WickedEye's Quotient

7/27/2007 at 08:44

Travels of an Average-Looking American, Missive 3: Sumi’s Tips on Enjoying Florence

1. Have money. Lots of it.
2. Bring your money.
3. Spend a great deal of your money.

No joke. Getting to Florence (more properly Firenze) is expensive almost any way you slice it, unless you’re a native of Italy (and if you are, I can’t imagine what you’re doing reading this; go away- shoo!). Even rail travel on a Eurail pass will oblige you to shell out about $30 on top of the price of your pass for reservations on the one-way train. Trenitalia requires them, and let me tell you that the alternative to paying- standing or sitting in a train corridor for 3½ hours- is no fun (there was a rail strike while we were in Florence, and on the way back to Innsbruck all reservations were cancelled- we wound up sitting in the corridor for the entire ride). One-off train tickets from anywhere outside Italy- for example, from Innsbruck through the Brenner Pass by way of Bolzano, one of the shortest routes- start at 65€ (about $85), and planes run about the same price; so do car rentals.

Getting there is only the beginning of the expenditures you’ll need to make. Even a form of transport as humbly plebian as a 3-day bus pass is 12€ ($15.00); expect to drop at least that much per ride if you want to get around in a taxi- and if you have the money, I’d recommend it. Coming from Austria to Italy made the bus system a shock; from an utterly transparent and predictable system that a child (literally) could decipher to a system which is so jumbled and labyrinthine that even native Florentines know only the routes they need to get to and from work. Get a bus pass only if you have to, and keep your fingers crossed. (I’d tell you to buy a map, but they actually don’t make bus maps in Florence.)

Admission to the large museums will cost you $15.00 a go as well- make a reservation 2 days in advance, or you WILL stand in line for at least four hours at both the Accademia and the Uffizi, if you manage to get in at all… and if you leave without seeing the Uffizi, the Bargello, and the Accademia, why were you in Florence in the first place?

The smaller museums- basilicas and palaces- run cheaper; if, that is, you call $7.50 per person cheap. In other cities this would be reasonable; in a place like Florence, where there are at least 20 such sights which no one visiting the city should miss, prices start to add up.

There are no freebies in Florence; unlike many other European cities, there is no city card you can buy which gives you admission to museums and transportation for 48 or 72 hours, and there are no discounts for students or the elderly at attractions or lodgings. One price fits all and pay as you go: Florence is an a la carte kind of town.

Lodging matches this sort of “You’ll pay for it, so we’ll charge for it” philosophy. A room in an albergo’s dorm- meaning lodging with 4-12 other strangers and a communal bathroom in the hall- will start at 20€ per night and go up from there. The most expensive rooms in the city (whose prices are publicly available, anyway) go, in the high season, for prices like 2000€ a night.

There are hidden costs as well- don’t, for example, go into a higher-priced restaurant without inquiring if they have a “seating charge” (2-5€ per person) on top of their mandatory service charge. And plan to spend at least 6€ a day on water; you’ll need at least 3 liters to replace what you lose in the heat, and it’ll cost you. If you’re not used to moving around in blazing heat with no air conditioning as a respite, wear comfortable shoes that cover as little of your foot as possible (think Tevas or Crocs), light colored clothing in summerweight fabric, and sunblock. (Trust me on that last- my parents are ethnically Indian, and even I wear SPF 30 in Italy.)

That said, few cities have more in the way of art, history, and the fascination which springs from the marriage of power and beauty (that is, the Medici legacy) to recommend them, and with a 1€ map, even someone as congenitally lacking in a sense of direction as I can find her way around Firenze’s twisting, winding alleys and cockeyed streets on foot.

Cellini’s Perseo (post of its own coming soon), which stands in the open air in the Piazza della Signorina, was worth every bit of the aggravation and heartbreak it took to get to Florence (which, in my case, was a great deal indeed), and is utterly overwhelming. There were at least ten other experiences about which I could say the same thing- the tombs of my boys Galileo and Macchiavelli in Santa Croce, for instance, or the exquisite della Robbia altar which stands in the same place, or Ghiberti’s ethereally, blindingly beautiful Baptistery doors.

There was one moment which stood alone amongst all these glories, however: the Basilica di San Lorenzo, the personal crypt of Cosimo di Giovanni de'Medici (he's buried before its main altar), which contains the Medici family chapel (the Sagrestia Vecchia, designed by Brunelleschi). In it are the tombs of members of the Medici family and the monumental stone (though not the grave) of Cosimo de'Medici, Pater Patriae- placed by his grandson Lorenzo under an enormous elevated plinth so that all who saw it, in seeking to read the inscription, would bow before the memorial.

On the ceiling above the chancel, Leon Battista Alberti painted in a deep and glorious blue a map of the constellations, their shapes and stars gilded onto the lapis background. It is a picture of the night sky above Florence, exactly as it appeared on July 4, 1442… a precise picture of the sky, painted when the Ottomans were ill-tempered upstarts irritating the Byzantine Empire founded by Constantine; when Columbus had yet to conceive the idea of flattering Isabella, for the very good reason that neither had yet been born; when the church at San Lorenzo had already been named, sited, and consecrated for eleven hundred years.

My scalp was prickling as I stared. Everything was prickling- my neck, my arms, my eyes- from being open too long... I couldn't pull them away for a very, very long time.

No matter what you spend to get there- or spend while you’re there- Florence is worth it.


Bring your money.

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