Todd and I arrived back in Maastricht from our holiday in Italy yesterday morning, and while we had a lovely week, we are exhausted! Packing in seven straight days of sightseeing and travel (often in either blazing heat or pouring rain) does not a relaxing vacation make. Still, it was a lot of fun and I've got plenty of things to share. For ease of reading (and to avoid one massively long post) I'll break it up into several posts, covering a couple of days each.
Our travels began when we landed in Pisa last Wednesday morning (RyanAir conveniently flies direct to that city from Maastricht Airport. No frills, certainly, but it got the job done.). From there we hopped an express train to Florence, city of art.
Now, Todd and I aren't huge art people, so the day and a half we gave ourselves for Florence was plenty of time. Unfortunately this left us with only one morning to get up early and get ourselves to some museums before the lines formed. The most famous one is the Uffizi Gallery, but we chose to head first to the Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo's David, which, despite our getting there when it opened, there was still a small line to see. This meant that by the time we got out the wait for the Uffizi would have been several hours, and since we didn't have all that much time in the city, we decided to skip it. Heresy, I know! But we did see the David and climb to the top of the Duomo, the gigantic basilica that dominates a whole piazza. (Seriously, besides St. Peter's at the Vatican, this is the biggest church I have ever seen, and certainly the most colorful).
The pictures don't do it justice; it's really too big to photograph properly. The stairs up to the top of the Dome were dark, steep, and winding (and somewhat terrifying):
but we were rewarded with a nice view of the painted ceiling about halfway up:
And with this:
And with spectacular views across the city once we finally made it to the top:
We also went to some sites that were a bit off the beaten track, or at least were certainly much less crowded than the more famous galleries and museums. The first day we braved the mob scene of the Ponte Vecchio (the bridge with all the jewelry shops, and all the tourists) to cross the Arno and visit the Boboli Gardens, the top of which affords you a great view of Florence with relatively little company.
Technically you aren't supposed to go up to the wall around the edge of the upper garden, there's a chain and Keep Out signs in both English and Italian, but apparently everyone just ignores these. Who were we to argue?
We also went to see the Medici Chapel where members of that illustrious family are entombed, and which houses a room designed by Michelangelo and containing a few of his sculptures dedicated to certain Medici family members. There were comparatively few people there; I'd recommend it for any Michelangelo fans because the statues are great and within easy viewing, with no jostling crowds as around the David (which is easy to see simply because it's enormous, but still, crowds are never pleasant). The octagonal Chapel of the Princes, with its ornate colored marble walls, was also pretty spectacular. More of Michelangelo's work, along with a few sculptures by Donatello and lots more, can be seen at the Bargello, a former barracks and prison. I'm more into architecture than art myself, so I particularly liked this gallery as the building itself was really cool - based around a central courtyard whose walls were covered with stone and plaster coats of arms, the interior rooms were gorgeously decorated. And again, hardly anyone seems to know it's there; Todd and I walked right in (after paying, of course!)*.
*Credit must be given where it's due: we didn't discover these places through any extensive research or innate artistic instinct on our part, but rather by flipping through the Fodor's Guide we had with us, which I highly recommend using. Ours was a bit outdated (borrowed from my parents from when they went to Italy back in 2009) but served us well.
Of course I can't talk about a trip to Italy without some discussion of food, but while we ate well everywhere we went, the meals we had in Florence weren't mindblowing, just tasty (except for some admittedly quite overprice gelato, which was some of the best I've ever had. The pistachio and hazelnut flavors tasted purely of themselves, while lesser quality ice creams sometimes taste mostly of sugar and artificial flavorings.) Actually, it must be said that, though we only had three actual restaurant meals in the city - sticking mainly to smaller, casual trattorias as we did throughout the trip - at all three places, while the food was good, the bread was consistently bad. Some places more so than others, but we never got good bread in Florence, and throughout our time in Italy in general we were never served bread that was better than what you could buy at a U.S. supermarket (and sometimes worse).
That bread did make for some good panzanella, however - I had this bread and vegetable salad at dinner our first night in Florence. It made me long for summer on Long Island with its ripe, juicy tomatoes. I'll be eating my fair share of salads like this in July when I'll be at my parents' house for a while, at least if I have anything to say about it. Todd and I had a love-hate relationship with the place where I got this salad - love, because along with the bread they gave us homemade bomboloni, Tuscan fried dough balls, like savory doughnut holes, salty and greasy and delicious. The restaurant got points off, however, for not letting us share dishes. We agreed that Todd would order the three-course menu (appetizer, entree, side) and I would get an appetizer; we would eat our first courses then share the rest. But apparently this is frowned upon at a lot of places in Florence, something our waitress neglected to mention until after we had ordered and our food (read, Todd's food, since I wasn't allowed to have any) had arrived. We shared anyway, of course, with me sneaking bites when the proprietress wasn't looking, to the amusement of the couple at the table nearest us.
Luckily our dining experiences, as well as the sightseeing, only got better when we got to Rome, but that will be saved for the next post!