On Thursday we visited Florence. I prefer the Italian name for Florence; Firenze seems less flowery, more robust, more Italian.
We’d booked return rail tickets the previous afternoon at a small railway station just south of the resort we’re staying in. We did so with the connivance of an English-speaking clerk in the ticket office who conspired with us to determine the most suitable trains. We were pleased that everything looked straightforward.
After we drove to the San Vincenzo railway station the next morning, things didn’t seem quite so simple. The Arrivals and Departures display on the platform wasn’t working, the station clock had stopped, the loudspeaker was only audible in one small area and the most important announcements were only in Italian. There were no railway staff at the station, the timetable pinned to the noticeboard didn’t correlate with the arrivals, and none of the trains had any indication of where it was headed. Eventually we overcame these difficulties with the help of fellow travelers, and arrived in Firenze two hours later.
From the Santa Maria Novella railway station we charted a course to the river, stopping at a small cafe for a lunch of cheese and salami panani. Crossing the river we meandered to San Spirito, then to the Palazzo Pitti before bracing ourselves to rejoin the crush of tourists in the more popular locations.
Away from the primary attractions Firenze was a bustling Italian city with its own character and charm. Near the tourist targets it was a crush of bodies. Everywhere the tourists went, street sellers would set up, hawking trinkets and selfie sticks, laying out paintings by the metre to further constrict the available space. As soon as a whiff of officialdom was scented on the breeze, they would gather up their wares and evaporate, only to rematerialise a block down the street.
We joined the flood of tourists crossing the Ponte Vecchio. It’s as remarkable as the travel guides suggest, with shops on either side of the carriageway through whose windows you can look up or down the river. Keeping a weather eye out for pickpockets, we rolled with the flow past the Uffizi to the Piazza de la Signoria.
The difficulties of maintaining a tourist mecca like Firenze can’t be underestimated. We saw rubbish trucks nosing through the crowd at a snail’s pace, workmen trying to resurface small side streets; everywhere there were repairs, reconstruction and preservation underway. All of this while putting up with the daily flood of tour buses.
Shrugging off our musings about Firenze’ infrastructural stresses, we visited the Duomo, the city’s cathedral. It is an astonishing building with an elaborate facade. Kevin McCloud’s Grand Tour programme on the Firenze Duomo roof was fresh enough in my mind to provide background detail to our visit. Access to the nave is free, but any ascending or descending requires you to open your purse. We decided against the Dome, the Tower and the Basement Museum, but shuffled quietly around the nave, obeying the repeated recorded message adjuring us to “Ssshhh … silenzio … silence … ssshhh”.
Refreshed by freshly squeezed juice in a nearby theatre bar, we charted an arc through the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, the Piazza San Marco and the Piazza dell’Indipendenza to return to Santa Maria Novella. Along the way we further fortified ourselves with a gelato and, once at the railway station, a welcome cup of tea before our two hour direct train back to San Vincenza.
We did make one small slip on our return journey: we neglected to validate our tickets. This would usually result in a on the spot €30.00 fine for each offender, but Richard was able to dash from the train at one of the first stations and validate the tickets on the platform with time to spare.
Italian trains are very comfortable, even in second class, and they rocket along. Our Regionale was comfortably scootering down the coast at 155km/h, and the Frecciarossa (Red arrow) high speed trains travel at up to 400km/h!
To see Firenze to best advantage, my recommendation would be to stay there overnight and visit the tourist targets at first light. Once the crowds start to flood in, there seems plenty to see and enjoy away from the centre of the city – perhaps next time we’ll get the opportunity to do that.