Wheel Adventures: Florence reveals wonders of Renaissance, fine design

David Sovka

Second in a series on cycling through Italy’s Tuscany region. You can read the first piece here.

All roads do not, in fact, lead to Rome. For example, just two minutes on the highway over the Malahat on a Friday afternoon provides highly convincing evidence that some roads don’t lead anywhere.

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The famous phrase comes from the fact that the ancient Romans built about 85,000 kilometres of roads by the fourth century.

Today, the phrase could be updated to “All trains lead to Rome,” celebrating the excellent rail network that gets you just about anywhere in the country, cheaply and efficiently.

Except during one of Italy’s industrial strikes, which fortunately only happen every five minutes or so.

The high-speed Trenitalia train is how we leave Rome for Florence, 231 km to the northwest.

Pro-tip: Pay the extra€five-10 euros upgrade to a first-class ticket. You get bigger seats, cleaner bathrooms and free snacks. And there is plenty of room to carry on all of your luggage, including my huge, well-travelled backpack, which I named “Rick Steves” because it is old, fluffy, empty and hosts a travel show on American public television. Haha, I’m just kidding! It’s not empty: Rick Steves is absolutely chock-a-block full of the essentials for any trip to Europe:

• Expensive digital SLR camera almost as good as my phone

• Kindle E-reader, loaded with books readable on my phone

• Charger and universal power adapter for my phone

• Travel pillow and sleep mask for my phone

Yes, it would have been easier to just send my phone on a trip to Europe, but the global roaming package was more expensive than two adult air fares.

Of the many cities I have visited around the world (and keep in mind this includes Lethbridge, Alta.), Florence is perhaps the most beautiful.

Firenze (Italian for “Florence”) is remarkably small for a place that has had such a great impact on Western civilization — religion, art, architecture, literature, politics, banking, food, fashion — and it has hardly changed since the Renaissance, which began here in the 15th century under the patronage of the Medici family (Italian for “Medici family”).

The Arno River, also referred to as the River Arno by British people who always do that sort of thing, winds through Florence, which is characterized by romantic, narrow streets lined with three- and four-storey buildings with impressive carvings and frilly bits.

Florence looks and feels like what you expect from Old Europe. There are no steel and glass skyscrapers or colourful plastic fun parks.

The buildings are ancient and beautiful, despite the hammering they took in the Second World War when the retreating Germans blew up all the bridges apart from Ponte Vecchio (Italian for “pushy tourists congregate here”).

Florence is steeped in a different kind of history than Rome. Here in the birthplace of banking and humanism, the history is a little more accessible; less Pope Zeus and more Gucci Renaissance.

Speaking of Gucci, that fashion house is here, along with Prada, Roberto Cavalii, Salvatore Ferragamo, Roberto Capucci and Emilio Pucci.

As an enthusiastic devotee of haute couture, let me tell you I have no idea who any of these people are. But I do shuffle past their opulent, golden stores in my shabby cycling gear, furtively searching the mannequins for price tags (there are none) while handsome models/ salesmen scowl at me.

This prompts me to a rebellious song-and-dance number on the Via de’ Tornabuoni, featuring Irving Berlin’s We’re a Couple of Swells:

We’re a couple of sports

The pride of the tennis courts

In June, July and August we look cute when we’re dressed in shorts.

My wife joins the handsome models/salesmen in scowling at my busted moves, so I end the number with a fist-bump to the door handle of a Prada store, and we shuffle away before someone calls the cops, who are also well-dressed and handsome.

Italy is quite a formal society where people tend to dress up and observe the social niceties, except for politics, religion, and soccer games. As such, you should always wear pants and greet people with a “Buongiorno” (good morning, Bono) or “Buonasera” (good evening, Sarah).

Florentines are used to hordes of tourists from around the world clogging up their city, so if you are ever lost or in a jam, make sure to say “Mi scusi” (excuse my Suzy) to attract attention. Another effective way to attract attention is not to smoke.

Galleria degli Uffizi

You can practise not smoking inside Florence’s incredible Galleria degli Uffizi, home of the world’s greatest collection of Renaissance art. The Uffizi (Italian for “office buildings,” which is what they were in the 16th century) displays its collection in chronological order, from ancient Greek sculpture to 18th-century Venetian paintings, including an overwhelming catalogue by Michelangelo, da Vinci, Caravaggio, Raphael and … maybe you should take an art history course before visiting.

Warning for people who need this kind of warning: there are many naughty bits on display. Also, it is always crowded. This is especially true in the big-ticket rooms, such as the galleries that host Botticelli’s sublime La nascita di Venere (The Birth of Venus), Primavera (Spring), and Madonna del Magnificat (I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo).

Pro-tip: Pay for a skip-the-line tour. In addition to making you feel important when you walk past all the punters sweating in the long entry queue, the official tour provides a little help in understanding what you are looking at.

Galleria Del’Accademia

The skip-the-line tour option is pretty much a necessity at Florence’s other must-see art museum, Galleria Del’Accademia. It’s much smaller that the Uffizi, with only 800 works of awe-inspiring art, the showpiece of which is Michelangelo’s instantly-recognizable 5.17-metre-high marble wonder, David. Michelangelo was actually the fifth artist to have worked on the statue, which began as a giant block of what turned out to be poor-quality Italian marble. David was meant to be positioned at the top of a dome, 130 metres above the ground, and Michelangelo’s genius was such that he worked out the correct proportions for the statue so that it would appear natural to viewers at street level. This explains why David is sometimes thought to have disproportionately sized … parts, such as … um, what I’m trying to say is he has large hands. Like all Davids.

Our Accademia guide, a volatile, five-foot tall professional archeologist named Amadeus — I swear I’m not making this up — refuses to take us to see David until after we see the rest of the collection. I’m glad he did, or we might have missed the less-showy works, such as 600-year-old tapestries, and a gallery devoted to early musical instruments, including one of the first pianos ever constructed, and an actual Stradivarius. I think it was a banjo, but I’ll need to check my notes.

Duomo

In addition to amazing artwork and fashion, Florence scores highly in the ‘wow, look-at-that-building’ competition. The No. 1 must-see site of architectural woo-woo is the Duomo, or Catterdrale di Santa Maria del Flore (Cathedral of St. Mary of the Flower). I’m hesitant to describe this giant cathedral, sacristy, crypt and cupola complex as a kind of layered cake, not wishing to elicit complaint email for my philistine sensibilities, but:

a) it looks like a prettily-decorated cake, if cakes were decorated with green and pink marble;

b) it is layered with styles and ages — the original construction began in 1296, while the façade was designed in the 19th century; and

c) Mmmmm… tiramisu cake.

When I say the Duomo is a must-see, I don’t mean that you must actually see it. I mean that everybody who has ever been to, or heard of, Florence will tell you that you must see it. And when they tell you to see it, they actually mean do it, which involves waiting forever in the requisite tourist line, and then climbing the 463 interior stone steps of the Duomo’s cupola. Sure, the 91-metre-high dome is an impressive feat of Renaissance engineering. It was constructed between 1420 and 1436 to a design by Filippo Brunelleschi, and contains more than four million bricks. I include all these details in case you want to buck the universal OMG-you-MUST-see-the-Duomo pressure, and just go eat some gelato along the Arno River, or River Arno if you’re British. That’s what I did.

Relax, don’t do it

In my humble O, while on vacation it’s very important to remember that you are on vacation. That means you get to do whatever you can afford to do, up to and including tweaking the Pope’s nose and saying, “Who’s a good pontiff? You’re a good pontiff!” My point is there’s no angry, coffee-breath Boss Man Person looking over your shoulder, telling you what to do. You’re free! So, if you’re tired of the long, sweaty lines, tired of the pushy tourists or just plain tired, give yourself permission to take a break from taking a break.

I recommend the Chianti.

Next week: After meeting our cycling group, it’s onto the bikes and into the Tuscan countryside, which sounds a lot less hilly than “the Italian Alps.”

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