May 2013

Wednesday 22nd May

Alarms were set this morning...for 5.30! I've got into the habit of booking later flights for just this crack-of-dawn-hating reason, but BA cunningly cancelled the flight I originally booked and substituted this bastard. Oh well, at least we get to Florence earlier, he said through gritted teeth, no thanks to the cancellation of trains from Pisa to Florence due to 'trouble at Eboli'. So we caught the bus, which didn't take much longer than the train, truth be told. After the recent dull coldness of London it was a distinct novelty to have to remove our jackets and put on the dusty old shades.

Checking in to the good old Hotel Rivoli we were told we had quiet rooms facing the terrace, which is nice, and my room turned out to be not only a good size, but to have a corridor off it which has a walk-in-wardrobe/dressing room thingy and continues corridor-wise to transform into a long and marbled bathroom and toilet. Suave. That's the view from the lav to the right.

Out after unpacking to check on everything still being where it should be, we took in Piazza Santa Maria Novella and points west to Santa Croce. Sitting in Piazza Santa C we were impressed by the dedication of two young Japanese women who took about twenty minutes taking a picture of one of them jumping in the air in front of the church. We then looped back towards our hotel and indulged in a pair of pizzas and a salad somewhat early, at our fave Grotta di Leo, having missed lunch. And then the first ice cream, from L'Angolo del Gelato in Piazza Santa Maria Novella - cinnamon and mango, with the mango being almost spookily authentic-tasting. Jane was feeling knackered and so I had a last stroll solo, up to the bookshop on the way to the Duomo by way of Santa Maria Maggiore, for photographing and note-taking for the old churches site. There was some major candle-lighting-and-leaving going on all around one of the side altars, which had a modern-looking altarpiece, but it was all so holy in the vicinity I was scared to go and investigate. Lots of bunches of flowers being left too. (It might well have been Saint Rita, whose day is today and who is the patroness of impossible cases.)

In the bookshop there was an author talk going on, featuring some woman, and Marco Vichi! Readers of my Florence novel reviews will know that he has had several of his Inspector Bordelli novels translated in recent years, and that we like. All the chat was in Italian, of course, so I have no idea what was being discussed. I might have approached him and expressed my admiration if the event had broken up, but after an hour they still seemed to be going strong, so I had a bit more of a wander and then back to the hotel for a bit of a collapse. After writing all this stuff, of course.




Thursday 23rd May

Getting up to answer a call from nature in the night I momentarily couldn't find the light switch, but that was OK because I could see my way by the light shining up through the jacuzzi beneath my bathroom window. It's good when that happens isn't it? But the promise of a quiet room turned out hollow due to the noisy bunch of people carousing in the courtyard until after midnight, when I resorted to earplugs. And while I'm whinging - the breakfast here is very mediocre, made worse by our recent experience in Munich, in a hotel with 3 stars, where the Rivoli has 4. But it supplies 'fresh' orange juice that tastes like weak orange squash, a pastry choice limited to sweetened croissants with apricot jam filling, no option of low-fat milk on your cereal, a woefully small selection of cereals, and a very small pot of coffee. I hope my complaining about such small things doesn't come across as too disproportionate - I do like a nice breakfast.

To the Pitti Palace this morning, to look at some art. I did the Palatine Gallery last visit and promised myself I'd do more justice to the Arte Moderne rooms next time, having come to that gallery late and exhausted. This time, with Jane, starting there was on the cards, but first we thought we'd check out the (just opened) temporary exhibition called The Renaissance Dream, about dreams in art, which was odd but good, with loans from all sorts of places filling rooms of dozing (mostly naked) young women dreaming symbolically and elderly religious geezers having visions. This exhibition then fed you into the main Palatine Galleries so we did them next, and then ended up exhausted for the moderne (18th and 19th Century) galleries. Which was a shame as they had some interesting stuff - views of Florence, lovely Corot-like simple landscapes, and whole rooms full of paintings which were utterly puzzling in subject matter. The big handbill things in the rooms were no use as (unlike in the Palatine) they were in Italian only and had no explanations. I thought I'd get the gallery guidebook, but they had them in all languages except English.

A late lunch of yummy toasted cream cheese bagels with cucumber on the way back, at Mamma's Bakery, and a takeaway pear and walnut muffin to go with my afternoon tea, back at the hotel, with failing wifi.

In the evening we walked up to San Marco to see if it was at last scaff-free and photographable, and it was (and looking sunlit and fine see right), and into Piazza SS Annunciata, because we like it. Gnocchi al pesto in the good old Grotta di Leo, with a gelato from L'Angolo del Gelato of pineapple and coconut to follow (the pineapple flavour was as strikingly pineapple-y as yesterday's mango was so mango-y), sitting in Piazza SM Novella and watching the world. And the blokes selling those soppy purple-light-spinny things that they chuck in the air and which float down. And again. And again.



Friday 24th May

Friday 24th May
Another mystery of hotel dwelling - why is it that people who climb the tiled stairs outside your room to the one above yours at 1.00 in the morning are never ballet dancers? And why do their personal hygiene needs always involve a long shower? Another earplug night, then. Still I've solved the breakfast misery problem by being adaptable. If the cereal doesn't meet expectations, try the fresh fruit with some (coconut) yoghurt. And check the croissants more closely - the ones with dark oozings are probably the chocolate ones, and they may be nicely bitterly sweet.

Today we decided to walk up to San Miniato around the back of Santa Felicita, stopping off in Santa Fel first, because it's not one we'd lingered in before. And it does deserve a linger. Its USP is its Pontormo frescos - The Deposition (which isn't technically a deposition) and The Annunciation. The are in the corner Capponi chapel as you enter (see right) and you have to put in a Euro to see them at all, but when you do they glow like anything. They are special. I'm not the biggest fan of Pontormo and Bronzino and mannerism, but this chapel is a convincing argument for all three. The rest of the church is an 18th Century attempt at a bit of Brunelleschi, so it's a bit heavier handed, but an impressively large space, which the pokey façade doesn't really prepare you for. It has a big transept, which you're not allowed to go in, and a sacristy which seems to have some good stuff in it and which my Blue Guide says is open 3.30-5.30 on a Friday afternoon, but there's nothing in or on the church confirming this. The rest of the altarpieces are a bit dull, apart from the high altarpiece, which you can't get near enough for a good look at.

After some use of the discrete local loos (see puzzling sign from which, right) we started the trudge up to San Min but realised half way that the church would be closed well before we got up there. A visit to the Museo Bardini had been planned, and this seemed a good opportunity, but the guidebook said it was only open Sat, Sun and Mon, but we walked past it and found out that it's open Fridays too. It's a nicely random sort of place, with all sorts of bits, mostly architectural stonework and sculpture, but also paintings, ceilings, chests and carpets. Stefano Bardini was a dealer and collector of antiquities in the late 19th Century, and his gallery has been converted into something less commercial and more museumish. The labelling is pretty wayward though, with the info given, if given, being pretty minimal. Lots of stuff from demolished and suppressed churches, including a huge Bernardo Daddi Crucifixion, but no hint as to where they came from.

Pretty much of a repeat of yesterday's lunch, except for a couple of added badly-behaved American children. Oh and the English guidebook unavailable from the Pitti's Arte Moderne gallery yesterday was to be found in the big bookshop half way from the Pitti to the Ponte Vecchio, and at a reduced price!

To Santa Croce in the evening, to have another of Baldovino's best pizzas ever - the Crudaiola with rocket, tomato and ricotta cheese. Then a gelato from the Gelateria dei Neri on the way back - I went with the classic dark chocolate orange teamed with ricotta and fig.


Saturday 25th May

A trip to Prato was planned for today, but the day looking like becoming a rainfest of biblical proportions suggested something a bit more indoors. So it was off to the Palazzo Strozzi and the Springtime of the Renaissance exhibition. This being a zeitgeisty show dealing with the early influences on the renaissance and some important themes. It mostly featured sculpture, but that's good as sculpture's a bit of a blind spot of mine, and this excellently curated and arranged exhibition broadened my appreciation considerably. There were some paintings and frescoes and manuscripts too, and some of the juxtapositions and gatherings together were truly fruitful. When the caption mentioned another related or similar work it was usually the item coming up next. Themed rooms devoted to representations of the Madonna and Child in various media, with sometimes the same version presented in different media, and to the sources and various incarnation of putti made for rooms full of surprises, and some items I'd only read about. And there was a (very chunky) catalogue in English! The exhibition's on until the 18th of August, and then it goes to Paris.

It was still chucking it down when we left the Strozzi, so after a little light shopping we made for some pasta for lunch, or in my case the old fave Gnocchi alla Principessa (with tomato and mozzarella). It seeming wrong to eat a gelato under an umbrella so we hied it back to the hotel, and I'm typing this as thunder rolls and the raindrops patter in the jazuzzi.

The rain let up in the evening so we went in search of chocolate and books. But then it started falling again, so we made for the Lamapara, some spicy spaghetti, and a swift return to the hotel. It wasn't raining as we walked back but it was sure too cold for a gelato.

Sunday 26th May

Woken at 7.00 by a member of hotel staff trying to get into my room. If he'd realised his mistake early and not tried 4 times (buzzing of card reader, rattling of door knob) before I had to go and open the door I might have got back to sleep. Capitalizing on the raised awareness and interest in sculpture generated by yesterday's exhibition we decided to go visit the Bargello. I had never been inside before, I'm ashamed to say. Most famous as a prison, the building now houses some gems of Florentine renaissance sculpture, but it's not all sculpture  - there are some paintings and silverware, armour and majolica and the like. The sculpture is the draw, though, as it's superior stuff, whereas the paintings are pretty second rate, and badly displayed. Lots of small and miniature paintings are displayed high up and behind glass, for example, and are poorly lit. The first floor has an unmissable huge room of Donatello, with Della Robbia embellishments, and Giotto-esque frescoes in a chapel, for instance. The second floor was closed, seemingly so that the room attendants could cluster in groups on the first floor and talk loudly, whilst ignoring the people photographing, flashing and using their mobiles. The most famous figure is Donatello's David, the camp one with the soppy hat. The caption tells us that his creation at this stage in the renaissance was  'symbolic of the triumph of humility over haughtiness'.

The sun was shining by the time we quit the Bargello, so after some spaghetti al pesto a bit of gelato catching-up was in order, after yesterday's wash out. Fior di latte and pineapple, since you ask.

For our evening walk we headed west, away from the centre. Not the prettiest of locales, but we did find the odd newish church of Adoration Perpetuale open, with some people sitting and waiting for a service, so a good scan and note-taking from the back and a couple of photos of a church I'd never found open before. Down to the river for the walk back, with some fantasising courtesy of an estate agents window - some apartments were not too expensive, as it turns out. A pizza scugnizza and a fruiti di bosco panna cotta were well up to scratch at the Grotta di Leo.



Monday 27th May

Regular readers may remember how fed up I got with the Sade CD which was played on repeat at breakfast here last year. Well getting fed up isn't an option this week as the sole CD this year, played every morning, is Michael Bublè, so I was pretty much fed up from the first. (I wasn't entirely sure that it was MB so I looked his albums up to make sure. I was going to do it on Amazon but realised that they'd then start recommending other CDs of sub-Sinatra pap.

I hadn't mentioned it so far but there was a gelato festival taking place in various piazzas last week. The way it worked was you got a goodie-bag with a balloon, some wafers and a card costing €10 for five smallish tastings. This fussy method, and the fact that a lot of the flavours on offer were a bit poncy, had put us off but we still intended to give it a go. Although when we found the tents all empty and the huge glass-sided gelato-making lorry gone this morning we were not too disappointed.

To Orsanmichele, which the guidebooks, and even the official website, tells us is closed on Mondays. It's the church which was an oratorio, which had a painting of the Madonna & Child which became famous for working miracles, then a grain market, then a church. I've written about the strange double-nave effect and the spectacular tabernacle housing the Bernardo Daddi altarpiece before, but what I hadn't noticed is that two of the chunky pilasters on the left hand side are hollow and still have rectangular openings where the grain used to be funnelled down from the huge grainstore above. But I can provide no photographs of all this as the church has a strict No Foto rule, and some very enthusiastic attendants. The ex-grainstore above now houses the originals of the famous statues from the niches around the outside. Five of the best of these twelve statues were away at various exhibitions, though. The next floor up has some much less interesting corroded little statues which were higher up outside, and some spectacular views across Florence's rooftops.

By this time the call of nature was loud and as we passed we remembered that the Palazzo Vecchio has ground floor facilities just by the ticket office. But what we didn't remember was that these loos have a member of staff employed solely to make sure that only ticket-holders use them. Pshaw! We did the bagel and muffin thing again for lunch so we could get back the hotel early for our afternoon rest so we could be out early in the evening. To the Gelateria La Carraia by the Ponte Carraia on the walk back, for ricotta and pear teamed with almond.

We wanted to be rested early to get to the Casa Guidi, where the Brownings lived, as it's open 3.00-6.00 Mon, Weds, and Fri. Except when we got there it wasn't. The plan was to get to the nearby church of San Niccolo around 6.00, when it opens, after looking around the Casa Guidi, so we had an hour to kill, looking in some shops and sitting in a little park by the Arno, watching people taking their dogs, children and elderly women for a walk. When we got to San Niccolo, just after 6.00, it was firmly closed, with an old and well-used-looking hand-written sign saying that there would be no service at 6.30. A successful evening, then.


Tuesday 28th May

I think that the people in the room upstairs are new, but they are another pair of early-rising baby elephant trainers. The plan for today, our last day, is for Jane to do the Bardini gardens while I do some churches. Waking to persistent rain doesn't exactly put wings on these plans, but Jane switched her intentions to the Museo del Opera del Duomo, and it stopped raining pretty quickly anyway. I made first for Santa Trinita, to pay my respects to the Ghirlandaios, but ended up making a full and enthralled job of it with my guide book. Ditto, but slightly less so, with Santi Apostoli. This church being enlivened by (in the last chapel on the left) a Nativity scene so extensive it bordered on qualifying as a model village. Stopped briefly at Santa Maria de' Ricci because the loudness of its piped music, the intrusiveness of its many written signs, and its lack of any real draws, art wise, make it not a place to linger. I then strolled window-shopping out beyond Santa Croce along a street where I remembered getting good falafel on my last trip. I found the place, ordered falafel in pitta bread, and stood eying the chick pea curry hungrily. The freshly-made and fried falafels were placed in a wrap, into which was also placed salad and grated cheese and...a sizable dollop of the chick pea curry. The result was, and I know I've used this description before, truly a flavour sensation.

On my stroll back I bought some cherries in the Sant'Ambrogio market - €5 a kilo seemed a good price compared to what we've paid in the UK in recent years, and they came from nearby, but a kilo is a lot, isn't it? On my pip-spitting return I accidentally discovered the Giardino del Palazzo Vivarelli Colonna (see right), a sweet little garden it was a shame not to linger longer in. Frustrated at the No Foto rule in Orsanmichele I hatched a plan to poke my head in the door with my camera, take one photo and run for it. But when I did said head-poking I found that there were no attendants in sight. Some discrete snapping ensued. I returned to my hotel room a happy man, to type up, eat more cherries, and have a snooze. Post snooze, wondering if Jane was awake and maybe needing cherries, I realised that the door to her room, which opens onto the courtyard, is conversationally close to my furthest bathroom window, enabling a quick conference regarding our evening plans without the need for trousers.

The Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy shop (opposite our hotel) has a room that used to be a chapel - who knew? It's pretty ornate in there, and there are lots of snazzy rooms, all differently decorated, even if it does smell like a department store perfume hall. There's also a view of the large cloister of S.M.Novella through a glass door in the last room.

A last walk up to Piazza Santissima Annunziata, a finding of an obscure church photographed last year covered in scaffolding now blissfully free of it, and a repeat run on the evening eating, except the gelato was cinnamon and lemon, which combination now comes totally recommended.


Wednesday 29th May

Will I/we stay at the Rivoli again? Dunno - the room was spiffy this time, if a bit noisy - well it was quiet but the noises of the people stomping around in the room above and the carousers in the courtyard were more disturbing because of the quiet. The breakfast and the Bublè were a big minus and the wifi was flaky. I am tempted to try the local Mercure hotel, though, after our good experience with that chain in Munich.

The trip home was pretty much free of worth-reporting problems. A delayed flight meant more tedious lingering in the Pisa Aeroporto international lounge, although lounge is really too comfy a word for a boring space one becomes only too familiar with with each passing year. A more than average quota of bawling babies on the flight, made a bit less annoying by a stewardess telling a mum that she was once on a flight with 24 babies. The automated passport-checking machines at Gatwick might speed things up one day, but it's still quicker to join the long queue for the human checkers than the machines as the machines are still slow, what with all the human dithering and fiddling.

Home to torrential rain and welcoming cats and turning the central heating back on. And a much needed spicing up with a curry in the evening.


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