still left pedestrians to do battle with lorries, cars and scooters. The atmosphere was understandably "thick". Such a shame. Too many vested interests undoubtedly.
We were amused by the street hawkers, selling pictures, clearly without a licence to trade, as they inevitably grabbed their stock and legged it whenever the police came into sight, which was often. They all seemed to be selling exactly the same pictures so I have no idea how any of them made a living at it!
Another pest that is endemic in Florence is the mosquito, fortunately not the malarial type (yet!), a consequence of its location in a river valley. We hadn't realised this and hadn't come prepared. We were bitten something rotten at night and still have the lumps to prove it. Remember to pack the Jungle Formula if you are going.
There was a lot we didn't get around to seeing. We would have liked to have seen some of the Medici chapels. There was even one close to the hotel, but there just wasn't time. Will we go back again? I doubt it. There really isn't enough of a draw to encourage us to make the effort and there are still so many places we haven't yet seen.
Well, maybe for Il Latini... but not for lunch, on a Monday. They're closed!!!!!
Summary: One of the more over-rated cities of Europe.