February 2022
More photos here

 

There is a lot of backstory to this one. It’s my first trip to Italy since Venice in November 2019 and my first trip abroad since my covid-cursed trip to (not) see the Van Eyck exhibition in Ghent in March 2020. So that’s two years of lockdowns, staycations and online courses, but no getting out of my own country. Rules have been relaxing very fast in England of late, but Italy, for example, is still not taking the same chances. So my folder of papers which usually include boarding passes, my health insurance, and a list of churches to be visited this time also includes my NHS Vaccination Certificate, my EU Passenger Locator Form and a Negative COVID Test certificate. The last certificate entailed doing an £18 antigen test at home 24 hours before arrival in Italy and photographing the result, emailing it to the test company, and anxiously waiting for them to send back the certificate by email, within the hour as it turned out. Masks are still required indoors in Italy, so my much-washed cloth ones will be getting some of their last outings, and an FFP2 disposable mask is stipulated during the flight. I am providing all this detail in the firm hope that it will soon be of historical interest!
Another draw to this trip, run by Ciceroni, is that David and Jenny, old friends from Travel Editions trips, are on it, and Paula and Geoff Nuttall - esteemed art-historians who have Florence (and Flanders) in their blood - are taking it.
In Florence there’s a conference of mayors and bishops all week, with the pope visiting and taking a service on the Sunday, so Santa Croce is shut for the duration of our trip. The Brancacci chapel is currently full of scaffolding, but the publicised treat of being allowed to climb up it is not available for us as numbers each day are limited and don't allow for groups. There are some closed parts and days for Santa Maria Novella and the Palazzo Vecchio too, but fingers-crossed they're not looking like affecting our tour itinerary, which is now on its forth version.

Wednesday 23 February
My train to the airport was so empty I took the risk of taking my mask off. We had been advised to get to check-in no later than 11.30, two hours before our flight. Only the north terminal is being used currently, and it was there whilst self-bag-dropping that I met up with David and Jenny, and after the usual security rigmarole we made for an early Pret lunch and catch up, where we were reunited with Paula and Geoff. At boarding we had to remove our masks when presenting our passports, but all was normal otherwise. On the airplane we had to wear a mask, and, following Italian regulations, weren't allowed to put loose clothing into the overhead lockers. Odd.
Arrival at Pisa and passport checking went very swift and smooth. Only passports were checked, and stamped. As someone who has long craved stamps in his passport this almost shows that Brexit wasn't a total tragedy. At no point had anyone asked to see our Negative COVID Test certificate, making that whole stressful process a waste of time.
We were quickly coached to the Hotel degli Orafi where our NHS covid jabs where checked, eventually, being known as a Green Pass in Italy. Just time to settle in before our first group dinner at the quite nearby Ristorante Parione. A sociably and gastronomically good time was had with a mozza/tom salad starter and my melanzane main course coming topped with smoked cheese. I lost track a bit, especially when my delayed main course wait (they apologised and said they'd dropped it on the floor) was filled in with pear and pecorino wedges with honey and a glass of vin santo. And having been grossed out by the meat-eaters main course being wild boar and/or veal cheeks, and mash.

Thursday 24 February
A decent night's sleep. I didn't register the Palazzo Vecchio's nearby bells after 11. 00 or before 7.00. Superior breakfast, with good juice and cereal choice, OK coffee and wholemeal croissants, the latter only spoilt by being glazed. A walk into the (weirdly empty, see photo right) Piazza della Signoria and up to the Duomo and Baptistery provided a sterling introduction to Florence with Paula's savvy narration and a distinct lack of tourist hordes. Coffee opposite San Marco (with a strudel pastry) was followed by a visit to the Fra Angelico-fest that is the friary cloister (see photo right), cells and cenacolo.
Lunch was minestrone soup and bruschetti in Piazza dell'Unita with new mate Alysia. In the afternoon we did the Opera del Duomo museum - 3 doors, 2 cantoria, 3 pietàs, etc.
For dinner I took Alysia, David and Jenny to old fave Grotta di Leo, which was oddly heaving. I say oddly only because Florence is so not heaving at the moment. Pizzas were the order, as was fine conversation. On the way back to the hotel my first gelato in SUCH a long time was a limone and cassata two-scoop coppa from Venchi and it was grand.

Friday 25 February
To the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi this morning, in light rain. The need to divide into small groups, the Chapel being very small, made for much messing about, but the job got done and the art was appreciated. A special exhibition devoted to Benozzo Gozzoli was appreciated too. Coffee was taken in the meat market, away from the meat. And orange and almond cantucci were found and appreciated to go with our beverages. Our San Lorenzo visit concentrated on the apse end, including the old sacristy, which had a film crew in filming the Donatello stuff for the big show in town. A new shop, which provides access to a newly-open cloister, proved underwhelming on both counts.
Lunch was taken in Mama's Bakery and for me was a bagel with cream cheese and banana (they didn't have cucumber) and a dusting of cinnamon, the latter suggested by Alysia, which proved a tasty treat.
In the afternoon Santo Spirito, which continued the day's Brunelleschian theme, had a funeral on, a large one, for a youngish man who must have been a local pillar judging by the crowds. But we were allowed in if we kept quietly to the apse end, where the best altarpieces are. The Michelangelo crucifix involved an open door giving access to a new (and lovely - see photo right) cloister on me, with a frescoed cenacolo off of it. Santa Trinita followed, concentrating on the special Salimbeni and Sassetti chapels, of course, but included a visit to the sacristy, which the attendant rounded off with a party-piece revelation of the cupboards, containing copes and a staircase (see photo below).
In the evening we merry band from last night went to Mangiafoco Osteria Tartuferia, a very nearby restaurant where truffles were the thing, but not for us. I had a pecorino, pear and walnut bruschetti followed by cheese and tomato ravioli. All was deemed delicious. The rain falling lightly on the way back to the hotel was enough to dampen gelato desire, but there is no more rain forecast for the rest of our stay.



Saturday 26 February
This morning's visits to the Bargello & Orsanmichele I decided to bale on as, for me,  they paled beside the prospect of some website-necessary church visits. A number of façades were maximised and made less slopey with my new lens. I had a substantial conversation with an American woman in Piazza Santa Croce, as we gazed over a sea of blue plastic chairs, made sad by the fact that the Pope wasn't now coming to preach tomorrow on account of a gammy knee. I made slight progress on the prospect of ever getting into San Niccolo by chatting to the chap who has opened a table-linens shop in a separated chapel to the left of the entrance. He invited me through the shop and I had just began to thank him profusely when he cut me off saying he was just able to let me peer through the glass panel in a locked door. He did say that coming on a Sunday morn before the service was my best bet. Maybe next time. Then he began telling me how interesting the interior was, which I thought was cruel. I also went into a mosaic studio in a closed convent behind Santa Croce, but the wife of the owner told me the actual church was through the next door, which was closed and looked like flats now. I brought some cheesey foccacia and mango and paprika crisps back to my room.
Santa Maria Novella's cloisters, and the Spanish Chapel, were closed so we had to make do with the Masaccio Trinity, the Giotto Crucifix and the east-end chapels frescoed by Ghirlandaio and Filipino Lippi.
To recover Paula and Geoff took me and Alysia to their fave wine bar, Le volpi e l'uva, by Santa Felicita for superior prosecco and conversation. In the evening the regular happy band found good pizzas at il Pacchero, along Borgo San Jacopo in the Oltrano.
 
 










 

Sunday 27 February
Off to the Uffizi Gallery this morning, which couldn't be closer to our hotel. The crowds were considerable but seemed to be overwhelmingly Italian. The Lippis, Botticelli, Hugo van der Goes (watch out for a big exhibition next year in Berlin!), Michelangelo and Leonardo were well covered by Paula, with coffee and cake, and group photos on the terrace, in between (see bottom of page). I took a mozzarella and tomato panino, and a Pane del Pescatore (see photo right) back to my hotel room, and had a snooze too, as the afternoon was free.
Post-snooze I headed west for some church photography and visits, preceded by a stracciatella and mandarino gelato. The highlight was time in Ognissanti (see photo right), discovering frescos in the sacristy and the newly-restored tomb chapel of Caroline Bonaparte, Queen of Naples and sister of Napoleon.

After some prosecco in the hotel's bar, on the top floor with spectacular views from the terrace (see photo below) our second and final group dinner was at the Ristorante Frescobaldi in Piazza della Signoria, a fish restaurant, but with an imaginative turn of veggie courses - a cavolo nero mousse followed by some black-peppery pasta. Good conversation too, despite a lapse into the subject of grown-up children's courting habits, a subject to which I could contribute next to nothing.

Monday 28 February
What with the closures and itinerary adjustments our last morning ended up being a visit to the Palazzo Vecchio. Not my favourite Florentine attraction what with the number of works by Vasari on the ceilings and walls, but there's a Ghirlandaio wall too, and Bronzino's chapel.
An early return to the hotel to check out was followed by an Oltrano stroll for me, in the sunshine, with churches to photograph, a mozzarella and tomato seedy croissant and a final gelato, coconut and lemon.

After coaching it to Pisa Airport the usual queues and crowds ended with finding the enlarged international gate area comfortably empty. What with the increased number of barcodes to be found and scanned boarding took a while, and one a party of stout chaps, thought to be a rugby team, was left behind because he couldn't provide jab proof, because of a dead phone.
All then went smooth back to London, where it was raining.
 












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