Florence: artistic treasures, amazing architecture and a rapidly-melting

The final city visit on our tour of the Italian Riviera, Tuscany and Rome was the Renaissance city of Florence, a city that was mentioned quite a bit in my art history lessons.

It was a warm and sunny day as we travelled into Florence, or Firenze as it’s known locally, heading firstly to a viewpoint high above the city. Florence sits in the valley of the River Arno and is surrounded by hills and mountains, and it was from the hilltop location of Piazzale Michelangelo that we were given an excellent view over the whole city with the rich terracotta dome of the cathedral’s mighty Duomo dominating the panorama. This is the shot that appears on many postcards so it’s the one to take for your album! Below us the River Arno ran past the pastel-coloured buildings and under the famous Ponte Vecchio which we could see over to the left.

Michelangelo's statue of David stands in the centre of Piazzale Michelangelo, looking over the city
Michelangelo’s statue of David (well, one of them) stands in the centre of Piazzale Michelangelo, looking over the city

At Piazzale Michelangelo, along with many people taking photos and posing for pictures for their album, there was a replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David, one of the masterpieces of Renaissance sculpture. Apart from that, the square itself wasn’t much to look at – but we were there for the view and that was incredible! Once everyone had the photographs they wanted we headed down towards the centre to meet our guide who would introduce us to her city.
Florence was once surrounded by high defensive walls and towers, and the Tower of the Mint, (Torre della Zecca) which we walked past on our way into the city was part of those walls. This tower was once connected to a string of buildings which were powered by water, and one of these was the Florence Mint (Zecca fiorentina) where the city’s golden florins were made.
Torre della Zecca – Tower of the Mint
Torre della Zecca – Tower of the Mint

Our guide led us past the Mint Tower and along Via dei Malcontenti, a narrow street sandwiched between cream-coloured buildings. This was apparently the road that criminals were led along to the public gallows, and so it was given the name Malcontenti – ‘malcontent’ meaning unhappy.
After a while, after passing the Franciscan church of Santa Croce with its grand marble façade and weaving our way through the narrow streets of the city, we came out at the Piazza della Signoria, dominated by the huge bell tower; the belfry of the Palazzo Vecchio (Old Palace). This is the city hall of Florence and it was in front of the building that I spotted another reproduction of Michelangelo’s David, the most famous statue on the square. The real one, created in 1504, used to stand here but it was removed and placed in the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze.
The belfry of the Palazzo Vecchio
The belfry of the Palazzo Vecchio on Piazza della Signoria…

 
Michelangelo's statue of David No.2
… and another ‘David’!

The square was buzzing with a great atmosphere – apparently it’s one of the most popular meeting spots for locals and tourists alike. Across from the city hall was the contrasting sight of designer stores being browsed by well-dressed shoppers and people strolling around trying to eat their colourful ‘gelato’ before it melted in the warm sunshine. Being a girl who doesn’t like shopping (yes, weird, I know!) I opted instead to join the gelato speed-eaters.
Frantically trying to keep the ice cream in its cone, I walked over to the large equestrian statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici standing just beside the city hall. Cosimo was famous for, amongst other things, the creation of the Uffizi which adjoins the Palazzo Vecchio and is now one of the most famous museums in the world, housing one of the greatest collations of art – most of it from the Renaissance period. Works by some of the greatest Italian artists are held here: names such as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli and Giotto, again, names I remembered from the A-Level art classes of my school days. This was one place I would’ve loved to visit to bring to life all those paintings I’d studied in my text books… to see early works by Giotto; Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Caravaggio’s Bacchus; all images I still remember. But it was time to move on.
The statue of Cosimo I de' Medici stands proudly on Piazza della Signoria
The statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici stands proudly on Piazza della Signoria

Our guide escorted us along the busy pedestrian street of Via die Calzaiuoli, home to many designer and high street names, a pizzeria here and there and quite a few places to buy those all important ice creams. The sweet smell of crepes and waffles led us along the alleyway until it opened up to reveal the breathtaking Piazza del Duomo. A couple of hours earlier we’d seen the huge domed roof of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore from the hillside across the river. Now we were up close, and it was truly magnificent.
Arriving at Piazza del Duomo – the magnificent Giotto's Tower
Arriving at Piazza del Duomo – the magnificent Giotto’s Tower and the Duomo

Right in front of us was the huge structure of Giotto’s Bell Tower. The column stands at almost 300 feet high and amongst its green, pink and white marble and displays intricate scenes. At the top, our guide advised us, the tower has 7 bells. We decided not to join the queues waiting to climb the 400+ steps to the top for a closer look and instead took her word for it.
Giotto's Tower up close: the beautiful green, pink and white marble
Giotto’s Tower up close: the beautiful green, pink and white marble

 
Look at the detail!

The Dome itself, designed and built by Filippo Brunelleschi, is equally impressive. More than 600 years after it was constructed the ‘Duomo’, as it’s known, still remains the tallest building in Florence. The cathedral is also the 4th largest in the world – the first is St. Peter’s in Rome, the second, St. Paul’s in London and the third, Milan’s Duomo.
The magnificent 'Duomo'
The magnificent ‘Duomo’

A short walk through the network of bustling passageways took us to the oldest bridge in Florence, the Ponte Vecchio. I’d seen photos of this bridge spanning the River Arno and always thought it looked rather plain, so I wanted to visit it for myself and find out why this well-known landmark is so popular.
The Ponte Vecchio was once the only bridge across the River Arno and the only bridge in Florence that wasn’t destroyed by Germans during WWII. Since the 13th century there have been shops on the bridge. Originally they housed fishmongers, greengrocers, butchers and tanners – the waste from which created a rather unpleasant smell in the river, so much so that in 1593 it was ordered that only jewellers and goldsmiths would be allowed to have shops on the Ponte Vecchio, making the bridge a much cleaner and attractive place to visit. Today, the bridge is still lined with jewellery stores attracting hundreds – probably thousands – of visitors each year.
The Ponte Vecchio – the oldest bridge in Florence
The Ponte Vecchio – the oldest bridge in Florence

Approaching the bridge I saw the familiar sight of the construction and, even ‘in the flesh’, it struck me how ordinary it looked – a jumble of mustard and reddy-coloured buildings which looked as if they’d been stuck onto the main structure. As I got closer I could see just how ramshackle it appeared. Once on the bridge, however, it was a different story. The place had a great atmosphere and was brought to life by the crowds of people gathered around the stalls and the wares of the gold and silver smiths which twinkled in contrast to the dilapidated appearance of the bridge’s exterior.
Colourful 'add-ons' cling to the bridge
Colourful ‘add-ons’ cling to the bridge

 
Ponte Vecchio, on the inside
Ponte Vecchio, on the inside

So, I can now say that I’ve visited Florence’s oldest bridge. It hadn’t contradicted my view of it as a rather plain and uninspiring landmark and I think there are much more impressive places to visit in the city, but I’d seen it for myself. The visit to Florence had given me a good overview of the capital of Tuscany, a brief history of the city and some of its landmarks, and of the sights I’d like to return to – namely the Uffizi Gallery.
Leaving the Ponte Vecchio and walking back along the Arno river, our visit to the Renaissance city had come to an end; another place to tick off my ‘must visit’ list… and another place I’d have to return to, one day.
 
 
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If at first you don’t succeed…: a dance cut short ' sur le Pont d’ Avignon ’.

Passing through neat rows of grapevines and rolling green fields stretching as far as the eye could see, we continued with our tour of Provence and the Dordogne on our way to the charming walled city of Avignon.

It was a beautiful April morning and the sun was shining as we continued along twisting roads and past the terracotta rooftops of delightful little villages along the way.
Arriving in Avignon we soon had excellent views of the mighty Palais des Papes – the Popes’ Palace – the largest Gothic palace in Europe, and the famous bridge: Pont d’Avignon, Saint Bénezet or ‘the broken bridge’ as it’s also known. Built in the 12th century, this bridge is the subject of a children’s song Sur le Pont d’Avignon, about handsome gentlemen, pretty dames, gardeners, dressmakers, grape growers and various other people all dancing on the bridge of Avignon. In reality, the bridge is only about 4 metres wide, so not a great deal of space for dancing!

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Strolling through the streets of Avignon

We made our way through the charming streets to the Place du Palais – the second of two main squares in Avignon, dominated by the huge palace which was home to Roman Catholic popes for almost 70 years during the 14th century. Climbing the stone steps we entered the palace for an audio tour around the enormous building with its grand halls, manicured lawn and spacious courtyards. The climb up to the roof terrace was well worth the effort – the reward was an excellent view over the city, the river and the famous broken bridge.
The streets led us to the Place du Palais
The streets led us to the busy Place du Palais

 
Great vews over Avignon
Great views over Avignon

For many years the Pont d’Avignon was the only stone bridge along the 186 mile stretch of the river Rhône between Lyon and the Mediterranean sea. Over the years the structure was damaged and many of its original 22 arches were swept away by the choppy flood waters of the Rhône. The crumbling bridge had to be constantly repaired until the 17th century when the cost of rebuilding and continual maintenance became too much for the city of Avignon to bear and the bridge gradually weakened. In time, the surviving arches collapsed leaving the four that remain today.
Bags of Lavender are everywhere!
Bags of Lavender are everywhere!

After our palace tour we walked through the city’s tangle of narrow cobbled backstreets, past souvenir shops emitting the sweet smell of lavender from the pretty little bags swinging from displays and out onto the road which runs alongside the Rive Rhône. The oatmeal-coloured stone stood out brightly against the brilliant blue sky as we crossed over the road to get to the medieval bridge. Climbing the steps I could see that the bridge was quite busy with visitors, maybe some of them dressmakers and grape growers wanting to dance ‘sur le Pont d’Avignon’?
Heading across the bridge
Heading across the bridge leaving behind the Palais des Papes

I quickstepped my way through the crowd, desperate to get all the way over to the other side, since it was the view from the banking on the other side of the river that I’d seen all the postcards and in brochures and wanted to capture for myself. Faster and faster I tried to weave through the crowd, camera at the ready. After a few ‘excusez-moi’s, I emerged from the throng of people… and realised… I was trying to cross ‘the broken bridge’.
It was just half an hour until our coach would be departing, but not one to be defeated I did a quick about-turn back through the crowds and with a few more ‘excusez moi’s, rushed back down the steps, along the river bank to the next bridge, over the bridge and down the other side of the Rhône. Walking as fast as my legs would carry me, I jumped over the extended rods of fishermen sitting on the river bank, breaking into a run through a large group of pigeons being fed by families – causing the birds to scatter in all directions – and locals taking their dogs for a leisurely walk.
Back over the bridge at an even quicker pace, I made it back to the coach with time to spare and collapsed into my seat, out of breath, but happy that I’d got the shot I wanted.
The broken bridge, in all its splendour
THE shot: the broken bridge, in all its splendour

 
Have you been to Avignon? Share your stories and comments with us! We’d love to hear from you!