The midway point in my travel from Cinque Terre to Cortina d’Ampezzo, preparing to begin a trek in the Dolomite Mountains, was Florence, birthplace to and home of the Renaissance. The historic city center of Florence has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I planned my relatively short stay to enjoy some of the beautiful sights from the outdoors, since I did not have time to go into the many museums. In some ways I suppose it was kind of a crime to spend so little time – perhaps 20 hours – in such an amazing city. However, my time was limited and I had to make choices. Fortunately I had visited Florence many years before, so at least it wasn’t my first visit that was so abbreviated!
In my previous post I described my short, but memorable, stop in Pisa. The journey from Pisa to Florence is basically along the flat valley of the River Arno, traveling upstream. This post covers my sightseeing in Florence and onward travel to Cortina. By the time I arrived in Florence I had taken 3 trains, beginning in Riomaggiore. After I left Florence I would take a fourth train and a bus to get to Cortina.
I had identified a small hotel, actually a pension, near the Santa Maria Novella train station. After the challenges of hauling my luggage down and up steps I was grateful to get from the train to the street and into my hotel with only one short flight of steps. After I got settled in my room I made sure I knew where to find breakfast in the morning, and was amused to find signage on the staircase leading to the breakfast room. A nearby sign hints that you will walk off part of your breakfast by taking the stairs, and more signage on the stairs themselves indicates the calories expended. I thought the idea was rather clever, even though the number of calories was miniscule: 1.2 calories for 3 steps.
My sightseeing included an evening exploration after my arrival and a whirlwind walk the next morning. The GPS track shows my route for the morning walk, with the train tracks and station evident at the upper left. For my evening walk I took a slightly different route and only went as far as the Duomo, where the blue track circles around the bright white domed building, which is the Baptistery.
Part of my reasoning for doing only exterior sightseeing was the timing of my visit: arrival late Sunday afternoon and departure the following morning before noon. All of the museums with Sunday opening hours were closed by 5:30, if not much earlier, and few were open before 10:00 on Monday morning.
The first stop on my brief evening exploration – I went out about 7pm – was the Chapel of Princes (Capella dei Principi) , one of the Medici Chapels (Capelle Medicee) at the Church of San Lorenzo (Basilica di San Lorenzo), perhaps 0.3 mile from my hotel. The dome of the chapel is quite distinctive, referred to by some as “mini-Duomo.” The chapel honors members of the Medici family, who are actually buried in an underground crypt. Another area of the church, the New Sacristy (Sacrestia Nuova), was designed by Michelangelo.
After walking past the Capella dei Principi I continued a few more blocks along Via de Zannetti to Piazza di San Giovanni, in or next to which is the Baptistery (see below). The Piazza di San Giovanni connects directly to the Piazza del Duomo, and just past the Baptistery is the bell tower (Campanile), designed by Giotto di Bondone and constructed beginning in 1334. The white, pink/red, and green marble were beginning to glow warmly as the sun moved closer to sunset.
Just behind the campanile is the Duomo, formally the Cathedral of St Mary of the Flowers (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore) and the main church of Florence. It is an impressive building and one of Italy’s largest churches. It was built beginning in 1296 in the Gothic style and is fully ”coated” with white, pink/red, and green marble on the entire exterior in various, mostly geometric, designs.
Apparently, after nearly 120 years of building projects and several successive architects, the cathedral was complete except for a huge hole in the roof waiting for a dome to finish it off. Filippo Brunelleschi won a design competition and the commission to construct the now-famous dome. The exterior marble facing of the Duomo was completed in 1887, and the design and colors of the marble decoration had to coordinate with the already-complete campanile and Baptistery.
The Duomo building is so enormous, and the nearby streets and buildings so close, that it is impossible to get a picture that is not distorted: you have to use a very wide-angle lens to even see most of a side, and the use of the lens also generates the distortion. The parts of the Duomo that remained in the sun, especially including the dome, became warmer in color as the sun set.
I walked around the Duomo at least twice. I had noticed a sidewalk café that was serving a simple menu, and I was delighted to sit at an outside table and further enjoy the view of the Duomo in the picture above as I enjoyed a plate of – what else? – pasta. After that I walked back to my hotel.
In the morning I started out again and recorded the GPS track shown above. My plan was to return to the Duomo and then walk south toward the River Arno, essentially following the Renaissance Walk described in Rick Steves’ book. The Baptistery is the bright white circle near the center of the image, surrounded by my GPS track, and the Duomo is visible immediately to the right. The octagonal-shaped Baptistery of St John (Battistero di San Giovanni) was built in the 11th century on the site of an earlier octagonal baptistery dating from the 5th century. At the time of my visit it was undergoing some restoration and was almost completely obscured. The only opening in the cloth panel coverings was one of the doors, where there was some activity. It turned out that it was perhaps the most famous of the three doors, designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti and called the Gates of Paradise by Michelangelo. The other two doors were designed by Ghiberti and by Andrea Pisano. The doors in place are copies, with the originals undergoing restoration and storage in the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo. The Gates of Paradise exhibited an early use of perspective to add depth to a (nearly) two-dimensional image.
After enjoying the Duomo in the morning light I walked south along Via Calzaiuoli to Piazza della Signoria, just below the label Florence on the GPS track. The Piazza is the location of the Palazzo Vecchio, basically the town hall of Florence in the time of the Medici, with the term Signoria designating the ruling body. The Palazzo Vecchio is a familiar image of Florence, at least in my experience.
Around the Piazza are the Gucci Museum, the Loggia dei Lanzi (or Loggia della Signoria), the famous Michelangelo statue of David, the Neptune Fountain, and one end of the Uffizi Gallery. The statue of David is a replica, with the original residing in the Accademia Museum a few blocks northeast of the Medici Chapels. The Loggia was originally a stage for public debate but was later transformed into a sculpture gallery. One of the most interesting statues here is called The Rape of the Sabine Women, and it is noteworthy because all three figures were carved from a single block of marble.
The Uffizi Gallery is a very long U-shaped building with the Piazza at one end. After viewing the statues around the Piazza and in the Loggia I walked down the length of the building in the narrow central courtyard. The Gallery itself houses an extensive collection of Florentine paintings and is said to be one of Europe’s top four or five art museums. In the courtyard there is a juxtaposition of old and new: trucks and, behind where I was standing, a construction crane surrounded by the 16th century building.
At the south end of the Uffizi Gallery courtyard I emerged directly onto the Lungarno Medici, a street on the bank of the River Arno. Crossing to the sidewalk on the river side of the street, there is a beautiful, and equally famous, view of the Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge. The location of the bridge is close to where it is believed that there was a bridge in Roman times. Enclosed raised passageways, the Vasari Corridor, provided a covered route for the Medicis to travel from the Palazzo Vecchio through the Uffizi and onward to the Pitti Palace.
The center segment of the bridge has three open arches. In the central arch there is a bust statue of Benvenuto Cellini, a sculptor and master goldsmith. The railing around the statue is adorned with hundreds of locks, and the location is said to be a favorite place for young lovers to visit in the evening.
After crossing the River Arno I continued walking along Via de’ Guicciardini for about four blocks until I arrived at the Pitti Palace (Palazzo Pitti). This enormous building was originally constructed as a residence by the Pitti family beginning in the mid-15th century, and about 100 years later it was sold to the Medicis. Now it is a state-owned art museum.
After a rather brief look at the exterior of the Pitti Palace I needed to return to my hotel, collect my luggage, check out, and catch my next train, which would take me to Venice. I had been wondering how this segment could be accomplished in just 2 hours, especially considering that the Apennine Mountains run down the center of Italy. I soon discovered that the hour-long section to Bologna was nearly completely within a series of tunnels.
Near Venice I disembarked from the train at the Venezia Mestre station, where I could get on an express bus to Cortina d’Ampezzo. The transfer at Venezia Mestre was a fortunate discovery, since it avoided the need to go all the way on the train to the main Venice station and then take a bus to the airport to catch the same bus to Cortina; the shortcut saved about two hours in travel time!
Once aboard the bus, the journey to Cortina was another two hours, with a few stops once we got into the mountains. Several of my trekking companions had boarded the bus at the airport, and it is safe to say that our excitement grew as we gained elevation.
It is noteworthy that many of the intercity roads in the mountains are along the banks of rivers. Once the highway started to gain elevation it was passing along the Piave River. Near Belluno we started to see some real hills marking our entry into the Dolomites.
Shortly after this we passed Lago di Santa Cruz, a lake that the highway passes by closely. The scenery just kept getting more spectacular. We started to see jagged peaks reminiscent of the pictures we had been studying for months.
The road passes relatively close to Monte Antelao, which is the highest mountain in the eastern Dolomites, but I wasn’t aware of that at the time and did not specifically notice it, though perhaps its top was hidden in a cloud. Here is a beautiful view of a massif, overlooking a meadow.
In Cortina we traveled the last kilometer to our hotel by taxi and got settled in.
After some marvelous pre-trek sightseeing, my trekking group was finally – after nearly a year of anticipation – gathering in Cortina d’Ampezzo, site of the 1956 Winter Olympics, to do our final preparations. The next day we would have an orientation meeting and re-organize our luggage.