Easter Break Backpacking in Florence (Without Breaking the Bank)
| Teaching House Nomads Blog
Florence. If you’re in Italy, it’s probably on your list of places to visit. Happily, as I revealed in my post about Rome, the Italians are joyously free with their public holiday time, so working in Italy, you will have the opportunity to go there sooner rather than later. And if you’re worried about your budget, don’t be: in this post you’ll find tips for good, inexpensive places to eat and to stay, as well as how to see everything you want to see, without blowing your entire term’s salary.
Florence is a city that will appeal to art lovers, and if you’re looking for inspiration there’s plenty here, on both personal and teaching levels. If nothing else, you can get your students talking about the times that they’ve been to Florence themselves, or the things that they’d like to visit if and when they go. Or (a bit sneaky, this one, but it’s killing two birds with one stone and it’s totally legitimate, so I say go for your life) how about running a lesson about modals of advice before you go, and getting your students to give you recommendations of where to go and what to see?
Leaving teaching aside, however, Florence is a wonderful place in which to wander and see the Italy which everyone dreams of before they get here. So many classic sights, so little time..
The first time I went to Florence, it was Easter 2010 and my fellow teacher Alex and I had decided to get out of small-town Puglia and get ourselves some culture over the long weekend break. We took the overnight train from Lecce, getting in early the next day to a crisp, clear Florentine morning. Arriving by train into the city is pretty fantabulous – S.M Novella station is a gorgeous confection of clean marble lines and Art Deco signage – and I was smitten as soon as I got off the train. After sharing a four-berth cabin with a man who snored fit to wake the dead I was in need of coffee, though. We therefore staggered, bleary-eyed, into the nearest bar, which was also beautifully kitted out in marble, glass, polished dark wood and brass. I started to feel that I might just have died and gone to heaven. When we arrived at our Plus Hostel in Florence to find that we’d been upgraded from a mixed dorm room to a private twin with one of those bunk beds that has a double bed on the bottom (which I immediately bagsied), that feeling was confirmed. “I love it!” I announced to Alex. “Now let’s get out there and explore…”
The Uffizi: A must-see.
Before arriving in Florence I had, of course, made a mental note of the things that I wanted to see. The Uffizi was top of that list, and I’d discovered that for museum and gallery visits it’s worth getting yourself organised a little way in advance.
You can book tickets online at www.uffizi.com/online-ticket-booking-uffizi-gallery.asp before your visit, for example, in order to avoid the long (and boring) queues. You can also book tickets for many other major museums and galleries, including the Accademia, on the same site. Booking in advance costs a little bit more than just rocking up on the day, but it will save you oodles of time and boredom, giving you the freedom to eat more gelato. (What? These things are important!)
The Accademia: Artful eye candy.
Despite my fixation on seeing the Uffizi, however, my favorite gallery was in fact the Accademia, which houses Michelangelo’s original David along with a host of other gorgeousness. Alex thought I’d been abducted at one point, I lagged so far behind him as I gazed, open-mouthed, at all the amazing marble sculptures and beautiful bronze statues.
The hall running down towards David was spectacular. Enormous chunks of cool marble lined the walls in varying stages of sculpted-ness. Fully formed hands and feet emerging from raw lumps of stone as if pushing through silk: the artistry was incredible. And what was even more incredible was that many of these pieces were abandoned part-way through because they weren’t considered good enough to finish. The mind boggles.
I could happily have stayed at the Accademia all weekend, but there were so many other things to see that I knew I had to drag myself away. I emerged, starry-eyed and a little bit dazed, into Florentine drizzle, and Alex and I proceeded to walk and walk and walk.
Luckily Alex had been an artist in a previous life and was as mad on all Florence’s tiny details as I was; we stopped every few paces to take photographs of ornately carved door knockers; of grandiose doors; of beautifully-turned pieces of stone. Alex chuntered over allegedly female statues carved by men who — judging by the way they appeared to be male statues with some breasts slapped on as an afterthought — had either never seen, or weren’t interested in, a naked woman. I, meanwhile, sniggered about muscular marble bottoms and the size (or lack thereof) of sculpted male genitalia.
Oh, the vistas…
Later, looking out over the city from Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence spread herself out below us in miniature: the Arno, brown and turbid and looking like a streak of melted chocolate; the Ponte Vecchio; the black and white majesty of the Duomo; the warm red dome of Santa Croce – a building etched on my mind’s eye since I painted it, over and over again on multiple book cover mock-ups, for my Art GCSE exam. It was surreal to see something so familiar from pictures at last in reality. Stretching out behind us was green countryside which rolled on towards the hills in the distance, the greens fading to blues and greys and violets as the eye traveled towards the horizon. To our distant left, an immaculate cultivated garden decorated a steep hillside, while right next to us stood yet another David. He pops up everywhere around the city, but this one was scattered with yellow chrysanthemum petals and graffitied with protestations of undying teenage love. Never mind the drizzle; Florence to me, at that moment, just couldn’t get any better.
And then the next day happened.
Easter Mass: A Florentine spectacle.
Every Easter Sunday, when the Mass inside the Duomo comes to a close, the priest sets light to a dove-shaped fuse above the altar. This dove then races the length of the cathedral aisle, along a narrow wire zip-line, out of the enormous double doors and into the piazza: when the bird reaches the end of the wire, the show begins…
As so many Italian celebrations do, this show involves fireworks. However, this isn’t your average display, viewed from a carefully judged distance, as you might get in the UK or the US. No, this is the Scoppio del Carro – the explosion of the cart. The cart in question is 500 years old, 30-foot high, enclosed – and stuffed to the gills with pyrotechnics. It’s pulled through the city streets during the early hours of the morning by garlanded white oxen, accompanied by a couple of hundred men in tights (oh, all right: traditional 15th century costume), soldiers and musicians. A low-key celebration, this is not.
Just before the Easter Mass finishes inside the cathedral, the cart and its entourage arrive in the Duomo square. By the time it turns up, the crowds will already have been gathering there for a while; once those who have followed the procession have been added to the throng, there’s little space to breathe. It’s therefore worth getting there early if you want to get the best view.
Alex and I, on the other hand, arrived at about 11.30 am. Oops. Faced with a wall of people blocking our way, I got creative. “Let’s cut through the Duomo!” I yelled over my shoulder to Alex. “There aren’t so many people on the far side of the square!”
Before he could demur, I gleefully raced inside, against the general flow of worshippers leaving the Mass, and started using my best queue-barging techniques to wriggle my way through the crowd.
Looking back on it, it wasn’t my finest idea. As I reached the aisle, I saw the reason why I was the only person going the direction I was going: the sides of the aisle were blockaded to prevent people getting in the way of the dove. Which was already well on its way to the cart.
We therefore ended up viewing the show from *inside* the cathedral, through billowing clouds of cordite-scented blue smoke. It probably should have been massively disappointing.
However, what with the pealing bells of the Giotto and the fizz of excitement in the air, underpinned throughout with the whizzes, bangs and squeals of zooming fireworks, it didn’t matter a jot. I haven’t seen a firework show either before or since that could match it: my Florentine Easter was complete.
Some tips for enjoying the culinary delights of Florence without breaking the bank:
#1: For top tips on where to eat on a budget, visit Girl in Florence a.k.a. Georgette Jupe, Texas-born and, since 2007, a Florentine resident.
#2: Florence is cheaper for lunch than dinner, so feast at mid-day to save cash.
Some cool budget lunch places include:
–Été Bistrò, Via Faenza, 55r – not a lot of seating but great, healthy food and cool vibe, plus cheap, good wine
–Hosteria il Desco, Via delle Terme, 23r – great lunch & dinner menu, but make reservations
–Osteria il Buongustai, Via de Cerchi, 15r – these ladies know what they are doing!
–Hosteria il Desco is again a good option
–Mercato Central in San Lorenzo – get a drink and one of their pizzas (really good). Be aware that it does get crowded and lunchtime might be a little more sane. Open every day.
–Sabatino, Via Pisana, 2R is a little more walking but cheap and traditional
–Enoteca le Barrique, Via Leone, 40/r [http://www.enotecalebarrique.com/] – a bit more of a splurge (although not ridiculously so) and worth it. Ask to dine in the courtyard and expect amazing food
–Osteria de L’Ortolano – near the Accademia and good for either lunch or dinner [http://girlinflorence.com/2014/04/23/osteria-de-lortolano-foodie-spot-near-the-accademia-gallery/]
–Amblè, Chiasso dei del Bene
–Café degli Artigiani, Via dello Sprone, 16/r (corner of Piazza della Passera)
–Caffetteria delle Oblate, Via dell’Oriuolo, 26 – have a spritz (Aperol and prosecco) with a view of the Duomo
–Torre Guelfa, Borgo Santi Apostoli, 8 – a secret place to get a drink overlooking Florence!
-Finally, any bar on this list http://girlinflorence.com/2014/02/13/where-to-get-a-moscow-mule-in-florence/
–Gelateria della Passera, Piazza della Passera
–Edoardo Biologico, Duomo
–Gelateria Carabe, Duomo – Sicilian and great!