We’re working our way from Greece & Turkey to Paris, where we’re celebrating my 60th birthday. After our stop in Capri, just because we love Capri, we took a fast train up to Florence. These fast trains are pretty amazing – a two-hour-or-so ride from Naples that used to take three or four times as long. Many is the time as we’ve been traveling that we lament the fact that China and Italy and France and God knows who else can build fast trains for convenient transportation, but somehow the U.S. is unable to do so. Sad.
Since leaving the States in May 2013, Mark & I have spent a little over 10 weeks in Italy, undoubtedly our favorite destination over these nearly two-and-a-half years. Yet none of that has been in northern Italy. We spent a weekend visiting a friend in Rome but otherwise it’s all been in southern Italy and the various islands. So with the prospect of working our way up to Paris we were pretty excited about spending at least a little time in the north and Florence seemed a pretty obvious choice.
Mark & I have both been to Florence a couple of times, but the last time we were here was 20 years ago. That’s too long to go between visits to one of the great art centers of the world. If you’re going to Florence, you’re going to spend a lot of time in museums. There was a lot of the city’s museum world that we couldn’t understand, though.For instance. As in Istanbul where we made great use of their single-price multi-day museum pass, Florence offers the Florence Card. One price, all the museums you can see for 72 hours from the time of your first. But that price? A whopping 72 Euros, or about $80, per person. My God, who could ever go to enough museums to make that work? We were pretty aggressive in our days there and spent just over $100 total for the two of us. I’m sure there are some people for whom it makes sense but only if you go to three museums a day for three solid days. That would be exhausting.
And while I’m on the topic of what we didn’t understand about museums, the Uffizi Gallery is by far the most famous museum in Florence, one of the great museums in the world. Wait times, if you don’t pay extra to reserve a specific entrance time, can exceed four hours. Yet they close the museum on Mondays. Why? I understand a small restaurant closing one night a week so the staff have a day off, but the Uffizi must have hundreds of staff people. Surely they could schedule people so the museum would be open seven days a week. And I don’t buy the possibility that they need a day off each week for maintenance or to change exhibits or something like that. There are huge construction projects going on all the time at museums and they’re always moving art in and out. File it under mystery or, more likely, Italy’s general inefficiency.But the mysteries continue. Late Sunday afternoon, after we’d made our reservations to go to the Uffizi on Tuesday, he notice that there was no line to get in. On closer inspection he saw that they were just letting people in for free, more than an hour before closing. We’d been told there were no tickets available for Sunday afternoon, but then they just open the doors wide for anyone who wants to go in for free. So Mark had the chance to go through and reconnoiter, to see what we should look at more closely on Tuesday. Similarly, the Bargello Museum is a world-class collection of sculptures, described as “Italy’s most comprehensive collection of Tuscan Renaissance sculpture.” When we went there one Sunday morning, though, it was free; they were just handing out tickets, normally priced at the bargain price of $4.50, to anyone who wanted in. I appreciated it, but weird.
One more mystery. The Medici Chapel, built by the powerful Medici family in the 17th century as their family chapel and mausoleum, is one of the must-see sites in the city. Full of Michelangelo sculptures and sumptuous marble and granite, the Chapel speaks clearly to Medici power, wealth, and love of art. Yet it, too, is periodically closed, in this case the first, third, and fifth Mondays of the month. We were there the first Monday so had to delay our visit for a day. And even if someone could actually explain why it has to be closed two or three days a month, couldn’t they arrange it so it was closed on different days from the Uffizi? Or are those only questions an American, obsessed with efficiency and rationality, would ask?OK, enough time plying the brains of Italian museum administrators. It’s a great city. One of the strange things about it for us, though, was how many Americans there were. As we’ve traveled around we used to be surprised by how few Americans we’d encounter; a tiny fraction of what you’d expect given the size and wealth of the country. What we’ve learned, though, or at least surmised, is that there are a relatively small number of places on the American tourist mindset: London, Paris, Rome, maybe the French Riviera, even Prague. And no question, Florence. On Sunday night we were at dinner (often a challenge on Sundays when many smaller restaurants that we like close) and with the exception of a Spanish couple it appeared that every single patron was American, though of course some of them could have been Canadian. Strange.
Oddly, after a 20-year absence from the city we’re already planning our next visit here, meeting friends here next July. I’m hoping that we’ll have time then to spend more time wandering in Tuscany since, great as Florence is, the rest of the region is pretty fabulous too. In fact, with a bike trip scheduled in the Dolomites of northern Italy in early June and then the Florence visit in July, we might spend another 10 weeks in Italy next year, this time entirely in the north. Maybe we’ll just never leave.