Florence, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region is home to many masterpieces of Renaissance art and architecture. One of the most striking sights is the Duomo, a cathedral with a terracotta-tiled dome engineered by Brunelleschi and a bell tower by Giotto. The Galleria dell’Accademia displays Michelangelo’s “David” sculpture and the Uffizi Gallery exhibits Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and da Vinci’s “Annunciation”.  All this, and ice cream as well!         

                It’s very easy to run out of adjectives to describe Florence, but it was excellently summarised by our Tour Leader, Wynne Tranter, as beautiful, historic and memorable.

                Sunday 5th November

                After an early pickup; no, I can’t mention the time, but it was extremely dark, and after an unforgettable Ryanair experience (how does an airline operate with virtually no staff?), we were on our way. Our hotel, the 19thC Berchielli, is situated on the Arno River and everywhere was in relatively easy walking distance. After checking in to our hotel around midday, we were given a short guided walking tour of the city by our genial local host.  In the evening we had a group meal at a nearby restaurant which was a good opportunity to get to know some of our companions for the next few days.

                Monday 6th November

                Kitted out with the latest electronic devices (transmitter and earpieces), we enjoyed a more comprehensive tour of the city. The unforgettable sight was the magnificent exterior of the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) which dominates the city with its enormous dome, built by Bruneschelli without scaffolding , completed in 1436 and built to dwarf even the great buildings of ancient Greece and Rome. It is, in fact, so large that a comprehensive view is impossible from such close quarters. (Over lunch one day, some of us were treated to an interesting insight into the construction of the dome by David Kirby, who, at the drop of a hat, could explain it all in very clear detail).

                Much of the architecture in Florence has been influenced by the enormously powerful Medici family who wielded power for over 300 years, either with popular support or by force. We also saw the iconic Ponte Vecchio Bridge – the oldest bridge in Florence, built in 1345. Originally housing workshops such as butchers, tanners and blacksmiths, these were eventually evicted to make way for the more decorous and lucrative goldsmiths. (Not a good place to pick up a bargain basement Rolex). The bridge also houses the famous Giorgio Vasari Corridor built in 1565 which links the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti, via the Uffizi. This private elevated walkway allowed members of the Medici family to move between their residences without having to mix with the great unwashed.

                 Our lively local guide also let us into the secret on how to spot an authentic artisan ice cream parlour. Apparently there’s 2 types of Gelaterie, one for tourists and one for locals, and for a small consideration, we can divulge this interesting nugget of information, (a brown envelope with unmarked notes should suffice). I’m afraid Mr Whippy just won’t cut it anymore.

                We were also scheduled to go to the magnificent Gothic church of Santa Croce, but sadly we learned that some interior falling masonry had recently killed a 52 year old Spanish tourist so it has been closed to the public indefinitely. Our tour continued with a guided visit around San Marco, a convent founded in  13thC  whose simple cloisters and cells are settings for a remarkable series of devotional frescoes.

                 We concluded the afternoon with a self guided tour of the Spedale degli Innocenti, named after Herod’s biblical massacre of the Innocents following the birth of Jesus. This enlightened institution opened in 1444 as a ground-breaking first orphanage in Europe. Mothers could place their unwanted children anonymously in a stone cylinder (known as the ‘wheel’), ring the bell, the stone was turned, and the child was taken in. The gallery now has 50 works of art from 14thC – 18thC. 

                Tuesday 7th November

                With our local guide , we visited the Basilica di San Lorenzo, the parish church of the Medicis whose considerable wealth was lavished on its adornments. Brunellesci (latterly of Duomo fame) rebuilt the church in Renaissance Classical style in 1419, however the facade was never completed, although several designs were originally submitted. 

                We finished the day with a stop at the Galleria dell’Accademia (Academy of Fine Arts) founded in 1563 and this was the first school in Europe set up to teach the techniques of drawing, painting and sculpture. The most famous piece on display must be the magnificent Michelangelo’s “David”. He stands 17ft high and depicts the biblical hero who killed the giant Goliath. This statue established Michelangelo, then 29, as the foremost sculptor of his time.

                Wednesday 8th November

                Siena, was perhaps for many, the highlight of the trip. Built upon 7 hills, it is a network of narrow streets and alleys around the fan shaped Piazza del Campo where the legendary Palio bareback horse racing takes place twice a year in July and August. Siena comprises 17 contrades (parishes) whose animal symbols and colourful flags are everywhere. Our local guide was from the caterpillar contrada, and had perhaps, in the first flush of youth, recklessly married into the elephant contrada. She is now happily single again.

                As well as the fierce rivalry between the contrades, there is no love lost between Siena and Florence. Siena’s golden era was between 1260 and 1348 when wealthy citizens contributed to a major programme of civic building, but in 1348 the Black Death wiped out a third of its population and 200 years later more died when the Florentines inflicted an 18 month siege, and since that time Siena has remained largely frozen in time.

                Apart from the Campo, a slight diversion up one of the alleys reveals the Siena Duomo in all its splendour. It’s easy to run out of superlatives for Italian architecture but the facade of this ‘church’ is truly spectacular, as it was intended to be. Plans to build a new nave on the south side, making it the biggest church in Christendom, came to nothing after the Black Death struck.

                Thursday 9th November 2071

                A day of culture! The Bargello and the Uffizi. In the morning we had a self guided tour of the Bargello gallery, a museum of Florentine Renaissance sculpture displaying the works of Michelangelo, Donatello and many others. The Bargello was originally built as the city’s town hall in 1255; it was then used by the Chief of Police and became a prison carrying out executions until 1786. In 1865 it was renovated to become the foremost sculpture museum it is today. Its daunting and heavily fortified facade belies the treasures inside.

                After a group lunch to recover our energy we then split into 2 groups with our resident guides to go round the Uffizi – probably what most people think of when mentioning Florence. Once again we have the Medici dynasty to thank for this and Vasari for some of the architecture of the Uffizi itself. Art buffs could spend days in here! Here there are works by Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Giotto, Raphael and so many more. Renowned paintings, just to mention a few, are Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”, “The Holy Family” by Michelangelo and Leonardo’s  “Adoration of the Magi” (observing the patronage of the Medicis, who commissioned many of the greatest works in the collection, by including them in some of the artwork).

                Friday 10th November

                Our schedule for the last day was the Cappella Branacacci to see the celebrated frescoes of the Life of St Peter and on the way to Pisa Airport, a visit to Lucca, a walled city created in 1504-1645 preserving its original ancient Roman street plan.

                But hold on. We’re flying back by Ryanair aren’t we? Surely Ryanair aren’t going to just get us there and back, meekly, without incident or controversy? Rest assured – the flight has been duly cancelled at short notice, and thanks to the combined efforts of Tailored Travel and Wynne, we’re now leaving at the crack of dawn, complete with Berchielli breakfast brought forward, and having a leisurely 5 hour coach journey to Nice (that’s France isn’t it?) for a late afternoon flight by easyJet to Manchester? No, Stansted. What a feat of organisation! Congratulations to all concerned! We’re even arriving back at a reasonable hour instead of midnight. And sorry to disappoint; after all, it didn’t appear to be Ryanair’s fault at all, but some kind of strike at Pisa Airport.

                A wonderful trip, lots of memories, photographs, good company, quaffable Chianti wine, delicious ice cream, authentic pasta, excellent hotel, stunning location........ the list goes on.

               

                Our very special thanks to Wynne for her cool, caring, competent supervision of our group who thoroughly enjoyed their Tuscany experience.

               

                Norman Anderson