Florence, Pisa & beautiful Tuscany

17 12 2012

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So yet again, the carefree traveller was on the move to explore another great place. The grand canal of Venice was extremely serene and peaceful in the morning before the whole of Venice woke up. As I cruised down the grand canal towards the railway station with the nice breeze blowing on my face, I was overwhelmed by a mixed of lingering feelings for this charming water city on one hand and an excitement and anticipation for my next destination – Florence which has been called the Athens of the Middle Ages.

The 2.5 hours train ride from Venice to Florence was pretty enjoyable. A chatty old couple from London sat beside me and was sharing with me all the wonderful places in Florence that I “must see”. To be frank, I have not done much research on Florence before embarking on this trip. My only “knowledge” of the city was that it has the famous Michelangelo’s David and many Italian brands like Prada, Gucci and Ferragamo have the “made in Florence” label, with my original intention of just loitering along the little town after seeing David. So what seems to be a casual conversation turned out to be pretty informative.

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As I walked to towards the city centre of Florence, the nice dome of Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore) rose above the other buildings. Known as the “cradle of the Renaissance” with the historic centre declared as UNESCO World Heritage Site, the little city is pretty captivating, different in every way from Venice but yet has its own unique charm. The Campanile, the Baptistery (with its famous door and gates to paradise), the 14th century medieval walls, Ponte Vecchio (the old bridge with its elevated corridor filled with shops selling jewelleries linking Uffizi to Medici residence at Palazzo Pitti), Piazza della Repubblica (once the Roman Forum), Vasari Corridor, Loggia dei Lanzi (an open-air sculpture gallery) are amongst some of the famous sights in this quaint city. Right at the heart of the city is Piazza della Signoria with the famous Bartolomeo Ammanati’s Fountain of Neptune. Of course, famous for its numerous museums and art galleries, of which Uffizi and Accademia (which houses the original David) are paradise for museums and art lovers.

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Tips:-
– There is always a long queue to buy tickets and get into Uffizi and Accademia (where Michelangelo’s David stands) so make sure you booked your ticket online to beat the queues.
– To get a panoramic view of the city, head to Piazzale Michelangelo. There will likely to tons of tourists there but it is worth the “fight” to get a good photo spot 🙂

Shopping:-
– If you are looking for leather goods, you are at the right place. Italy is well known for its leather goods and the Florentine leather market at Mercato Nuovo is one of the best place to get them. Alternatively, San Lorenzo Market around Piazza di San Lorenzo also has lots of handbags, leather jackets, belts, jewellery, gifts etc.
– Just round the corner of the Duomo in the direction of Piazza della Signoria is the main shopping street of Florence where you can shop till you drop. If you into high end Italian fashion (big names like Gucci, Versace, Ferragamo, Armani), head to Via Tornabuoni and the only thing that will hold you back will be how much your wallet (or your credit cards) can take you lol.
– If you are a true blue shopper and have the time, you can head out to the factory outlets which are outside of Florence. There are a couple of them depending on what you want to buy. For you are Prada & Miu Miu fan, head to the Prada’s Space factory outlet in the small town of Montevarchi. For a more variety of brands, there’s another outlet called “The Mall” at Valdarno area which has Armani Jeans, Bottega Veneta, Fendi, Gucci, Tod’s, YSL, Prada, Miss Sixties, etc. There’s also a D&G outlet very near to The Mall. One of my biggest regret is not having sufficient time to visit these outlets (or maybe this is a blessing in disguise as this saved me from pulling my hair off when I see my next month’s credit bills lol).

Food:-
– I love food in Florence. Do try their seafood pasta and Tuscany famous salami.
– There are a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants and many other nice ones in Florence (actually in Italy as a whole as Italians really love to eat). I have tried one of the Michelin-starred restaurant Ora d’Aria at Via de’ Georgofili and love it. Service was great and food is superb so I highly recommend it!
– Italians love ice-cream and so do I! An Italian friend recommended me to GROM in Milan which serves one of the best gelatos which I loved. There’s a GROM shop on Via del Campanile. If you just want a single scoop, you can ask them to mix for you 2 favours too.

Side trips to Pisa and rest of Tuscany:-
(1) Pisa:
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– You may have heard from many others that it may not be worth it to spend time to travel all the way to Pisa as “it only the leaning tower, etc”. Despite that, I still make my way to the little town of Pisa as I am the type that I must see all the “must-see” attractions if I am around the region. I thank God that I make this choice. Pisa is really wonderful, much more wonderful than I have expected it to be. The Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) is miraculously beautiful. Entering from the side of the Duomo with the Leaning Tower of Pisa at the background, I just did not expect to see such a sight and gave out a loud “wow”. It’s hard to use words to describe and I will urge everyone to just make a trip there. Of course, it’s also fascinating to see people doing all the funny poses (I was one of them hahaha) but the thing about having a vacation is to have fun right?

– For those who want to really “experience” the leaning tower, I suggest that you booked your ticket to climb the tower. It’s quite a few hundred steps climb, not a lot in numbers but it’s tough because of the leaning tower. I felt like my center of gravity is off and felt rather tipsy during my climb. But the climb to the top is worth it, with great view of the Square of Miracles, the Duomo and the little town. Do book your ticket in advance as there is a limitation to the number of people who can climb the tower in a day so as to conserve the tower and prevent it from leaning further (or at least to reduce the pace).

– Do also visit the little Pisa town which many tourists often missed. The town is pretty nice with leaning buildings due to the softness of the land (and hence not just that the leaning tower is leaning).
Siena:
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– The historic centre of Siena is one of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. For those familiar with Roman history, you will know of its legendary founder called Romulus who with his twin brother Remus were orphans raised and sucked by a she-wolf. Legend has it that Siena was founded by the son of Remus, Senius. Hence throughout the city, you can see statues and other artwork depicting a she-wolf suckling the young twins Romulus and Remus.

– Do visit the Duomo which is one of the beautiful Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture. You need to buy a ticket to enter but I think it’s worth the ticket price. There are many paintings each with a story to tell. I also love the town square (Piazza del Campo) which is shaped like a shell with Torre del Mangia which is famous for hosting the Palio horse race, which is a traditional medieval horse race around Campo twice a year. Also, do drop by Monte dei Paschi which is one of the oldest surviving bank in the world (and it’s still active today).

(3) San Gimignano:
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– The small little medieval town of San Gimignano is also a nice day trip from Florence and can be done together with Siena. It is well-known for its tower houses set on the hilltop and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The walls of the town and the buildings therein are still well-preserved, showcasing Romanesque and Gothic archietecture.

– Do try out the “DonDoli Gelateria” which is the Gelato World Champion for a few years. Note that there is another shop called “The World’s Best Gelato” which is the “fake” so look closely at the name 🙂

– There are many souveniers shops in this little town and I find the price here more reasonable than those in Florence. Why not take home a Pinocchio who was borned in the region of Tuscany (in a little town called Collodi) as a nice souvenier for your visit?

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