In those winter nights next to the Duomo, life came back to me. It’s an 88 step climb to a week I now carry with me always. Paolo opened the door of my taxi. “Ciao, Anna. Your trip was good?” He took one of my two small bags, and we mountain-goated it up the seemingly endless flights, Paolo chatting to me the whole way. [. . . .]
Here is my reading list for Florence, and whether you’re looking for nonfiction and history, a book written by a famous Florentine, or you’re looking for the best novels set in Italy, you’ll find something here. [ . . . ]
A review of my 2017 small group walking tour of Florence, skipping the line to see Michelangelo’s David, with the family-owned company, LivItaly Tours.
On Wednesday, I spent a wonderful afternoon with a small group tour from LivItaly Tours.
This tour was nothing like those groups of 20 to 40 you see herding past where the guide is holding a little flag and chirping at the people on a radio transmitter. If you are trying to choose from among the many Florence tours available, this is not the direction I would go.
The maximum group size on a LivItaly Tour is six people. This means your walking tour of Florence feels more like a stroll with friends than one of those larger, impersonal groups — which frankly make me want to run in the opposite direction.
Our guide, Francesca, met us in the Piazza della Signoria right in front of the famous Caffé Rivoire.
This three hour walking tour started in the Piazza della Signoria, went past the Uffizi to stop on the Arno, lead us through the Piazza Repubblica to the Duomo, then down the Via de Martelli to the Palazzo Medici. We arrived at the Academia, and swept right in past the line to see Michelangelo’s David. The final 30 – 40 minutes of time were in the Academia with the David.
Francesca, a licensed guide for Florence and many other cities in Tuscany, was not only knowledgable — but very funny.
My afternoon with her was like having my own storyteller in the middle of the most important city of the Italian Renaissance. The great thing about the group of six, is that our afternoon was a conversational experience. Everyone had a chance to ask questions.
While I’ve been to Florence a number of times, Francesca connected the Florence of the Roman period, the medieval period, the Renaissance period, and finally the modern period in a way that increased my understanding and connection to the city, really bringing it to life.
Just a block away from the Arno, Francesca led us down one of the remaining medieval streets in Florence as we talked about the cramped city and the lack of light of that period, then out into the Piazza della Repubblica.
This had been the site of the forum during the Roman period, then the old market, and finally the Piazza della Repubblica when Florence was briefly the capital of the newly united Italy (1865 – 1871).
We paused in the Piazza to use the bronze model of the city to discuss the original streets dating back to the Roman period, then to look at where the medieval walls had been, before walking towards the Duomo.
In front of the Duomo, we stopped at the Baptistry to look at the copy of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise (originals are in the Opera del Duomo) as Francesca explained the doors, and then the competition for the first set of Baptistry doors that marked the beginning of the Renaissance. We were a lively group with questions, and the whole thing was a lot of fun and a great learning experience.
Skipping the Line to Visit Michelangelo’s David
If you do not make plans ahead, and you simply arrive expecting to walk in and see the David, you may be out of luck.
When we arrived at the Academia museum, and the line to see the David still stretched most of the way down the block — so far, that with the time left before the Academia closed, that the people at the very back might get to enter.
Our little group waited while Francesca picked up our reserved tickets, and as we did, a husband and his wife had a very public melt-down outside of the museum.
“I don’t know why you thought you knew SO MUCH BETTER about how to do this than someone who ACTUALLY LIVES HERE!!” said the husband, his face increasingly red as he spoke.
His wife seemed close to tears. “I just didn’t think the line would be this long, since we aren’t here in the summer.”
“We’re not going to get in today, and we leave first thing in the morning! Mary Ellen bought a reserved ticket ahead, like Piero told her to . . . but now there are no more of those left this afternoon!”
“Joe, I’m so sorry.”
He bellowed, “Well, at least SHE’S going to get to see him!”
“I wish you would just calm down . . . ”
“You knew that the David was the only thing I really wanted to see here, and now it’s not going to happen!! . . . And I’m not going to calm down!”
At this point, Francesca re-appeared and whisked us straight into the Academia.
I felt incredibly sorry for that couple. Can you reserve tickets to see the David without taking a tour? Yes, you absolutely can, and if you’re not going to take a walking tour, you definitely need to do that.
The reason this is so much better is that visiting the David with a guide gives you the full context for this amazing work of art. Francesca did a fine job of telling the story of how the young Michelangelo returned from Rome after his success with the Pieta and won the contract to carve the enormous block of marble.
The citizens of Florence were awestruck with the David when they first saw him completed in 1504. David was a GIANT then, and he is a GIANT now.
Francesca concluded the LivItaly Tour at his feet, leaving us to spend as much time with this masterpiece as each of us liked.
I finished my day with a cocktail at Caffé Rivoire, to watch the light in the piazza, and to think about my walk — which had been perfect. Returning to sit in the Piazza della Signoria was coming full circle, a contemplation of my afternoon of time-travel through Italian history.
Cocktails at Rivoire are pricy — but sitting in the Piazza della Signoria and watching the sun go down — priceless.
If you’re looking for: walks of Italy, Florence — you’ve found a review of my 2017 walking tour of Florence with Livitaly Tours.
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Disclaimer: Many thanks to LivItaly Tours for hosting me on their walking tour. As always, opinions and experiences are honest and my own. I’ll never recommend anything I didn’t love myself.
In an age where everything is increasingly digital, why do we love paper so?
It’s the delicate scrollwork of a printed design. The fragrance of a leather book. The way a thick sheet of paper folds under your hand, pushing back up at your fingers . . .
What do I bring home from Florence? Paper, gloves, and wine.
Florence is famous for two kinds of paper designs: the printed variety, inspired by traditional Renaissance patterns, and carta marmorizzala — handmade, marbled paper.
Florentine paper history: travelers first brought marbled paper, “Turkish paper” or ebru (art of the clouds) to Florence in the 16th century, and it was not long before local artisans began producing it. Florence is now one of the few places in Europe still making hand-marbled paper. Giulio Giannini e Figlio, founded in 1856 and located across from the Pitti Palace, is the oldest marbled paper maker in the city.
In Venice, I found a shop with leather books, journals, Murano glass writing pens, all hand tooled. The quality of the work, really breathtaking. I brought a small journal back for a friend, and one for myself. The books were so very beautiful, I doubt he has used his. I know I have not. It’s a thing to remember, that when a notebook is so special, one hesitates to mark in it . . . it defies rough drafts. It asks for Shakespeare. Who can live up to that?
My mother says that my family has always had the book disease. In college, I would go hungry to buy a book I wanted.
Fine paper and books bring pleasure to those who love them.
Independent booksellers are jewel-like. They offer a curated selection of books — it is as much about what is not there as it is about what is there. Which edition of a classic book did they choose? How are things displayed? What volumes are next to one another? These bookstores offer the serendipity of finding things we might never see otherwise.
My book disease is a problem as I downsize my life. My daughter has one more year in high school, and rather than rattle around in a large house for another year, we are moving into a condominium. I may not be retired yet, but downsizing my life so that I can travel more is an appealing idea. But going from a 3500 square foot house to a 1400 square foot condo presents challenges – downsizing many possessions, but not with choosing which furniture to take.
It’s the books.
Who comes? What goes?
Yes, I use the Kindle app on my iPad, but the books we choose to live with say something about us. And the physicality of being in the room with books is most definitely not the same as having the collection digitally. Library you say? Well, if I were better at returning things, perhaps.
Even with the downsizing move looming, my daughter Catherine and I brought home another half-dozen books from the Faulkner House Bookstore when we were in New Orleans. She picked up a lovely edition of Pride and Prejudice. You’ll see the the same Canterbury Classics design for Persuasion to the left.
My husband Drew loved American history — particularly biographies of the presidents. When I look at his shelves of books — at Doris Kearnes Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, I can see him.
Books tell stories about various points in my life. The group of art history books and a collection of Edith Wharton remind me of my college years. Percy Shelley brings to mind the crazy, deconstructionist professor ranting in front of the class. I see the yellowing paperback of A Moveable Feast, and all of a sudden I am at Shakespeare and Company when I was seventeen. George Whitman sold me that book.
What to let go of? It’s not so easy.
Drew’s brother Eddy has worked on his own library with these criteria, choosing particularly good editions of books, gradually getting rid of poor paperback copies. I think that’s going to my strategy for culling down collection: creating an elemental collection of editions of the books I want to live with, using digital editions of books when it makes sense, and selling books back to the second-hand bookstore.
I leave for Italy in two weeks, and I will inevitably come home with more paper. I use Florentine stationery for notes at work, birthday greetings, small thank-yous, and the notepads for lists and thoughts. The sensuality of the thick, creamy paper with the delicate designs pleases me. I will go visit the man of the leather books in Venice. I promise to share . . .
Thank you for visiting!
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In those winter nights next to the Duomo, life came back to me.
It’s an 88 step climb to a week I now carry with me always.
Paolo opened the door of my taxi. “Ciao, Anna. Your trip was good?”
He took one of my two small bags, and we mountain-goated it up the seemingly endless flights, Paolo chatting to me the whole way. Where was his oxygen coming from? I had no breath for talking. I worked just to make it look like the stairs and the suitcase were not too tough. Then we were there. The terrace and sitting room so close to the Duomo — it seemed I could reach out and touch it.
Mid-December was cold, and dark came early. The lights for the cathedral popped to life. I sat in the upstairs room with a glass of Chianti hardly able to take my eyes off of the beautiful giant. I put on my coat and went out and watched the people and looked down towards the Christmas tree in the piazza.
On this trip, I fell in love with Florence so deeply that it only takes an image of one of its streets to make my heart skip and beat more vigorously.
My husband, Drew, died in July of 2013 after a long fight with cancer. That November, I began to think about Christmas; the idea of putting up a tree was overwhelming. I had an extra week of vacation that year, while my daughter Catherine was still in school. She would be with her Dad then and I began thinking about taking a week long trip by myself. No one would give me a hard time if there wasn’t much Christmas.
I considered New York . . . San Francisco. I even thought about taking the train across the Rocky Mountains. Nothing was compelling. Europe? Drew and I had visited London and Paris the previous year, his final Christmas, and I had no interest in returning to those cities anytime soon.
I had not been since 1997. And suddenly, that was it. I wanted to go to Florence.
When I was seven, my mother began getting a series of Time-Life books on the great artists of western civilization. Each month, when a new book arrived, we would sit together and look at it. The images of the Duomo have been with me — deep inside of me, almost since I can remember anything. I went on to get a degree in Art History and I have always had a particular love of the Italian Renaissance. So when visiting Florence occurred to me, my heart leapt up.
I looked at hotels, but then I thought, Drew and I had talked about trying apartments abroad. After looking at several apartment websites, I saw this one place — I was transfixed.
The apartment interior was lovely, and it was next to the Duomo — the terrace right there — the cathedral seemed to touch it. It is owned by Ron Blitch, a well-known architect from New Orleans. What a small world, since I had grown up there.
Cheap — oh, no. The cost of a very nice hotel. And it was an 88 step climb to get there. Okay, not a problem for me really; besides, it’s a built in pasta burner. And the view! With no hesitation, I booked it. I spent the remainder of Thanksgiving reading about Tuscany and starting Rosetta Stone for Italian.
I exchanged several emails with Paolo and his wife Sonia, who manage the apartment, to make arrangements for my arrival. They offered additional services for a fee, of course. Would I like to have some wine and cheese at the apartment when I arrived? Would I like to hire a driver? What about cooking lessons? Yes!
Where would I like to go the day I had the driver? Hmm. I had been to Siena, San Gimignano, Pienza, Montepulciano . . . I looked at a map of Tuscany and found Montalcino. When I googled it, up popped the small Abbey of Sant’Antimo. What an exquisite Romanesque church! Paolo’s next email said, “well, if you’re going to Montalcino, you must do a Brunello wine tasting.” I had a reasonably good knowledge of California wines. Italian? Past Chianti and Pinot Grigio . . . I’d had Barolo, but I didn’t really know much about Italian wines.
The weather was sunny and cold for the trip to Montalcino. I had a wonderful driver, Ewan — a Scot who had moved to Florence a dozen years earlier. Many people have the reaction to Florence that I have. We just — we just don’t want to leave.
Brunello. May I just say, had nothing else happened all day, it would have been a perfect experience. I discovered Brunello, and I love it — it is now one of my favorite wines. The wine that day ignited a new passion, and I have been reading about Italian wines, tasting, and making vineyard visits ever since.
Caparzo did a nice job with the tasting. The three reds that I particularly liked were their Brunello Riserva — wow, what an amazing wine. (I’ve found it fairly easy to get in the U.S. — here is a link to reviews). I also really, really liked La Casa, their single vineyard Brunello. La Caduta is their single vineyard Rosso de Montalcino — I liked it very much, particularly for the price. Their regular Rosso di Montalcino — no, not for the price. Their regular Brunello, very nice, I enjoyed it, but particularly since that point, there are just others I like much more. I have not been able to find La Casa here in Houston; I would consider shipping some back the next time I visit.
Following a late lunch in Montalcino, Ewan took me to Sant’Antimo.
There are spaces — holy, quiet, and they fill us with a deep peace. Sant’Antimo is one of them. A small community of monks lives there, and they filed into the Abbey for None prayers — the mid afternoon, 3 p.m. service.
Ewan and I took seats midway down the nave. We were the lone visitors. Then the sound of monophonic, unaccompanied male voices, in stepwise progression through the phrases, resonated in the air.
The thick stone walls held us all together; the monks, Ewan, myself, this space, the chant, we became something else for a time.
I did not, would not, take pictures during the service. The photograph of the interior is from before the monks filed into the Abbey. I’ve put a Gregorian chant below to help you imagine the sound.
Each night, I returned to sit next to the dome. With my massive companion, it was quiet. I had time to think, to begin putting some perspective to Drew’s trip through the final months, through hospice, into dementia and finally into death. Each morning, I came up for coffee and listened to the cathedral bells ringing from the campanile.
This is, well. I love this place, with all of my heart.
And when I returned home, I was so ready to make Christmas. Catherine came home from her father’s and we headed straight out for a tree. We took on a bit more tree than two short people can handle — it was quite a struggle, but we woman-handled it into place.
I look forward to sharing more about this trip, along with the two other trips to Florence over the last year and a half. Ciao!
Interested in learning more about my room with a view?
You’ll find Ron Blitch’s apartment on VRBO – Home Away. It’s pricey, but amazing — I returned six months later to stay again, and brought my daughter and sister with me.
I have become friends with Paolo and Sonia, and they now have two apartments in the center of Florence that they lease to visitors.
One is a small, but very lovely apartment a block from the Duomo, called Divina. While it does not have a view, it is gorgeous and very reasonably priced. I am making more frequent trips to Italy, and I have stayed in Divina — lovely space and perfect location just steps from the cathedral. Oh, and it’s on the first floor (in America, we would call this the second floor), a short set of steps.