DM and MM's Italy Trip Diary

Day 12 - Venezia to Firenze

Thursday, 10 May, 2001

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After a much better night's sleep thanks to the insect spray I bought yesterday, we woke to discover that the tour group of French schoolkids had been replaced by a large group of German adults who invaded the breakfast room (situated almost directly outside our room) noisily just before 08:00. By the time we emerged, all the tables had been taken except for one, in a small room by itself off the main room. The table was laid out, but there were no bread rolls on it like there had been on the other table we'd used. The man serving the coffees and bringing the croissants was run off his feet attending to all the other people and it took several minutes before he had the time to bring us some rolls and croissants. We scored six rolls between the two of us though!

We asked what time check out of our hotel was and were told 11:00. Since we planned to leave about 11:30 to get to the railway station and our train to Florence, we asked if we could leave our bags in the hotel until then. It took a bit of explaining despite the woman at the reception desk having spoken apparently good English the past few days - we decided she must only know the really common phrases used for checking in and out.

The plan was to leave early and catch the vaporetto numero uno to the Ponte dell'Accadémia and walk to the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, which houses the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of modern art works. We boarded the vaporetto a bit before 09:00, using the 24-hour tickets from yesterday which were still valid up to 10:30, and took our last trip down the Canàl Grande for this trip. It was still as magical as the first time.

The morning commute, Venice
Morning commuters in Venice

Once off the vaporetto we walked the short distance to the palazzo, eagerly expecting to see great works of art by the likes of Picasso, Dali, Klimt, and Brancusi - a nice change of pace from all this "boring" ancient Roman, Byzantine, Middle Ages, and Renaissance art we'd been seeing everywhere. We had wanted to see this collection yesterday, but had planned our days badly and only discovered on Tuesday night that the collection was closed on Wednesdays, so had to arrange things to make this specific trip this morning. We got there just before 09:30, expecting to have an hour or so inside before having to leave for the walk back to the hotel in time to catch our train. But the sign on the door said the museum opened at 10:00.

We could have waited half an hour, paid our LIT24,000, gone in for 30 minutes for a lightning look, then left again straight away, but decided it wasn't worth it any more and would have to wait until next time we came to Venice. (We returned 11 years later and saw the Collection in 2012.) So we set of on a leisurely stroll back to the hotel, taking one last chance to savour the magic of Venice before we had to leave. Right around the corner we stopped to have a quick look at some watercolours which an artist was painting beside a canal. He virtually assaulted us with hard-sell, claiming to have won a competition proclaiming him the best watercolour artist in Italy. The works were good, but his manner (as well as the prices) put us off.

We walked to the nearby traghetto stop to cross the Canàl Grande again. We got on the gondola with a man who spoke to the gondoliers rowing it. We started off into the canal, but turned and went a short way along it before pulling into a berth between some poles. We realised the other passenger was also a gondolier, being taken to his gondola, as he stepped out and into the one adjacent. Following this we were taken across the canal.

Walking north we crossed a path we'd taken previously, but this time continued north through Campo Sant'Angelo and Campo Manin before reaching Canàl Grande towards the Ponte di Rialto. We went into the nearby post office to buy stamps for some postcards and to see if they had a cardboard packing tube for the watercolour we'd bought in Rome, to keep it safe during our flight home. The building was very old and had a large square courtyard in the centre, roofed over, but otherwise empty. The service windows were around the inside walls of the courtyard, but there was nothing resembling a place to buy packaging materials. We bought our stamps, stamped our mail, and deposited it in the international boxes.

San Silvestro, morning
Last look at the Grand Canal

The rest of the walk back was along the main strip we'd been along before, chosen for the fact that it had a supermarket on it, where we stopped to buy bread and fillings for lunch as well as apples, water, toothpaste (we were running dangerously low), and some band-aids for blistered feet from all this walking!

We got back to the hotel just after 11:00 and decided to sit and rest for a while before loading up and heading to Stazione Santa Lucia. We also availed ourselves of the hotel toilet while waiting. Around 11:40 we left and walked the short distance to the station.

We had reserved seats on the Eurostar service to Florence. A sign indicated that all Eurostar trains left from platform 7, so we carried our bags there, where no train was waiting. While unloading to wait, the indicator board on the platform changed from showing our train to nothing. Looking at the departure board, we saw that our train had been moved to platform 1, where it was already waiting. So we reloaded up with our backpacks and walked over, then along most of the platform to carriage 8 where our seats were located. We had to wait there a few minutes while staff cleaned the carriage before they would let us on. Once again we'd been assigned facing seats, so we simply sat together, thinking we'd explain to anyone who had the seat we'd commandeered.

For the 25 minutes or so before the train left, the carriage was mostly empty, and we thought we'd be lucky with nobody sitting opposite facing us. No such luck. About a minute before the train left a swarm of people climbed aboard, searching out any vacant seats to claim since they had no reservations. An old woman sat in the seat opposite me and started inspecting everything in her vicinity, including our phrasebook which we'd placed on the table in front of us, actually flipping open a page to look inside it without so much as bothering to ask or even acknowledging our presence. The train moved off and we thought we'd be stuck with this crazy woman. As we pulled out of Stazione Santa Lucia more people seemed to appear from nowhere and claimed more seats. The mad woman spotted a seat further up the carriage and moved, but then a group of four other old women appeared and took the seats opposite us and two opposite an American couple sitting across the aisle from us.

Sitting in the four seats in front of the ones opposite us, and in one of the four directly in front of us, were five middle-aged Americans, who spent much of the trip chatting loudly, though not annoyingly. They were actually very entertaining, as we heard their opinions about their flight to Italy, the comfort of the train seats, the snack foods they'd brought on board, the fact that locals were only paying lip service to the non-smoking status of the carriage by smoking out in the passage between carriages - where the smoke drifted into the carriage every time someone opened the door to walk through - and their craving for cold beer, and the effect the latter had on the women in the group after the men went to the dining car to get some.

Eventually we arrived in Florence. I had marked the position of our hotel on our map of Florence, based on street numbers of other places listed in the Lonely Planet's map. We walked the three blocks to the designated location, carrying our backpacks through the hot sunny streets. Our hotel was not there. We looked at the street numbers and noticed that the numbers on Lungarno Amerigo Vespucci seemed to restart at Piazza Ognissanti, which indicated that our hotel might have been considerably further up the street than estimated. I asked a doorman at a swish hotel on the piazza (the Westin Excelsior), who confirmed our fears. We lugged our way up the hot street another four and a half blocks before finding Hotel Casa del Lago, which was on the fourth floor of a building, the ground floor of which held the Austrian Consulate.

River Arno from near our hotel, looking towards the Ponte Vecchio (in the far background)

We checked in to a nicely large and clean room, unfortunately not on the river Arno side of the building. Our view was over nearby buildings and not that great, but the room itself was about the best we'd had so far. It being about 16:00, we decided to head out immediately to see some of the sights of Florence! Our first stop was planned to be the famous Florence leather and clothing market, in the streets around Piazza della Mercato Centrale and Basilica San Lorenzo. It was a few blocks away, so we walked, passing the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella along the way.

Santa Maria Novella
Basilica di Santa Maria Novella

When we reached the market, the number of stalls was amazing, mostly selling leather goods, silk ties and scarves, woollen scarves, jeans, and other clothing. Michelle wanted to find a leather credit card holder for her dad. We saw some nice ones in the first few stalls we looked at, and the man tending one of them spoke to us in friendly English, promising us a "special price" since we were such nice people... We continued on, ranging up and down the streets of the market, seeing several things which looked similar, but not much quite the same. We haggled a bit at some places, never getting down as far as the "special price" the first man had offered us. In the end we decided to go back to the first man, since he had exactly what Michelle wanted at a better price than anyone else would give us. It seemed a shame not to buy a leather belt at the same time, since they were really insanely cheap compared to back home. I selected a nice dark brown one and Michelle decided to get her dad a black one to match the credit card case. We haggled some more and got the price down to LIT75,000, after some theatrical complaining from the man that we were ruining him. When we searched our wallets we found we could only scrape together LIT74,000, including all the coins we had! The man took it, saying with a laugh that we were very clever, hiding the rest of our money in our shoes, and instructed us to come back tomorrow and give him an extra LIT2,000...

belt up
Leather belts in the market

We walked towards the central Duomo of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, a stunning building in white, green, and pink marble, clearly recently cleaned since most of it was gleaming, although there was a small section around the back which was still covered with the grime of centuries. One thing about the Duomo here i Florence: although it's a lovely building, the piazza it's in is very small and built up close all around by neighbouring buildings. So unlike in Milan, there's no way to stand back from it and get a good view of it from a bit of a distance. You can only really see it up close.

People at the Duomo
Florence Duomo

After walking around the cathedral we stopped at a tavola calda where we ordered slices of potato pizza for Michelle and a plate of fettuccine salmone for me, eating them at a table with a bit of a view of the cathedral.

Florence Duomo
The famous tiled dome of the Duomo

With the sun starting to descend softly in the west, we walked slowly through the central shopping area, ending up in Piazza della Signoria, near the Galleria degli Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio.

Palazzo Vecchio
Equestrian statue of Cosimo I in front of the Palazzo Vecchio

Outside these buildings were several marvellous sculptures in marble and bronze, displayed outdoors in the Loggia dei Lanzi. One was a bronze statue of Perseus slaying Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini. There was also a replica of Michelangelo's David, the original of which is housed across Florence in the Galleria dell'Accademia. And near the middle f the square is the Fontana del Nettuno, with a giant marble sculpture of Neptune.

Fontana del Nettuno
Fontana del Nettuno in Piazza della Signoria

From this wonderful town square we walked eastwards towards Gelateria Vivoli, rated as having the best gelato in Florence by the Lonely Planet. I had a cup of strawberry and amarena, which our phrasebook has no translation for but which appears to be sour dark cherries. Very delicious. One odd thing about all the gelaterie we saw in Florence: Every single one had the gelati piled high in huge domed lumps rising 20-30 centimetres or more out of the containers in the display freezers, something which hadn't been done in Rome, Milan, or Venice.

We turned south to the Ponte alle Grazie. When we arrived, the sunset was promising to turn spectacular over the Arno river within the next half hour or so, so I set up my mini tripod and camera, ready to catch the action from the middle of the bridge. We weren't the only ones with the idea either, as we saw two other photographers with tripods setting up. We waited and watched a mildly beautiful sunset, taking a few photos for posterity, but nothing which I think will be really spectacular, since the clouds on the horizon were just too thick to afford a great explosion of colour.

Sunset over Ponte Vecchio
Sunset over the Ponte Vecchio

After it became clear the sunset was not going to deliver, we continued across the bridge to the south bank, then walked along it to the Ponte Vecchio, which we crossed to regain the north bank. Then we proceeded along the northern bank back to our hotel. Along the way, I was stopped by a magnificent view of the Chiesa San Frediano in Cestello, floodlit and reflecting gorgeously in the Arno river. I stopped and took a photo, which turned out better than any of the ones I'd attempted to take of the sunset.

Seminario Maggiore di Firenze, night
Chiesa San Frediano in Cestello

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