Real Italians Only Drink Cappaccino in the Morning
My first full day in Florence. I don’t think I could have been more excited than I was that day! I woke up after a tumultuous night tossing and turning. I thought I would sleep better after traveling for 16 hours, but no luck. I guess I needed the Florentine air first.
I was famished. I headed down to the hotel’s restaurant for my first breakfast, really just counting down the minutes until my first traditional Italian cappuccino. According to the Italian tradition, cappuccinos are a morning beverage…period. After 12:00, cafe is the order, which is really an espresso, not the typical American coffee. Newbies should be aware of this.
The Firenze Number Nine (which is rated #7 of 458 hotels in Florence by Tripadvisor) dining room was very stylish and inviting, consisting of the same muted colors as in the lounge areas, also with splashes of purple. Exiting the elevator, the dining room is directly to your right, and you are greeted immediately by a maitre’d who asks for your room number and offers you a table anywhere in the room. You are immediately in an initial, smaller dining area with cabinets to the right housing a plethora of breakfast food and drinks. Small, circular tables with plush, library-like armchairs invite you into a comfortable, homey setting. Walking through this area, with the buffet set up on your right, guests enter a second dining area which has more traditional dining tables–dark wood, rectangular tables with classic but modern dining room chairs. A quick 180 leads you back to the buffet area. Now the excitement begins. There’s a lot to choose, so you know you have different options for the duration of your stay. Warm and cold options are available to guests, including scrambled eggs (cooked and not too runny, which can be a problem in Italy) and bacon, making for a nicer breakfast dining option in my opinion. I tried out the eggs, bacon, and selected a cornetto vuoto — that’s a plain croissant to you. As I came around the buffet area with my food and blood orange juice in hand, excited to sit down and eat, a sparkle of light reflecting off of a white porcelain cup caught my eye. There it was. My first Italian cappuccino of my trip. The first sip was glorious, and I really lost all sense of my surroundings for the moment, cherishing the rich taste of espresso that never is quite the same in the States. Only the grumbling of my stomach brought me back to reality, and I began nourishing myself for the exciting day ahead.
A Florence with a View
Awake and recharged, I headed out to find Piazza della Stazione to begin my first planned and escorted tour of my trip. This was a morning Florence sightseeing tour by Caftours Florence — which I highly recommend. They are efficient, organized, knowledgeable, and punctual. They have it down. Now yes, I’ve been on walking tours of Florence before, and as I’ve said before I’ve been in Florence for two days the first time, then a day here and there in subsequent trips. But this was going to be the first time I would be “living” in Florence for the entire duration of my stay, and I wanted to be oriented. I pride myself on my sense of direction, and while small, Florence is a little bit more spatially organized in terms of its street and piazza structure then let’s say Rome. More importantly, this particular tour included a visit to Piazzale Michelangelo and to the Accademia Gallery. Without question, I had to return to see my David, really a must see every time — yes I said every time — you’re in Florence.
The meeting spot couldn’t have been better, at the corner of Piazza della Stazione and Piazza dell’ Unita. What’s so great about this spot? Across the street to the left is the narrow alleyway leading to Piazza della Santa Maria Novella, and to the right is the Florence train station. And as luck would have it, the spot is literally around the corner, well at least 2 corners, from my hotel. Being that it was early Sunday morning and the number of people was sparse, strolling down the side streets was a pleasure, and it didn’t even take 5 minutes to get there. I ended up right at the meeting point — across from the Hotel Baglioni, which turned out to be fortuitous because I would go to the hotel later for a real discovery. More on that to come later. A pleasant surprise greeted me when I checked in for the tour — a part of the tour would be on a bus and a part would be walking — fine with me. I take pride in my sense of direction, so my intent was to digest the structure of the city. I’m a north, south, east, west kind of gal — and I was having trouble orienting myself with a directional context of the city, but luckily this disorientation was short-lived.
I climbed onto the bus, choosing to sit on the upper deck so I could see everything. As I sat there, I watched the people, cars, and buses whipping around the streets in front of Santa Maria Novella Train Station, and I literally experienced the city coming alive. Add the sun shining in the bluest of skies, a cool 45 degrees, and you have a glorious day. Of course, the fact that this was in Florence didn’t hurt.
Monica, our tour guide, began her narrative about the story as the bus charged forward. First stop, Piazzale Michelangelo.
Access to this large square, located across the Arno River from the center of Florence. The journey to the square can be either by foot, by your own car or taxi, or the #12 bus from central Florence. The #12 bus takes you directly to the square; the #13 bus will take you back. As our bus made its way up the Viale Michelangelo, we passed the charming San Miniato al Monte, a historic church where you can hear monks sing at twilight almost every evening. Arriving then to Piazzale Michelangelo, named after the city’s most famous Renaissance artist, you have one of the best unobstructed views of the city. Designed in 1869 by Florentine architect Giuseppe Poggi, the square is one of the significant landmarks of the city historically because it was in the 19th century that Italy actually became a country. In the center of the square stands a replica of his most famous statue, the David.
The original, of course, stands in Galleria dell’Accademia in central Florence. Another replica of the David stands in Piazza della Signoria, where the original first stood. Yes, I’ve been before, as you can see from my profile picture, but that view never gets old. A large number of market vendors selling souvenirs and snacks fill the square, and if you walk down a short flight of stairs off to the left side of the square, there’s another balcony which provides an even more beautiful view, with far less people around. As I walked down the stairs, a collection of locks on the bannister caught my eye. People were clearly making it Florence’s own Pont Des Arts bridge, where people have been attaching padlocks for years to express their love. It seems fairly new, so I’m curious to see if it catches on here as it did in Paris.
Sundays at Piazzale Michelangelo are not only good for the picturesque views, but also for the car show. Every Sunday morning, Italians bring their expensive and vintage cars — and even motorcycles, like those I saw from the Harley Davidson Owners Group, Chianti Chapter if you can believe it — to show off to everyone.
The contrast of the David, the views of Florence, the souvenir stands, and the bustling groups of people create an energy that seems to bring out the best in people — lots of Ciaos and Buongiornos fill the air as people pose in front of Florence and cars. Add that to street performers playing a violin or accordion, and the spirit of La Dolce Vita filters through you.
As we head back down to central Florence, Monica claims that San Miniato al Monte, which they are redoing, is the most beautiful church, in her opinion. We drove past the Porta Romana, back through the Oltrarno district, and across the Arno to return to central Florence. I’ll be visiting the Oltrarno area in the next few days.
Extending an Olive Branch
We exit the bus at our original meeting point, and began the second half of our tour on foot. Monica led us down Via Antonio, which, low and behold, took us past my hotel. When we came to the end of Via dei Conti, we made an immediate left to see another of the many spectacular sights in Florence — the Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiore, otherwise known as the Duomo.
Considering this turn, and view, was at the end of my hotel’s street, I felt satisfied with my choice of Firenze Number Nine. After researching all hotels in Florence and checking out a map of central Florence, my decision came down to location. I assumed, based on the map, I would have, approximately, a 15-minute walk to school. For me, when I study a map, I always have the impression that everything is fairly close to each other. You know the saying — “Objects in mirror may appear closer than they are.” But when I arrive at my destination, the distance and time is always longer than I expected. This is not the case with Florence. So there I was, marveling at the Duomo, feeling pretty good that my walk to school in the mornings would not be as long as I had estimated. After a brief lecture about the Duomo and its surroundings, including observing people exiting the Duomo with olive branches in lieu of palm for Palm Sunday, Monica guided us to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the man of the hour.
Anyone Can Paint, Even a Woman
Now I’ve seen the David twice before. But he never gets old. He is breathtaking. The museum is comprised of many small rooms, so guests walk through the different rooms filled with paintings and sculptures created by a variety of artists. The structure has almost a homey, intimate atmosphere. Strolling from room to room, the Renaissance is depicted in many forms. Then it happens, and you don’t even realize it. You have experienced the last small room. You walk through a large doorway, and you are seemingly at a dead end, being forced to turn right into what you expect to be another intimate space. But you are mistaken. As you turn right, you realize, in a matter of seconds, you are gazing upon, at a distance, the man of the hour who stands upright and in charge at the end of a long corridor. David’s gleaming white figure shines bright as he stands alone and confident under a dome of glass which lets in natural sunlight — as a spotlight — onto this magnificent sculpture crafted out of one large block of Carrera marble.
As you advance toward David, you pass and admire smaller statues made by Michelangelo. There is even a painting on the left wall right before reaching the David that is painted from a sketch from Michelangelo. Monica explained that Michelangelo did not like to paint. He asserted, “”Anyone can paint, even a woman.” Painting, for him and others at that time, was considered a lower art form. Ironic considering the Sistine Chapel. As well, he didn’t believe in signing his work. The only piece of art signed by Michelangelo is the stunningly emotional Pieta at St. Peter’s in Rome. He was convinced to sign it because people marveled at the beauty of the sculpture, but no one knew who created it. In Florence, only one painting by Michelangelo exists, and it is at the Uffizi. But I digress.
The real focus in that corridor is David. There he stands. Walk up to him. Breathe him in. Gaze at his size, his details, his veins, his hair, his toenails, his expression — all illuminated by the overhead sunlight cascading down on him. He looks at home, comfortable, majestic. He’s been here since 1873, and has never left the building, even during World War II. Bunkers were built around the building and the statue itself for protection. Luckily, he remained safe. Dare we say David maintained and endured the inner strength Italy needed, which, at the end of World War II, transitioned from monarchy to a republic. So there he stands — protecting the Florentines. It’s the ultimate depiction of Renaissance form, function, and content.
What a great way to end these different visions of Florence Caftours shared with us. So the morning came to an end, and I thanked Monica profusely, departing to enjoy the rest of my day.