Forget the many museums and galleries and churches with art, Florence is an open-air museum all on its own. You don’t have to step into any of these famous collections to see the beauty of the Italian Renaissance (except you really must). This was Demetri’s third visit, and Tyler’s and my second. Michael was thrilled that his beloved statue of Perseus and Medusa was basically right outside of our apartment in Piazza della Signoria, so it was the first thing we went to see when we arrived, and we got to pass by it pretty much every time we went anywhere. Bonus.
Piazza della Signoria is the square right in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, perhaps the most famous meeting point in the city. It’s home to the gorgeous statue of Neptune and several other statues; in the middle ages, this is where people were burned at the stake.
Florence, of course, was home to the Medici, perhaps the most famed noble family in Europe. They ‘ruled’ from 1569 until 1737. Lorenzo de’ Medici was a political and cultural mastermind, controlling things from behind the scenes. The Medici were bankers to the Vatican, so they essentially controlled the papacy, and they were great backers of the arts, commissioning hundreds of painters, sculptors and musicians. A few times, Florentines would drive the Medici out, but they were soon back in power.
We had an excellent guided tour of the Uffizi Gallery. Uffizi means ‘offices’ in Italian, and this building was exactly that – the Medici family used this building as offices, and very important guests were invited to the top floors to view the family’s collection of art and sculpture. In 1769, the building was opened as a museum. The gallery has an outstanding collection of ancient sculptures and paintings from the Middle Ages to the modern period and is home to masterpieces by Giotto, Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Leonardo, Rapahel, Michelangelo and Caravaggio.
The boys were completely enthralled by our guide and the way she explained what we were seeing. They were silent and thoughtful through the entire 90 minute tour and Peter even raised his hand and asked a question. They also loved wearing the radios and headsets, so the couple of times they got bored I heard them pretending to talk to each other through the radios. Our guide was terrific – she was an art student from Russia who had such enthusiasm for what we were seeing that it was impossible not to get as excited about it as she was. Her mom called a couple of times during our tour which was pretty hilarious and she may have been wearing pajamas, but none of it mattered because she was fantastic. We will always opt for a guided tour from now on. After the Uffizi, we had a long lunch on the other side of the river and then walked into the Basilica di Santo Spirito, designed by Brunelleschi. There was a cool, almost interactive nativity scene in there. We walked home from there, stopping quickly into the Michelin rated restaurant where Demetri’s cousin Andreas is a chef just to say hello. He showed us around the kitchen and the restaurant, where every nightly reservation is filled no matter the day. From there, we walked to the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo), also designed by Brunelleschi and the bell tower by Giotto.
Tuscan food is really great. Ribollita, a winter soup made from vegetables and bread, was our favorite. The Bolognese is made with wild boar, there is a lovely tortellini in broth (brodo), and of course the famous bistecca alla Florentine, an enormous T-bone steak that comes only from the Chianina cow found in Tuscany. Sweets? Tiramisu, coronettos filled with traditional apricot and untraditional but still yummy blackberry and cherry, a pine nut cake and of course gelato, which was invented in Florence.
One of Demetri’s best friends from high school was also in Florence, so New Year’s Eve day we spent with Dan and Camilla over a fun, long lunch of traditional Tuscan dishes (see above). Camilla is from Prato, a city just outside of Florence and it was really fun to talk with her about Italy and Tuscany. Dan drew electric guitars and skulls in both the boys’ books and later I found tons of photos of those illustrations on my phone. They think Dan is the coolest ever. We walked a bit, stopped in some cashmere shops and spent a little time in Piazza Republica together.
New Year’s Eve night we walked to the Basilica di Santa Croce, where the who’s who of the Italian Renaissance are buried – Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Gallileo. Then we trekked back up the hill on the other side of the river for a celebration in Piazza Michelangelo, where there were cover bands, food, drinks, and sky lanterns galore. We rang in the New Year in Piazza della Signoria, watching an orchestra for a bit before the clock struck 12. The thousand or so other people in the square all had bottles of champagne and to our delight it was not for shaking and drenching the crowd, it was for drinking! Fireworks were lit all night – some shook the windows in our apartment – and there was lots of puke all over the place the next day.
Demetri got up after only three hours of sleep to run back up the hill and see the sunrise on the first day of the year from Piazza Michelangelo. It was raining, but still a beautiful view of Florence. We spent the first day of the New Year on the train heading south to Naples.