July 30th – Venice to Florence
We took a final boat ride down the grand canal to the train station and jumped on our train. Our last two train travel days were marathons with at least three switches each, so we were looking forward to having a simple, two hour direct shot from Venice to Florence. No missed connections, no wrong trains, and we were soon carrying our bags to our apartment on a busy street in Florence.
We’d used AirBnB to book almost all of our stays for this trip and almost all of them have been surprisingly good. That streak was somewhat interrupted here as our place had some issues. For building that’s about 800 years old, we’ll accept some little problems, which this place had. The bathroom sink was the only thing that would trigger the hot water heater, so to get a hot shower you had to keep the sink running. Flushing the toilet involved pumping the flush button five or six times in rapid succession until it finally went. We can deal with that. Other things, like having a pull out couch instead of the advertised bed – not cool. Telling us to get close to the window and use the wifi from the cafe across the street – not cool. Having to wash all the dishes before we used them because they definitely were not clean – not cool.
But hey, the location was good, perched on a busy street halfway between the river and the Duomo.
The first day in we wandered around the area until finally finding a decent sized grocery store. We did some laundry. Eventually we wandered down the street to a restaurant called Yellow Bar that had been recommended by our host. They had some amazing homemade pasta and pizza that we devoured before calling it a night.
July 31st – Da Vinci and David
The touristy part of Florence is small and densely packed with old buildings, sculptures, museums, restaurants, and shopping of all sorts. Being so small and walkable made it easy to get around, but it also meant that the streets were filled with more giant tour groups than any city we’d seen. People barely pay attention when they walk around as it is. When they’re being led by somebody talking into a microphone, they’d mindlessly walk in front of a bus if you didn’t stop them. Once you squeeze and push your way through the crowds, you can actually see a lot of impressive things in the city.
Perhaps the most famous piece of art in the city is Michelangelo’s sculpture of David that was moved from an outdoor square into the Accedemia Gallery in 1873. We went out and eventually found the museum, not by using signs or a map, but by seeing a line of people snaked around the corner of a building. Waiting in line for who knows how long in the sun didn’t sound appealing, so instead we walked around the corner to find a small Da Vinci Activity Museum.
Leonardo Da Vinci spent many of his younger years in Florence, so naturally there are places around the city trying to cash in on the history. This “museum” didn’t actually house any works of art or anything original at all, but had an array of machines constructed from his mechanical drawings. We know that a lot of his designs didn’t actually work, but the variety of projects he was involved in was immense, and seeing approximations of what some of these things might have looked like once built was neat.
He had everything from flying machines to dredgers to olive presses. A lot of things he did had fairly simple purposes, often trying to automate processes, reduce friction, or redirect forces, things that could be used (and some still are) in larger and more complex designs.
After we finished playing with Da Vinci’s contraptions, we decided to check the line for the David, and sure enough, the wait was down to a more reasonable 45 minutes. Once inside the museum (where photography wasn’t allowed – boooo), we worked our way through a line of unfinished Michelangelo sculptures before approaching the David.
You’ve all seen David, probably on postcards or cooking aprons or the million other products that he’s used on. Much like the Mona Lisa, David is immensely famous and reproduced constantly. Unlike the Mona Lisa, David is actually worth seeing in person. The first thing you’re struck by is the size. David is 17 feet tall and carved from a single block of marble that had been abandoned by another sculptor. It’s when you’re only a few feet away, looking up at the giant from human heights, that you come to fully appreciate the combination of power and grace that Michelangelo was able to achieve. Oh, and to make you feel less accomplished as a person, Michelangelo was only 26 when he started on David.
After the main sculptures, there were many old paintings in the museum, followed by an enormous gallery of sculptures and plaster models, mostly done by Lorenzo Bartolini. (Bartolini is the maiden name of Jenny’s grandmother. Jenny sculpts. Coincidence? Probably.) This guy was busy. If you were wealthy in Italy when Bartolini was around, you probably had him do portrait bust of you.
After a morning and afternoon full of museums, we went back to the room to do internet stuff. As mentioned before, stealing the internet from the cafe across the street didn’t really work that well. We tried to actually go into the cafe to order a coffee and hopefully get closer to the source, but their network just sucked. Down the street we found a nearly empty bar and spent the next couple hours drinking Peroni and catching up on work.
Around sunset we walked around the Duomo (formally – The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower), a massive, domed cathedral with an exterior covered in colorful pink and green marble.
August 1st – Pisa
In less than an hour’s train ride from Florence, we found ourselves in Pisa for a day trip to the famous architectural screw up. Jenny has some ancestors that came from the Pisa area, so in a sense she was back in the homeland. On the walk from the train station to the field of miracles, we were looking at names on doors to see if we could find any long lost relatives. Nothing exact, but there were a couple of close ones.
Most of Pisa seemed to be a quiet town, with crowds picking up on the main road that leads to the tower.
Eventually you reach the Field of Miracles which is home to the cathedral, the baptistery, and of course, the leaning bell tower. And yep, that tower is really leaning.
We went and bought tickets to climb the tower, because how could we visit Pisa and not climb the tower that should have fallen over hundreds of years ago. The number of people in the tower at any given moment is limited, so we ended up with a couple of hours to kill before our scheduled time. We had lunch a short distance away from the tower and then went inside the cathedral. Churches are often amazing structures.
But frankly they sometimes have some creepy shit in them.
When our time came, we went inside the tower and made the climb. The walk up the enclosed spiral staircase to the top plays tricks on your mind. You lean forward, then right, then backward, then left, then forward again as you go up and around.
From the top you get some good views of the area before they quickly send you back down to the bottom.
By late afternoon we had seen the sights, climbed the tower, and made our way back to Florence for the evening. We (we being Jenny) cooked some pasta for dinner and we watched Kitchen Nightmares on the one english TV channel we had.
August 2nd – Relaxing in Florence
We didn’t do much on the 2nd. You have to take a break every once in a while, even from visiting pretty places. Jenny went shopping in the morning while Steve did some writing. We spent more time at the bar to use their internet and get beer. We tried to go back to the Yellow Bar for more delicious pasta, but as we found out, they basically closed for the whole month of August. Noooo! We picked a random restaurant and ended up with more of the overpriced, subpar food that you get in tourist towns if you don’t know where to go. In the evening we went out visit the Ponte Vecchio, an old bridge covered with a mess of shops. We stopped by a gelato shop on our street that had more flavors than we could count.
Next up – Rome!