With the drive from Assisi taking 2 to 3 hours and no need to be in Florence until late afternoon, we had time to make a detour. Lake Trasimeno was virtually on our way and we had heard good things about a little town called Castiglione del Lago. We had a quick look at Passignano sul Trasimeno, thinking it may be just as charming. It was pleasant enough but it was definitely worth going on to Castiglione.On a high promontory overlooking Lake Trasimeno, charming Castiglione (well, the old town) is only a couple of long streets ringed by old city walls. The two main sights, the palazzo and the castle, were linked by an amazing walkway. After going into the Ducal Palace and admiring the frescoes, we set off down this narrow tunnel to the castle. Not sure what it would be like in midsummer, but we had it to ourselves. I was back in my childhood, immersed in books about smugglers and exploring secret passages.
On to Florence and luckily I had read detailed instructions about returning hire cars to the airport (some people seemed to have driven round for hours!) We have accomplished the drop off without too much difficulty. Hint – the drop off is not in the airport but in Via Palagio degli Spini, without too much signposting. You need to turn right under an elevated road. There is a free shuttle bus from there back to the airport – ours got caught in a huge traffic jam, which we then negotiated for a second time in the taxi. We were looking forward to arriving and relaxing.
The location of our apartment was perfect for 51 weeks of the year, just not this one. We knew something was up when the taxi driver told us we’d have to walk the final block. Our Florentine street:
Fortunately the workmen started late, took a long lunch break and finished at a respectable hour. Our bedroom was at the back of a long and beautiful apartment so it had very little impact on us. Just not the view we’d expected! Our host carefully avoided any mention of it as he explained the workings of the place. A case of the jackhammer in the street rather than the elephant in the room.
Florence was so busy! After a week of meandering around Umbria and going to half full restaurants and empty tourist attractions, the mass of tourists was a shock. We were not used to queuing up for a gelati or being asked if we had reservations in a restaurant. We had to plan our days a little more.
Before Mr Frequent Flyer’s work commitments, we spent our time together looking around several of the sights of Florence. We had visited before so didn’t feel the need to race around ticking places off. We wanted to see the Boboli Gardens and wandered over to the Oltrarno side of the river, admiring the Ponte Vecchio along the way. Then we realised we should get some lunch first. We headed to the Piazza Santo Spirito, a delightful microcosm of Florentine life with a market, cafés, dog walkers, children running around and of course, a church at the end of the square.
The Boboli Gardens, when we got to them, were vast and sunny. We chose not to go into the Pitti Palace, instead enjoying the beautiful weather, gardens and views.
The Bardini Gardens were included on the same ticket and could be reached via a gate and short walk from the Boboli Gardens so we saw them on our downhill walk back. Beautiful views over Florence and so quiet.
As our previous visits had been in winter, we’d had a drizzly version of the quintessential view from Piazzale Michelangelo. Taking bus number 12 from outside the station I took advantage of the bright blue sky, enjoyed the views and snapped away with the camera. It was an easy meandering walk down, passing Santa Croce on the way.
Some buildings had flood markers from the terrible floods in 1966 which killed 101 people and destroyed numerous precious works of art and manuscripts.
……………And still the digging continued……..
Near our apartment was an attractive building which seemed to be an important stop for numerous tour groups every day. With a bit more investigation I found out that it was a historic pharmacy. ‘Pharmacy’ does not really do it justice. It is a magnificent old palace with a large courtyard – part of the cloisters of Santa Maria Novella. It is part museum and part retail store with many elegant rooms, architectural details and even a tea room. All kinds of beautiful lotions, soaps and creams are still sold there but anybody is welcome to walk around and take pictures without any obligation. The whole place has delicious scents in each room and even the product lists are works of art.
Visiting the Duomo was a must and it was not unbearably crowded early in the day. The exterior was amazing and the whole Piazza with the Duomo, Bell Tower and Baptistery just seemed to be the real Florence – so recognisable. The interior was less spectacular until I was under the dome. Massive and colourful, it took my breath away, despite having seen it before.
Inevitably there was graffiti around Florence but also some pleasant street art.
I stumbled on the Michelozzo Courtyard on one of my walks. Designed by Michelozzo in the 1400s and housing the Medici Palace, this courtyard was spectacular and freely open to all. They were even giving away oranges from the large potted trees!
The nearby town of Fiesole was an easy bus trip from San Marco in Florence. Still only €1.20 as are the other shorter bus journeys. Bus number 7 runs every 30 minutes and gradually climbs up to the hillside town in about 25 minutes. The wealth of the area was evident in the villas tucked away in the hills on the way up. The Etruscans, then Romans settled in Fiesole long before Florence existed. It has various historic sights, but most visitors come to admire the views of Florence. I ate lunch at the café at the Roman theatre, then wandered up (and I mean up) to San Francesco and its small panoramic terrace.
Numbers seemed to feature in the names of some of our Florentine restaurant selections. Two typical Tuscan places were within steps of our apartment. 13 Gobbi was recommended by our host but unfortunately also by Rick Steves, resulting in a once little local place being packed with American tourists – not a word of Italian to be heard. Great food though, as was CentoPoveri, (‘100 poor’) fortunately with a more balanced mix of tourists and locals. This place even had a €10 lunch menu, though we were always further afield at lunchtime so didn’t try it.