Monday, January 19, 2009

Fleur-di-Lovely...Part 4 (Florence)

Waking up early, we packed a back pack for our day and a half trip to Florence - or Firenze as it is called by the Italians. At the train station, the first train was sold out so we opted for tickets on the next train. Everyone in Eurpe tells me to buy second class because they are much cheaper and it is basically like riding on a regular Amtrak train, so that's what we did. We had to wait a little bit so we just hung around the station and experienced the most unorderly cafe and me stealing a glass with my coffee in it because the lady kept ignoring us when we asked for a to-go cup ha. When we got on the train it was like nothing I was expecting. I have taken a decent amount of trains in Spain but this train was something else. There were seating compartments, each with 6 seats, and of course they were already full. Tom and I ended up standing for the entire 3 hour trip very closely to a bunch of other people who along with thier luggage were crammed in the aisle. I felt like I was in a cattle car or something!

When we finally got to Florence we couldn't have been happier to sit down in the taxi. We arrived at the hotel - The Grand Hotel - right on the Arno River, which runs through Florence and my jaw dropped. Tom has some sort of membership with Starwood Hotels (Sheraton, W, Westin, etc) because he travels so much for work. Because of this he has a super elite status that gets him free upgrades and such and he can pay for nights in hotels with points he has accumulated and that is what he did for this hotel. Supposedly, and I agree, The Grand Hotel is one of the nicest hotels in the Starwood collection. Here we walk in with our jeans and back-packs and everyone is wearing suits ha! The man at the front desk who checked us in even walked us to our room, through a maze of frescoed walls and lavish oriental rugs. On the way to our room we caught a glimpse of the main hall which was stunning. I guess they use this room for big banquets and such. I couldn't help but wish I had had my Prom there...but I don't even think Italians have Prom ha. To get into our room we had the regular electronic key but to keep it antique, they attach a huge maroon tassle to the end of it. When we got into our room I was shocked. It made me feel like a queen instantly! It was probably twice the size of my whole NYC apartment, had the hotel crest of everything (towels, cups, soap, you name it). We checked our the brochure about our hotel at the front desk later and it turns out almost our EXACT same room was in the brochure...that never happens! The room looked like it should be out of Sword and the Stone movie - very old world feel. The whole place was extremely lavish...almost gaudy but it worked. On the walls, this is my favorite part, there wasn't wallpaper, but instead hand-painted frescos! You say no way, and I say ooooh yes. From our balcony, because of course our ridiculous room would have a balcony that looked over the river, we could see the river, the Ponte Vecchio, the hills of Tuscany and the bustle of the people below. Our room came complimentary with a bottle of chianti so we popped it open and pretended like we belonged in this superb hotel. Sitting there and drinking our wine, feeling sophisticated, we found out even more nice things about our room: the marble floor in the bathroom was heated, there were two shower heads in the tub, the chairs had lions carved on the armrests, the nighttables had laterns above them instead of lights, and the chandilier looked like it came straight from a castle. Needless to say, I was pretty impressed with Florence and we hadn't even seen anything yet.

After we got over the shock of our room, we decided that we should probably go see the city and not spend the entire trip in our hotel! First on the list was the Ponte Vecchio - right down the street from us! It is a bridge that was built in 996 by the Romans. The bridge has since been destoryed twice by floods and the bridge that is standing now was constructed in 1345. The bridge has shops on both sides of it, just like a street would. In the time it was built this was a regular thing to see, but now it's pretty out of the ordinary. When the shops were first constructed they used to house mostly butchers - that way they could just throw their waste into the river...gross but smart. Now the bridge is lined with lavish jewelry stores with lapis, gold, silver, stones and murano glass items - basically everything I can't afford ha.

The term bankrupt actually came from this very bridge. They say tha the the butchers who used to work here would display thier food on a wooden table out front of the shop for people to see it before they bought it. If they butcher couldn't pay his debts, the bank would come and break his table. Banco (the word they used for the tables in that day) plus rotto (broken) prodouced the work bancorotto which has since developed into bankrupt. Thats a nice jeopardy question huh? Another interesting fact about the Ponte Vecchio is that it is the oldest bridge in Florence because all of the others were blown up in WWII. However, Hitler saw this bridge and said it was much to pretty to blow up so instead he just blew up all the buildings on either side of it so the bridge was inaccessible...what a nice guy.

After window shopping, we had a Belgian waffle (which I was rather suprised to see in Florence) and Tom became a lifetime lover of them! With waffles in hand, we strolled around the quaint little city, passing statues, street vendors and interesting little shops. From the recommendation of our hotel we stopped into a small restaurant for dinner. It was rather upscale and didn't have an English menu. Now normally I can figure out the easy stuff - lasagna, spaghetti, etc - but this menu didnt have much on it that I could translate, so I ended up just ordering something that sounded pretty. Turns out it was some malzonne (I dont remember how to spell it) which is basically a huge ravioli with spinich and cheese inside - nice going Amanda! At the end of the meal, the waiter treated us to a complimentary drink. For me, he brought a limoncello (a delicious Italian alcohol) and for Tom he brought grappa (an Italian liquor...but not so delicious). I have tried grappa before in NYC with some Italian friends and I think it tastes equal to alcohol.

The next morning we slept in (always a good decision) and then came up with a little plan of action for the day. I wanted to see some churches (hundreds to choose from) and The David. Tom wanted to see the Uffizi Gallery (probably the most famous Italian museum) and have another waffle ha.

We set off towards The David at the Academia dell Galleria and on the way saw this huge church . turns out it was Santa Maria de Fiore. The church is made up of red, white and green marble, but the red has faded somewhat since it was built in the 1400s so the church looks like a pink and green geometrical peice. The odd color scheme didn't in any way detract from the intricate design and massiveness of both the church and the huge belltower. There was a line to get in so I assumed it was pretty popular and must be super nice inside. About about 45 minutes I was starting to get impatient and kept thinking: 'this place better be AMAZING' and we finally reached the front of the line. When we entered, I was expecting a big church just like all the other ones we have seen, but we found out real quick we were not headed into the church, oh no. We were instead climbing to the top of the dome! 463 steps in a small cement staircase later we reached the top of the dome - which is painted all in fresco. The church had set up a walkway all around the base of the dome so that you could gaze up at it from all angles. The base paintings depict hell, then earth, angels and then heaven. It was magical to look at - super detailed and very realistic and the window at the top of the dome that let the sunshine in helped light up the whole dome. I was happy we had waited in line for so long, even if we had no idea this was coming. I imagine it is much more spectacular to see it from where we were instead of the ground of the church. The dome us huge - from bottom to top about 375 feet. When it was completed in 1436 it was the first octagon dome ever built and has inspired many churches since. Even better was that not only did we get to see the dome, but a few hundred steps more and we were on the top of the dome, outside gazing out over Florence. From there you could se ethe entire town and in the background, the rolling hills of Tuscany and wine country. Our luck granted us a perfect day for weather and the view was breath-taking. The white and cream buildings with brick-red roofs cover the city and churches poked up into the sky all over.

After this lucky stop we continued to our original destination - The David. The line was short and we got in quickly. There was an exhibit on some of the first instruments in the Roman Empire but who are they kidding - no one cares, they just want to see David. We found out that the marble that Michelangelo made The David out of was actually garbage. He found it in the back of some church and asked if he could use it...they didn't want anything to do with it so they handed it over and look what happened! I sneaked a picture of the David, got lectured in the process, but wanted to make sure you guys saw it! My reasoning is that this statue for years and years stood out in a Piazza in Florence, where hundreds of thousand of people took pictures of it...I am sure it can stand another picture from me! Another neat part of the gallery was the room off the main display area, which was a sort of work-in-progress room. It showed the process sculptors used to go through before they would actually start sculpting in marble. They were some pretty nice plaster sculptures in there that had been the practice statues before the real things.

Next on our museum list was the Uffizi Gallery- the oldest museum in history and Italy's most famous. The line was long and we barely made it in before the last entry time, but once we were in there was so much art to see we forget about time. Uffizi actually just means office in the Florence dialect of Italian. So basically this place is called the Gallery of Offices because at one time it housed the government offices of the time. All of the art in the building used to be owned by the Medici family who lived in the area. They had collected loads of Boticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael and more famous artists works over time. When the last living member of the family died, in her will she gave all of the amazing artworks to the city of Florence and only requested that they always be available for public viewing, and they came up with Uffizi Gallery, lucky for us! In this gallery, to name a few of the top things, are Birth of Venus by Botticelli, Venus of Urbina by Titian and Madonna of the Goldfinch by Rafael, all of which we of course saw. Sorry, no pictures this time!

After being overloaded with art, we grabbed a delicious pizza and Coke Light (Diet Coke goes by Coke Light here...I have no idea why) and then headed for the train station. Of course we made sure to get me a Christmas ornament - this one is a hand-sewn red symbol of the Fleur-di-li, the symbol that is synonomous with Florence. The train ride back to Rome was quite the oppostie of our arriving train. We had seats and even were able to steal a little nap - I like this way of travelling much more! I love love loved Florence...almost more than Rome really. I think it would have been nice if we could have stayed another day or so, but I was very happy we atleast went north to see it.

Back in Rome we grabbed a glass of was the habit now. Only a few days left in Rome so we headed to bed to rest up!


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