Italy, the boot-shaped country in the Mediterranean Sea, is divided into 20 regions with central Italy being home to Tuscany. Some of the popular places in Tuscany are Florence, Pisa, and Siena. On a visit to Rome, we decided to take a day trip to Tuscany and visit Pisa and Florence. Tuscany has several museums and art galleries housing the world’s best Renaissance architectural masterpieces and other works of art.
After early morning breakfast, a scenic drive along pine framed roads took us to Pisa, as we passed several vineyards, olive groves and quaint towns and villages located on hilltops. On arriving in Pisa, our guide left us near the Piazza de Miracoli, which is the most famous square in Pisa and is home to the cathedral, baptistry, and the iconic Leaning Tower. She cautioned us to be very careful of the ‘gipsies’ who are known to pickpocket unsuspecting travellers engrossed in watching the architecture and beauty.
Holding our purses close, we entered the square and were greeted by the sight of the monuments. The green lawns of the enclosure were filled with tourists most of the whom were busy trying to click selfies with the monuments in the background, while still others were trying to get funny poses of pretending to hold up the tower and saving it from falling! The white marble cylinder, which is 56 meters tall, is the bell tower of the cathedral. Made between the 12th and 14th century, the tower began to tilt even before it was completed as the ground under it gave way. The identity of the architect is steeped in controversy and still unclear. There are seven bells in the bell chamber, one for each musical note. Only a limited number of tourists with tickets can go up the tower.
The cathedral of Pisa is an example of Romanesque architecture and is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. The exterior of the cathedral had a combination of marble, mosaic and bronze objects.
The Baptistry of St. John is the most prominent monument in Pisa with a characteristic dome. The Baptistry in marble is a fusion of Romanesque and Gothic styles. There were long queues to enter the Baptistry and cathedral, and since we had even to visit Florence we decided to respect the time and bid adieu to Pisa. After exiting Pisa, we headed to Florence and post-lunch were all set to explore it.
Tuscany’s regional capital is Florence, where the Renaissance began in the 15th Century. Therefore Florence is referred to as the Cradle of the Renaissance and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Galleria dell’ Accademia or Academia Gallery is the first attraction that we visited in Florence. Since our entry tickets were purchased online, we could skip the lines to enter quickly. Our guide Giovanni explained that the gallery was famous worldwide because of the sculptures by Renaissance artist Michelangelo. Michelangelo believed that the statue was trapped in the marble and all one had to do was only chisel the extra portions and bits. He had studied human anatomy, by dissecting the corpses, which is why his statues appear lifelike. He was commissioned by the royal Medici family to make some of these sculptures, and since he was a genius, he worked on several statues at the same time! We saw a lot of figures that were in various stages of completion but were never fully completed as the royal family ran out of funds.
The pièce de résistance at the Accademia was Michelangelo’s magnum opus David; a white marble sculpture chiselled to perfection. The statue was earlier in the open at Piazza Della Signoria before it took centre stage here. The 14 feet statue of a male nude took two years to make, and Michelangelo was only 26 years old when he started working on it. Several paintings by other artists were also displayed here.
The Piazza del Duomo, the square which lies in the heart of the city, is what we visited next. It has the Duomo (cathedral), Baptistery, the Campanile (bell tower), and the Museum of the Works of the Cathedral. Work on the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore was started in 1296 by Arnolfo di Cambio with a brief that the cathedral would have to be so stunning that it should outshine the ones at the neighbouring cities of Pisa and Siena. The exterior of the cathedral is in three colours of marble white, pink and green. The doom of the cathedral, which is its most exemplary feature, was made by Brunelleschi. So, magnificent and stunning were the ornamentation and decoration on the facade that we couldn’t take our eyes of it. If the exterior was so brilliant, what would the interior be like, we wondered?
Our guide explained that the cathedral took two hundred years to make but because finances for making it dwindled, the interior is rather simple and doesn’t have the opulence and grandeur of the external facade. To me, the cathedral was a metaphor for some people, who spend hours sprucing up their external appearances to create an impression and yet are so hollow and shallow on the inside!
The Baptistry of San Giovanni, an octagonal building, made with white and green marble, was in front of the Cathedral. The reason for this was that until the child was baptized, he/she couldn’t enter the Cathedral. Giotto’s Campanile or the gothic bell tower, which is about 278 feet tall, was just like the Cathedral decorated in green, white and pink marble.
The Piazza Della Signoria is the next square which we visited, and it was buzzing with tourists and shoppers. This piazza is where one can find restaurants, cafes as well as upscale brand stores. It is in this square that initially, the sculpture of David was located. We saw a David replica, other statues as well as the Fountain of Neptune here. But the most impressive monument overlooking the square was the Palazzo Vecchio, a fortress with an imposing tower. It is an archaeological site of ancient Roman ruins and a museum of Renaissance treasures of art.
The Arno river which flows through Florence has several bridges that span over it with some having been bombed by the Nazis during the war. Ponte Vecchio which is the most famous bridge was overcrowded with tourists wanting to admire and possibly make purchases at the most luxurious and branded jewellery shops located here. Our guide in zest had told the ladies in our group to make sure we pestered our husbands to gift us some gems and jewellery!
Another tradition, which is now illegal, is for lovers to lock a padlock on the bridge and throw the key in the river signifying that the lovers would be eternally united. There were artists selling paintings, kiosks selling souvenirs, enterprising vendors selling selfie sticks knowing that tourists would want to click pictures on this bridge. The Vasari Corridor runs over this bridge, and it was used by the royal Medici family to move between their two residences located on either end of the bridge. In earlier times, this bridge had the butcher shops, whose smell was unbearable to the royal family and hence they were relocated and replaced with jewellery stores. Today the corridor houses paintings and portraits by different artists.
Galleria Degli Uffizi or Uffizi Gallery is the jewel in the crown of Florence as far as art is concerned and a must-visit for every connoisseur of art. It has the richest and most beautiful collection of some of the best works and masterpieces of Renaissance artists, including Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vince, Raphael and Botticelli. It takes at least 3-4 hours to do justice and see all the exhibits here. We were on a half-day trip to Florence and hence couldn’t see the gallery from the inside. On the outside of the gallery, were artists engrossed in painting the landmarks of Florence, and marble statues. Were they statues? On taking a closer look, we realized that they were artists dressed as statutes! These artists charge you, so be prepared to shell out some euros in case you decide, to click pictures with them.
Santa Croce Church is what we saw last. It is where the greats like Michelangelo, Galileo, Rossini are buried and hence it is also referred to as Temple of the Italian Glories. The square in front of the church is for concerts and performances, and we witnessed a music and dance event.
Wherever you look in Florence, there is always some artwork or a piece of history and heritage that will enthral you, giving one an impression of being in an open-air museum! So, captivating is the beauty and grandeur of the artwork that one can easily get overwhelmed and experience the Florence syndrome or an art attack!
As we passed the souvenir shops, we saw a lot of them were selling Pinocchio, the puppet whose nose grew each time he spoke a lie, memorabilia. The reason is that the author Carlo Collodi of Pinocchio was from Florence.
Besides the art and architecture food is another attraction of this region. Tuscany is known for its vineyards and its famous Toscana wines, making its wine tasting tours very popular among wine buffs. Olives are another speciality of this region and tourists can be part of olive harvesting festivals where olives are pressed and the extracted olive oil, with proven health benefits, is bottled and given to you. Beef from the white Tuscan Chianina cattle used to make the best Florentine steaks that are tender, with the depth of flavour is the region’s third food speciality.
While Pisa doesn’t have much to offer, except the leaning tower, it is Florence which is an art lovers’ paradise with so much art, history, and heritage. Spending just half day here was like seeing the tip of the iceberg. We couldn’t go inside so many monuments, museums et al. This is one place which is definitely on my bucket list, and I would want to revisit it. One day, two cities, 800 km, 13 hours of travel plus sightseeing and priceless memories!
Nearest Airports: Florence and Pisa both have airports. Superfast trains also operate from major cities in Italy that will take you to Florence and Pisa.
Distances: Rome- Pisa 350 km (4 hours) Pisa- Florence 87 km (1 ½ hour)
Where to stay: You could explore options on the net depending on your comfort and budget.
Travel Tip: Florence has a lot to offer so spend more time here rather than Pisa. There are long queues to enter the monuments so it is better you make bookings on the net. We used the Viator App for our bookings. A one-day trip to Pisa and Florence by road from Rome, with tickets to the Accademia Gallery, cost us U.S. $ 228 per person.
This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons magazine, Jan 2018.