Italia: Wandering Florence and Siena

I’m gonna have to step up the speed at which I type this journal.  My nifty iPhone tells me I took these notes 27 days ago, and my memory is starting to fade.  I have this dream that 10 years from now I’m going to sit down and read these blog pages and think, “Wow. That was pretty cool.”

Probably the only thing I’ll actually say 10 years from now will be, “Wow. A blog? What a dork.”

[One more note before I begin:  In the following journal entry, you might begin to notice my growing Rick Steves dependence.  He’s got a travel show on PBS that I’ve watched a few times at my friend Andrea’s insistence.  It seemed like a good fit for an NPR girl like me.  I bought his Florence and Tuscany guidebook, his Rome guidebook, his Italian phrasebook, and I downloaded half a dozen of his audio tour podcasts.  So, I feel like Rick and I got pretty tight on my journey.  I wonder if he feels the same way?]

Thursday, October 13

8:34am
I planned to begin the day with a climb up Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore.  (Saint Mary of the Flower, but everyone just calls it the Duomo.) Rick Steves tells me to arrive right when the Duomo opens if I want to avoid standing in line.  I leave my hotel in a hurry and speed walk past the street vendors as they’re setting up their stalls along the Via dell Ariento.  I’m almost inspired to linger, as watching them arrange the goods in their stalls in the early morning light is magical.  I arrive  just a few minutes after 8:30, but the sign at the front of the cathedral says it doesn’t open until 10am.  Rick Steves, have you led me astray?

Batteries, memory cards, and tiny replicas of David.  Always a profitable combination!

Batteries, memory cards, and tiny replicas of David. Always a profitable combination!

8:55am
I walk around the Duomo taking pictures and feeling sorry for the huge groups of tourists crammed in front of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise.” The bronze doors are credited as the start of the Renaissance, and they’re definitely worth a look. But, it’s not even 9am and these tour groups look like they’ve already been run ragged. I smile, glad I’m moving at my own pace, and find myself a healthy breakfast.

What?  A croissant filled with nutella doesn't scream "healthy food" to you?

What? A croissant filled with nutella doesn't scream "health food" to you?

9:25am
A line is starting to form to go into the Duomo, so I grab a spot behind two fellow Americans waiting to get in. That’s when I learn that I’m at the wrong entrance. The cathedral doesn’t open until 10, but the Duomo’s been open since 8:30, just as Rick Steves promised. Feeling like a fool, I find the correct entrance, half hidden by scaffolding. It’s 463 steps to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome, and every single one of them has been covered in graffiti over the years. I understand we humans have a compulsion to leave a piece of ourselves behind, but can’t we find something better to do than to write our names on something old and beautiful?

Really, people?  Is it entirely necessary to scribble on statues?  It makes me embarrassed to call myself a tourist...

Really, people? Is it entirely necessary to scribble on statues? It makes me embarrassed to call myself a tourist...

9:35am
Artsy photo of the day comes from the walkway that runs around the inside of the dome. The climb offers great views of the interior decoration of the dome.  I ponder the the frescoed scenes of the Last Judgement while being serenaded by the sounds of morning mass from below. The walkway has quite a tall railing covered by plexiglass that extends far above my head. I can only imagine what touristy transgressions occurred before they added the plexiglass!

I'm pretty sure the guard thought I was nuts when I went for this one, but the reflection of the stained glass window in the plexiglass caught my eye.

I'm pretty sure the guard thought I was nuts when I went for this one, but the reflection of the stained glass window in the plexiglass caught my eye.

13:13 (Look…I’m telling time like an Italian!)
After climbing the Duomo, I find the Sita bus station and buy myself a round trip ticket to Siena. I miss the “rapida” bus by a few seconds, so I settle in for the longer ride on the regular bus. (It’ll still get me there faster than if I waited for the express.) I wonder whether it was a smart idea to burn my only full day in Florence with a side trip to Siena. But, as the bus goes around a corner on our way into town, I catch a glimpse of Siena’s Duomo. Breathtaking. Absolutely worth the journey.

Okay, I admit it.  I was quite a bit closer when I took this particular picture!

Okay, I admit it. I was quite a bit closer when I took this particular picture!

13:20
The bus drops me off at a bus station that isn’t very close to the Duomo and other sites, just as Rick Steves said it would. But, the lady in the bus station laughs at me when I ask for the bus to the “Centro.” She says I’m already there. A quick look outside proves that I’m a huge ravine away, but I don’t see any other choice. I take a picture of the bus station, to hopefully help me find my way back at the end of the day, and start walking.

I figure I can always hop in a taxi and show the picture to the driver. I'd rather avoid that little adventure, so please, please, please don't get lost!

I figure I can always hop in a taxi and show the picture to the driver. I'd rather avoid that little adventure, so please, please, please don't get lost!

I find wide steps leading down to the bottom of the ravine, and a building filled with a series of escalators to lead me up the other side.  Score!  But, while there are a few people coming down the escalators, the side going up isn’t moving.  I climb what feels like 10-12 flights of stairs before I realize the Up escalators aren’t broken, they’re just sleeping.  All I have to do is walk up and step onto the belt, and the last two escalators spring to life.  Leave it to the energy conscious Europeans to install escalators that turn off when no one’s using them!  Why don’t we do that back home?

14:32

I wander around the Duomo and surrounding sites for a while, taking a few pictures and trying to figure out what I want to see next.  I finally realize that my indecision is caused by hunger (nutella filled pastry can only go so far!) so I sit down for a quick lunch at a little cafe in the shadow of the cathedral.  I realize that all of my meals thus far have been made entirely of sweets or a starch + cheese and bacon.  Remind me to eat a vegetable soon.

I was actually pointing at the Panini next to this one, but the language barrier strikes again.

I was actually pointing at the Panini next to this one, but the language barrier strikes again.

15:15

Waiting to climb to the top of the Panorama dal Facciatone and the couple behind me are arguing in another language.  (Not Italian.)  We’re standing in la single file line in a roped off area wide enough for half a dozen people to stand alongside each other.  He’s scooted ahead and standing in the next available place, just in front of me.  She’s stubbornly standing right behind me.  They’re arguing, bitterly, over who is right, but I’m pretty sure they were here before me anyway.  So, I stand between them (and laboriously type out these notes on my iPhone) while they bicker over my head.  How awkward!

15:30

After a 30 minute wait, and a bit more bickering from the couple in line behind me, I make it up the 131 steps to the top of the Panorama.  It does not disappoint!  The views are gorgeous, and they only let a few people up at once, making the narrow walkway feel peaceful and serene.  I don’t linger long.  Too much to see.  Next up? Following along in my Rick Steves guidebook as I check out the inside of Siena’s beautiful cathedral.

I could claim that this picture is black and white in honor of the cathedral's beautiful black and white marble facade, but this photo was terribly unflattering to me in color. I think it's kinda cute this way, no?

I could claim that this picture is black and white in honor of the cathedral's beautiful black and white marble facade, but this photo was terribly unflattering to me in color. I think it's kinda cute this way, no?

16:20

The cathedral was gorgeous, both inside and out, but I can’t neglect Siena’s biggest claim to fame, Il Campo.  The large, bowl shaped ampitheater hosts Siena’s famous horse races twice a year.  Today, families and young couples sit here and there on the red bricked ground.  Rick Steves tells me to take note of the pigeons drinking out of the fountain at the top of the square, and I camp out for a while until I catch the perfect shot.

Hard to tell if the pigeon is drinking the water or cleaning the statue's teeth!

Hard to tell if the pigeon is drinking the water or cleaning the statue's teeth!

17:01

I had planned to have dinner in Siena, but I decide to catch one of the many busses that leave around six.  I grab a mint gelato and start walking down the hill.  I do not take a photo of my gelato.  It is too darn delicious.

17:48

Sometimes it pays to be a shutterbug.  I was worried that I’d have trouble finding my way back to the busy station, but I just looked back through the photos I took earlier today to guide my way.  My legs feel like they’ve been climbing all day…because they have.  I think I might reward myself with dinner from one of those three course touristo menus tonight!

A picture is worth a thousand maps.  Or something like that.

A picture is worth a thousand maps. Or something like that.

19:45

I make it back to my hotel just as dusk is falling.  I grab a sweater and a pair of headphones and set off to take Rick Steve’s Renaissance Walk of Florence.  The romantic feel of early evening adds to the mood as I listen to Rick educate me on Renaissance art.  I have to admit I’m getting tired of all the Biblical scenes, but I’m starting to understand why the Renaissance was such a big deal.

Okay, the arc at the Piazza della Republica was built in 1870.  It's way too new to be Renaissance.  But, it was on the Renaissance walk podcast, so I feel justified including it here.

Okay, the arc at the Piazza della Republica was built in 1870. It's way too new to be Renaissance. But, it was on the Renaissance walk podcast, so I feel justified including it here.

20:45

By the time I finish the podcast, I’m full of knowledge and starving half to death.  Luckily, I’ve already chosen a restaurant from Rick’s guidebook for dinner tonight.  Sadly, I can’t find it.  After wandering around dark alleys (somewhat frantically) for a half hour, I finally find the road that the restaurant is supposed to be on, but it’s completely blocked off with construction.  No worries…I picked a back up restaurant closer to my hotel.

I know you probably think this photo is blurry because it's taken at night with no tripod.  But, that's the look of hunger, people.  Desperate hunger.

I know you probably think this photo is blurry because it's taken at night with no tripod. But, that's the look of hunger, people. Desperate hunger.

21:55

The back-up restaurant is closing in 5 minutes and I’ve been wandering around lost for the past hour!  I finally just pick and direction and stick with it, and I’m lucky enough to end up on a street that I recognize.  But, it’s way too late for my three course meal.  I find a friendly shop owner selling street food and point at something that looks safe.  Cheese ravioli.  Once again, starch and cheese.  I’m still searching for that vegetable!

Not the gourmet cuisine I was looking for, but it hit the spot!

Not the gourmet cuisine I was looking for, but it hit the spot!

22:10

I bring my ravioli back to my hotel and pop open that half bottle of wine and bottle of fizzy water (gotta have fizzy water!) I was smart enough to buy yesterday.  That, along with some pistachios for dessert, makes for quite a lovely picnic.  After climbing countless hundreds of stairs today, I feel justified eating every single bite of my dinner. Plus, I have the added bonus of getting to eat dinner in my pajamas!

Really.  After a day of traipsing around Tuscany, don't discount the pleasure of the pajamas.

Really. After a day of traipsing around Tuscany, don't discount the pleasure of the pajamas.

Friday, October 14

9:15

Another early day.  This time, I’m in the “reserved tickets” line for the Uffizi Gallery at 8:15.  I spend the next hour or so listening to another one of Rick Steves’ excellent podcasts.  I love to learn, and this one teaches me lots.  First of all, Uffizi just means “offices” in Italian.  This building was the headquarters of the very powerful Medici family of merchants.  Second, I finally learn how to pronounce the word when Rick says, “If your little u-feet-zies are getting tired, this is a nice spot to take a rest.”  (Thanks, Rick!)  And, thirdly, this ancient sculpture is most likely the inspiration for Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, which is also on display in the Uffizi.  I’m not supposed to take pictures in here, but who can resist?  See the similarities?

Does this mean that Botticelli was a plagiarist?

Does this mean that Botticelli was a plagiarist?

10:15am
Post-museum gelato for breakfast. You got a problem with that?

I had an apple earlier.  Does that make it any better?

I had an apple earlier. Does that make it any better?

11:00am
Now that I have a little more time, I wander back through the street vendor stalls near the Duomo. I develop two obsessions.

Obsession #1: Taking “from the hip” photos of goods for sale. For some reason, I don’t think these guys would take too kindly to me photographing their pretty, pretty items for sale.

Pretty, yet expensive, Italian shoes.

Pretty, yet expensive, Italian shoes.

Cheap, and likely fake, Italian belts.

Cheap, and likely fake, Italian belts.

Obsession #2: The most beautiful red saddlebag purse I’ve ever laid my eyes on. It’s perfect, but the guy wants 70 Euro for the thing. It’s probably fake, and definitely not worth nearly $100. I try (not very successfully) to push it out of my mind…

Isn't it the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?  I found something similar at Target when I got back, but it's just not the same...

Isn't it the most beautiful thing you've ever seen? I found something similar at Target when I got back, but it's just not the same...

12:30
For once, I’m lining up to eat a meal at a semi-normal meal time. I take it from the line of locals out the door that this is the place that Alexandra recommended. I snap a photo to post on Facebook later, so that she can confirm.

She didn't remember the name, but told me to look for the wheat stalk.  Looks like a wheat stalk to me!

She didn't remember the name, but told me to look for the wheat stalk. Looks like a wheat stalk to me!

12:47
It’s a long wait to the front of the line, where I close my eyes and point to a random piece of pizza. I could not have picked better if I tried. Delish!

Look, mom.  I think that's a vegetable!

Look, mom. I think that's a vegetable!

13:04
Also on Alexandra’s recommendation, I look for the Museo di San Marco. She said it was directly across the square from the pizza place, but I have a little trouble finding it. Silly me. I should know for now that whatever building/entrance/attraction I’m looking for is probably the thing hidden behind scaffolding!

At least I have an excuse this time.  It really was hidden!

At least I have an excuse this time. It really was hidden!

13:20
Lost in thought in the beautiful courtyard of San Marco. I can’t help but fantasize about the monks who prayed here centuries ago. I’m so lost in thought that it somehow escapes me that I don’t process the big signs that tell me that the museum closes at 13:50 and access to the second floor (and the monk’s cells, frescoed by Fra Angelico) ends with the first bell at 13:30. The bell rings. I run up the stairs anyway. I see the lay person’s cells, but don’t make it around to the monk’s side. Still, a wonderful place. It might be my favorite so far!

Can you really blame me for getting lost in thought in such a beautiful place?

Can you really blame me for getting lost in thought in such a beautiful place?

15:01
I was planning on the 15:22 train to meet my tour group at Villa Pitiana, but I need a break. I head upstairs to Carmel’s terrace and breathe in Florence for a few more minutes.

What?  Your terrace doesn't have sculptures?

What? Your terrace doesn't have sculptures?

18:30
After an uneventful train ride (that dropped me off a stop too soon), a long wait for a cab, a very expensive (and slightly sketchy) cab ride to the hotel, and and frenzied introduction to my roommate for the next week (who was sadly under the weather) I find myself in Villa Pitiana‘s bar, toasting my new, Canadian tour mates. They’re all confused as to why and how a girl from Boston ended up on their trip, but they happily take me on as the “token American.”

Ahh...bubbly.

Ahh...bubbly.

Next up: food and photography adventures in Pisa, Florence, Perugia, San Gimignano, Cortona(ish) and Lucca.  Yay!

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3 Responses to “Italia: Wandering Florence and Siena”

  1. So glad I found your post! I leave for Italy in 3 days and one of our stops is Florence. I’ve been trying to figure out the whole Terraces of the Cathedral and Dome tour mentioned by Rick Steves and just a few other neat things to do in Florence.

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