Florence just about lived up to my expectations, and they were high. I think we picked the best possible weekend to go; the weather was sunny but not hot (it sometimes got a little chilly in the evenings, when the wind got up, but still pleasant), it was still tourist season with stuff going on and attractions open, but not insanely crowded or expensive. And best of all, it was some European culture weekend which meant that all the museums were free!
We flew into Pisa because budget airlines like to claim it's Florence, and cartesiandaemon sensibly decided we should stay overnight there rather than faff around trying to get to Florence and then to our hotel late in the evening. So we stayed at La Pace, picked mainly because it's close to the station, but it was rather sweet, slightly down-at-heel but characterful. I didn't end up seeing any of Pisa, even the leaning tower, because I decided I'd rather have as much time as possible in Florence. Apparently there is a colossal pigeon in Pisa airport, which I also missed as it was dark when I arrived.
I'm glad we chose to take the train during the day, because the Tuscan countryside looks a whole lot like my romantic concept of Tuscan countryside! The first amazing thing was getting to our B&B, Gianna's, which is the most adorable place I've ever stayed while travelling. It's a lot more like an apartment within the owners' house than like any kind of commercial establishment, and it's part of a street that would be a tourist pilgrimage site if it weren't in Florence where 14th century streets are pretty much commonplace. And it's full of books! Not to mention that the proprietor was the sweetest host ever, making it easy to forget that there was any kind of commercial transaction going on. I think I'm getting over-excited about Italian hotels partly because the economic disparity between northern and southern Europe means that we could afford much nicer places than would normally be within our budget, but Gianna's was really special.
We had time for lunch and a little bit of wandering around the stunningly amazingly beautiful city centre before our booked slot at the Uffizi (thanks to people who recommended booking in advance!) The piazza just outside the museum was very good for people watching in the context of a little outdoor sculpture museum. We both loved this statue; I felt embarrassed about finding a piece entitled Abduction of the Sabine women so sexy, but we later discovered that the piece by Giambologna was originally an allegory of male strength and female beauty, later retitled by some prudes, so I think my first, positive interpretation was accurate. There's a statue of Neptune by Ammanati which I also liked, because it's imposing enough you could believe it's a god, but you can tell that the model was perhaps a bit older and less "perfect" than the stereotypical youth who gets portrayed in most classical statuary.
The internet has let me down when it comes to talking about the Uffizi; normally I go to a gallery, then go home and look up the paintings and identify the ones I was excited about and link to pictures of them, but there seems to be no such resource on the Uffizi site or anywhere else I can find online. But it's the kind of place where the collection ranges from very cool to absolutely world-class stunning. Though since it originated as a private collection, it's not so overwhelmingly huge as somewhere like the Louvre; we didn't see all of it, but we did manage a good proportion without being exhausted. There's an Annunciation I really liked where Mary's blue robe and Gabriel's orange robe make amazing vibrant blocks of colour, and lots of fantastic portraits, and a Sacrifice of Isaac I nearly bought a postcard of before deciding it would be too morbid to ever send to anyone. There are two apparently unrelated pictures of Judith and Holofernes (that is to say, different artists, different times, no obvious connections between the compositions) where Judith is enormously fat (not just vaguely plump compared to the current Hollywood ideal, but actually fat); does anyone know where that tradition comes from?
Saturday we wanted to follow atreic's suggestion and visit the history of science museum. It turned out that most of the building is closed for renonvation, leaving only a small exhibition on telescopes, including Galileo's. That was fun, but a bit disappointing. However, we learned that the bulk of the exhibition had been moved temporarily to the silver museum in the Palazzo Pitti, so we decided to follow it there. I am so very, very glad we did so; the palace is absolutely stunning. It was hard to concentrate on the exhbition, however interesting, when the rooms were covered in the most incredible frescos I've ever set eyes on. So that was really serendipitous!
Then we did the obvious tourist thing and visited the Duomo cathedral, which is world-famous for a reason. Climbing the dome was a lot of fun, with the double reward of seeing the frescos close up and the view from the top. There's a bit where it feels like the infinite staircase in The phantom tollbooth, because the stair is a narrow spiral with no windows or landings for several minutes of climb. And the top part of the climb is curved around the arch of the dome, also cool. There is graffiti everywhere, but I have to say I was shocked to see such a unique piece of architectural heritage defaced as if it were a public toilet. The cathedrdal itself is very cool, you could lose yourself for hours in the tiny details of the carving all over the exterior, even though it's enormous, and the red white and green marble is very striking (my theory that it might be connected to the colours of the Italian flag turned out to be wrong).
We also made it to the Accademia, another small but impressive gallery. It's a bit too much skewed towards early Gothic church art for my taste, but obviously very good examples of that sort of thing. But it has Michelangelo's absurdly famous statue of David in it, and that really lived up to the hype. Not just the general hype in terms of it being a huge cultural icon, but the fact that my mother endlessly tells the story of the first time she saw that statue and how mind-blowing it was. It's often hard for art to have an impact if you've seen a million reproductions of it, but that statue actually is just that amazing. (The Botticelli Birth of venus in the Uffizi is definitely cooler in real life, partly because it has some really interesting diagonals going on when you see the whole thing, not just the naked girl on the clam shell, but not as fresh when you're so familiar with parodies of it.) I'm sure I'll end up like Mum looking back on that as a formative experience forever; you really can't get the intensity of it from reproductions. Dad told me there was also a small Donatello bronze of David there, which is amazing in a different way, but we didn't manage to find that.
Sunday was a fairly quiet day, mostly taken up by travelling. I tried to cover the couple of hours between cartesiandaemon heading to the airport and my own train by visiting a castle, but it had a big sign on it saying NO TOURISTS (how can you be a huge mediaeval castle in the most touristy city in Europe and ban tourists?!), so I went to the street market instead. I was very tempted by lots of silk scarves and such, but decided that they are probably less cool as individual items than when you see rows and rows of different colours together, so in the end I bought only a brightly coloured pashmina.
Travel plans meant needing to eat lunch rather earlier than is the normal custom for eating in Italy, and were very lucky that the only place open before noon served the best pizza we ate the whole trip. I ate Italian pizza in Italy once as a child (on a day trip across the border from where we were staying in France), and this meal lived up to that memory. The other pizza we ate was different from English junk food pizza, but still rather oily and not particularly exciting. I'd been a bit worried that it would be hard to find anything veggie in Italy, but in fact Florence is touristy enough that we were fine, though I'm sure eating the fish and meat would have been more exciting. We figured out the system of primi and secundi where you have a small dish of pasta or risotto, followed by a meat main course with little in the way of side vegetables or carbs; I expect I'm probably totally barbarian for not knowing in advance that's how meals work in Italy. But as veggies, it was perfectly possible to make a meal out of a decent salad and one of the more substantial starters, followed by a couple of primi dishes which we took as main courses. And cheap yet tasty wine, of course. The best meal we had was in a restaurant recommended by the B&B owner, Cafaggi, which was clearly a real place, not pretending to be all cute and Italian but succeeding in being far more so than the more touristy places. I also discovered that it is actually possible to have too much icecream; we got confused in one of the icecream parlours and accidentally ordered giant cones, and it wasn't fun any more by the time we got to the bottom of €10 worth of icecream, even when it is peach icecream that tastes of real peaches.
The return journey was a bit more epic than I'd like, taking the train across the country to Milan, definitely pretty but rather too long, and then a flight that got in to the middle of nowhere airport at nearly midnight. At least it's possible to get from 100 km outside Stockholm to my own home by night transport, but it wasn't exactly fun.
I am so very blessed.