Thursday, September 13, 2012

Italy Day 7 Florence: History of Science, Ponte Vecchio, Pitti Palace, Boboli Gardens

Sunday in Florence. It's quiet. Fewer shops/attractions are open. Church bells are ringing sporadically. We headed south to the Arno from our hotel on Via Palazzuolo, then strolled along toward the Ponte Vecchio (we turned left/east and headed along the north coast). 
Couple of guys fishing.
Now that's a view to which Alfred might really enjoy his funky drink.
We had some time on our hands, so we had a little photo shoot along the way.
With all available modesty, I took the most incredible picture of Ilana.
I don't mean to brag but... I should consider working as a photographer .
I showed her the picture and asked her to take a similar one of me:
Not even close.
While we were walking, we noticed more and more padlocks chained to every possible anchor near the river. Love padlocks, if you haven't heard of them, are a relatively recently adopted tradition in Europe and the trend is spreading all over the world. The idea is you go to the river with your sweetie and a padlock. You lock the padlock to something nearby (usually a bridge), and throw the key in the river. Thusly, your love is locked forever. It's a nice sentiment.
I guess the anchor selection is pretty slim at this juncture of the river. 
Is that a combination lock in there? Someone didn't fully understand the concept... 
Unfortunately, the locks cause a considerable amount of damage to the bridges of Europe. The tradition has sparked a flurry of anti-love-padlock laws, and city workers removing thousands of locks from bridges. I hope the relationships all worked out... In Moscow they even went so far as to install special "trees" as designated anchors for the love padlocks.
Nothing can stop Gemma and Pol's love.
We headed past the Ponte Vecchio (we'll go by it after our first stop). Our destination was the history of science museum (Florence Card accepted). The museum is located just East of where the Ponte Vecchio meets the North bank of the Arno. The building is adjacent to the southern end of the Uffizi Gallery, if that helps.

In the Museo Galileo, which it is formally called, we found an incredible selection of old school science toys. It's our kind of museum.
What is this, a leveler?
Optical Illusion.
Globe of the heavens (likely with the earth at the center)
Ultra mega super globe of the heavens.
More different globe of the heavens (stars).
A lot of the museum is dedicated to the works of Galileo, favorite son of Florence. Galileo was the first guy to take a telescope, which was originally designed as a military technology, and point it upward. He basically invented astronomy as we know it. He discovered that the moon had craters, and that Venus had phases, and that Jupiter had moons, and was persecuted for claiming that the Sun, not the Moon is the center of the solar system. He was an all-around astronomical bad-ass.
Galileo drawings of the moon and the shadows created by craters. 
biiiig telescope.
So that did it for all the Galileo stuff. The rest was pretty entertaining as well:
This is apparently how you used to weigh a person. 
Had a lot of fun pretending to be apothecaries with this old chemistry set (it was encased in glass).
Stand back! I'm going to try science!!
Gotta just grab that mortar and pestle so I can grind up some sulfur to get rid of the bad spirits in the blood. 
Which drawer contained the leeches?
And that was the Museo Galileo. Top marks! Up next: The Ponte Vecchio.
The Ponte.
The Ponte Vecchio - which translates to "the old bridge", has been around for a long time. A bridge has existed at this point, the narrowest point of the Arno River, since Roman times. Since the middle ages, the sides of the pedestrian bridge have been lined with shops. Usually butchers, but today it's all overpriced jewelry and souvenirs - we weren't really looking to buy.
We took a in the middle of the bridge.
One fascinating thing about the bridge is the Vasari Corridor. The story goes: those lazy Medicis, not wanting to walk outside between the Pitti Palace and the Palazzo Vecchio, commissioned a second story hallway constructed to connect the two. The corridor runs over an alleyway between the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi Gallery, from there it runs over the Ponte Vecchio, and then up the hill to the Pitti Palace. It's a hard life, walking outside is just one of those things the Medicis shouldn't have to do...

We arrived to the Pitti Palace, just a little bit South of the Ponte Vecchio. While we waited to meet back up with our machatunim there, we watched an Italian kid play out an extremely entertaining exercise in futility:
Then, we met back up with our machatunim and entered the Pitti Palace.

The Pitti Palace is sprawlingly gigantic. It was the main residence of the Medicis, and was used as a base for Napoleon. Today, it encompasses about 8 museums under the same roof, not counting the - also sprawling - Boboli Gardens that are attached to the palace. The Florence card is valid at all of these museums. We visited the main ones, and a couple of obscure ones. The draw of these museums is mostly: here's how the Medicis used to live. Murals, moldings, private chapels, and lots and lots of tchotchkes. Those Medicis sure loved their tchotchkes.
This statuette is smashing!
Collect them all! Each sold separately. 
Each color on this table is created by another kind of stone fitted perfectly into the table. 
This painting is my favorite kind of painting:
Gabinetto di Rubens, by Cornelis de Ballieur II
Some guy named Rubens must've had gabinets full of Renaissance masterpieces... Cornelis de Ballieur II isn't a household name, but maybe it should be. Paintings like these are the stunning to me. The main subjects of the painting are nothing to squawk about, but the setting is nothing but existing masterpieces recreated in miniature and elaborate scientific instruments. I am just blown away by the skill it took to create this painting. Click here for another one.

We finished up at the Pitti Palace having visited many of the museums there (including the costume gallery which, for the record, is worth skipping). Next, we spent about an hour or so strolling through the Boboli Gardens.
Amphitheater in the gardens.
The garden is also also a statuary... so the Medicis would have something nice to look at besides miles and miles of perfectly trimmed hedges and lawns. 
We are tourists.
There are also some incredible views of Florence from certain points within the gardens:
The Palazzo Vecchio!
We left the Boboli Gardens and headed back towards our hotel to rest for a couple of hours. This time, we walked along the South side of the Arno. Took a few more pictures along the way:
My parents at the Arno.
A stray love padlock. 
We napped in our hotel room for a couple of hours and met up once again with our Machatunim at the Piazza del Duomo for dinner. We ate an early dinner at one of the really touristy places down one of the alleyways directly south of the Duomo itself. Dinner was tasty as usual. Italian food is good, have you heard? After dinner we headed back to Vivoli. Second time in two days going to the small gelato place, but when you've got the chance to eat the best gelato in the entire world - it's worth going back for seconds.

Strolled lazily back to our hotel. Had to prepare to go to Venice bright and early the next morning. Our walk took us through the Piazza della Repubblica - which is very beautiful at night.
Goodnight Florence.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Italy Day 6 Florence: Duomo, Medici Chapels, Mercato di San Lorenzo, Palazzo Medici Ricardi, Palazzo Vecchio, Uffizi Gallery, Vivoli, Aqua al 2

On our sixth day in Italy, we had so much planned out that all we could do was snap a picture of the Santa Maria Novella as we walked by. No time for a proper tour.
I'm sure it has many interesting attributes, but I know none of them.
We had some serious touring to do. First stop: The Duomo.
There are many fascinating things about this place but most fascinating has got to be its construction. Construction began in 1296 and wasn't completed until nearly one hundred and fifty years later! When construction began, the technology that would go into the completion of the dome itself hadn't been invented yet! Good goin, Brunelleschi! The inside, not quite so impressive. It was probably the least adorned interior of a church that we saw the whole trip, with the possible exception of the Basilica of San Domenico in Siena.
Bereft of masterpieces.
There was this nice piece of stained glass, and this clock that keeps only military time.
The only frescoes in the place are on the interior of the dome itself, and only partially visible from a small portion of the general admission area of the church.
You have to pay a separate admission price to see the full dome - what a rip!
OK. Our travel plans in Florence overlapped with plans of my sister's husband's parents! Michelle and Jay! That's pretty complicated, saying sister's husband's parents or brother-in-law's parents, isn't it? Fortunately, there's a word in Yiddish for just such an occasion: Machatunim. Machatunim means co-in-laws. There's no word for it in English. Moving on...
We reunited with our relatives in Florence and headed to the Medici Chapels. Of course, we used our Florence Cards to get us into the museum. The Medici family ruled Florence for hundreds of years. As a result, their family crests mark all the major landmarks. Their former palaces have become museums, and all their furniture, jewelry, and artwork is on display throughout the city. The Medici Chapels hold the remains of many of the principal members of the Medici family and many of the family's collections of religious artifacts. An example of such a religious artifact is a relic. A relic is most often a piece of the body of a Saint, or venerated person. This practice of keeping bones and other body parts is completely alien to us (as both Jews and Americans).
With gold and silver, they really try to distract you from the fact that you're looking at a tibia.
Some of these relics, like the ones above, you hardly knew you were looking at relics. Each one incorporates a small glass case with a tiny bone in it. Second from the right it has Mary praying at an altar, that is a small glass case...
The actual Capella dei Principi is very beautiful. Lots of colored marble and other standard accoutrements.
See those coffin-looking things sticking out of the wall? They're coffins!
That was a good time. Next we walked over to the Mercato di San Lorenzo aka the Mercato Centrale. There's a large, indoor food market and lining the Via dell'Ariento, there are leather and all sorts of souvenir vendors. I think we may have preferred the food market.
Along the edge of the indoor market, there are a few vendors that have set up tables to be part market and part restaurant. The food is authentically-local and cheap  - way cheaper than any restaurant you're likely to find, so if you're on a tight budget, eat at the market.
Give us all the pesto you got!
Next on our jam-packed agenda was the Palazzo Medici Ricardi, yet another of the elaborate landmarks and palaces left behind by the Medici family for us enjoy. To be honest, there's nothing overly interesting about this place. A friend of mine put it best: you've seen one magnificent palace in Europe, you've seen them all.
Looks like someone is very proud of their achievements. Cough! Couch! Ferdinando is a show-off! Cough!
Is this a masquerade costume, or armor? 
Next we turn South toward the Piazza della Signoria, the original site of the Statue of David. All they have there now is this crummy replica:
One art, please!
The Palazzo Vecchio dominates this Piazza. 
Basically it's like the town hall of Siena, only more so.
The Palazzo has been the seat of Florence's governance since Florence was a city-state (for many hundreds of years). The palace contains ornate council chambers, as well as a museum of the former residences held within the town hall (the duke lived here until the duke's residence was moved across the Arno river). Mostly it's just a museum now, but the city council meets here, and the Mayor has an office here. The best room in the place is the Salone de Cinquecento, the hall of five hundred, named for the number of people who sat upon the great council.
It's large.
The walls and ceiling are completely covered by depictions of significant events of Florence's history, namely the gigantic paintings of Florence victorious over Siena and Pisa (OK! We get it! Florence is number one in all of Tuscany! Get over yourselves!). The paintings are very impressive, though...
That's the gigantic wall painting I was talking about...
This room can require a lot of neck-craning, so Jay is inspired to change the way tourists enjoy Florence:
He's a genius.
To see the apartments of the royalty that have lived here, you must climb many many staircases. This lion feels your pain:
You mean you're going to climb all those stairs??
We climbed them all.
The Uffizi Gallery was next. It's between the Palazzo Vecchio and the Arno river. Largely it's considered to be the greatest collection of Renaissance/Italian art in the world. The Florence card comes in handy here at avoiding the long lines. Keep in mind, this was really late in our day after many many miles of walking. So much art in so little time can desensitize you to the magnificence of... art. In the Uffizi there are seemingly endless halls of masterpiece after masterpiece. They're arranged in a U shape around this courtyard:
The Uffizi from the courtile (inner courtyard)
It was a thrill to see such famous pieces as Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation and Botticelli's The Birth of Venus and Primavera, but mostly we went through the motions because it may be our first and last chance to see the Uffizi... We probably found these street performers in the Uffizi's courtile more fascinating:
By this time in the day it was pretty late, but there's so much more to do! Vivoli is touted in all the tourist books as the greatest gelato in the entire world. Usually, these "greatest places in the entire world" are all a bunch of hype (with the clear exception of my claim of Alice Pizza in Rome being the greatest pizza of all time). In this case, vivoli is very good. Probably it was the best gelato we had the entire trip, but it's hard to gauge things like this. Vivoli is East of the Palazzo Vecchio on Via Isole della Stinche (which you can find by going to the key in any map of the city).
Walked back to the Duomo of Florence.
We're back!
Someone in our group had heard about the possibility of seeing a classical music concert that night. Tourist information at the Piazza del Duomo pointed the Florence Box Office out to us, near the intersection of Via dell Agnolo and Viale Giovine Italia - not terribly close to where we were. Plus, when we got there, the box office was closed... and had been for many hours. Moral of the story: buy your tickets in advance.
We sat for a while on this funky bench near the box office... very tired.
Earlier in the day, probably around the time we were headed to Vivoli, we passed by a restaurant named Aqua al 2. Yes, it's very strange to incorporate a numeric figure in a title... like se7en, or numb3rs... But this place I had heard about from friends of mine who had been to Florence. It's very popular (and reasonably priced)! So popular in fact, that restaurateurs saw its potential and opened franchises in both San Diego and Washington, DC. Check out their classy website with its smooth, patronizing jazz here. We needed to make a reservation to eat there so if it's something you're thinking of doing, call ahead. Because so many of us keep the kosher, we ordered all vegetarian dishes and shared them all. They have this sampler item on the menu (there's a meat one and a vegetarian one), where it's the chef's choice of I believe five different dishes. Everything was delicious. 

Walked around after dinner. A stranger took the best picture of the whole trip: