Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Days 435 to 437: Florence

My first impression of Florence was: wow, there's a lot of tourists. That was my second, and my third impressions too. In fact, over three days, it was a constant impression that never wavered. Wow, Florence has a lot of tourists.

It's for that reason that I make the excuse for Danielle and myself that we seriously underperformed culturally. Did we see the Uffizi, the Galleria dell Accademia, or the Palazzo Vecchio? No, no, and no. The queues were too big and we had neither the time or the patience. We also had a very underdeveloped plan of attack. If you go to Florence in the summer and want to see some nice stuff, you'd better plan it well. After six months of travelling, we simply hadn't anticipated a city in which your movements need to be meticulously planned, else you spend your whole day in a queue. Is Florence worth the queues? No. Few things are worth hours of queueing.

Alas, however I try to justify our abject lack of culture during our days in Florence, there is no doubt our visit was the equivalent of throwing a few basketballs and all them striking the rim and flying off to the side, without ever a real chance of scoring. The city is renowned for having some of the world's greatest art: Michelangelo's David, Botticelli's The Birth Of Venus, Rembrandt's Self Portrait. None of which we saw. It wasn't through lack of good intentions. One afternoon we decided we really fancied seeing the Galleria dell Accademia, which famously features David. My sister, who appreciates an over-sized nude statue as much as the next person, visited it years ago, and was genuinely impressed. She's not somebody to casually recommend every piece of art she sees, so I was keen. But as we swung by, there were three queues. One was to book advance reservations, but none were available till the following afternoon (by which time we'd have left Florence), one was for the people who already had advance reservations, and the other was for people like us, without any kind of reservations. The final queue was huge, and not moving at all, so we gave up and went for a lie down.

In the absence of any real culture, we spent our days wandering the streets of Florence. It's an awfully pretty city, although the sheer volume of human flesh clogging the streets makes it an awfully frustrating experience. Obviously, Florence Cathedral is one of the city's icons, but there's also stuff like the Palazzo Vecchio, and an old-fashioned bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, all of which have lots of people around.

One of the days, we went a little beyond, past the river and where the streets were still charming but the crowds had thinned. Later, taking the advice of one of Danielle's aunts, we found an old basilica, with the catchy name of the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, very near the centre. Apparently, newlyweds in Florence come here to leave their bouquet to the Virgin Mary, in the hope of a long and fruitful marriage. I would never have ventured in accidentally as it looked pretty anonymous from the outside, but inside, it was truly beautiful. This is how Florence Cathedral should be inside.

Further taking Danielle's aunt's advice, we went to a restaurant called Il Latino. It's fair to say that while Danielle and I enjoy our food, neither of us is on a mission. Some people travel because of food, they want to try and eat everything they can. I find it all a bit of a pain. I love a good meal, but I hate the necessity of having to eat every day, at roughly regular intervals. Apart from costing money, it is a constant interference in my schedule. One day a magic pill will be invented that will do the job of a breakfast, lunch, and dinner - and life will be easy. But until then, most of our travelling culinary choices are made by saying, "Look, there's a restaurant, it'll do!"

But with Il Latino, we sought it out. It's something of a Florentine institution. It's vast, a series of rooms and chambers, and to our surprise a courtyard, which was where we ended up. It's not an occasion for privacy or romance - you get plonked at table with other people, tough luck if you don't like them. We were fortunate enough to be put next to an Australian couple we'd spoke to in the queue, and we ended up having a great conversation. While technically there's a menu, we never saw it, you just get given food, or the waiter will occasionally rattle off a list of choices. It doesn't matter which you choose - you get served a colossal hunk of meat on a plate. Other side dishes appear at random, and at the end various liquers and desserts flew onto our table. It's very entertaining, very hearty and filling, and definitely a different dining experience than we're used to. The bill - which was reasonable although a bit beyond our usual travel budget - seems to be made up on the spot.

The other days we just ate pizza or chicken biryani.

Florence is definitely a city I'd like to come back to, but definitely never in the summer. The crowds make in unbearable; the queues make it a pain in the ass. I'd love to come back for a week in the late autumn or winter and see the David and all his mates without having to wait for hours. I'd love to come back and just walk down the streets without being caught up in what appears to be multiple pitched battles between tour groups. Florence is a wonderful city, but wow, there's a lot of tourists. And they make it a bit crap.

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